Out of the Airplane and Into the Arctic (Part III)

Don’t miss Out of the airplane and Into the Arctic (Part I) here, and (Part II) here.

Hey! I’m Skate, a new blogger at True Airspeed. I fly jets and travel the world when I’m not writing blogs or books. Want to see more stories? Follow and sign up for my newsletter.

South is a relative term in Alaska. For someone who normally flies out of Eielson Air Force base in the northeast of the state, the southern coastline near Anchorage remained mostly unexplored in my many trips to the state. Known for years as a stopover location for transpacific airliners, the southern region combines American culture with that of Russia and East Asia. Culture aside, the best reason to visit the area is certainly the incredible outdoors and the easy access to the unique surrounding towns. Only two and a half hours south from Anchorage sits the fishing town of Seward. Known as a perfect place to catch a charter to chase the famed Silver Salmon, it also provides a launching point for Kenai Fjords National Park.

Seward, Alaska at dusk

Kenai Fjords is the crossroads where glaciers and the ocean meet, and is best visited via a boat tour. While the trails are open year-round, the visitor center and tours are generally only open from the beginning of June to early September. Please check the national park system website prior to planning a trip. If you’re willing to test your sea legs, easy to book boat tours are the best bet. The tours are run by a private company (Major Marine) but have park rangers as narrators on each trip. Most of the summer, they offer a long and a short trip. Short tours vary in their time but expect somewhere from four to six hours. Long tours, on the other hand, can extend past eight hours. If you’re looking for the most popular trip, go no further than the Kenai Fjords National Park tour, which usually leaves twice a day and lasts around six hours. The fun is an easy walk if you are staying in town as it’s launched from the Seward docks.

Seward Waterfront

The vistas begin immediately as the tour departs land. The town is nestled into an inlet that leads into the wider Resurrection Bay. Mountains line each side of the waterway, and its coastal weather patterns commonly bring in flowing clouds that sweep around the peaks and down into the fjord. As you exit the sound, the tour allows everyone a moment to take in the rocky shoreline. Floating rock islands mark the end of the bay. Keep an eye peeled as you pass by as the spits of land are commonly covered by seals looking to warm up in the summer sun.

Rock Island in Resurrection Bay

After exiting Resurrection bay, the boat tour will work into the neighboring Aialik Bay. This narrow sound provides an up -close look at where the glaciers and the sea interact. The white arm of the glaciers weave down from above, creating what looks like a frozen river in the distance.

Glacier in Aialik Bay

As the boat gets closer, chunks of ice begin to float past the boat, remnants of a recent break. On the glacier itself, deep blue hues mix with the white. Dark creases highlight the developing cracks.

Up close the blue hue becomes the dominant color

Approaching land, the crew powers the boat engine down. With a newfound silence, the scene changes again. A light rumble emanates from the base of the ice. Every few minutes a sizeable chunk of the glacier will calve and drop into the water. A photographer with patience or a quick draw will have the chance to catch one in flight. That being said, if you happen to be more like me, you’ll catch a great before shot and put your camera down as it breaks free.

Check out the fissure developing toward the left side of the picture

One of the benefits of signing up for a longer tour is the chance of catching killer whales in their element. The pods will scour the shorelines in search of sea lions or seals. If you are lucky enough to spot one, there will likely be others as the species is highly social.

Orcas in the Gulf of Alaska

While common in the world’s cooler regions, the Gulf of Alaska is one of the few locations globally with the highest density of Orca. This gives each trip out into the park the potential for a sighting. The good news is that your ship’s crew will do the leg work and if there are any in the area, they’ll likely add a side trip to your venture.

Orca with Kenai Fjords National Park in the background

With food and drinks available on the boat, the ride home through resurrection bay provides a chance to enjoy a crisp beer and take in the sights on the way back.

Returning to Seward in Resurrection Bay

If boats aren’t your thing, you can still explore the park through the Exit Glacier. The only part of the park accessible by road, there are multiple trails for hiking that allow an up-close experience with the ice. There are two primary routes, the Exit Glacier overlook and the Harding Icefield trail. The icefield trail is a strenuous eight-mile hike that brings you alongside the Exit glacier up to the mountaintops. At the end of the trail, and after six-eight hours of hiking, you will be rewarded with a panoramic view of the icefield that stretches for miles and disappears into the far horizon. For those with less time, or eagerness, the overlook trail is an easy half-mile trek to the base of the Glacier.

Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park

On the way out, be sure to take note of the small signs lining the roadside. Each has a different date, showing where the end of the exit glacier was during that year. It provides a full and sobering picture of how much the glacier has receded over the years. The nature center at the beginning of the trail has a great exhibit with photos dating back to the early 1900s. Save a few minutes to enjoy the history of the park.

Departing the 49th State over the Alaska Range

Thanks for following the three-part blog on Alaska. There will be more on the 49th state in the future but get ready for a detour to a new location in the upcoming weeks. The adventures will continue in the next blog, so please sign up for my mailing list to receive notifications to keep up.

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