Travelling south, I passed through Anchorage and continued down the Seward Highway to the Kenai Peninsula. This area is in many ways very different from Denali, but just as spectacular. It borders Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, so for one thing I’m back on the coast. The Kenai area is also home to the Harding Icefield, which spawns several dozen glaciers. I visited a number of them on a trip through Kenai Fjords National Park.
The photo above it Exit Glacier, which is one of the most accessible glaciers in the park. You can drive to within a mile of it, and hike right up to its “toe.” Exit Glacier is retreating, probably due to global climate change, having become over a mile shorter since 1895.
Glaciers are the outflows (the “drains” if you will) from the Harding Icefield. The Icefield is a basin area that gets well over 30 feet of snow per year on average. Over time this snow is compacted into very dense ice. The ice slowly slides downhill, forming glaciers and carving out new valleys.
Yesterday I took a 9-hour boat trip out of Seward to tour Kenai Fjords, to see the glaciers and the wildlife of the area. I was not disappointed. The scenery was impressive.
Sea Otters were common, and not shy at all.
We saw five Humpback Whales, including this one very close to shore:
And this one farther out:
A transient Orca swam by, making some of the smaller marine mammals a bit nervous. But these Harbor Seals in the shallows didn’t look too concerned.
Nor did these Steller’s Sea Lions high on the rocks:
Steller’s Sea Lions are one of several Northwest animals named after Georg Wilhelm Steller, who travelled with Vitus Bering on his 1740s expedition to Alaska from Russia. Steller was a doctor and naturalist, and described a number of new species of flora and fauna unknown to the Old World. Several of Steller’s namesakes are now extinct (Steller’s sea cow) or endangered/threatened (Steller’s Sea Eagle and Steller’s Eider). Steller’s Jay, however, is doing quite well and can be seen in my yard back home in Washington state (and throughout much of the American West).
Glaciers were another highlight of the boat trip, and we spent some time at the incredible Holgate Glacier.
Holgate is a tidewater glacier, meaning it flows directly into the ocean. You could hear thunderous cracks and booms as it calved giant boulders of ice directly into the sea.
The bluish color of the glacier comes from light that gets scattered by the densely packed ice. Most frequencies of light pass through the ice, but blue tends to be absorbed and re-emitted by the electrons in the water molecules, scattering the light and making the ice appear somewhat blue.
Nearby, we could see the much smaller Surprise Glacier.
Birds, of course, were also a highlight. I saw eight species of alcids, seabirds of the puffin, murre, and auklet family. Seeing hundreds of Horned and Tufted Puffins was a highlight, as well as a half-dozen Parakeet Auklets up close – a new bird for me. The heavy clouds, drizzle, and rocking of the boat made photography difficult, and most of my bird pictures didn’t come out at all. But I did get a few pictures of some Common and Thick-billed Murres resting on a cliff:
And hundreds of Black-legged Kittiwakes swirling around their nesting colony:
Kittiwakes are a kind of gull. They make their nests on sheer rock walls on offshore islets to protect them from predators.
Returning to Seward, we passed huge rafts of murres on the water – thousands of them.
Despite the cold and wet weather, and some difficulty in finding some of my target species, I have thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Kenai Peninsula. I’ll be here another day or so, and then I’m headed northwest to Nome and Gambell. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to update this blog again, but I will when I can. I’m about to head into parts unknown (at least unknown to me!).