Showcasing Alaska: Kenai Fjords National Park

Alaska beckons. The mountains are calling. The pines whisper and the frozen tundra holds curiosities beneath.  The unique lands showcased in the parks there demonstrate its reputation as The Last Frontier. Some of the National Parks in Alaska are much harder to access than others, one must travel by boat or plane to reach them. Yet, Kenai Fjords National Park is near Seward, which is only 126 miles from Anchorage. The drive from Seward to Anchorage on the Seward highway provides stunning views of the Turnagain Arm Fjord (so named by James Cook in 1778, when he was forced to “turn again” when he was unable to navigate passage through to the Northwest Passage.)

Kenai Fjords National Park (photo by Major Marine Tours-Seward)

The Park covers about 950 square miles and showcases some of the iconic features of Alaska including glaciers, marine life and coastal scenery. A large majority of the Park is either in the waterways or frozen icefields, so one of the best ways to get an overview of the park is via a tour boat from Seward into Resurrection Bay and parts of the Gulf of Alaska.  There are several tours available from the starting point of Seward for both wildlife viewing and fishing excursions. We went on an afternoon cruise with Major Marine Tours.  Getting out on the water gives you a great overview of one of the crowning features of the Park: the Harding Icefield.  It is 70 miles long and 30 miles wide and creates all the glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park.  It is incredible to see-and hear- the glaciers “calve” icebergs into the bay by releasing massive chunks of ice into the water.

Additionally, on the boat tour, we were able to see numerous examples of Alaska marine life.  We saw Stellar Sea Lions, Bald Eagles and an abundance of Puffins and Kittiwakes.  Puffins were always my favorite. They look so cute and pudgy and seemingly awkward, but they are fast flyers and divers with excellent fishing skills.

Puffins @ Kenai Fjords National Park (photo:Major Marine Tours)

Another aspect of our tour at Kenai Fjords was my first introduction to the concept of the “Land of the Midnight Sun”.   Since we were there in August, the long days and short, short nights were very evident. At the end of the tour we came back to the harbor, pulling up to the dock and the sun was still  high on the horizon.  It felt like about 6 or 7 pm, but it was 10 pm. So odd. Now I know why residents of Alaska purchase “black out” curtains to get a good night sleep.  Yet, as a tourist it’s great because you  can fill so many things in one day and you don’t run out of daylight.

The only road in the Park, ends at the Exit Glacier parking lot. From there you can take an easy hike to view the glacier face. It is one of the most accessible glaciers in Alaska and terrific to view, but sadly is also a very visible indicator of glacial recession due to climate change.

Exit Glacier near Seward. This photo was taken in 2016 and shows how glacier has receded past it’s location in 2005. (photo by Dan Smith)

As just a humble visitor to Alaska, and not a resident, I appreciate the beauty and diversity of the landscape. Yet, I recognize the frailty of so many parts of this planet that we call home. Seeing the changes at Exit Glacier really provides a powerful visual that YES our planet is changing. No easy answers, but acceptance of the problem is half the battle. Put your traveling shoes on. Julie E. Smith

Authors note: This particular journey to Alaska was made several years ago, before my interest in the National Parks began to pique. Yet, I wanted to document my experiences there for my book: “A Walk in the Park: Journeys through our Nation’s greatest treasures.”

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