One of the first things to blow my mind in Alaska was the 2,320-kilogram chunk of jade sitting – unprepossessing and unprotected – outside the Anchorage tourist office. The thigh-high hunk of mottled brown rock, with some green showing around the bottom, like algae, came from a basement full of enormous jade gemstones, collected by a local who once had a licence to mine the state’s gemstone. The city, eventually, convinced him to put one on display.
I had already been wowed on my flight up the Gulf of Alaska coast from Vancouver. Once the fog cleared I stared down at fjords dotted with icebergs, bright white ice fields and valley glaciers with shimmering blue crevasses that gleamed brightly even though I was still descending at 1,000 metres.
Within my first 30 minutes in town, I was startled by a low flying bald eagle and dive-bombed by a seagull as big as a chicken. Apparently, I’d just missed a moose along the Cook Inlet coastal path where Arctic terns and all sorts of bird life frolicked.
But all this, I discovered, was just the beginning. In a state so wild that street vendors sell reindeer hot dogs, nearly half of the 2.2 million annual visitors only see it from the deck of a cruise ship. What a missed opportunity. Even if those ships travelled the entire coast (which they don’t) that’s still just 9 per cent of its wildness on display.
I wanted a closer, longer look, far from the busy cruise ship ports but without all the serious backcountry gear. I’d discovered that, not far from the small port town of Seward, Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge sits on an island that is home to two marine-wildlife protected zones. Fox Island lies in Resurrection Bay, in the middle of Kenai Fjords National Park. I was bound to sate my nature craving here, especially since the lodge is WiFi (i.e., distraction) free.
Day 1: Brown bear, gray whale (dead), eagles, puffins, sea otters, starfish, sea urchins, silver salmon (jumping)
The two-hour drive to Seward winds beside the Alaska Railroad, between the tidal waters of Turnagain Arm and the looming mountains of the Chugach range. “Scenic” doesn’t come close to describing the view – the gentle green slopes that jut from the water’s edge, the snow-capped tops. Try eye-popping, breathtaking, stunning. Nature sighting No. 1 (bear cub munching roadside dandelions) occurred during a stop for sweet buns in the ski town of Girdwood. Back on the Seward highway, the next one – a beached gray whale, dead for a few months – was distressing, but still fascinating for a city girl.
In Seward, our lift to Fox Island was aboard one of the many Kenai Fjords boat tours. We stowed our luggage and joined the rest of the day trippers up top for an hour-long cruise of Resurrection Bay. Among the sea otters, mountain ranges and coastal rain forest, the guide pointed out the rooftops of what must be the most picturesque maximum security prison in the United States.
Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge is the only accommodation on the 5.6-kilometre-long Fox Island: Eight cabins and a dining lodge are cradled between a crescent-shaped pebble beach and mountainous cliffs. Something was odd about those grey rocks, I noticed, and reached down to see that dozens and dozens of them were shaped like hearts. A long beach covered in thousands of heart-shaped stones? I was falling in love with this place already.
On our first afternoon, a park ranger dropped by to lead guests – there were just eight of us – on a nature walk. Eagles played in the wind currents while she explained how tides erode the metasedimentary stones into such appealing shapes. Orcas, she told us, sometimes come in close to the shore and use the pebbles as belly scratchers.
Dinner that night was served in an intimate dining room overlooking Resurrection Bay. Guests sat with their cabin mates but it wasn’t long before everyone turned their chairs around to swap stories over freshly cooked rockfish. Without WiFi, things got more social. Guests must charge their devices in the day lodge: Each luxurious solar-powered cabin has everything you need – except outlets. It feels odd, but then oddly normal after a day or so.
When I travelled in early June, the sun (sort of) set after 11 p.m. – which meant a longer than usual “golden hour” to push off in a sea kayak and paddle around the island’s southern tip. Emma, my guide, took me close to the cliffs where I saw dozens of starfish clinging to the cliffs in low tide and fish jumping as if they were going for Olympic records. We disturbed a few puffins and eventually just sat bobbing in the bay admiring the Harding Icefield in the distance. “Sometimes,” Emma said, “you just need to sit and soak it all in.”
Day 2: Sea otters, river otters, puffins (tufted and horned), porcupine (I think)
Some kind of precipitation occurs here more than 160 days a year – but not during my three-day visit. It did seem strange to miss out on Alaska’s famously moody fog and wet weather, but the sunshine meant I could explore the roughly marked trail behind the lodge.
I scrambled up through overgrown temperate coastal rain forest, steering clear of the devil’s club (spiky leaves as large as watermelon on waste-high spiky stems) and pausing often to admire the lichen hanging off old cedar and spruce. At the top of the ridge I had a grand view of the Eldorado Narrows separating the island from the Resurrection peninsula.
I could also see the sand bar where foxes were once raised (giving the island its name). A trapper raised foxes and goats for years here, and was joined in 1918 by artist Rockwell Kent and his 10-year-old son. Kent’s illustrated book about their seven-month experience is in every cabin. When, after so much silence, I heard a loud rustle through the nearby underbrush, I carefully started back. Kent wrote about the porcupines he had find up here and which his son tried to train as pets. But I really didn’t want to meet one so far from the lodge.
After lunch, I watched a river otter play in the current and settled into a kayak for another excursion. This time, Emma took us out farther into Resurrection Bay to Hive Island, which really should be known as puffinville. Here, hundreds of the birds and their babies (pufflets!) flew overhead and around. On the way back, a sleeping sea otter floated by in the current – front flippers crossed on its chest, back flippers turned up for buoyancy. His old-man whiskers ruffled in the breeze. The cuteness was off the charts.
Dinner that evening was lively – every table had a story to share and new guests were told what to see and do. The salmon was delicately prepared and artfully plated. That night, we asked if a campfire could be set up on the beach (an Australian couple at the lodge, we had just discovered, had never heard of s’mores) and everyone chatted comfortably, watching the sun try to set behind those gorgeous mountains.
Day 3: Sea lions, orcas, humpback whales, more puffins, common murres, cormorants, harbor seals
On our last morning, I had French press coffee delivered to my cabin so I could sit with a steaming cup on my veranda, listening to the tide and imprinting this place on my memory. The lodge had certainly given me time to admire the wildlife – but I was about to get an even better look.
After breakfast, our return to Seward was aboard a five-hour boat tour through Kenai Fjords National Park and the Chiswell Islands. While waiting on the dock, a sea lion swam in as if to say goodbye.
Once on board the 25-metre-long catamaran, a friend and I planted ourselves on the bow and rarely left – even as we crested nearly three-metre swells as the boat moved around peninsulas and islands before sliding in close to tidal glaciers. (The captain called us hood ornaments.)
In quieter bays I eventually saw orcas – a large pod circled, breached and blew around the boat. Farther out, there were so many sightings of humpback whale tails that we stopped counting. Puffins and seabirds cluttered the sea and sky, and the many sea lions lounging on Chiswell rocks looked like some kind of bacchanalian after-party.
Gliding into Aialik Bay, the temperature dropped noticeably on our way to the glacier. The captain pointed out smaller glaciers and more wildlife, but by now we’d seen so much that many passengers headed inside for a cup of coffee.
I stayed out, taking shots of seals chilling on chunks of ice off the starboard side. The captain had shut off the engine and our catamaran bobbed at the base of Aialik Glacier, which loomed over us, groaning. A blue jewel of ice sparkled in the gritty, white wall.
The deck filled up again, but not everyone caught the sudden flush of water that flowed, like a small waterfall, just before a large chunk of ice calved into the bay. Its wake eventually rocked the catamaran.
To see something so majestic so close – not from the far away deck of a massive cruise ship – is special. More than special, it’s unforgettable. Mind blown. Again.
The writer was a guest of Pursuit Alaska. It did not review or approve the story.
The days are long in an Alaskan summer but the season is short – from June to early September. Book early for next year. Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge on Fox Island is an hour’s boat ride from Seward. Rooms from US$670 a person, based on double occupancy, includes all meals, return transportation to Seward and one kayak trip led by Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking.
Try to spend a night or two in Anchorage, as well. This low-rise capital (tallest building is 15 storeys) is surrounded by foothills of the Chugach state forest. Hiking trail access points are just 20 minutes from town and wildlife abounds in its parks and coastal trails. When you’re hungry, take it high (Simon and Seafort’s Saloon & Grill has grand views of Cook Inlet and a stately surf and turf menu served in Alaskan-size portions) or low (grab a reindeer dog from street vendors then get in line at Wild Scoops for spruce-tip salted caramel, coconut birch swirl or a wild blueberry cone).
What to pack for Alaska
The rain jacket: MEC Hydrofoil
A multipurpose waterproof shell with a generous peaked hood and high zipper will keep you dry come mist, fog or downpour. Pit zips help you cool off on long climbs and deep pockets are, as always, super useful. $184.95, mec.ca.
The hoodie: Arc’teryx Proton hoodie
Even if it doesn’t rain, you are going to feel the chill of those glaciers and misty mornings. This lightweight, easily squished-into-carry-on hoodie is super cozy and wears more like a light jacket. Take it on your hikes rain or shine – the fabric outerlayer is weather-resistant and breathable, which makes it a great layer under a waterproof shell. $350; arcteryx.com/ca.
The rain pants: MEC Hydrofoil stretch
Fully taped seams and breathable waterproof material make this a near foolproof way to stay dry. The stretchy nylon also makes this pant much more wearable than cheaper versions. Elastic waist and zippered ankles make it easy to wear over pants or on their own. After Alaska, these work well for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, too. $124.95, mec.ca.
The gloves: PrimaLoft Packaway Gloves
It might seem strange to pack a pair of gloves but the chill off the glaciers (even in midsummer) is deep. Keep LLBean’s lightweight Packaway gloves handy: they are wind- and water-resistant with touchpads on the fingertips so you can still swipe and shoot, and stay warm. $59; available in LLBean’s new Oakville, Ont., store and at llbean.ca.