Seward, Alaska: Kenai Fjords National Park Boat Tour (part one)

Glacial ice floating in the Holgate Arm

People from all over the world come to Seward to explore Alaska’s waters on a tour boat.  Last week, we joined the crowd.

Yes, it’s touristy, but such attractions are often popular for a reason (because they’re awesome), and a boat excursion out of Seward is no exception.

It’s got glaciers.

It’s got pristine waters.

It’s got virgin forest and rocky islands and wildlife galore.

So even though we consider ourselves Alaskans now, we’re still wide-eyed newcomers on the inside, and we felt no shame in going for a boat ride with a bunch of tourists.

We chose the biggest operation in town, Kenai Fjords Tours, and went on their National Park excursion, so called because it takes passengers into Kenai Fjords National Park, 670,000 acres of mountains, glaciers, and coastline on the Kenai Peninsula.  The park has only one road, and access is mostly via water, air, and snowmobile or by foot on the backcountry trails.  The commercial boat tours are therefore a wonderful introduction to this special park.

Kenai Fjords National Park, which protects the Harding Icefield (Source: National Park Service)

About the park

The National Park Service states that Kenai Fjords, which was established by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, is dedicated to “ice and its legacy: glaciers, icefields and coastal fjords.”  Over 50% of the park is covered in the ice of the Harding Icefield, a remnant of an enormous frozen sheet that once blanketed much of Alaska.

We passed Bear Glacier on our trip, the largest glacier coming out of the Harding Icefield

glacier develops when, over a long period of time, fallen snow compresses into ice.  The defining characteristic of glaciers is that they move, pulled by gravity and flowing downward like very, very slow rivers.  They also advance and retract as the climate changes.  At least 38 glaciers flow from the icefield; some progress to the ocean while others terminate in a lake or on land.

Over thousands of years, the movement of Harding’s glaciers carved the Kenai coastline into cirques (U-shaped notches) and fjords (deep, narrow, water-filled valleys).  Seward sits on one of these fjords, Resurrection Bay, and it’s here that our trip began.

The boat trip

The map below shows the route that we took after leaving Seward:

Our route (Source: Kenai Fjords Tours)
Resurrection Bay

Seward is an isolated town, separated from the rest of the world by mountains and water and ice, and after moving here, Resurrection Bay quickly became the center of our world.

We are drawn to the waterfront, walking or driving it almost daily.  We watch for wildlife, admire the Kenai Mountains, and wonder about the mysteries of the bay and of the Gulf of Alaska, which sits somewhere beyond.  Especially in the winter, when we felt sequestered by snow, we could still find open space when standing at the edge of Resurrection Bay.

A look at Seward and Waterfront Park on our return trip, taken from the middle of Resurrection Bay

It was wonderful to finally cross this body of water that had come to mean so much to us, and we could appreciate just how pristine the bay truly is.  With the exception of the town of Seward, a few primitive cabins, and an abandoned WWII military base at Caine’s Head (a point on the west coastline), Resurrection is undeveloped, sheltered, and rich in wildlife, and we saw orcas and other sea creatures along the way.

Holgate Glacier

We were equally excited to move out of the bay and into the Gulf of Alaska, part of the North Pacific Ocean.  It’s a rough, immense body of water (592,000 square miles), and of course we only experienced a tiny portion of it; still, it was freeing to leave the sheltered, mountain-rimmed bay and move into open water for a little while.

After exiting the bay, the coastline we saw was part of the national park.  We went around the Aialik Cape, a point of land that is notoriously tricky to circumnavigate.  We then turned north into Aialik Bay and toward Holgate Glacier.  This tour always includes glacier viewing; it’s just a matter of which one.  Today, the decision was clear; the passage to Aialik Glacier was too filled with icebergs to traverse, so we headed to the Holgate instead.

This is a tidewater glacier (meaning its terminus is the ocean).  We cruised up the Holgate Arm and then parked near the glacier, floating quietly near it for some time.

It calved periodically, but it wasn’t the dramatic phenomenon that you see in videos about Alaska, where hunks the size of a tour boat plummet like a collapsing building.  These events were smaller, almost delicate, but appearances were deceptive; the accompanying roar reminded us that snow and ice are heavy.

The cold coming off of the glacial lagoon was different from the soggy chill that had misted over the bay; it was sharp and clear and as blue as the glacier itself.

It was sobering to think that the ice we saw in front of and around us was probably thousands of years old.  The Harding Icefield was formed during the Pleistocene Epoch, more than 23,000 years ago.  That’s some ancient H2O right there.

Chiswell Islands

Our next destination, the Chiswell Islands, was equally as wonderful.  The Chiswells are a part of the vast Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.  These rocky islands were formed by intense volcanic activity and gave the appearance of rising straight out of the ocean.  They were exactly what I’d hoped to see sitting in the wild Gulf of Alaska.  There were no beaches and no humans, only thousands upon thousands of birds (including puffins, life-list birds for us), and sea lions sprawled gloriously on their haul outs.  The captain said that this was one of his favorite destinations, and it’s obvious why.  We seemed to be very, very far away from civilization.

Fox Island

After spending some time cruising around the Chiswells, we turned in the direction of home, but first, we stopped at Fox Island for supper.

Fox Island sits at the entrance to Resurrection Bay, looking all misty and mysterious, and it has been the focal point of our waterfront musings since moving here.  We’ve tried to picture what it must look like close up.

In one of my favorite photos from a previous post, Fox Island sits front and center across the bay, shimmering against the sunset.

We finally got a chance to find out, but it was barely a glimpse.  We were on the island for barely an hour, just long enough to eat at the Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge and take a peek at the island’s edge.

This man found time to skip a few rocks before returning to the boat

This quick stop left us wanting more, but we know we’ll return one of these days and stay a bit longer next time, maybe camping on the rocky beach and completing a more thorough exploration of the island.

Our thoughts on taking a Kenai Fjords boat tour

To be sure, it would be hard to mess up a boat excursion into the national park (it’s a target-rich environment, after all), but Kenai Fjords Tours put together a wonderful experience for its passengers.  The crew was young, enthusiastic, and hard-working.  The captain, Mark Lindstrom, has been doing boat tours for many years, and yet he still expressed abundant appreciation for the day’s sights.

The tour lasted about 8.5 hours, and by the end of the the day we were drenched in the beautiful scenery but also, for whatever reason, starving.  The trip included lunch (chicken wrap, chips, and a granola bar) and a “free” buffet dinner on Fox Island that consisted of wild Alaska salmon and prime rib as well as a side of king crab for an additional fee.  A park ranger discussed the history of the island during supper.

The meal was decent—the prime rib and crab were good, as were the veggie sides—but the salmon was dry and lacking in flavor.  We took the tour on the first weekend it was available, so hopefully they’re still working out the kinks and the meal will get even better.

With taxes, the trip cost around $215.00—not cheap, but, then again, not much in Alaska is.  Kenai Fjords Tours does offer a variety of trips, some of them shorter and less expensive, and the company is only one of several that offer boat excursions into the bay and beyond.

If you don’t want to take a trip on a big boat alongside lots of strangers, there are other options:

No matter how you do it, if you come to Seward, you mustn’t resist the pull of the water.  You’ll want to see the beautiful bay and glimpse what’s beyond the ring of mountains in the distance.  The landscape beckons further exploration, and I dare you to resist!

P.S.  I described the main destinations that we hit on our tour, but we covered a whole lot of water and had many wildlife sightings along the way.  I already posted one photo, of sea lions on a haul out.  The next post will include a deluge of photos that showcase the amazing animals we saw on the trip. 


Notes

What to take:

  • Camera
  • Binoculars (If you don’t have binos, they rent these on the boat)
  • Snacks and drinks, unless you want to buy them on the boat for a premium
  • A hat
  • Layers!  Even when we hit sunshine, being outside was a chilly experience, especially when the boat was cruising at top speed.  We had non-cotton base layers under non-cotton shirts and pants (cotton sucks if it gets wet, so avoid wearing it if you can).  We also had jackets, raincoats, and ponchos, as it was raining quite a bit when we left Seward.
Our friend Jingyi went with us on the boat trip. Note our many layers!
  • A seasickness remedy if this is a problem for you.  I have terrible car sickness, but acupressure bands have always worked wonders for me.  Dale and I both wore a pair on the boat trip, but since we didn’t want to take any chances, we also took Bonine. The combination worked well for us, as neither of us got sick.  Jingyi, on the other hand, used the bands but felt that the only thing that helped her was sitting in the fresh air at the end of the boat.  You can find lots of suggestions to remedy motion sickness online.

The melting glaciers:

Like the other glaciers Dale and I have visited, in Washington, Montana, and Canada, Alaska’s glaciers are shrinking.  No surprise, considering that glaciers are on the retreat worldwide.

Of course, Alaska has thousands of glaciers, so numerous that most aren’t named, but throughout the state they’re melting:

The two glaciers that we saw on our boat trip, Bear and Holgate, both part of Kenai Fjords National Park, are in decline.

According to the USGS, the state’s glaciers lose 75 billion tons of ice annually, which is equivalent to the amount of water it would take to fill Yankee Stadium 150,000 times each year.

As for the Harding Icefield, it’s thousands of feet thick and receives over 60 inches of snow a year on average, so it won’t disappear anytime soon.  But according to this article, in some spots it has lost an average of 10-12 feet in elevation every year over the last 50 years, a significant amount.

Climate change is real, and if you tour just about any part of Alaska, you’ll see that it’s happening right before our eyes.