Cruising Kenai Fjords National Park
By Kurt Jacobson
When I lived in Alaska full time and had visitors, I used to take all newbies on a circuit I thought best for them. Kenai Fjords National Park was on that circuit, partly because it was close to my home in Sterling and partly because it was jaw-dropping wild and scenic.
I still remember a narrator on one of those voyages pointing out the Dall Sheep on a precipitous rocky face and telling us, “We saw a brown bear come and snatch a baby Dall Sheep right before our eyes on the cruise yesterday!” I’ve never seen anything like that on the several trips into the park but have been satisfied with what I did see each time.
A Yearly Trip
I go to Alaska most every year for a week or two and often have friends and family come along. For this year’s trip there would be five in our group, two of which had never been to Alaska. One year, my good friend and fishing buddy, Jonathan Manske, informed me he, his wife Anne, and their 12-year-old daughter Sabine would be joining us on his 4th trip. I took that as great news. Being the trip leader year-after-year, I try and accommodate each person’s needs and wants.
Most of us are diehard anglers and fish 8-12 hours a day, but Anne and Sabine would not be those types of visitors in our party. I wondered if a cruise of the area would please them and me too. I hadn’t taken the Kenai Fjords National Park excursion in twenty years but hoped it would be worth the precious twelve hours away from fishing. Because it was the U.S. Park Service 100-year anniversary, why not go to Kenai Fjords?
I thought all of us might enjoy this cruise into the fjords. We set a date for the six-hour cruise, which would take me farther into the park than I had ever ventured. We would see multitudes of waterfowl, shorebirds, pinnipeds (both seals and sea lions), whales, and more. The thing I wanted most to see was the Aialik Glacier, a tidewater river of ice flowing from the Harding Icefield into the sea.
Hoping for the Best
Not knowing what the weather would be, we booked the trip six weeks before our arrival in Alaska and hoped for the best. For the past ten years, our trips have been filled with sunshine and mostly dry days, so I hoped for more of the same. What we got was a whole lot of rain and clouds for six of seven days.
The day of the cruise we were encouraged by sparse patches of blue sky as we drove the Sterling Highway to the junction of the Seward Highway at Tern Lake. A pair of majestic Trumpeter Swans graced the lake as we pulled over to admire these giant white birds before heading down the mountain to Seward.
As we drove towards Seward, the clouds increased and turned to thick fog as we neared town. Nobody wants to take a Kenai Fjords cruise in the fog, but I assured everyone the fog would burn off, although I didn’t really know if and when it would. We picked up our tickets at the Kenai Fjords Tours office at the boat harbor and wandered around looking for a place to buy snacks for the trip.
By the time we boarded the boat, we were surprised to see most of the seats and tables taken. We grabbed one of the last two tables by the main deck doors with not-so-good views. I said, “Don’t worry. When we come upon something worth seeing everyone will be outside to get a better look and will be crowding the rails.” We had the closest access to the doors from our seats giving us the best outdoor viewing spots when whales and other highlights appeared. Because it wasn’t raining we would spend much of the day outside catching the best views.
Into the fog
Captain Tim Fleming, born and raised in Anchorage, was at the helm as we shoved off; he would also be our able commentator. It is said he has more experience in the park than anyone in recent memory, and it showed. The boat, a Teknicraft Design multi-hulled catamaran, whisked us to and fro and ran circles around most other boats we encountered. It felt like a turbo-powered pickup truck racing in snow as we zoomed off to see other parts of the park.
Due to the fog, we slowly and cautiously motored out of the harbor until we broke free of the fog’s cloak. Steep, tree-covered mountains rose up to dizzying heights, and Glaucous -Winged Gulls flew alongside us wondering if we would toss treats to them as we beheld natural beauty all around us.
Captain Tim pointed out remnants of Alaska’s “Forgotten War” in which the U.S. built defenses in Seward and other Alaskan towns in preparation of a Japanese invasion. In June of 1942, Japanese troops took Kiska and Attu Islands.
The first and only foreign war to be fought on American soil was contained in the Aleutian Chain on these two islands. It took over a year and hundreds of lives to retake the islands. Caine’s Head Park is a reminder of this war. We passed by the stark-upright pillars of what remained of the dock to this war-time military base just five miles from Seward.
Humpback Whale Sitings
With the military reminders behind us, we sped on towards our encounter with the first of several Northern Humpback Whale sightings. Anne and Sabine were thrilled to see their first Alaskan whales in the wild. The onboard crew helped to point out whales and other points of interest.
They served us lunch and answered our many questions. The crew were young but well trained and helpful. They cared for the few sea-sick passengers and helped us get to the best place to view wildlife. I asked Laurie, who was working the snack bar, what was the funniest questions she heard recently from passengers, and she said, “Some woman asked me if we had a cappuccino machine onboard.” The woman was hoping in vain for some trendy coffee.
On we cruised, deeper into the park until Captain Tim said, “Get your camera ready for a National Geographic moment.” Nearly everyone went outside with cameras in hand as we slid through a narrow and rocky passage to behold three stunning teepee-shaped rock islets with a crown of spruce trees on top. Hanging low, the clouds accentuated the magical aura of the place. Oohs and ahs were heard as passengers gawked and shot selfies with the stunning scene in the background.
On towards the river of ice
After about three hours of wildlife and scenery, we came to the Aialik Glacier. Our catamaran’s engines slowed before Captain Tim shut them down so we could hear the glacier” talk and shout” at us from near and far. A glacier has many moods, and until you can hang out for hours by one of them, like I have in my time in Alaska, you don’t appreciate the repertoire of sounds.
If you are lucky, within a few minutes, you will hear moaning and groaning, gunshot and thundering sounds, We heard it all during the fifteen minutes or so spent by this serpentine river of icy blue natural wizardry.
We were treated to a few thunderous calvings of the front wall as it splashed into the sea, thrilling everyone aboard. Once you stare upon a glacier with its hypnotic deep blue depths, its jagged and torn surface reaching skyward, and lines of crushed rock showing up as long surface rivulets of dark brown, you will never be the same. My newbies, Anne and Sabine loved seeing their first tidewater glacier.
Over the remaining hours of the trip, we saw more whales close up and sea lions too. I clicked away with my zoom lens trying to capture a perfect image of the comical puffins as they tried to go airborne from the water’s surface.
Puffins are my favorite seabird and remind me of a tropical toucan with their colorful beak, which is often dripping in small fish for their young. The highlight for me was when we pulled up to a Black-Legged Kittiwake colony and spied a Peregrine Falcon with a fresh kill.
The falcon had a space all to itself as it tried to eat the young Kittiwake grasped in its talons. We made the falcon nervous, and I snapped several photos of it trying to fly off with the heavy chick. I had never seen a Peregrine in the wild, and this one made my day!
When the cruise was over, and we disembarked in Seward I was convinced, this cruise had been a good use of a precious day. We lucked out, unlike the passengers from the previous two days who experienced nothing but rain.
After the obligatory dinner at Ray’s Waterfront Restaurant and a quick tour of downtown Seward, we headed back to our cabin on the Kenai River. There would be enough time for fishing over the next four days, but thoughts of glaciers and whales would persist for years to come.
Even my love of fishing will have competition with parks like Kenai Fjords if a rain-free day presented itself on my next trip north. As I drifted off to sleep in our cozy cabin that night, visions of a Peregrine Falcon soaring high in the Alaskan sky filled my dreams. It had been a perfect day.
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Kurt Jacobson lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and spent many years as a professional chef. Now he travels the world and shares his stories here and on other travel websites.