Story and photographs by Jerry Ginsberg
In 1980, seven Alaska parks were created in one fell swoop. Specifically, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (or ANILCA) was passed by Congress on November 12, 1980 and signed into law a couple of weeks later. Among other things, the act provided for more than 43 million acres of new national parklands in Alaska. Kenai Fjords National Park is one of them.
Giving birth to Kenai Fjords came with some really sharp labor pains. The local citizenry was initially opposed to setting aside these lands, but they came to enthusiastically support their expansion as they experienced the injection of tourist dollars into their local economies.
Kenai Fjords offers some of the most stunning scenery anywhere in Alaska. It is easily accessible, but you have to know how to actually get inside this national park in order to take it all in. Like its big brother, Denali, which I wrote about in the February 2014 issue of NANPA eNews, Kenai Fjords National Park is accessible by car via Alaska’s limited road system and also by comfortable passenger trains. Either choice will take you only as far as the gateway town of Seward.
The drive from Anchorage to Seward is highlighted by magnificent views of the Cook Inlet where frequent fog and clouds create a feeling of mystery. The railroad tracks run alongside the road for a good part of the trip, enabling passengers to enjoy the same views but without the option to pull over and take in the scenery at will.
Once you arrive in Seward, you will find several modern motels at the edge of the strategically located marina as well as one or two classic old hotels farther downtown. Advance reservations are necessary. Another necessity is a tour on one of the many boat cruises that ply Kenai’s bays and fjords daily.
The bigger boats maintain ticketing facilities a short walk from the motels and the National Park Service Visitor Center. They offer tours ranging from about three hours, during which you will barely scratch the surface of what Kenai has to offer, to about nine hours. The longer trips provide more depth of experience as you travel up one of the park’s many bays all the way to the snout of a tidewater glacier.
However, to experience some of the pristine scenery and the fabulous wildlife of Kenai Fjords, you really should embark on one of the smaller tour boats that offer a more intimate and personal experience. One I can recommend is Jim Barkley at 907.224.5271 (seasonal). Keep in mind that getting in touch with the small boat operators is more difficult than with the larger, more established ones. Feel free to email me if you need more recommendations.
The bays of Kenai Fjords feature an abundance of spectacular wildlife, including humpback whales, Steller’s sea lions, bald eagles, sea otters, horned puffins and many more. The show never ends.
Aialik, Holgate, and Northwestern Glaciers are among the many icy fingers of the vast Harding Icefield that work their way down to the water’s edge to release their calving icebergs amid great crashing and splashing.
A very different Kenai experience awaits you just a few miles north of Seward where you can walk right up to and even on the Exit Glacier. An offshoot of the Harding Icefield that caps (but does not cover) the Kenai Peninsula, landlocked Exit Glacier drifts slowly down the hillside with no access to the water.
Seward also boasts a wonderful aquarium showcasing the local aquatic creatures.
As with any of the national parks and other federal lands of immense Alaska, the best times to visit are summer and early autumn.
Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer and co-founder of Master Image Workshops. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. More of Jerry’s work can be seen at www.MasterImageWorkshops.com, which also lists tours to national parks led by Jerry or photographer Kerrick James.