Monday, July 28, 2008

Alaska: Seward and Eastern Kenai

A "cache" in Seward where
they have a style of their own.
Part Three of a Series: Please read the previous entries first.

When we reached Denali from Anchorage we were only about 1/3 of the way up into Alaska. We didn't make it to Fairbanks, which is a couple hundred miles further north. Beyond Fairbanks there is a long drive to the Brooks Range, an older mountain chain than the Alaska Range. Beyond the Brooks Range there is still another 1/3 of the state until you reach the Arctic Ocean coastline. This doesn't count the sprawling panhandle around Juneau nor the long chain of the Aleutian Islands which stretch in volcanic peaks hundreds of miles westward toward Siberia.

In other words, as much as we saw of Alaska it was still just a small portion of what exists of this vast, generally pristine state.

Still, we drove 1100 miles in our time there.

After Denali we had more or less a travel day, which was fine since it rained the whole day. Our immediate destination was back to Anchorage where Jennifer had arranged a bed and breakfast for us to stay overnight - complete with a private hot tub. Very nice.

This was just a rest stop though on our way further south, along the Kenai Peninsula, to the small port town of Seward. Our intention was to visit the Alaskan coast, take in some views of the plentiful sea life on a day cruise through Resurrection Bay, and visit some glaciers.

Unlike the Tundra of the Denali region, the Kenai is practically a rain forest with all the rich vegetation you would expect from the plentiful precipitation that the southern Alaskan coastline receives.

Our drive south of Anchorage was pleasant and afforded us some wonderful views of isolated homes and terrain in a region of the state without electricity.

Thanks to large amounts of rainfall and virtually perpetual daylight throughout the summer months, flora grows in robust fashion throughout the Kenai. The tallest dandelions we have ever seen were extensive throughout the area.

Seward is named after the former Secretary of State, William Seward, who was primarily responsible for America's purchase of Alaska (for 1.9 cents per acre) from Russia in 1867. It is not a large port compared with others along the Alaskan coast, but it is the primary port for touring the Kenai Peninsula's waters and coastline.

Conducive with Alaska's pervasive interest in the environment and aesthetics as cornerstones of their large tourist industry, Seward has done what it can to be attractive to visitors. Several large murals depicting various aspects of Alaskan life and culture have been painted on the side of the larger buildings as an attraction.

The dominant feature of Seward, of course, is the harbor. Fishing is Alaska's number one industry, accounting for over half of all seafood harvested in America. Mostly it is in the form of Salmon and Halibut. We boarded our tour boat early the next morning.

Our particular tour took up most of the day, much as did our venture into Denali. Only this time instead of tundra and bears, there was water and sea life. We saw humpback whales, orcas, otters, seals, porpoises, gulls that nested in every possible location along the rocky cliffs surrounding Resurrection Bay. I saw my first bald eagles which was a special treat though out of respect for their solitude the ship's captain remained too far away for me to get a good pic of them perched in their nests.

The highlight for me was the ultimate destination of boat tour - Aialik Glacier. It is only a "mid-sized" glacier by Alaskan standards but it was the largest chuck of ice I have ever seen. The glacial wall was several hundred feet high. The boat shut down completely and we got to drift in relative silence about 1/3 of a mile from the glacier. Despite the distance it was till very cold on the deck of the boat as the glacier and the large Harding Icefield which feeds it chilled everything. (We were told the Harding field got over 100 *feet* of snow in the winter of 2007.)

At one point the glacier calved. It sounded like the pop of a large tree branch breaking, reverbing off the ice wall, followed by a spectacular splash. Only a very small chuck of the glacier fell. Just enough to make me wish for larger glaciers and calving experiences in some future trip to Alaska.

We were treated to another wonderful surprise on the return journey. A young male humpback decided to swim and dive off the starboard side of the boat. He would surface for a time then plunge down for several minutes, rising unexpectedly at some nearby location in the bay. At one point, his return to the surface was rather spirited and he rocketed almost half his torso out of the water in a kind of magnificent pirouette. A fantastic sight that occurred too quickly for my digital camera to capture it.

Jennifer was amazed by all the gulls and other birds that inhibited the numerous cliffs along the bay. At one point the captain took the boat in very close and she went out to the bow, literally surrounded by sea birds only a few feet away. A lifelong bird watcher and lover, it was clearly the highlight for her as she commented several times on the deep impression that moment left on her.

Seward had some very nice seafood restaurants, of course. We enjoyed our meals there. I was particularly fond of the chowder they served made of clams, halibut, and salmon. I ate that as often as I could.

Seward is also home to the Alaska SeaLife Center. There we were treated to a wonderful display of the great diversity of life along the Alaskan coast. A giant sea lion caught my eye (as I might have caught its eye!).

But the highlight there were the Puffins. All of Jennifer's life she wanted to see a Puffin. Living in the southern US afforded her no opportunity to do that. We saw both the tufted variety of Puffins and Horned Puffins at the Center.

Near Seward is the most frequently visited glacier in Alaska, the relatively small Exit Glacier, situated in the Kenai Fjords National Park. It is also one of the fastest shrinking glaciers. It affords the advantage of being able to reach it on foot after about a 3 mile hike, round trip. There are signs with dates beginning with "1815" to indicate the extent of the glacier's size in years gone by. That particular sign is over two miles from where the glacier is today. You pass it in your car on the way to the Exit Glacier Park.

I snapped a pic of Jennifer on the way back from Exit Glacier. Notice the richness of the vegetation compared to what we saw in Denali which is about 400 miles or so north of here.

The Kenai Peninsula offers so much more than we had time for on this trip. The western side is flatter, yet you pass some volcanoes while going that way. It is down as a "to do" on a future trip.

We loved Alaska. It was the perfect celebration for 20 years of marriage. We plan to celebrate more of our marriage there in our years ahead together.

No comments: