Kenai Fjords: Alaska's masterpiece

by Brian Jewell 14. July 2011 22:27

 

In my eight years of professional travel I've been compiling a list of places that every American should visit. The list is full of big-name destinations: The Grand Canyon, Washington D.C. and New York City come to mind. Today, I added another must-see spot: Kenai Fjords National Park.

We arrived this morning in Seward, a small town at the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula, which is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. Though there are numerous jaw-dropping national parks in Alaska, Kenai Fjords is unique in numerous aspect, including the fact that it is the only park visited almost exclusively by boat. So our group boarded the Kenai Explorer for a six-hour sightseeing cruise that would take us alongside the fjords for incomparable view of scenery and wildlife.

A fjord is a geological formation that has been carved by a glacier, and the Kenai Fjords are massive stone monoliths and islands that sit on the edge of the Gulf of Alaska. Behind the large stone formations sits the Harding Ice Field, an expansive range of snow-capped mountains where a number of active glaciers continue to move down hill toward the sea. These two elements create a dreamy duality of scenery: Cruising along the coast, I was taken aback by the way that the tree-topped rock formations in the foreground contrasted with the snow-capped mountains climbing behind them in the background. This place where the mountains meet the sea is as beautiful as any other place I've seen on earth.

And the attraction goes beyond landscape snapshots. Our boat's captain and crew helped us to spot humpback whales and Steller sea lions in the waters and rocks of the fjords, as well as puffins and other sea birds that make their home in the area. And the highlight of the cruise was a visit to Holgate Glacier, a 400-foot high colossus of snow and ice that moves at four feet per day into the sea. Standing outside on the deck to see the glacier, we could feel it cooling the air around us. Large chunks of ice that have calved off the glacier float in the water, and our boat crew fished a few pieces up on to deck for us to see and touch. It is the cleanest, coldest and most dense ice that you will likely ever see.

It's hard to described how moving this experience was. The Kenai Fjords are so grand, so pristine and so transcendent. There are many great reasons to visit Alaska; after a day soaking in their majesty, though, I am convinced that the Kenai Fjords are the only reason you really need.

 

Marveling at the scenery from the bow of the Kenai Explorer


The Chiswell Islands, evidence of the area's glacial past, and the distant Harding Ice Field


Approaching Holgate Glacier


Small chunks of ice that calved off the glacier are crystal-clear.

 

Thanks to Cruises and Tours Worldwide for hosting us on this trip. Visit their website at www.cruises-toursworldwide.com.

Rafting on the Kenai River

by Brian Jewell 13. July 2011 22:05

Glaciers have made quite a mark on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, carving out many of the mountain passes and rocky formations that make this area so scenic. But these behemoths of ice aren't just a thing of the past; dozens of glaciers linger in the mountinas around here, and their melting run-off trickles down into the Kenai Lake and Kenai River.

Today, I took a float trip down the Kenai River, along with Cruises and Tours Worldwide and their visiting group from First State Community Bank in Missouri. It was an adventure from the beginning. Arriving at Alaska Wilderness Adventures, we enjoyed a delicious salmon bake along the river, and then went through the commical proccess of outfitting around 50 people in river wear: rubber boots, waterproff overalls and rain slikers. From there, we broke up into groups of eight and loaded into large rubber rafts for a leisurely float down the river.

Though it's been cloudy and rainy here for a few days, the sun and blue skies broke through during our afternoon float trip, treating us to wonderful views of the electric blue water color that is the signature of glacial run-off. Our river guide Gus explained that this color comes from fine particles of silt that the glacier picks up as it slowly scrapes alongside a mountain. Gus also spent much of the 90-minute trip pointing out some of the various birds and small animals that live along the river, and telling us about the salmon run that will happen here nextt week. We passed a few fly fishermen along the way, but Gus said that next week, when tens of thousands of salmon return to these waters to spawn, sections of the riverbank will be packed with anglers elbow-to-elbow, creating an event known locally as "combat fishing."

At the end of the day, I was both sun-soaked and bone dry, and full of wonder after seeing some of America's most pristine natural areas from water level.

 

Outfitting for the trip


The grandeur of the Kenai River dwarfs raft passengers.


River guide Gus


The closest thing you'll to a rapid on the peaceful Kenai River


Sitka spruce trees tower beside the river banks.

 

Thanks to Cruises and Tours Worldwide for hosting us on this trip. Visit their website at www.cruises-toursworldwide.com.

A hike to remember

by Brian Jewell 12. July 2011 22:27

Sometimes I do my best thinking while hiking down a mountain.

It's a cloudy day atop Mt. Alyeska, a ski area about an hour's drive south of Anchorage. Now in mid-summer, there is no skiing, as the temperatures hover around 60 degrees. Instead, Alyeska turns into a nature lovers paradise, with many miles of hiking trails leading from the Alyeska Hotel at the bottom to upper tram station near the top of the mountain. Braver souls can hike up the 2,300-foot incline; since I had limited time before dinner, I decided to ride the aerial tram to the top, and then hike down on the 2.5 mile North Face trail.

From the top of the mountiain, I enjoyed wonderful views of Turnagain Arm, an extension of the Cook Inlet, as well as the incredible greenery of the valley below me. Thick white clouds loomed low overhead, although instead of obscuring the view, they somehow seemed to tuck me in, creating a sealed-off wonderland of steep mountainside and lush color. Though trams passed by from time to time, the valley was nearly empty; as I set out on my hike, I had the whole mountain to myselt.

I was amazed how quickly the landscape changed, as the path went from steep and rock to gentle and muddy, then finally wide and well worn. As I descended, I discoveded new plant life at about every 100 feet in elevation. The colors and shapes of these leaves and flowes mezmerized me. Although I don't know what they are called or where else they grow, I enjoyed stopping to study them along the way, marveling at their intricate structures and the way that the colorful petals stood out from the green background.

The hike down was peaceful and leisurely. I made sure to make some noise along the way, to scare off any bears that might cross my path. And I took plenty of time to ponder the beauty of this corner of Alaska -- one of the most beautiful states in the country -- and to ponder my place in such a magnificent world.

 

Alyeska's aerial tramway

 

About to bloom

 

Beautiful buds


Deep blue "somethings"

 

Raindrops and wild flowers

 

Thanks to Cruises and Tours Worldwide for hosting us on this trip. Visit their website at www.cruises-toursworldwide.com.


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