Kenai Fjords National Park-Not the Sea but the Land

Alaska – June 2022

I’m at at odds with my experience visiting this national park. Have you ever thought to yourself ‘this feels wrong’ but it takes a while to figure out why? I’d like to say this place was a fairy tale, unworldly and magical. It was! Unfortunately, all the things that are good and pure and beautiful – the boundless abundance of wildlife, the scenic beauty, the precious resource – were all being negatively impacted by…me.

Picture a place so abundant with puffins, bald eagles, sea otters, seals, orca, and whale, that you get to see all of them – all these creatures – during a 5-hour cruise! Oh, and you get to see a glacier too. Not, just any glacier, a calving tidewater glacier. That’s Kenai Fjords Tours. Despite the name, even though they allow you to see the actual park from a distance, they don’t operate within national park boundaries.

So why the angst? The large tour boats we saw, including ours, were ridiculously close to the ocean wildlife. I don’t understand why they thought we needed to be right on top of the whale to enjoy it. Just a distance glimpse would have been enough. It bothered me our cruise was not conservation minded. I cringed looking into the water at the back of the boat by the engine to see an oil sheen glistening where we stopped to drift along glacial ice. The disposable items used during our lunch service sank my heart. I know they’ve been operating here for a very long time, but they can do so much better.

People in Alaska need tourism jobs. They need the fishing industry port of this town. But it cannot be at the cost of what provides the jobs to begin with. If I had my magic wand, I’d take everything but non-motorized vessels out of Resurrection Bay. Really. This place is paradise, it’s a beauty so unimaginable that the entire experience felt unreal. I keep wondering if this is how it looked in other places in the United States in the past. Were all coastal areas equally teaming with life before they became industrialized and overpopulated? We need to continue working hard to advocate for protection of our wild places – including our marine environments. Visiting a place to see its beauty while partaking in its destruction is such an absurdly human experience.

A National Park is designated to help protect its resources. When I visit, I must trust rangers and scientists working for the park system have done their due diligence to ensure I am not harming anything. I must trust they have procedures in place so the things in the park worth protecting – are protected! We need to ensure our park managers have resources to fulfill this awesome responsibility. We need them to know this is important to us. In Kenai Fjords, the boundary of the park is limited to the land, it doesn’t include the ocean waters along which the tour boats venture. Despite its name, Kenai Fjords Tours is not operated by the national park system. It isn’t affiliated with the national park system. It doesn’t operate within the national park. I didn’t know that until I researched my concerns after our trip.

Ways to experience Kenai Fjords National Park without a boat tour:

  • Start your visit in Seward at the Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center. It is located on the small boat harbor. You can pick up a junior ranger book and enjoy an introductory video.
  • Take a shuttle to Exit Glacier, enjoy the Exit Glacier Nature Center, and hike along adjacent paths. Exit Glacier is within the Kenai Fjords National Park. Any tour of the park should include a trip to this glacier. It is where you become familiarized with the impact a warming world is having on our glacier systems. There are well developed trails that include a 1-mile wheelchair accessible loop. Additionally, there is the 8.2-mile Harding Ice Field trail. We opted for the Exit Glacier Overlook Trail, which guides you through time stamped signs that allow you to visualize the incredible distance the glacier has retreated since 1950. The Exit Glacier Shuttle is convenient. It leaves from Seward Outdoor Store every 30 minutes. Since we didn’t rent a car and relied on public transportation during our vacation in Alaska, this shuttle was fantastic. They charge a small fee of $20 round trip, and you can book in advance.
  • Enjoy a kayaking tour. If I had known how boat tours are lacking in conservation within the bay, I would have chosen a kayak tour instead. Kayak Adventures Worldwide looks like a fabulous company doing great things. They even offer multi-day experiences. I can’t think of a more intimate way to learn and explore this incredible place, while reducing my impact. I wish I would have done this instead!

By taking the boat tour, I know I negatively impacted the wildlife who live along this national park’s shores. I also know by taking transportation to visit national parks, by spending carbon emissions to visit these places, I impact them. I know being within their boundaries, I am impacting the wildlife by my presence. I’m still grappling with that. I’m still trying to decide how to reduce my impact. I am considering carbon offset programs for our future travels. I’m reconsidering all of the ways I impact our national parks when I am there, and when I am not. Our future travels will be far more concerned with our environmental impact than they have been in the past. I am looking forward to posting our ideas for reducing our impacts and how we implement them. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments section!

Junior Ranger Badge:

  • What do National Park Rangers do?
  • What is a Fjord?
  • Whale Tails
  • Ecosystems and Plant Succession Web of Life
  • Adaptation
  • Animal Identification
  • Moraines
  • Bear Country
  • First Peoples
  • Stewardship

Extra Tips: There’s a concept in business that entices conservation by demonstrating the best choice is often most cost conscious. Reduced consumption = money saved. Travel in Alaska is expensive, but there are ways to reduce costs and reduce your impact.

  • Bring your own water bottle. Tap water here is better than any you could find in a plastic bottle!
  • Purchase snack and breakfast items in bulk at the grocery stores and keep them on hand. Consider packaging.
  • Plan your trip 6 months in advance. Consider public transportation – it worked very well for us on this trip and is better for the environment. Planning in advance will help you look for ways to cut costs.

A visit to Seward is not complete without visiting the Ace Hardware! Peruse the aisles to see the equipment used on ocean bound fishing vessels. This store is huge, and I loved looking at all the specialized clothing and gear.

Remember:
Your choices while visiting matter. This is a small port town. It relies on fishing and tourism, but it is also located along one of the most pristine marine ecosystems in the world. Be mindful of your trash, avoid plastics, and single use items. Consider your individual impact as critical to what makes this place so special.

Where to Eat:
Seward is the place for seafood. There are options for every budget, and our favorite economical place to eat was Alaska Seafood Grill. The food was incredible, and they have a great outdoor patio. We watched a lot of locals and fisherman go in and out of the Lighthouse Café and Bakery – we had breakfast there and it was perfect. There are plenty of fine dining options as well.

When to Go:
Because we wanted to get in a lot of hiking and backpacking during our trip, I was eager to avoid any heatwaves which have becoming surprisingly more common in Alaska. A 90-degree day is too hot for me to be carrying a backpack. So, I chose mid-June for our trip. That was a bit risky considering rain is frequent that time of year, but we didn’t get a single drop! If you are visiting Seward to fish, you need to check with your outfitter in advance because of date restrictions for different species, especially salmon. My husband and son took a great fishing charter out for the day and caught salmon and halibut. Once again, we have to trust our charter and those in charge of protecting our fisheries are doing their job so we can enjoy this bounty.

Where to Stay:
Not in a tent sites at Resurrection South Campground!
For economy and experience, we wanted to enjoy tent camping while in Alaska as much as possible. The Seward Campground covers a large section of the ocean front within Seward. The view is incredible! There are several campgrounds within this complex. Unfortunately the tent camping area we chose was not desirable. The sites were uneven and incredibly close to one another. People were walking past our tent all hours of the night to get to the restrooms. Most of Seward is easily accessed by walking and there are plenty of options for accommodations, but advanced reservations are recommended.

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