62 Parks Traveler started with one simple goal: to visit every US national park. Avid public country backpacker and nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built a tiny van to travel and live in, and set out to practice the best of COVID-19 safety protocols in the process. The parks as we know them are changing fast and she wanted to see them before it was too late.
“It’s called Kenai Fjords National Park, but it might as well be called Harding Icefield National Park,” said my guide Emily Burke as we looked over the jagged, frozen expanse and a wall of cloud slowly crept into the basin. “The glaciers pull minerals from these mountains, which merge in the sea and in turn provide humpback whales and krill, their main food source, with nutrient-rich water.”
When I first arrived in Alaska, I knew little about the complex ecosystems that made such a wide and diverse range of wildlife possible. The state is famous for its whales, seabirds and brown bears, but their existence always seemed to me to be a coincidence and easy to take for granted. It was hard to imagine the landscape as anything other than a barren wasteland of ice and rocks as one stared at rows of jagged crevasses that looked like giant blue teeth.
Even so, my surroundings were alive and in constant motion, regardless of whether I could see them with my bare eyes or not. This became evident on the morning of my drive into the Exit Glacier area of the Kenai Fjords, a park just 2.5 hours south of Anchorage. I passed a series of signs with dates, each marking points that the glacier had expanded to over the years. As I neared the visitor center the signs became more frequent until I came to a former lookout point that was built in the 1980s and is now surrounded by thick forest. Since then, the glacier has retreated another half a mile. “When you talk about climate change and the melting of glaciers, that’s why this is so important,” continued Burke. “We don’t know how badly fish and mammal populations will be affected when they disappear.”
(Photo: Emily Pennington)
The next day I took this knowledge with me on a kayak tour to Aialik, the park’s most active and fastest-calving tidal glacier. The wildlife was amazing. On the two-hour boat taxi ride alone, my group glimpsed sea otters, bald eagles, Steller sea lions, Dall porpoises, a humpback whale and too many nesting sea birds to count.
“This is the birthplace of kayaking,” said our guide Sid Smullen in an awed tone of voice. “People have been hunting and fishing in these waters for thousands of years. The word kayak comes from an Aleut Indian word qayak. “His speech gave a new sense of mystical meaning to exploring these waterways in what would otherwise have looked like ordinary red plastic boats.
We paddled three miles with the huge glacier sitting incredibly large on the horizon as we got closer. Suddenly an enormous cracking sound split reality in two. I frantically turned my head and tried to see if I could catch the far end of the ice that splashed into the ocean. No dice. Soon my group would get used to this “white thunder”, a term for the earth-shaking roar of building-sized chunks of ice moving away from the glacier Cliffs.
Somehow I was floating even half a mile away, tensing my neck and squinting to take in the skyscraper-high, dazzling white mass of the thing. On my right, I heard pieces of ice falling into the turquoise water until finally a huge 300 foot pillar broke off the glacier and hit the water with a deafening bang that echoed across the mountains for many seconds.
“That was one of the best calving events I’ve ever seen!” yelled our guide as the whole group hooted and roared. We drove back to our water taxi and paddled delicately between chunks of ice and translucent moon jellies as we passed the nest of a watchful bald eagle.
My heart felt touched and shaken, as if it were being massaged by some great, unknowable force. That this dynamic landscape could be so powerful and fragile at the same time made me wonder what other natural travesties could occur if we don’t slow down the warming of our planet.
I went ready to fight for it.
62 Parks Traveler Kenai Fjords Info
Size: 669,983 acres
Place: Southern Alaska
Created in: 1978 (national monument), 1980 (national park)
Best for: Kayaking, whale watching, hiking, boating, wildlife viewing
When to go: In summer (46 to 62 degrees) Kenai shines in full fauna. Fall (27 to 56 degrees) is less busy and tours are starting to close. Best to avoid in the long winters.
Mini adventure: Hike to the Harding Icefield. Seward Wilderness Collective offers excellent guided day trips from Exit Glacier that will give you a wealth of newfound knowledge about the history, flora and fauna of the area.
Mega adventure: Go kayaking. Operated locally in Seward, Kayak Adventures Worldwide has fantastic guides and a variety of excursions ranging from half-day to multi-day overnight adventures to explore the park’s famous fjords and ice rivers.
Main photo: Emily Pennington