National Park Number: 11 of 59
Our first day in Seward was rainy and cold, so we opted out of outdoor activities in favor of a visit the Alaska Sealife Center. I’m a huge fan of any aquarium/zoo/general wildlife-viewing purveyor that exclusively features regional animals, which I guess is easy to do in Alaska where the sea life is awesome, and maybe harder to do in, say, St. Louis. Anyway, this is a great little aquarium right on Resurrection Bay, plus it has an ENORMOUS Stellar Sea Lion, which was totally mesmerizing to watch swim (at every revolution of the tank, he smooshed his blubber against the glass viewing wall; it was very body-affirming).
The next day was also rainy and we all needed a break from moving so fast the past few weeks, so we didn’t do much. We went to church, which we do every week and which is a real highlight of traveling this way–we meet friendly, fascinating people who always have great tips for the area and often point us to experiences and places we wouldn’t have known about otherwise. We obviously aren’t going to church just to interact with locals, but it’s a pretty good bonus.
After church and our cultural study of Seward-ians, we drove out to a gravel bar on Exit Glacier road where we slept every night in Seward. I think it was our prettiest camp spot yet: on the banks of a braided glacial river, surrounded by green snow-patched mountains, under the midnight sun.
On our third day in Seward, we finally actually entered the park to visit Exit Glacier. Kenai Fjords runs a ton of of ranger programs; we timed our visit to meet up with a ranger walk that led us to the glacier’s overlook. Ranger walks continue to be our favorite: every time we go on one, we learn so much about the history and features of the park.
The big focus here was on Exit Glacier, and it’s hard to talk about Exit Glacier without talking about its rapid recession. The glacier spills out from the 700-square-mile Harding Icefield in the Chugach Mountains and measures 14 square miles, a relatively small glacier. But driving, and then walking, up to its toe is a perfect marker of climate change; the Park Service posts signs along the road that form a timeline of the glacier’s retreat. And that retreat has been incredibly fast. Last summer alone it lost 252 feet, the most in any summer on record.
For the rangers at Kenai Fjords, this means talking to visitors about climate change, an issue has become weirdly politicized. This politicization means rangers can’t point to broad scientific consensus about the cause of climate change (humans), but our visit still made us very reflective of our own carbon footprint. We’ve met loads of people in Alaska and whenever we talk about climate issues, they are quick to point out that all Alaskans believe in global warming—the evidence is all around them and impossible to ignore. These days, it’s an oddity when a group of people across political lines agree on facts; in that way, Alaska has been incredibly refreshing for us.
Moose eat birch bark by scraping it off with their bottom incisors. And then they process it (and all their food) so efficiently that their poop looks like sawdust. Just some fun moose facts for you!
After our ranger walk, we hiked up to the toe of the glacier. We took our time, letting the kids explore, finding favorite rocks (Graham), and looking out over the glacier’s moraine.
(Glacier Fact! A glacier is like a conveyor belt, carrying rocks and debris down through its ice over time. When the glacier stops advancing, the debris pops out at the bottom and piles up, and that’s a moraine!)
Beyond the Exit Glacier area, Kenai Fjords is really only accessible via water. Since we weren’t up for a multi-day kayaking tour, we signed up for Major Marine Tour’s 7 1/2 hour tour of the fjords, glaciers, and wildlife of the park and it was stellar!
The scenery is gorgeous and seeing it is a sure thing (barring insane levels of fog.) But where we really scored on this tour was with wildlife. We had spectacular good luck and it knocked me so far out of my socks that I was in tears of wonder for half the tour.
We saw puffins, sea lions, seals, sea otters, and bald eagles, a pod of orcas swam around us, and we got to watch nine humpbacks, one of which breached several times. It was completely, utterly breathtaking.
We picked Major Marine for a few reasons: they serve lunch on board so no time on the water is wasted, they have a Park Ranger on board every boat doing commentary, and they run a Jr. Ranger program right on the ship. As a bonus, they also fish some glacier ice out of the sea to make glacier margaritas for the ride back to Seward. Glacier ice tastes basically like regular ice, but it’s pretty fun to try nonetheless.
I wrote about this on Instagram, but the insight has stuck with me, so I wanted to mention it here as well. Our tour that day was one of the most jaw-dropping days of my life. And it’s totally true that we saw loads of marine wildlife and that I silently wept over every single whale. But also on that day, we nearly missed the boat, Graham threw up all over the deck multiple times, Margi had a few meltdowns, I dropped David’s nicest lens on the floor (thankfully it still works fine), and we missed seeing a lot of animal shenanigans because we were busy wrestling (or mopping up after) the ninos. So in the midst of all the epic beauty, some chaos: that is probably the theme of our trip so far. And though I had plenty of crazy days as a stay-at-home-mom in NYC, constantly changing our environment ups the intensity a bit. What I’m realizing, or maybe just being reminded of, is that bad days and chaos and stress and boredom and the stomach flu find you EVERYWHERE, no matter what you’re doing with your life. So if life is going to be complicated and tricky and at times downright unpleasant, we might as well settle in with that fact and do what we can to set ourselves up for maximum joy, too. I remind myself of that on days when this trip seems crazy, when I wonder what in the world we are thinking, believing we can just ditch a perfectly lovely life to live out this dream and hopefully find ways to be helpful to the world and make enough money and not get eaten by bears. Maybe what we’re doing is crazy, but life itself is pretty crazy. And this way, when I’m mopping up vomit or rescuing a flung beanie from going overboard for the thousandth time, I know I’m exactly where I want to be. And the view from there can’t be beat.