Many visitors to Alaska spend all their time on the Kenai Peninsula. Or by flying into Anchorage visitors can split their time between the peninsula and Denali National Park. Of course there are scads of tours that offer all variations of options that would include these two destinations.
Making the drive from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula makes it very easy to understand the draw. Once clear of the Anchorage footprint pristine wetlands appeared out the driver’s side window that just begged a stop to look for birds. However, from my perch far above the highway surface I saw very little other than the swaying grasses and absolutely flat smooth water. On the passenger side we were soon seeing a great mud-flat that extended well away from the shoreline. Beyond the mud flats great mountains rise above the water providing heart stopping panoramas. We were provided a “filtered” view of those mountains as there was a pretty good layer of smoke that had settled in from fires burning in the interior. However, the smoke really added depth to the scenery. I captured as much of it as I could with my camera and of course I am sharing some of those images in the web album that accompanies this article.
Later we stopped at an interpretive stop and learned that the mud that makes up the mud flats is actually deposits of what is called glacial flour. The substance got its name because in dry form it is every bit as fine as the flour we bake with. In actuality it is really very finely ground rock. When mixed with water and cascading down waterfalls from the base of glaciers it generally looks like any other waterfall albeit a little creamier. In the fast moving rivers and streams the flour remains suspended and gives the water a gray appearance. Even after dumping into the inlets one can see the flour in suspension as the water color changes dramatically at the edges where the streams’ waters no longer mix with the bulk of the sea’s water. So, you see these gray fingers extending out into the deep blues of the deep seawater. It is really quite spectacular. But, of course I am wandering a bit. Back to the interpretive stop where we learned that the deep deposits of glacial flour that make up the mud flats are not part of the current run-off, but in fact are carried into shore from the ocean. As the tides come in the flour which has remained in solution due to its light weight is carried in as well. As the tide goes out much of the flour is left behind. Some of the mudflats are several feet deep and really quite dangerous. If a person were to get on the stuff and just stand still a slow sinking would occur. If a person were to fight the sinking a much faster pull would occur. At some point the bottom of the flour layer might be reached and one’s head would likely remain above the surface. However, when the tide returns, there would be real trouble. So, how does one survive an accidental encounter with the stuff? My guess would be to lie flat on the stomach and do sort of a slow crawl with arms and legs remaining as flat on the surface as possible. Apparently even in relatively thin layers once you are sucked in, the vacuum that is formed by pulling a foot out is so strong that most would have trouble. So, best advice is to just stay off the stuff.
Anyway, our drive was one of the best we have had to date as we were able to drive slowly enough to enjoy the scenery and there were several places to pull over for better looks. We took great advantage of both and arrived in Seward with smiles on our faces and eager to take on the next adventure.
Our accommodations while at Seward were courtesy of the United States Army. Fort Richardson operates a resort just on the edge of town that includes an RV Park, tent camping area, townhouse rentals, at least one rental yurt and a bar and snack bar that serves some pretty good looking food. While we didn’t sample the snack bar we certainly took advantage of the bar especially since access to the internet required going to the same building.
As we checked in we found that a couple we had met at Fort Richardson were also checking in and would end up parking just a few coaches from us. We kept in close contact with this couple our entire time in Seward, comparing notes on what each couple had done and whether the other couple should also do whatever. We also ran into a couple we had met while in Denali National Park on our first day. We kept running into them during our stay in Seward as well.
We had high hopes for the Seward area and we were not disappointed in the least. One of the first things we did after getting settled on to our site was to go to the waterfront and make reservations for a boat cruise. We were interested in seeing everything there is to see and the only way to see most of it is from a boat. The Kenai Peninsula is a series of fjords created by the relentless march of ancient glaciers. The fjords are cut deep into the earth’s surface creating water depths measured in thousands of feet instead of hundreds. The deep water with all the minerals deposited by those same glaciers is brilliant blue in color and contrasts wonderfully with the black rocky coastline and the remarkably thin rich soil layer that supports the thriving vegetation including a variety of grasses, flowers and mostly spruce trees. All of the fjords are protected as wilderness by the National Park System. All the commercial operators in the area are required to comply with strict restrictions and all have National Park interpreters on board their vessels to help explain the geology and biology of the park as well as point out the wildlife. It really is a great way to enhance tourism while ensuring the environment is properly protected.
The tour company we chose was Renown. However, before making our final decision we did talk to a ranger at the visitor information center and she assured us that all the tour companies provide pretty much the same viewing opportunities. From her perspective it boils down to the food. You read that correctly. Some boats feed better than others. Usually I would go for the better provider of food. However, there were two very strong factors that influenced our decision to go with Renown. The first was the fact that we had a two for one coupon making an expensive excursion very practically priced. Second, we were going for the sites not to enjoy gourmet food. If I were to get stuck in a wonderful buffet line I might miss something really good.
So, we took ourselves around to all the ticket offices just to make sure no one was offering a better deal than we would get with our coupon on Renown. As the best we could find was a 20% discount, we made a beeline back to the Renown office and made a reservation for the following morning.
The following morning we made our way to the ship and found ourselves comfortable seats on the open upper most deck and waited to get this adventure started. Our captain, Mike, started the fun with his version of the required safety briefing the Coast Guard makes all these guys give. Mike feels that even the obviously boring stuff can be made interesting enough that people will actually listen to it by adding some level of humor to it. In his case he has some personal props that make adding humor easy. Mike is the only licensed boat master who is also a double amputee. He lost both hands and some portion of his arms when he was a mere sixteen years old. As a younger man he sailed from Hawaii to Seward solo. By the way, he got his certification after the accident that cost him his hands. Having lived as an amputee all these years Mike has obviously become quite comfortable in his own skin, if you will, and he refers to the use of his dual hooks in his safety brief. He said the first and most important rule on his boat is that no one is to fall overboard. If someone were to fall overboard, he would have to stop and turn the boat around to come back for the now swimmer. Then the swimmer would have to endure being pulled from the water with a hook in each ear. Mind you, Mike is saying this, so don’t get mad at me for being insensitive to disabled persons. In fact, I believe Mike would get angry if anyone suggested he has a disability. He certainly doesn’t feel he is disabled. In fact I believe he is living life to its fullest doing what he enjoys the most and sharing all the he loves with others. Anyway, he went on to give the rest of his briefing and as I looked around I saw no one not paying attention. He had gotten our attention with the hooks in the ears and now everyone was listening intently to what else he might say. The rest of the brief kept smiles on everyone’s faces even though there was only the one reference to the hooks.
Before we even got out of the inner harbor we spotted our first Bald Eagle of the day. He seems to be a regular in the harbor and shows signs of having had a tough summer as he had some pretty ragged feathers. Our tour was to take us out of Resurrection Bay, not part of the Kenai Fjords National Park, and into the Gulf of Alaska where we would hug the coastline and turn south going around Aialik Cape and enter Aialik Bay eventually making our way to Holgate Arm and the foot of the Holgate Glacier. Along the way we saw a variety of sea birds including Black- legged Kittiwakes, Tufted Puffins, Horned Puffins, more Bald Eagles and Black Oyster Catchers. We also saw plenty of harbor seals, Steller’s sea lions, Dall’s porpoise, humpbacked whales, sea otters and mountain goats.
The wildlife was wonderful, but the absolute beauty of the area goes well beyond my abilities to describe. At every turn or even minor course correction we were exposed to another angle of some of the most magnificent landscape on earth.
But, for me the greatest of all treats this day was the very close-up look we got of Holgate Glacier. The captain brought the ship within an eighth of a mile of the face of the glacier then turned us starboard side to so all passengers had a great opportunity to watch a very active calving glacier do its thing. It took only seconds after our arrival before the glacier showed off for us by dropping a truck sized chunk into the bay. Of course very few people were ready with their cameras and since the face of the glacier is about a mile wide, guessing where the next piece would come from would prove to be a challenge. Well, we stayed on station for about twenty minutes and that was just about long enough for me to make some pretty good observations and actually catch pieces falling in several locations across the face. Of course I am sharing the best of those images in my web album. While you are looking at the photos there are two things to keep in mind to help provide you with a sense of what we felt. These huge glaciers create their own wind simply because the temperature difference along the length of the glacier compared to the water temperature, so we had a very cool breeze pushing us off the entire time we were deep into the harbor. Also, when the bigger pieces of compacted ice fall off the face they create pretty good sized waves that eventually make their way to the ship and provide a little rocking and rolling just to keep everyone on their toes. Then there is the continuous noise as the glacier crawls towards the ocean. As the ice flexes it makes all sorts of creaking noises punctuated by loud pops. If you are lucky enough to be looking at a section before it actually starts to calve, you see the motion long before you hear it. For that reason most people catch the last part of the splash as their ear is attracted to the noise that took a few seconds to reach the boat, but long enough to get there after the big piece hits the water.
Glaciers are blue in color because the ice is so tightly compressed that the only light wave that is reflected is the very short blue light wave. The depth of the blue is dictated by how much oxygen has penetrated the surface of the ice. The more oxygen the less blue is the color. Eventually the icebergs or
berglets as they are called begin to absorb and reflect all wave lengths of light and appear white to our eye.
Now, for a short discussion on the history of the glaciers of the Kenai National Park. The glaciers of the Kenai are all products of the Harding Icefield. A relic of the last ice age, the Harding Icefield covers over half of the 607,805 acres of Kenai National Park. The icefield is several thousand feet deep and conceals a vast mountain range. Through a typical year hundreds of inches of snow pile up on the field compacting into dense ice. As the pressure increases some 32 glaciers are fed from the icefield as the ice marches down the slopes. Although most of the glaciers in this area are receding the annual snow fall is still adding to the pressure at the base of the icefield causing the flow outward to continue. In the case of the Holgate Glacier there is little evidence to suggest it is receding. However, later in our visit to the area we visited the Exit Glacier where the recession is ever present and at least for the last few years has been accelerating.
There is other geologic activity ongoing in the area that continues to shape the peninsula. The Pacific Plate is moving to the east and under the North American Plate. As a result the mountains of the Kenai National Park are being dragged deeper into the floor of the ocean. In 1964 the shoreline floor dropped six feet during a 3.5 minute long earthquake that is now referred to as the Good Friday Earthquake and was the largest earthquake in strength ever to hit the North American continent. There is almost daily seismic activity in the area which is probably a good thing as that means the plates are not hanging up on one another and maybe there will not be another major quake for some time to come. This constant movement has caused the peaks to be a bit lower while the water continues to slowly deepen.
Between the carving of magnificent u-shaped valleys by the glaciers and the awesome and colorful glaciers themselves, the fjords that have resulted from a combination of glacier carving and earthquakes plus the great variety of vegetation on the mountains and along the coast, we were left with absolutely breathtaking views. Nature at its very best.
Our day of nature watching and glacial calving was certainly one of the most amazing days to date on a trip that has been full of amazing days. We returned to Seward in near sensory overload, but very happy indeed.
After watching a glacier calve at sea, the next event had to be to get as close to a land terminating glacier as we were allowed to. So, on our next day in the Seward/Kenai National Park area we had to visit Exit Glacier. As I mentioned above, Exit Glacier has been receding at a pretty remarkable rate for the last few years. I would note that there were other periods in the glacier’s history where rapid recession was observed. In fact most of the glaciers in the northern hemisphere have been receding since the last ice age ended. Anyway, the National Park Service continuously monitors the activity of the glaciers and has established boundaries to ensure we tourists don’t hurt ourselves. I am certain that without park service intervention people would stand against the face of a glacier for a photo op and then their family would wonder what happened when a calving piece as big as a house crushed one or two of their family members. That said, we were not allowed to get much closer than about 100 yards from the face of Exit Glacier. I am guessing at that distance because the height of the face is so tall that the horizontal distance is very difficult to judge. I can tell you that the wind coming of the glacier lowered the temperature about twenty degrees. We did get a few photos of us standing in front of the glacier, so you can get a bit of an appreciation of the enormous size of this great wall of ice.
We spent a total of four nights in Seward. When we were not exploring glaciers and wildlife from a boat, we were looking for birds. Although we didn’t find many birds we did have some great times looking for them and of course we saw some pretty neat scenery in the process.
We also explored the inside of a few restaurants and ate some pretty darn good food. You cannot go to Seward, AK and not eat salmon. So, I ate salmon every time we went out to eat. I was not disappointed. The restaurants we sampled were all unique and each had its own unique character. We got as much enjoyment from talking to our servers as we did eating the food. Each had her own story to tell and all were very interesting.
Seward was a great stop, but we still had other places to explore. Our next stop was Homer, Alaska on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula. Our purpose while in Homer besides seeing all that we could see would be to take another pelagic trip to see if we could add a few more birds to our life lists. You will have to read about that part of this great adventure in my next post.
Meanwhile, enjoy the images we captured on our way to Seward and while in the area. Just click on the photo below and you will once again be whisked away to the web album associated with this article. There are several fairly large captions, so I would suggest you manually page through the slide show in order to be able to read the captions and then look for the details I have pointed out.