June 20: Seward & Kenai Fjords National Park
Another unforgettable experience, as we board one of Major Marine catamarans for a 7.5-hour glacier cruise along Resurrection bay and into Kenai Fjords National park. The weather is gloomy that day, and rain is in the forecast. We silently curse our bad luck, but our excitement overshadows the doom, and we’re all smiles and abuzz, as we settle in comfortably on the second floor of the boat. There are designated tables along the windows, where we manage to sit still for just a few minutes, before we go outside, and despite the bone-chilling wind, we spend most of our time there. We have fun riding the waves on the front deck, watching for marine wildlife, and listening to the ranger’s narration. Almost immediately, as the boat pulls away from the harbor, we spot a playful otter, who does a few tricks and poses for the cameras, then we see a wild goat, perched on the cliffs, and in another half hour or so, we see an orca pod – a mamma and a baby, swimming side by side, with the male orca standing guard nearby. The captain announces a whale in the distance, and we realize we’re in, for a fun ride! The ranger on board actually confirms this by saying that this type of stormy weather is the best for marine wildlife watching.
As we near the end of Resurrection bay, and approach the Gulf of Alaska, the sea gets pretty rough, and most of us begin to feel some level of seasickness. The crew gives out ginger candy to all in need, but the best strategy is to go outside in the cold, and face the wind. At almost the same time, the smell of food, being cooked on board, hits our noses and we wonder how on Earth we could eat with our stomachs all messed up. Thankfully, the rough patch doesn’t last too long, and the sea calms down, as soon as we enter Aialik Bay, en route to two of Kenai Fjords big glaciers. The salmon they’ve prepared on board is once again outstanding, and I personally have no problem eating two servings.
We are ready for the glaciers! There are about 100,000 glaciers in Alaska, 40 of which are fed by the Harding icefield on the Kenai peninsular. We’ve already seen one of them the day before – Exit glacier (the most accessible of all), and now we are about to see a different type – a tidewater glacier, which flows into the water. The first one we see is Holgate, tucked deep into the Holgate arm. The boat gets very close and the captain turns off the engine so we could hear the popping sounds the ice makes as it melts, and the occasional loud thunder of the ice calving. It’s absolutely mesmerizing to watch this colossal ice wall, with its pale blue silhouette rising 500 feet above the water. The captain allows us plenty of time to enjoy the views, and take it all in, even though we’ve got more glaciers to see.
Coming up next, Aialik glacier, is at the north end of the bay, spanning about a mile at its base. We have the luxury of hearing a loud rumbling noise, and we witness a massive block of ice, splitting off, and tumbling down into the water. Some lucky souls capture that on video, others barely remember to capture it on camera. It’s beautiful and incredible to watch.
The water all around us is strewn with small floating icebergs, and the boat crew scoops up a chunky piece, and starts making glacier ice margaritas for all! Glacial ice melts slower they say, and we enjoy our drinks in piece, while looking at gorgeous scenery outside – rugged cliffs, lush green hills carved by a lattuce of thin waterfalls, contrasting with turquoise blue waters. We see harbor seals, lying on icebergs, we spot puffins, which contrary to my expectations are super tiny, and unless you have a good binocular, you can’t actually make out their colorful clown-like faces.
As we enter Resurrection bay one more time, the humpback whale shows begin. I lose track of the number of whales we see – it seems as if one show begins after the other, and each one is better than the last. We see numerous acrobatics, some closer than others, but the last one is clearly a show-off. He flips upside down, spins sideways, waves at us, and flaps its tale, giving us more than enough opportunities to get a good shot.
After almost 8 hours of glacier and marine wild life entertainment we feel great and ready to drive another 2 hours up north, to Soldotna, where we spend the last two nights at the super cozy Cabin by the pond. It also happens to be summer solstice that day (actually, we’ve purposefully planned the trip so we can be in Alaska on the longest day of the year) and the sun doesn’t set until almost midnight!
June 21: Homer
Soldotna is really just a base for our trip to Homer, as it’s located halfway between Seward and Holmer. There is nothing of interest in the town itself, so we head straight south to Holmer the next morning. Holmer sits at the end of the Kenai peninsular, and it has a cozy fisherman’s village vibe. They say the best halibut is in Homer, and we’re determined to find out if that’s true.
We drive along Homer spit, a needle-thin strip of land, protruding out into Kachemak bay, and littered with numerous quaint little shops, galleries, and restaurants. It’s a quirky place for sure that has everything – from fishing, and boating to shopping and great seafood eating, to beach strolling. There’s even a campground, an industrial settlement, a rusty, yet colorful junkyard of old boats, and odd things, and a fishing whole. One can easily spend a whole day exploring this little treasure trove.
Our initial plan includes a boat ride across Kachemak bay, and hiking in the Kachemak bay state park, but the weather is quite intimidating, and boats refuse to take anyone out there that day. Plus, we realize we’re way underprepared and underclothed for such an endeavor. It’s windy, cold and grey, so we spend a few hours on the spit, stroll on the beach, rummage through a few stores, and have a fabulous lunch at Captain Pattie’s fish house with great views of the bay. We try their pan-fried oysters and tempura prawns, their halibut of course, and their fantastic clam chowder which puts our famous San Francisco clam chowder to shame, I must admit. The halibut is great, but I honestly haven’t tasted a better clam chowder!
We are told there are art galleries in town, and we find a couple, but the area outside the spit seems a little dead to us. We happen to be there on a farmer’s market day, and we walk the few stands in search for local delicacies. Not surprisingly, most vendors sell jams, and other non-perishable goods, and only one or two have fresh produce. No peaches or strawberries for sure!
A light drizzle starts, and chases us away from the spit. On our way out, we stop by Anchor point. We drive all the way to the end of Anchor River road, and there’s a sign that says: “North America’s most westerly highway point”, and a little further down, there’s a parking lot with access to the beach. Anchor river state park turns out to be the perfect spot to see Alaska’s bald eagle up close! The birds are huge, and they are everywhere. In fact, there are more birds than humans on the deserted, black-sand beach, overlooking Cook inlet and the volcanoes in the distance. They’re mostly clustered in groups, some clutching fish in their claws, others seriously musing, and some are fighting, but they never let us approach too close. If it isn’t for the freezing, polar wind, we could have easily spent more time watching the birds.
It’s day two at the cabin, and I’m getting quite antsy, as I still haven’t seen Melba, the mousse, with her twin cubs. It’s one of the reasons I booked this cabin, after all. I’ve seen her pictures on the cabin’s website, and I’ve taken it for granted that she almost lives there. As soon as we arrive the first day, the owner tells us she comes by the pond early in the morning or late in the evening, and how some of the other tourists have captured a great video of the little ones up close. But so far, not so good – there is no trace of them. There is another cute little character, Jeronimo, or Jerry the squirrel, who is fearless and comes right up our lap each morning, and snacks on peanuts right from our hands. He’s adorable, and sort of compensates for the lack of mousses by the pond…
And then, on our last day, after leaving the cabin, as we barely exit Soldotna, we see them – if not Melba, then Melba’s sister, with her twin cubs, by the road. They are quite close, and we enjoy watching them grazing the grass for a long time!
June 22: Alaska Wildlife Refuge
Last day, or rather half a day, as we have an afternoon flight to catch. We don’t have much time for activities, but we decide to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation center which happens to be on our way to Anchorage. It’s a sanctuary for rescued wild animals but it’s also like a safari. The habitats are huge, and the setting is beautiful. Each animal has a story, and it’s interesting to read and learn about each rescue. We see bears, caribou, mousse (finally a male mousse up close, even if caged), Sitka deer, bison, wolves, porcupines, foxes. We spend 1-2 hours in the refuge and head to the airport.
And with that, our Alaskan adventures were sadly over. Alaska left us with a greater thirst for exploring the wild, and a stronger desire to come back. Our trip felt shamefully short. It was like an appetizer course, or one of those precious small bites you get at an expensive restaurant – a tiny piece of heaven, that you really cannot begin to fully appreciate due to its small size. Hopefully though, you’re already booking your tickets, and planning wisely your longer trip into the wild Alaska. Keep in mind that it’s a vast wilderness, that demands full respect, and begs to be savored slowly, and in piece.
Note to self – next time, return at the end of August to experience the Northern lights, and see some fall colors!
If you haven’t yet, check out Part 1 of our adventures into Denali National park and some glacier hiking.
(All images and opinions about the places we visited are entirely mine; no sponsored advertisement)