The gang goes North: Part 7.1- Kenai Peninsula (Seward)

July 17-20

Rain again. We slept in at Porcupine Campground in Hope, hoping it would dry up outside before we started packing. It didn’t.

Jamie finalized a blog post as we huddled under our awning. We’d be heading further south in the Kenai, to Seward, so we grabbed coffee at Kayak Coffee Co in town to give our bodies a little extra fuel. I spotted a guy wearing a Bills hat under a pavilion beside the coffee shop’s parking lot.

“You guys from New York? All my buddies are Bills fans back home, can’t say that I am though.”

“We live in Vermont but we’re building and moving to Thousand Islands soon.”

Brian and Tammy were happy to chat and swap stories with us for a bit. The usual: where ya been, where ya going, was this worth it, was that a good time. They were essentially doing our trip in reverse, having come up from the Kenai and toward Turnagain Arm, Hatcher Pass and Denali. We got loads of good tips and recommendations from them, which certainly changed the shape of our upcoming trip a bit. It’s good to be flexible on these road trips, heeding advice from run-ins with other travelers to enrich our time.

We drove an hour and a half along the Seward Highway, raining and foggy all the way. Our spirits were still remarkably high despite the weather. Karen, the host from the Porcupine Campground, had raved about the boondocking along the Resurrection River in Seward. She gave us enough info to find it, and when we arrived we were treated to rocky flats along the river, with dry space stretching at least a half mile along the river. We made lunch there, and then head in to Seward to have a closer look at the town.

It was a travel day, but we still try to do something active to get the blood flowing. Tonsina point juts out a bit from the western cliffs of Resurrection Bay. We took the trail out of Lowell Point to get there, and climbed up the cliff side southward, walking through mossy rainforest, bursting with ferns and leaves the size of my chest. When we descended down to and across Tonsina Creek, the fog finally lost the battle with the sun, and hanging glaciers and craggy peaks, pine covered cliffsides and the immense waters of the bay were before us. It was menacing terrain, but also soul-stirring.

When we’d relaxed on the stony shores of the Point for a bit, watching a bald eagle on its perch just down a few hundred yards from us, we returned along the same trail to the start, climbed into Arch, and made it back to our boondocking spot along Resurrection River. As Jamie made dinner that evening, we both tried to let our surroundings sink in. Despite the fog that still partially obstructed our view of the mountains lining the river, we knew we were in a special place. 

It was cloudy but dry the morning of the 18th. We awoke to the river murmuring along. Hiking to Lost Lake was the plan for the day. 14+ miles in length, about a half mile in elevation gain.  As we went along, it felt that the trail was progressing through several stages. You can bet that on a 14 mile hike, there will be different landscapes and terrain to keep you company.

The rainforest mosses swallowed the tree limbs, coating them with almost Seussian character. Quickly, we ascended into the Green Hall- a brilliant dell that seemed to carry into 3 or 4 natural chambers. It rose into an exposed canyonside, whose cascades and steep streams became tributaries into the creek far below. Meadows arose after that, carpeting the high hills in light green and popping with innumerable wildflowers. If I were a bear, I’d be living here, both Jamie and I thought. Finally, the up and over. We followed the gradual formation of a soft hilly ridge, and at its crest we could make out Lost Lake, still a few miles off. Resurrection Bay lay behind us to the south, and Seward sat a few miles up its western shores.

No wildlife was spotted save for a few Ptarmigan in the grasses and bald eagles circling above. When we’d finished the out and back hike, our souls were full, our legs weary. Jamie had booked a cabin in town for a few nights, so we had a jumping off point for excursions she’d booked when we couldn’t bring Charley along. We checked in that evening, grateful for a real roof and hot(ish) showers. Our gear was damp from the rains over the weekend in Hope, so we took the opportunity to dry all that out, too. 

We woke again to raindrops on the metal roof of the cabin. It was a foggy morning. That’s just the way it is most of the time in Seward, and most of the Kenai really.

The Harding Icefield is situated within Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, and is one of only a few hikes in the park. Most of it is only accessible by plane or boat, as the rugged fjords reach out to the Gulf of Alaska. We left Charley at the cabin- she wouldn’t be allowed to hike in the National Park- and made our way to Exit Glacier and the start of the Harding Icefield hike. Now, I don’t recall the size of the Icefield, but it’s incomprehensibly massive. Like hundreds of square miles of ice, hundreds to thousands of feet thick, feeding and filtering out into separate glaciers all throughout the eastern portion of the Kenai. 

It’s a bit of a climb to get to the Icefield, over 3000 feet for sure, along 4-5 miles of trail. Through forest and meadow we climbed, with Exit Glacier popping in and out of view to our left. Soon, we were well above the toe of the glacier, and climbing more. Crevassed and shimmering blue-white, the glacier was difficult to size up. We could make out a group of folks traversing the glacier on a guided hike, and that gave us some idea as to scale. It was big, real big. 

An emergency shelter hut sits high in the snow covered rocky slopes along the trail, and we stopped for a moment. Far out, it feels like we’re on another planet up here. Fog obscured the view in many directions, but we were mere ants in a stony landscape, inching along toward the trail terminus and the Icefield. When it came into view, we descended a few hundred feet toward its leaking out into Exit Glacier. Wow. There’s no way to describe it. Before us was a sea of white- an abyss, melting into the fog that shrouded its upper slopes. It felt like the end of the earth, a blank canvas that had yet to be splashed with color and life. We were frozen, and we sat for a while, longer than we should’ve, given the wind and wet cold that harassed us. It was a mental snapshot that, like many others along the way so far, left us thinking, don’t you dare forget this moment, here, now.

A tough day to beat. Both days, really. A long hike to a remote lake and a hike to essentially a sea of ice.

But on July 20th, we celebrated Jamie’s birthday with a boating excursion into Kenai Fjords, out of Resurrection Bay in Seward.

Egg and cheeses in the cabin filled us up, and we kissed Charley goodbye again and set out to the harbor. Our captain, also named Jamie, would be winding us out through the bay, and meandering through the fjords and islands offshore in the Alaskan Gulf. An aqua green water floated the 34 foot “Enukin” into the bay, carrying us and 4 others. 

We cruised along the eastern mountains and cliffs, and hanging glaciers, heading south. Bald eagles perched on the wet outcrops and cliff-clinging pine trees. Otters floated belly-up in groups, always looking like they’re having a good day. Waterfalls were flanked by the deepest green sheer walls. We spotted humpbacks and porpoises when we exited the bay and the waters opened into the vast Gulf. Orcas milled about just offshore of the fjords as we weaved along. Sea lions and seals chilled on the glimmering rugged rocks beneath the cliffs. How the heck do they get themselves up there? I thought. Puffins dove down deep and cormorants fluttered by with a graceful swiftness. Gulls were everywhere, as they always seem to be.

Choppy waters greeted us as we entered the Gulf of Alaska, and we could see fjords as far down south as we could see anything at all. One after another, each slightly more hazy from fog and ocean spray. Then the sun pierced through, warming us a bit as it danced with the clouds. Blue sky above! It’d been many days since we’d seen it- we were pretty excited.

We pulled into a bay south of Resurrection bay and made our way to one of its western inlets and the Holtan tidewater glacier for lunch. Captain Jamie prepared some deli sandwiches and drinks, and we munched and stared at the massive, thick hunk of ice in front of us. Calved pieces of the glacier had broken up in the cold waters, and Captain Jamie grabbed the net and hauled a 20lb one onto the boat to toss in the cooler. “Free ice! Nothing better” she said.

It turns out, it’s difficult to take a decent photo on a rocking boat, whether it’s still or moving. We harvested a handful of decent shots, but we were happy to enjoy it with our eyes. As we returned to Seward, the fog rolled in big time. Rains pattered us as we went. When we arrived back in the harbor and stepped off the boat, we both felt we were still swaying. We were tired, and we returned to the cabin and our dog for a walk and a nap.

That evening, we stopped in at the Flamingo Lounge in town for dinner and drinks. When Jamie had left her seat for a minute, I leaned over the bar and ask, “would you guys be able to throw a candle in whatever dessert we get? It’s my wife’s birthday.” The waitress smiled and said no problem. As our dessert approached, though, the staff began singing “Happy Birthday.” The patrons joined in, and soon the low-ceiling, dim-lit lounge was filled with a chorus of singing voices. Too funny.

Seward was so good to us. Despite the rain, despite having to leave Charley out of 2 full days of activities, we had a great time. Being able to take a few days off from camping, though we love camping, was nice, too. 

Next on our trip would be Homer and the western Kenai Peninsula. It’d have quite the act to follow.

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