Glaciers and Bears in Seward, AlaskaPosted: September 8, 2011
Seward, Alaska is built around two things: fishing and tourism. This small town of approximately 3,000 sits between mountains littered with glaciers and a bay of beautiful blue-green water that makes you think it is part of a fairytale. The main reason we decided to travel to Seward is the close access to the Kenai Fjords National Park. You can see the park either by viewing it from a boat on the ocean or going to the visitor center and trails at Exit Glacier, the only glacier in the park accessible by road. We did both.
We decide to take the full-day boat tour in order to maximize the chance of seeing wildlife and to get an up close view of Holgate Glacier. The tour was 7 hours and included commentary by a national park ranger and lunch. We departed from Seward (Resurrection Bay), crossed out into the Gulf of Alaska, looped around a group of small islands and rock outcroppings, entered Aialik Bay (where Holgate Glacier is located), and returned to Resurrection Bay by way of the Chiswell Island chain. We knew it was going to be a good trip when we spotted two full grown bald eagles perched on old piers as we left the dock. We saw tons of wildlife: sea otters, puffins (so cute), murres, Dall porpoise (they are black and white and look like orcas), stellar sea lions, huge red and yellow jellyfish, and humpback whales. I think my favorite were the Dall porpoise. They liked to play in the wake of the bow, so we could see them right underneath us swimming in the water and jumping out as they dodged each other and the boat.
Beyond the wildlife, the scenery was something out of a pirate movie. Steep rocky cliffs with patches of dark green trees and snow capped mountains in the background. The way the water and the wind have shaped this place gives it an eerie and awe-inspiring feel. Fjords are glacially carved valleys filled with water, and this process continues today. It is a place shaped by time. One of the highlights of the trip was seeing Holgate Glacier. From a distance it looks like a giant, white slip and slide. But as we got closer you could see the liquid-blue color of the crevasses, and the textured surface of the glacier shaped by calving. Blue is the only light that can penetrate the dense ice, which is what gives it that signature color. Calving is when chunks of ice fall off the face of the glacier creating both a thunder-like sound and icebergs. Our boat pulled up and stopped about a fourth of a mile from the glacier to watch and listen to this massive piece of ice. While we were there small pieces of ice fell off in mini-waterfalls of white. The sound was delayed so you would watch the action then hear the thunder. Right before we left, a huge face of the glacier fell off. It left a an empty whole in the side. It was pretty cool (picture below).
Our next adventure in this part of Alaska was visiting Exit Glacier. As you drive up the park road you can see the glacier in the distance. It curves and bends ending in a river of melt water. From the visitor center there is a short trail that takes you up so you are face-to-face with the side of the ice. The trail also offers a spot where you can go down to the base, cross the river, and walk right up and touch it. Looking down at the glacier gives you a good sense of how big this thing is and a closer look at the rippling crevasses. At the bottom we felt the ice, it was so hard. And as expected, the melt water was freezing. It was strange to look out from the glacier at the river valley knowing it had once been filled with ice.
The next day we took the Harding Icefield trail to the top of Exit Glacier. The trail is only 8.4 miles roundtrip, but the grade of the trail is steep and the terrain is rugged near the top above the tree line. As we traveled up, we got excellent views of Exit Glacier and the valley it created. The hills around us, closer to the bottom, were green and covered in late summer wild flowers. It reminded me of what I imagine Ireland looks like. It was misting on the way up, so low fog hung around us adding to the mystery of the place. Alaska is wet. And this hike was no exception. Little creeks and streams pop up everywhere, and it rained off and on during the whole hike. In Alaska, I have found a new level of respect for the power of water (or ice). Everything is shaped or changed by it, including us (love my rain pants and coat!). Just as we came above the treeline we saw mountain goats. They were eating up on a steep part of the mountain. We decided they looked like lawn ornaments because they hardly moved. At this point the trail became rock in various forms: crushed gravel, small rocks, boulders. Near the top is an emergency shelter because weather can roll in so fast. Finally, we came up onto a flatter section and could see out over the ice field. It was cold up there, and with the rain our view was limited, but you could still see the size. The Harding Icefield feeds over 56 glaciers and covers a mountain range in ice. We could even see the tiny tops of mountains poking out. It was crazy to think that ice used to cover everything. A world of ice. It certainly puts things into perspective.
Seward is also home to the Sea Life Center, a combination research, rehabilitation, and aquarium, that was built after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It is full of interesting information on the Alaskan fishing industry, climate change, and various aquatic animals that are found in the local area. It was great to get some background information on what we had seen on the boat tour. My favorite parts were the salmon life cycle exhibit that showed how salmon are born, mature, and spawn complete with examples of the fish at different ages, the bird exhibit (puffins!), and the best part, the seals and stellar sea lions. In an outdoor tank they had a baby ring seal that had just been rescued from Nome. His name was Napa, and he was so small and inquisitive. Lucas liked Pilot, a two year old male stellar sea lion, who was always getting in and out of the pool to see if anyone was coming to feed him. And we both like Woody, an 18 year old 2,200lb male stellar sea lion. He was as big as a small car! The facility is well run and a highlight in Seward.
One day during our Seward stay, on the recommendation from the captain of our Fjords boat tour, we took a road trip to Russian Lakes to see the salmon run with the possibility of seeing brown bears fishing. And we saw both! Down at the river, because of the high volume of fishing, they have set-up board walks with access points to the water. As soon as we got down the hill we could smell dead salmon. It was getting late in the season so many of the salmon had already spawned and died. But the river was still full. I have never seen so many salmon. The river was red with them. We were pretty pleased with this and getting ready to go back to our car when a group of older fishermen ask us if we had seen the bear 200 yards down the river!From the board walk we could see him out in the river attempting to fish. He was a smaller bear, so maybe a young male, and he couldn’t catch any fish. It was amazing to be so close to a bear that couldn’t have cared less about us. He was totally engrossed in the fish. We still gave him space, just in case, but other tourists did not (not smart). As great as this was it got even better. All of a sudden a mother bear and her two cubs came out of the brush on the opposite bank! One cub jumped in the river right away splashing and wobbling around. So cute. But the mother was on high alert because the other bear was not happy about them being there. Eventually, the mother took the cubs back into the woods and made them climb a tree for safety. It was a wildlife TV show moment.
Seward is absolutely worth the drive from Anchorage!