Kenai Fjords National Park: Marine Wildlife at its Finest

Located a couple hours south of Anchorage on the mountainous Kenai peninsula is Kenai Fjords National Park. Most of the land area of the park is actually covered by a massive glacier, a remnant of the ice sheet that covered much of North America as recently as 10,000 years ago. While Harding Icefield stretches over 300 square miles and flows out through 40 glaciers of varying types, it is rarely seen by most park visitors. For most people visiting Kenai Fjords Nat’l Park, the experience is all about marine wildlife and tidewater glaciers, seen by boat from the bays and inlets surrounding the park. 

Having spent the first part of Saturday in Anchorage, we’ve arrived at Ptarmigan Creek campground in Chugach National Forest, just a few miles from Seward, the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park and a local fishing hotspot. We set up camp, had a quick snack and drove down to the only two marked trails in the entire national park. A relatively short trail leads to Exit Glacier, a prime example of a moraine glacier that’s most accessible to the public. Along the trail, year markers identify the locations where the glacier ended during different times in the past couple hundred years. It’s truly daunting to see just how much the ice has receded and how much global warming has sped up the process in recent years.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to come up and touch the glacier since the area was roped off with “Danger: Falling Ice” signs posted. This was the closest I’ve ever been to an exposed glacier. I have witnessed glaciers in Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks, but never in such close proximity, never so exposed and majestic. 

We continued to hike up higher on the Harding Icefield Trail. In clear weather (a rarity on the Alaskan seacoast in the summer), the trail ends at a stunning outlook of the Harding Icefield. We hiked about 1/3 of the way there before turning back after a ranger told us that at higher elevations, the clouds and snow are making visibility extremely poor. 

Seeing the Harding Icefield wasn’t in our luck for that day, but we did get to enjoy numerous wildflowers along the trail, including lots of my all-time favorite columbines. 

Sunday was the big day at Kenai. With a 6-hour national park cruise and a three-hour kayaking session on the Resurrection Bay, it was going to be a day full of adventure. 

Early in the morning, we packed up our campsite, and drove down to Seward, where we got on the cruise and took off for a tour of the national park. 

As soon as we departed the little marina in the center of Seward, wildlife was everywhere. Young bald eagles sat on a breakwater in search of fish stirred up by the ships coming in and out of the harbor. 

Shortly after, there was an adorable little sea otter floating right in the middle of Resurrection Bay, just minding his own business. He didn't seem to care that an entire ship worth of people was staring at him and taking photos. 

Further out into the bay, we came across some Dall's porpoises who seemed to be playing with us and showing off by following the ship and performing stunts. Those were too fast for photos, however. 

Sea lions rested on the rocky shoreline, bald eagles soared right over our ship. The air was fresh and smelled of the cold, pristine waters of the Pacific. 

The waves kicked up as we got farther and farther out into the bay. The North Pacific is a turbulent place, and it's not uncommon to get quite a bit of chop even on the calmest of the days. As we sped across the vast expanses of water, the ship jumped high as we hit 10 and 15 foot waves. 

The ultimate destination of the cruise was the Aialik Bay and the majestic Holgate Glacier that is just at the end of the bay. 

The captain of the ship had to stop a lot on the way to Aialik Bay due to numerous humpback whale sightings. Everyone wants to get that perfect shot of a whale breaching (coming straight up out of the water), so it can take a while, since these animals can stay underwater for a very long time. While we did see the whale breach, I wasn't fast enough with my camera.

Then we finally arrived at the glacier. The captain killed the engine and stopped the boat about a quarter mile from the ice. Getting closer is hard due to floating icebergs and falling ice. Even our boat with roughly 50 people on board seemed tiny against the backdrop of the immense wall of ice. I closed my eyes and faced the glacier and even with my eyes closed, the sound of cracking and falling ice and the cold air blowing off the ice field made the glacier's presence very well known. 

Kenai Fjords National Park is one of the most inaccessible national parks in the U.S. With no roads through the park, it's hard to actually do any hiking or mountaineering, but perhaps that is exactly what keeps this park so pristine and wild.