Arriving from King Salmon at Anchorage airport this past Wednesday I found the rental car counter not near the baggage claim where I might expect it to be but actually a bit of a trek across the terminal. It was good to stretch my legs, though, and so I cheerfully schlepped my laptop, backpack, and two $15-at-the-thriftstore suitcases along with me across the departure area, down the elevator (that baggage-eating escalator would have chewed my suitcases up and spit them out while I probably would have incurred some sort of personal dismemberment), across a long corridor, to the rental counter, up another elevator, and out to the cheapest 4-door brand new rental car that MY TRAVEL AGENT could arrange.
There were a couple of errands I needed to run (return rain pants to REI, shop for a few groceries to sustain me over the next few days) and then I was headed south 127 miles to Seward. I had been along this route down Turnagain Arm as far as Girdwood back in April. Now it was serious low tide and the mudflats extended for miles. There are warning signs posted everywhere telling people to not go out on the mudflats due to the dangerous quicksand-like conditions. Turnagain Arm is major “bore tide” country – it is so full of silt and mud that when the tide is particularly low (or “negative”) and about to turn to come into the Arm again, there is the possibility of a large pressure build-up as the unstoppable incoming tide is only temporarily halted by the built-up silt. What then can happen is a six-foot wall of incoming tide water that ultimately breaks through the resistance – this is the bore tide. I have never seen one but apparently it can be quite dramatic. And dangerous.
I didn’t stop much to admire scenic views – I was still exhausted and just wanted to get where I was going which was a Holiday Inn Express room with a balcony overlooking the small boat harbor in Seward. Traffic was light and I cruised across the golden cottonwood- and aspen-draped mountains between which patches of brick-red fireweed spread themselves about. It put me in a mind of the aspens of Cedar Mountain and the cottonwoods along the Virgin River in SW Utah. If this had been Tennessee it would be the maples flaming crimson. Late September appears to be peak leaf-peeping season in south-central Alaska. I don’t know but I’ve been (later) told that both trees grow together on the Kenai Peninsula. I am definitely not a botanist but I originally thought the bark looked like that of a cottonwood but the tree grew straight and tall like an aspen. Then I started seeing aspen bark and was really confused.
View from motel room balcony
Oh! A room of my own! How sublimely decadent this was, after 5 months at Brooks Camp sharing everything from spatulas to stoves to sinks to showers (but not at the same time in the shower with anyone!). I was not very hungry but went out in search of a light dinner. Did you know that halibut have cheeks but salmon don’t? I did not know this. Halibut cheeks are a popular item on Seward menus and so I had to try them, sautéed in a bushel of garlic and a couple pounds of butter. They have a texture somewhat like scallops but the halibut flavor is definitely present. They were quite tasty. I could have done with a bit more spiciness, though, but I guess that might have covered up the taste of the halibut, cheeky little fish that it is.
Thankfully NOT the Orca Voyager
Sea Otters in Resurrection Bay
Bear Glacier in distance
Three Hole Point in Aialik Bay
The 6-hour glacier cruise was the next day and the weather was warm and sunny with a light breeze. Woo Hoo!!! I boarded the Orca Voyager – it was not full at all – plenty of room to sit anywhere and move about anywhere else. The ship moved slowly away from Seward and out Resurrection Bay, stopping so we could look at the sea otters lounging on their backs in the water. Our destination would be Aialik Glacier in Aialik Bay, the next bay west from Resurrection. We would briefly be in the open sea along the Alaska coast on the edge of the North American continent as we passed from one protected bay to the other, with the next major land mass being the Hawaiian Islands, 4000 miles to the south. Many of the sea birds and mammals have migrated south or out to the open sea for the winter (dang those puffins), but on the way back we did catch sight of Stellar’s sea lions, whose numbers have decreased 80% over the last 40 years.
Stellar’s Sea Lions lolling about in the sun
We passed a good distance from Bear Glacier, the largest glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. Aialik Glacier is the largest tidewater glacier in the park. All these glaciers come off the Harding Icefield which itself takes up some major acreage of the park. At Aialik we were less than a mile away, listening and watching as ice calved off the glacier front and crashed into the sea, sending up rolling waves that gently jostled our ship. “Welcome to the Pleistocene!” is how our tour guide put it as he turned the ship and slowed the engine, and then his narration ceased for 20-30 minutes or so, leaving us all to our own thoughts, listening to the creaking, breathing sounds of the glacier.
Yours Truly at Aialik Glacier
Sea kayakers at Aialik Glacier
Departing Aialik Glacier
“Fun with the crazies outside on the back of the ship” is what we called ourselves, the small group of, well, crazies, who stayed outside in the wind and waves and sunshine on the return leg. Whenever a particularly large wave hit the ship broadside we got sprayed with saltwater, laughing and hollering “Wheeeee!” as we rolled along the Alaska coastline. I met other crazy people from Florida, Knoxville, and (believe it or not) St. George.
“Back of the Boat crazies”
Passing back up Resurrection Bay I was pretty sure the cormorant-guano-covered rocks I was looking at were pillow basalt, formed as magma erupted under the sea during tectonic activity millions of years ago. I haven’t had time to research this fascinating geology of the area but will do so when I get back to Utah and am unemployed and have lots of time on my hands.
Suspected pillow basalt
The next day my agenda included the Exit Glacier area of Kenai Fjords National Park, a short drive from Seward. This is the only place in the park where you can walk up to the edge, or toe, of the glacier. There are several hiking trails – I chose the lower mile or so “Edge of the Glacier” trail to quickly get up close and personal with the ice. The trail traverses the lateral moraine in a narrow valley – rocky rubble scraped up and pushed to the side by the glacier as it advances and left in place as the glacier retreats. There were glacial striations on every exposed rock surface and I was able to recognize the pitting and cavities in the rock caused by “plucking” as the glacier advanced over highly fractured bedrock. I was enjoying myself so much that by the time I got onto the Harding Icefield Trail it was 2:00 PM, a little late for this old girl to cover the 8-mile round-trip distance to the ice field and back. So I hiked up the trail for an hour or so and took my time coming back down. There was quite a bit of foot traffic about, and even though the visitor facilities had closed the previous weekend there were 3 or 4 rangers on roving patrol, this being their last weekend of the season, one week later than Katmai.
Exit Glacier with an outwash stream
Striations indicating movement of glacier across rock surface
Sign indicating location of edge or toe of glacier in 1917
Check-out of my motel was noon Saturday, which was nice considering my flight from Anchorage to Las Vegas leaves at 12:55 A-freaking-M tonight (or, more precisely, Sunday morning). I would fire MY TRAVEL AGENT for this infraction but he has done such an otherwise great job arranging my trip logistics that I guess I will keep him on the payroll. After leaving Seward today I stopped at the AK Wildlife Conservation Center near Portage, ate my Safeway wrap in two stages at different rest stops along the highway, returned my car, and now await my departing flight. I should touch down in Vegas around 9 AM Sunday, with my chauffeurs Jeani & Bruce eagerly awaiting my arrival.
I’ll post some more pix (of the screamingly awesome autumn colors on the Seward Highway Scenic Byway – I haven’t downloaded them yet) after I get home and have slept for a week.