Alaska 5: Kenai Fjord National Park

Harbor Seal hanging out on glacial iceclick for more images from this visit.
Harbor Seal hanging out on glacial ice.
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A couple years ago, while hiking in Southern Oregon’s Sky Lakes wilderness, a companion shared tales about her wonderful trips to Alaska’s Glacier Fjord National Park. While there, she spent a couple nights at the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge located in the park under a special arrangement with the NP & a local tribe. Everything sounded sublime, and while at the time a trip to Alaska was only in the dream stage, her enthusiasm was contagious and compelling. It was our good fortune to have had that conversation and we thank you, Maggie.

Location of Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge in the National Park.

Operated by Alaska Wildland Adventures and accessible only by boat, the lodge was built 5 years ago on a lagoon created by the receding Pedersen Glacier, and blends stunningly into a Sitka Spruce forest bordering the lagoon. Guest cottages were set back from the shore so when canoeing in the lagoon one only sees the lodge where our delicious meals were taken. Daily activities consisting of hiking, kayaking, and canoeing were announced each evening and were selected to coincide with tidal activity in the lagoon the following day.

Our canoe trip to the upper lagoon.Click for more images from this visit.
Our canoe trip to the upper lagoon.
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As this was our third extended experience with glaciers (the first in Juneau at Mendenhall and the second a week later Glacier Bay National Park), one might think there was redundancy in our visits. Not so. Being in sea kayaks and so near the water’s surface magnifies the immensity of these vast rivers of ice. As we watched in awe, bobbing near Slate Island and its resident Pigeon Guillemots, Aialik glacier appeared a mere mile away but was, in fact, 2 miles plus. Suddenly, a chunk of ice the size of our house calved into the water but we didn’t hear the glacial thunder-like crack for a couple seconds. It was then we appreciated the height of that glacier—a 300′ rock looked small compared to the overall size of the face. The guides were extremely professional in preparing us for the adventure, both in safety, training and equipment. Furthermore, all activities somehow included remarkable interactions with wildlife from either kayaks, canoes, or hiking. Combine that with maneuvering around dangerous icebergs in the upper lagoon provided us with far more excitement than stunning scenery. And yes, there was plenty of that, too.

River Otters on the upper lagoon.Click for more images from this visit.
Ridiculously cute Sea Otters on the upper lagoon.
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We arrived to the Kenai Peninsula via the Alaska Marine Ferry, traveling from Valdez to Whittier and its intimidating tunnel. From there, we traveled the Seward highway, somewhat disappointed to see other vehicles after a 1,000 miles of nearly solo driving while en-route north from Haines. After a night camping on Seward’s municipal oceanfront campground, we made the connection with staff and boarded their boat, the Wild Lander for a 3-hour trip to the lodge. En-route, we were treated to fabulous rock caves, nesting puffins, breaching humpback whales, otters, and many, many gulls. Sooney was pretty good at identifying the other little dark spots floating among the swells, and Marty and his 400mm lens captured some terrific images that later helped with identification.

River Otters checking us out on the upper lagoon.Click for more images from this visit.
River Otters checking us out on the upper lagoon.
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After arriving, we were divided into two groups for our introductory canoe trip around the lower lagoon. These were large boats that accommodated 8 rowers per side. As if on cue, a mother black bear and 2 cubs appeared on the far shore, happily munching on sea greens revealed by the low tide. A moment later we encountered a cluster of sea otters, fully engaged in their playful behavior and apparently oblivious of us as we glided by, our eyes glued to binoculars and camera viewfinders. The lower lagoon isn’t that large and we paddled across in about 15 minutes. Our route back to cocktails (part of the schedule, of course) took us closer to the rock wall caused by the glacier centuries ago. As we approached a small stream, a family of river otters competed with us as to who was more curious. All this was accompanied by the haunting call of several loons, fluttering about in the receding light near the channel to the upper lagoon where we’d be paddling the following morning. How’s that for starters?

The view from the lodge. Not bad, huh?Click for more images from this visit.
The view from the lodge. Not bad, huh?
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The view from the lodge is perfect; rocking chairs on the railing-free deck overlooking a sea of rye grass, the canoes grazing peacefully in the lagoon, and 4,000’ Mt. Addison and Pedersen Glacier filling in as background. The upper lagoon is not affected by tides but fed by melting water from the receding glacier, and a group of us paddled up the channel to get a closer look at the ice. Our coxswain/guide raised the ante a bit as we were paddling up stream. We later floated down as if in an Alaskan version of Disneyland’s Jungle ride—the threatening alligator being replaced by curious harbor seals. As in Glacier Bay, seals breed and raise their pups in the protective safety of glaciers and slumber on the many accessible ice bergs we learned to be wary of. Only 10% of an iceberg’s mass is above the water (go ahead, try it with an ice cube) and a canoe can easily flip as the shapes of these monoliths vary. They also roll unexpectedly, so our guides kept us reasonable distanced from both the ice and the seals.

Some of Alaska’s premiere destinations are extremely remote, with many only accessible by sea or by air. Our visit to Glacier Fjords National Park gave us a glimpse of one of those destinations where we experienced Alaskan wilderness close up—on hikes, in canoes and kayaks, and birding around the lodge on tastefully prepared trails. We eagerly await similar opportunities to commune with nature in Denali National Park where we’ll camp for 7 nights, and certainly on our sojourn south through the Canadian Rockies and its fall colors. Stay tuned.

Critter and bird sightings:

Kenai Fjords National Park
Common Loon, *Red-faced Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Horned Puffin, Tufted Puffin, Black-legged Kittiwake, Glaucous-winged Gull, Black Oystercatcher, Greater Yellowlegs, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, White-winged Crossbill, Hermit Thrush

Pedersen Glacier
*Red-throated Loon, Mallard, Common Merganser, Pigeon Guillemot, Marbled Murrelet, Kittlitz’s Murrelet, *Glaucous Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Belted Kingfisher, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Orange-crowned Warbler, Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Hermit Thrush, White-winged Crossbill

Kayaking in Aialik Bay
Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Fox Sparrow

Return trip to Seward
Marbled Murrelet, Common Murre, Horned and Tufted Puffin, *Pomarine Jaeger

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Yellow Warbler, NW Crow, Pacific Wren, Hermit Thrush, Sage Grouse, Golden-crown Kinglet

3 Life birds (12 total for this journey)