10/20/13

Kenai Fjords National Park


Sailing on Aialik Bay from Seward, on a sunny mid-September, I'm thrilled not only because of the perfect weather but because there are new things to see and learn at Kenai Fjords National Park. Carved eons ago by slow-moving glaciers and colliding tectonic plates, what used to be valleys are now filled with frigid ocean waters. Long steep-sided fjords are chiseled inland revealing quiet rugged coves and bays. Coastal peaks loom all over Kenai peninsula's southeastern edge while its emerald shores are dotted with solitary isles.

Aboard the catamaran Orca Voyager operated by Kenai Fjords Tours, I join other guests taking a 6-hour day cruise ($149+ adults/ $74.50+ kids) in Alaska's smallest among its eight designated national parks and the closest to Anchorage. But don't get the "smallest" fool you. This is Alaska after all where the wilderness seem to go on forever. The national park, established in 1980, is a 600,000-acre natural beauty encompassing the best of what there is to see in coastal Alaska.

The trip begins at Seward marina

Joining the cruise is pretty straightforward after making online reservations. An hour at least prior to 11:30 AM departure, guests are required to check-in at the Kenai Fjords Office right next to the bustling marina. There's also an adjoining gift shop for last minute shopping - perhaps forgotten an extra layer to stay warm? While I came prepared for the elements, I unfortunately forgot my zoom lens when I switched camera bags at home - hence no close ups of any wildlife on this trip. I soon found myself envying other guests with their full armada of camera equipment.

As the captain starts his tour narration, heads turn in every direction as the sights began marching by. I slipped into my down jacket as the boat gains speed and the frigid headwinds howled upon my face. There's no denying the fact that somewhere up on those peaks, is the park's frozen crown jewel - Harding Icefield - one of the 4 remaining in the United States and the motherload of all glaciers tumbling down into the sea. Even at 300 square miles of ice, the icefield is but a remnant of the last Ice Age.

The view along Resurrection Bay
Bear Glacier
Aialik Bay

Our boat skimmed past Bear Glacier - the biggest coming off the icefield - with visible icebergs floating away. The crew meanwhile began distributing complimentary lunch served on a plastic basket: chicken Caesar wrap, baby carrots and a granola bar (Later in the afternoon, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies were handed out as well). Closer to shore we moved as we spotted out first wildlife encounter for the day - a solitary harbor seal sunbathing on a rock. Everyone moved port side in silence while cameras clicked noisily.

Turning a sharp right after passing more rocky islands, we're now entering Aialik Bay with its numerous coves looking like tentacles when viewed mid-air from an airplane. The captain suddenly slows down the boat as seabirds like horned puffins and gulls were right out front frolicking themselves in the water. On a nearby crag was a colony of fish-eating cormorants - famous for their ability to swoop down and dive as deep as 45 meters to catch a meal! Much as I'd like a closer picture of these birds, I could only manage with what my lens could capture.

Aialik Bay
Harbor seal
Cormorants
A humpback whale barely surfacing to blow off
Steller sea lions

Several minutes later, the captain beckons everyone to move starboard as a humpback whale was sighted blowing at the surface to breathe. The captain carefully maneuvers the boat in order not to disturb this huge animal. Many humpback whales spend its summer in Alaskan waters feeding on small schooling fish before journeying far away to the Hawaiian islands for winter. Unfortunately, no whale breaching occurred, no acrobatics to wow us all, so we had to contend with just seeing part of its head barely above the water. Then it was gone.

Moving deeper into the long arm of the fjord, we were rewarded with views of Holgate and Pedersen Glaciers. The boat slows down again as we were just within a stone's throw away from several sea otters basking in the glorious midday sun. Despite being the smallest marine mammals, I learned from the captain they are equipped with a very dense fur highly sought by fur traders. They were hunted extensively almost to extinction between mid-18th century to early 20th century - thus their endangered status today.

Holgate Glacier
Pedersen Glacier. A pair of sea otters float in the foreground.
Aialik Glacier
It's not everyday one gets to see this
Like any active glacier, calving does happen at Aialik Glacier

At the very end of this fjord is Aialik Glacier. Flowing down ever so slowly for 4 miles down Harding Icefield, measuring some 300-400 feet high from the water surface and stretching for more than a mile wide, this is the largest tidewater glacier in the national park. It creaks, groans, cracks and calves into the frigid water, sending everyone in a state of excited anticipation. The captain stops the boat for a good half-hour to get the most of this icy sightseeing amidst 'bergy bits' all around. Then it was time to go back to Seward.

Undoubtedly, this 100-mile cruise on the Orca Voyager was a pretty punctuation mark on my quick visit to Alaska. A big thanks go to to Kenai Fjords Tours for helping make this happen and of course to the heavens for the unbelievably beautiful weather.

19 comments:

  1. oh how beautiful and clear are these shots. this probably will be the closest I could get to visiting this place.

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    1. thanks Maria, I highly recommend this part of Alaska - especially if you're thinking of taking a cruise departing from/arriving in Seward.

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  2. Beautiful set Dennis! Photos like these always inspire me to go back online. :)

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    1. Glad to see you back James! Many thanks for your kind words.

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  3. How much was the cruise? The views are so wonderful. The cormorants look great, and I would have loved to see a humpback whale too.

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    1. As noted above, adults shell out $149 + taxes while kids pay $74.50 + taxes. Too bad I forgot my zoom lens on this trip!

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  4. Whoa, ang saya! I'm not a fan of cruises, but I do agree that sometimes in order to see these things, it is necessary. I am guessing you took this trip during the summer, yet the ice is still there, eh?

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    1. Yes, seeing this part of Kenai Fjords National Park require a boat trip! I was on this cruise on Sept. 15 which is a shoulder season for tourists but is already considered autumn.

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  5. How much was the cruise? the pictures are breathtaking:)

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    1. Thanks! Kenai Fjords Tours charge $149 + tax for each adult.

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  6. Finally, I got a chance to visit your blog again, my apologies for being absent virtually (I'm back in the Philippines, but that's another issue). You're back in Alaska! :)

    Breathtaking captures, Dennis and detailed narration as usual.
    My most favorite's the last photo! Absolutely gorgeous!

    And for that rate of $149++ x 6 hour cruise, I could only wish I'd bring my feet to Alaska one day.

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    1. I quite understand understand how busy you've been lately what with the big move back to Pinas. Hope things are back in order soon for you - after a few years being away, there are I think some adjustments to be made.

      Thanks for the kind words. I do hope you and your family could visit Alaska one day!

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  7. philhumanist5:38:00 AM

    You're not only an excellent travel writer but an excellent photographer as well!

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    1. thanks for the compliments philhumanist!

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  8. You certainly lucked out with the great weather. What an amazing day and a beautiful set of photos.

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    1. Thanks Leigh! I was constantly checking the weather a week before my trip and I truly thank the heavens for such a spectacular weather - I'm aware how dicey the weather can be in Alaska in September:)

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  9. Hi Dennis, the fjords and icebergs are glorious. They come alive in your stunning photographs. Looked like the weather gods blesed with a perfect sky in September. I'd love to see these sceneries one day and hope that the weather gods will be as nice to me:)

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    1. Thanks Marisol! I truly consider myself (along with the other visitors that day) very lucky with the weather indeed. The window of opportunity for sunny skies in September is slim as we've been told. Alaska is mostly cloudy and rainy as the fall season comes in. Perhaps you want to come in late May/early June?

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  10. This post is truly inspiring. I like your post and everything you share with us is current and very informative, I want to bookmark the page so I can return here from you that you have done a fantastic job.. tax Preparation

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