Kenai Fjords National Park was established in December 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which also created six others of the eight National Parks in Alaska. The act resolved the general distribution of remaining federal lands within the state, transferring acreage to various entities, including the State of Alaska, but also retaining millions of acres within federal protection as parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, etc.
As ANILCA worked its way through Congress in the late 1970s, it had much vocal on-the-ground opposition from Alaskans and much lobbyist opposition from the extraction industries. The bill stalled multiple times, causing President Jimmy Carter to establish a series of National Monuments in 1978, among them Kenai Fjords, to ensure the protection of the most important parcels in case ANILCA stalled out completely.
Including a later expansion, Kenai Fjords National Park comprises 670,000 acres of rugged coastline, glaciers, mountains, and deep fjords. It is capped by the Harding Icefield, the largest icefield contained entirely within the United States, 300 square miles of ice spawning forty glaciers. It receives about 280,000 visitors a year.
The northern section of Kenai Fjords lies west (and above) the town of Seward (population 2,500). Seward, established in 1903 and once boasting the start of the Iditarod dog sled race, has seen boom and bust cycles based on railroad construction, shipping, fishing, and tourism. Its easy rail and highway access to Anchorage makes it an important terminus for various Alaska cruises. Its dramatic location on Resurrection Bay and its proximity to wilderness recreation make it a popular draw for Alaskans in the population centers north. And it functions as a gateway community for three major federal lands, Chugach National Forest, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and of course Kenai Fjords National Park.
It was too early to check in, so after dropping our bags amid the robust taxidermy collection in the lobby of Hotel Seward, we went in search of lunch.
Happily the search did not take long as we came across a cute coffee shop, the Sea Bean, one block over from the hotel. We each ordered sandwiches, and my ham sandwich came stuffed with macaroni and cheese.
While we ate, we discussed our plans for Seward and Kenai Fjords. We had tickets the following day, Thursday, for a boat tour in the Park. Originally, I’d envisioned that we’d spend this first afternoon visiting the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward and then spend Friday hiking up to the Harding Icefield. But the weather was coaxing us to change our plans. It was a gorgeous afternoon, in the low 70s and sunny. The forecast for Friday was rain. So we decided to switch: hike on Wednesday and visit the Sealife Center on Friday.
Sean spied a pamphlet advertising a van shuttle service that ferried people without cars the nine miles from Seward up to the Exit Glacier area within the Park. I called and booked us on a 1:30 shuttle returning at 5pm.
This would not leave us enough time to do the strenuous trek all the way to up to the Harding Icefield at elevation 2,000 feet and back again. But it would afford us plenty of time to explore Exit Glacier and its surrounding area. Giving up Harding Icefield was the first, and ultimately the only major, triage moment of the trip. But truthfully, we were both wiped out from the wedding and the traveling to Seward. And the weather, as it will in Alaska, determined our ultimate itinerary.
We grabbed our day packs from the hotel and set off through Seward to the shuttle.
The driver was from Oklahoma, but he spends his summers in a cabin near Homer, occasionally coming over to Seward to drive for the shuttle company for a week or so at a time.
As we drove up the road paralleling the Resurrection River and into the Park, he noted the tidying up of the roadway that was underway. It was in anticipation of a visit by President Obama in a week and a half. As Chicagoans accustomed to President Obama basically being around at times, the importance of his visit didn’t quite register with us.
The shuttle dropped us off at Exit Glacier Nature Center shortly before 2pm. This area of the Park is the only one accessible via car and the only area with maintained trails. We noted that there was a ranger-led hike to the glacier at 2pm, so we decided to join the group rather than set out on our own.
Along the entrance road into the the Park are brown signs with dates on them, starting with 1851 a couple miles before the visitor center. These signs indicate the farthest extent of the glacier and mark its often dramatic retreat. At the trailhead behind the nature center, we were at 1917.
Considering that the area had been buried by ice less than one hundred years earlier, the forest was young, consisting of cottonwoods and shrubs with some sitka spruce beginning to move in. Older sections of the forest would be more heavily populated with spruce.
As the ranger led us through the forest, pointing out subtle features of the landscape that were evidence of the land’s recent sculpting by ice, the roar of rushing water grew louder until we we came to the banks of Exit Creek.
Exit Creek is fed mostly by melt from the glacier. It is largely barren of life because of its high silt content from pulverized rock caused by the glacier. Glacial ice floated in the creek and sat on its banks.
Sean and I dallied for a bit, examining the ice and watching the creek rush by. Then we hurried to catch up with our group.
Even though we couldn’t yet see the glacier, around us the surrounding scenery was spectacular. The vistas were provided both by Kenai Fjords National Park and by Chugach National Forest.
Then the trail curved and the glacier came into view.
The ranger mentioned that the surrounding mountains were a good place to spot mountain goats. Again we dallied, looking at anything remotely white or light colored, but we saw no goats.
We caught back up to the group at an enclosure that when it had been built in the early 1980s had sat immediately in front of the glacier. It had, in fact, been a place to sit and gaze at the glacier while protected from the rain. Now the glacier wasn’t even visible from it.
The path became steeper as we left the level, wheelchair accessible portion and began to climb into the foothills. In front of us, a woman (pictured below) was a touch frustrating because she kept zigzagging back and forth across the trail as she walked, making it very hard to pass her without her bumping into us. Sean nicknamed her “Glacial Erratic.”
We emerged above treeline, which is quite low near the coast, and onto a stretch of barren rock most recently scoured by the glacier.
Lichens and early grasses and shrubs clung to the bare rock and crevasses. Eventually these would establish communities of alpine plants.
The ranger-led hike ended at what had been the terminus of the trail as recently as 2010. There is an image in the National Geographic Guide to the National Parks of hikers at this spot with Exit Glacier filling the frame in front of them. It’s quite out-of-date. As is the sign here that encourages visitors to touch the ice but warns them not to venture past the rope fence. The terminus of the glacier is now quite a distance off. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, the glacier retreated 187 feet.
An extension of the trail leads hikers closer to the glacier’s current toe.
Exit Glacier got its name in 1968 when the first mountaineering party to successfully cross the icefield used it as the most convenient way down. It was their exit route.
At the end of the trail, opposite the glacier, a man was playing a saw. We got chatting with him and his wife because she offered to take our photo. (We had been trying to take a selfie.) They were from Manchester, New Hampshire and had been traveling since May across the United States and up into Alaska.
Although there was a steady stream of people visiting the glacier on this gorgeous afternoon, we were relatively alone on the hike back down.
After one last glimpse of Exit Glacier, we descended back below treeline and into the forest.
It was unimaginable that the glacier had once filled the valley in front of us to the height of 2,000 feet.
We took a spur trail to the glacier’s outwash plain and the banks of Exit Creek. Farther downstream, the creek had a more regular bank edged closely by forest. But here it was channelized, and these channels change depending on the rate of flow, snow melt, etc. Sometimes it was possible even to follow the outwash plain right up to the edge of the glacier, but at the moment it was impassable. (That may have been for the best. A visitor in the 1980s was killed by ice falling from Exit Glacier.)
What we couldn’t have known at the time was that almost exactly a week and a half later, President Obama would stand exactly where we now were.
Back at the nature center, we looked at the exhibitions while we waited for the 5pm shuttle to take us back into town.
Who should be on our shuttle but Glacial Erratic! There was some consternation and kerfuffle because she had been scheduled for the 4pm pick up, but hadn’t shown up. The drive had waited with other passengers for some fifteen minutes for her, and he had alerted Park staff that she had not shown up.
She explained that she had told some ranger that she was late when she got back. They had a somewhat testy, embarrassing back-and-forth for much of the drive back into town.
After unpacking and arranging our things in the room, we headed down the street to look at Resurrection Bay, calm and brilliant in the sunshine.
Then we headed to Seward Brewing Company for what would be the first of many fantastic meals in Alaska (lamb poutine, lamb mac and cheese, salmon burger).