Friday, September 19, 2014

Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska 2014 | Part 1: Introduction

A float plane waits in Moose Pass, AK

For anyone thinking he or she would like to visit Alaska someday: do it. Leave tonight. 

This trip was not relaxing; it was action-packed, mind-blowing, and very wet. We got up early and made the most of every single day. We lived in our rain gear. Our cameras barely survived. By the end of the trip, we needed a vacation. It was truly awesome. 

In connection with a fundraising event, my sister Andrea won a raffle with a grand prize of airfare for 2 to anywhere in continental North America. It pays to get along with your siblings; you never know when this type of thing could happen, and you want to be on the short list when it does.

We could go anywhere in North America. We could go to Nunavut if we wanted to (we want to). Out of the many places we both would love to visit, how were we to decide on one? We each made a list of our top choices and then compared. My list included a learning vacation to Churchill, Manitoba (Observe polar bears! Ride in huge tundra vehicles!) and Andrea's featured various destinations in British Columbia. Both of our lists shared places in the Canadian Rockies, Arizona, and Alaska. After some discussion regarding how to get the most out of this opportunity, including potential activity and logistics (Nunavut might prove logistically complicated, for instance) we decided on Alaska. But where?

Totem in Girdwood, AK
Alaska is huge. There are around 20 national parks, preserves, and monuments throughout the state, plus wildlife refuges and national historic sites. However, many of these places are inaccessible by car. Roads are limited, and many places are reachable only by boat or bush plane.

Kenai Fjords National Park appealed to us because of its glaciers, landscape shaped by ice and sea, and the potential for seeing a variety of wildlife. It is located in south-central Alaska, west of Glacier Bay, and east of Katmai National Parks. Anyone who has visited this blog in the past knows that I have a thing for ice, and the 700-square-mile icefield that crowns the Kenai Mountains – a relic from the ice age from which nearly 40 glaciers descend – is something that I really wanted to see. The area is easily reachable from Anchorage, but the park itself is accessible mainly by boat, with only a small corner accessible by car. Despite my flair for sea-sickness, the idea of traveling by boat through this landscape sounded great. I was prepared to take lots of meds and think positively.

So, how to get there? Where to stay? What to do?

We like to make our own itineraries and do our own thing, but planning at least part of this trip with a guide organization of some kind seemed like a good idea, especially given the park's very limited access by car. We had 12 days including travel time; we didn't want to squander any time wondering what to do and how to do it. 

Online research led us to Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, a remote and secluded backcountry lodge that is accessible only by boat. The lodge was built and is operated by Alaska Wildland Adventures, an ecotourism organization that specializes in low-impact guided journeys for small numbers of guests in the Kenai Peninsula and Denali areas. It's possible to take journeys of various lengths, with AWA planning and guiding visitors through their entire trip. Or, reservations can be made independently at one of their three lodges in the Kenai Peninsula. We chose this option.

Slate Island, Aialik Bay
We decided to begin our trip at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, and we booked a 4-day/3-night stay. It would take 3 days to reach the lodge. The plan: Fly to Anchorage, then head south to Seward, a small harbor town on Resurrection Bay. Seward is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park; from there, Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge would bring us to the lodge by boat.

To get from Anchorage to Seward, we booked tickets on the historic Alaska Railroad, which travels that route daily in the summer. The train meanders around inlets and mountains, near glaciers, and through the occasional small town. It is a fun way to travel, and I recommend spending the extra money to upgrade to Gold Star service, which offers seats in the upper passenger deck with a glass domed roof and an outdoor viewing platform. Alternatively, visitors can drive the scenic Alaska Highway 1, which takes basically the same route. 

After our stay at the lodge, we would return to Seward and venture out on our own for the rest of the trip. That would leave us with 5 days; we made plans to do some hiking and flightseeing in the area, and left a couple of days at the end to drive to Denali National Park before returning to Anchorage for our flight home.

We left Detroit Metro at 7:25 am eastern time, had a brief layover in Minneapolis, then arrived in Anchorage at 11:30 am Alaska time. We gained 4 hours, which gave us nearly the entire day to explore the city. 
Mural in Anchorage
We took a cab to Arctic Fox Inn, a bed and breakfast on the northeast edge of downtown Anchorage, within good walking distance from the train station and shopping areas. We had booked one of their 1-bedroom apartments, which was comfortable and spacious. We wished we could spend more time in Anchorage to take advantage of the great accommodations and the inn's gourmet breakfast, which we would miss, unfortunately. We had to be at the train station by 6:00 the next morning, so they made to-go breakfasts for us, which we found waiting in our refrigerator when we returned later that night.
Our apartment at Arctic Fox Inn

The weather was gorgeous – sunny and around 70ยบ. After checking in, we spent some time studying a map of downtown Anchorage and figuring out where to eat. We walked to Glacier Brewhouse, where we drank Amber and India Pale Ales and ate delicious seafood chowder, halibut, steak, and chocolate torte. Afterwards, we continued walking around town, spending several hours checking out the shops and enjoying the weather. We walked the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail for a while before returning to the Arctic Fox to turn in for the night.
IPA, amber ale and seafood chowder. Photo by Andrea.
The four-hour time difference and the long-lasting sunlight made the day seem to last forever. We were a few months late for the round-the-clock sunlight of early summer, but after sunset (around 10:30 – 11:00), twilight remained until well after midnight. I was too excited to sleep more than a few minutes at a time. Each time I woke up and looked out the window, it was still not quite dark.

To be continued in: Part One - Anchorage to Seward

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