Portage Glacier is one of the must-sees of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges.
Published July 5, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Wildlife watchers investigate Anchorage, Seward and Homer, Alaska.”
2014 Update: The websites listed at the end of this column have been updated.
By Barb Gorges
It is impossible to escape wildlife in Alaska. It’s everywhere: bridge railings formed as a series of jumping salmon, business names, likenesses on every imaginable item and items made from fur, feathers, bones and tusks.
The good news is that you can also see the animals in person.
In mid-June my husband, Mark, and I met his brother, Peter, in Anchorage for a taste of the Kenai Peninsula during the 50th anniversary of Alaska’s statehood.
If you imagine the outline of the southern border of the state, locate the Kenai Peninsula at the apex (Anchorage just above it) between the Aleutian Islands trailing to the southwest and the southeast coast bordering Canada.
Besides trying to eat as much fresh seafood as possible, our unstated goal was to see as much wildlife as possible. Here are some of our highlights.
We started with a couple days in Anchorage, finding a moose grazing next to a scenic overlook and waterfowl nesting half a foot from a busy bike and pedestrian path, both within city limits.
The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, 13 miles long, borders the city on the northwest, along Knik Arm. You can rent a bike and enjoy the long, colorful evenings. Sunset was 11:30 p.m. and sunrise at 4:30 a.m. while we were there, though Anchorage considers itself to have 24 hours of “functional” daylight at the summer solstice.
Chugach State Park covers the mountains at the eastern city limits. We chose the Flattop Mountain trail for a close look at the tundra. You need an early start because by noon on a summer weekday the parking lot is full of both residents and tourists.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center, admission $25 per adult (discounts available, small children free), is over-priced unless you spend the whole day investigating the work of onsite Native craftspeople, walking to replicas of Native life for five distinct regions and catching all of the performances of Native singing, dancing and game playing.
The Kenai Peninsula is a small percentage of Alaska, but don’t let that deceive you when figuring driving distances. To access it from Anchorage, one must drive east about an hour on a twisty two lane highway along the shore of Turnagain Arm. Try to avoid driving when the Anchorites are using it for a weekend escape route.
It’s a total of 127 miles, Anchorage to Seward. Be sure to schedule enough time for all the scenic turnouts and especially the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center at Portage Glacier. It was well-worth the U.S. Forest Service’s minimal admission fee to get an entertaining, hands-on education on local natural history.
In Seward we took a 6-hour boat trip with Kenai Fjords Tours to see a bit of Kenai Fjords National Park. Our captain took us through the brash ice to the foot of Holgate Glacier. On the way she pointed out three kinds of whales and other marine life. Mid-June is the season for seeing newborn sea lion pups and nesting kittiwakes and puffins on rocky islands.
Back on shore we saw the sea animals again (minus whales) up close at the Alaska SeaLife Center. It has a camera working the sea lion rookery and images can be viewed live on the Internet or on a local Seward TV station.
We took a hike up to look at Exit Glacier, part of the national park, and marveled at how far it has retreated since 1815, and even in the last 10 years. Because the Harding Ice Field, of which it is a part, is in the way, it is 174 circuitous miles to drive to Homer.
Don’t miss the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center operated by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, not just because admission is free.
There are lots of jokes about Homer Spit, 5 miles of sand sticking out into Kachemak Bay, but that’s where you’ll find the water taxi, tour companies, seafood restaurants, Land’s End Resort, gift shops, fishing charters, and kayak rentals. If you are worried about tsunamis, don’t camp here.
We stayed at a charming bed and breakfast, “A Rosy Overlook,” half way up the bluff above town, with a wonderful garden and view of the bay. The hosts, Rosie and Erless Burgess, long-time Alaska residents, entertained us with local stories in the evenings.
We took a day-long boat trip across the bay to Seldovia, which is not accessible by highway. It was settled by the Russians in 1870 as a fishing village. The captain, again a woman, gave us historical background and great looks at nesting gull colonies.
It was 225 miles back to Anchorage, but again, it required a full day at 45 to 55, seldom 65, miles per hour and several stops, especially to see the line of at least 100 fishermen standing in the Russian River, perfectly spaced two rod lengths apart, trying to snag migrating sockeye salmon.
We saw lots of wildlife, ate lots of fresh salmon and halibut, and need to schedule another trip to see everything we missed.
Remember, Alaska is two hours behind Cheyenne. When it is 11 a.m. here, it is 9 a.m. there.
Alaska Geographic (nonprofit, trip planning help), www.alaskageographic.org
Bed and Breakfast Association of Alaska, www.alaskabba.com
Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, www.kenaipeninsula.org
Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.goanchorage.net
Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/aktrails/ats/anc/knowlsct.htm
Alaska Native Heritage Center, www.alaskanative.net
Chugach State Park, www.dnr.state.ak.us/parks.
Begich-Boggs Visitor Center, Chugach National Forest, http://www.fs.usda.gov/chugach
Kenai Fjords National Park, http://www.nps.gov/kefj
Kenai Fjords Tours, www.kenaifjords.com
Alaska SeaLife Center, www.alaskasealife.org
Rainbow Tours, www.rainbowtours.net
Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, free, http://IslandsandOcean.org