After 12 days of work, I finally got to go and play. One of the perks of the job is that sometimes I am able to go on client trips. On this particular day, I had the fortune of going to Kenai Fjords National Park. Environmentalist John Muir wrote of the park in 1871: “I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”
Alaska can sometimes seem daunting in its vastness. There is a certain romanticism that one feels looking out and seeing mountains seldom touched by human feet. It is said that the Kenai Peninsula is Alaska in a microcosm: soaring mountains, boreal forests and wetlands, rivers, miles and miles of coastline, and an abundance of wildlife.
I first stopped at the Exit Glacier Visitor Center inside the park to pick up a brochure and National Park stamp. Then, along with a Great Alaska guide and clients, I hiked up to Exit Glacier, the only glacier within the park accessible by vehicle. Upon entry into the park, the road is marked with signs that note the year where the glacier last was. The recession of the glacier is dramatic and truly highlights the effects of climate change.
Below is a video of a time lapse of Exit Glacier moving and melting over a period of three months between July and September 2010.
After the hike, we drove to Seward where we embarked on a Major Marine Tours boat cruise to see more of the park. Most of Kenai Fjords National Park is only accessible via boat or bush plane.
In 2015, President Barack Obama visited Kenai Fjords National Park as part of a three-day trip to Alaska so that he could see firsthand the effects of climate change. The stunning scenery and wildlife in the park only reinforced his vision and hope to protect these beautiful lands that make up the United States of America not only for the enjoyment of future generations, but as a testament to our nation’s natural history and as a critical element of Earth’s climate.
Kenai Fjords National Park encompasses more than a thousand square miles of land and water. It did not become a national park until 1980, making it one of the youngest national parks in the United States. It was designated a national
park to ensure the protection of its unique fjord ecosystem and archeological remains of Alaskan Natives. The heart of the park is the vast Harding Icefield – a remnant of the Ice Age – and the many surrounding glaciers. Hanging glaciers cling to mountainsides and tidewater glaciers push their way into the ocean.
As part of my tour, I departed from the small-boat harbor of Seward, Alaska and traveled into Resurrection Bay. The town of Seward was named after Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward who purchased the territory of Alaska from the Russians in 1867. Kenai Peninsula is filled with ample evidence of Russian settler’s past and in fact, Russians are how Resurrection Bay came by its name. Alexandr Baranov, a Russian explorer, was forced to retreat into the bay during a bad storm and once the storm calmed, it was Easter Sunday.
We pushed forward through the Eldorado Narrows where we witnessed steller sea lions, bald eagles, sea otters, double-crested cormorants, kittiwake seagulls, puffins, and common mures.
Once we hit Cape Resurrection and saw Resurrection Peninsula and Fault Point glimmer in the distance, we were in for a real treat: a pod of humpback whales! For what may have been half an hour, they put on a show for us: breaching the waters and spouting water through their blowholes. Here are some fun facts about humpback whales:
- It only takes a humpback whale 36 days to reach the waters of the Gulf of Alaska and Hawaii. They travel this distance every year.
- They spend their summers in Alaska feeding and building up body fat. They filter feed on plankton, krill, and small fish, consuming up to 3,000 pounds a day.
- Humpback calves at birth are about 15 feet long and weigh approximately one ton. Calves will nurse for about a year. They do not stop growing until they are 10 years old.
- Mature whales can live to be 40-50 years old, be up to 60 feet in length, and weigh up to 40 tons!
(Thanks to Major Marine Tours and the National Park Ranger on board for this plethora of information!)
Humpback whales are my favorite marine animal!
Then we forged ahead across the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean to Aialik Bay where Holgate Glacier is located. There are three key components to a glacier: snow, cool and wet summers, and gravitational pull and ice flow. Seward and the Kenai Peninsula are at the northernmost reaches of the temperate rain forest, so there is plenty of moisture – some 60-100 feet of snow fall upon the Harding Icefield every winter. Couple that amount of snow with cool, wet summers and that means all that snow does not have a chance to melt before the next winter arrives. Of course, glaciers are more than just snow that refuses to melt – these glaciers may look solid, but they are actually eighty percent air. With more and more snowfall every year, more and more ice is compressed out – and when the snow is compacted to fifty percent air, it’s called firn. Once the air becomes compacted to twenty percent air, it becomes glacial ice. In Alaska, glacial ice can form in as little as four years.
So, the glacial ice is always growing and pushing downward; however, climate change is melting the ice faster than it is growing, causing them to recede.
I want to thank my wonderful tour with Major Marine Tours, the National Park Service, and the guides at the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge for this information.
Holgate Glacier is a tidewater glacier that extends out into the ocean. The captain of the boat shut the engines off and we were able to witness and hear the glacier calve. It was magical.
I could go on and on about glaciers, but I will refrain! I would definitely recommend booking a trip to Alaska and going on a glacier cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park to learn even more. If you can’t do that, go to your nearest bookstore or library and pick up a book! It’s fascinating.
While floating by the glacier, we saw harbor seas resting on rocks and chunks of ice. On the way back to Seward, we saw a fin whale! The rain and mist set in and as a final treat entering Resurrection Bay, we saw Mountain Goats perched high up on a mountainside.
The trip to Kenai Fjords National Park was definitely a thrill of a lifetime and fulfilled so many of my Alaska dreams. The best part, though? There’s so much more left to explore and I would not say no to another visit to this amazing park!