July 27 – 31, 2022.
Finally, our van was fixed and we were ready to seriously start exploring Alaska. But where to go first? Many of Alaska’s roads that take you to the sights are out and back – dead ends that terminate at the water (or sometimes in the middle of nowhere). Once you get to the end, you turn around and drive back. It is a bit inefficient and results in way more driving than driving through many other places we’ve been. Even in a place like Florida, you can go down one coast and up the other. So the question was which dead-end did we want to head for first.
It seemed most efficient since we were already pretty far south, to go even further south and work our way up. So we headed to the Kenai Penisula and the southernmost point we could drive to in Alaska. But before we got there we did a few out and back side trips. We were on the hunt for Glaciers.
So we left Wasilla and headed to Anchorage where we reprovisioned and spent the night in a Cabella’s parking lot before heading on down the Seward Highway into the Kenai Peninsula.
Our first stop was Portage Lake in the Chugach National Forest. I had read about The Begich, Boggs Visitor Center there and since we didn’t know much about the area, it seemed like the logical first stop. Portage Lake was created by the melting ice at the terminus of Portage Glacier. Just a century or so ago standing at the visitor center one would have been able to step out onto Portage Glacier. Back then the early traders, miners, and indigenous people traveled this glacier and others to get between Cook Inlet which leads to Anchorage, and Prince William Sound in Whittier.
The glacier is no longer visible from the visitor center but there are still several ways to see/visit it. One is a $45, one-hour ride on the MV Ptarmigan, a noisy double-decker 80-foot tour boat. Another is to drive to Whittier, through a toll tunnel where you can find the 2-mile Portage Pass Trail. This trail takes you to a spot on the lake where you can spend the day picnicking or just hanging about with a view of the glacier. The third option is to take your own kayak and paddle three miles across the lake to the glacier.
It was time for us to inflate Pirogue Bleue and launch her on her first Alaska adventure.
We planned for a full day of kayaking so we got up early, left our camp, and drove to the lake. We launched off the shore near the visitor center parking lot. We met another couple who had the same idea as us and were also putting in their kayak.
The water was incredibly still that morning. The skies were cloudy but cleared as the day went on. As we approached the glacier the temperature dropped. We could hear the cracks, groans, and crashes as ice chunks plunged into the water. It was massive. I wanted to get close but Greg feared that one of those ice chunks might land on us. We kept a respectful distance.
After cruising the glacier we went ashore and ate lunch and chatted with the other kayakers before heading back. We paddled between floating organic ice sculptures and right up to cascading waterfalls. A few birds were enjoying the sunny afternoon.
On day three in the Chugach National Forest, we set out to find another glacier, Byron Glacier. Just up the road from the visitor center, we found the Bryon Glacier Trail. This trail is an easy 1.4-mile walk one way. At the toe of the glacier are a couple of ice caves. At the glacier overlook (end of the trail), there are signs warning people to not walk on the glacier. Most everyone did anyways.
Although we could have stayed a few more days exploring the trails and taking in the beautiful scenery in the Chugach National Forest, we were hot to experience another glacier. We left Portage Lake and Chugach, retraced our drive, and headed to our first Alaska National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park. There are eight national parks in Alaska but only three that you can drive to. And the parts of these parks you can drive to are just a small fraction of these monumental public lands. Kenai Fjords protects the Harding Icefield, over 700 square miles of ice, and the 40 glaciers that flow from it. Most of the park can only be experienced by boat, through flightseeing tours, with outfitting companies, or mountaineering trips across the icefield. At Exit Glacier, the only glacier accessible by car, there is a strenuous hike up to the icefield and a less strenuous hike up to the Exit Glacier overlook. We did a ranger tour that took us to the overlook.
As soon as you enter the park boundary heading towards the glacier you see signs numbered with years dating back over 200 years ago. These indicate where the toe of the glacier would have been in the corresponding year. The glacier has been retreating since 1815, slowly at first but more rapidly now. According to an article, I found online it has retreated 2300 feet in the last 13 years.
Exit Glacier used to be called Resurrection Glacier but was renamed in 1968 after the first documented team of mountaineers “exited” the glacier after crossing the Harding Ice Field.
That afternoon after we hiked to Exit Glacier we drove on into Seward, the small town at the end of the Seward Highway. Seward is cute and it is full of campers. Campgrounds line the shores of Resurrection Bay. There are shopping, restaurants, tourist information, a cute downtown, an aquarium, a large marina, and lovely views of the bay. But what we were most interested in doing was following the walking path that took us along the perimeter of the water. Along the way, we enjoyed the blue waters of the bay, the view of the mountains in the distance, and new bird species and an adorable sea otter.