Kenai Fjords: 43 of 62 (Part One)

                After a well-earned day of rest, it was time for us to head out and explore, to chip away at my lifetime goal of visiting all of the national parks. For anyone who is counting, there were 62 the last time I checked. I’ve been to 42 of them. Next on the list? Kenai Fjords. Now, as I explained before, our cabin is in Nikiski, in the far northwestern corner of the Kenai Peninsula. Same state, right? Same peninsula, right? So, it must be pretty close, right? Wrong.

                To get to the eponymous fjords of Kenai, a little beardlike dangle jutting out into the Gulf of Alaska from the peninsula’s southwestern edge, we had to drive 116 miles. The Kenai Peninsula, a little landform you can squint and make out on a map of the state, is bigger than West Virginia. So, yeah, the drive was a big chunk of the day. Along the way, we spotted a mother moose with two calves. We jumped out and got pictures of them from a nice, safe distance while they were nibbling on plants in a little bog by the roadside. I say safe distance because apparently a mother moose is force to be reckoned with.

                When we were nearly to Seward, we made a right turn at the Resurrection River and drove into the national park. There is only one road into Kenai Fjords, but that actually puts it high on the list of Alaska national parks in terms of accessibility. Out of the eight Alaska national parks, only three have roads leading into them. This road followed the river, which is really a smallish stream surrounded by a glacial outwash plain, leading us to our first view of Exit Glacier.

                A glacier is an awesome sight. I don’t know if it’s an innate feeling like the powerful impact of a great mountain, or whether the feeling comes from having read about glacial impacts, but the first time I saw a glacier it was like seeing the inexorable hand of nature’s god. Exit Glacier doesn’t even rank high on the list of Kenai’s glaciers, but it is a stunning sight, nonetheless. As we approached the visitor center, we passed a series of signposts emblazoned with the year that the glacier had ended at that point. They go back to 1815 and steadily move forward in time.

                Now, the point at which the glacial moraine ended in a given year is a simple fact, but I felt the signs were leaning toward a point about climate change. I’m not a climate denier, but I’m not sure this is great evidence. That date of 1815 also happens to be just about the time that the Little Ice Age ended. So, yeah, the glaciers have been receding since then, which seems obvious and almost circular.

                But I digress. When we got to the visitor center, it was closed for Covid. Fortunately, the rangers were holding a limited open house through a plastic enclosed window, so Alex was able to get his passport stamp and junior ranger book. I don’t know how many of those he’s gotten over the years, but I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say it’s more than fifty. They’re a necessity.

                It was getting late in the day, so we chose the lesser of the two possible hikes and marched directly to the glacier, bear spray and bells at the ready. We followed a paved trail through a forest of mixed spruce, alder, and hemlock and scrambled from there onto the outwash plain. The first thing I saw was a bear ambling toward the river. Then I saw that the “bear” had left his walker near the end of the trail, because the “bear” was an elderly man with such a badly bent back that from afar it looked like he was walking on all fours. God bless him for getting out there in that state, but I really felt like I should offer some help. In the end, I settled for passing with a friendly wave, assuming that if the man wanted help, he’d ask for it. I figured he was like John Locke on Lost and just didn’t want to be told what he couldn’t do.

                My son and I on the other, scampered along like the devil was chasing us. Sometimes when we get to an exciting new park it goes that way. I get so excited that I feel strong and fast enough to mirror his youthful energy. When we first saw Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we spotted bison in the distance, and ran over three miles of badlands to see them from a nearby butte. This was a similar exhilaration. We ran over the outwash plain, then hopped up a crumbling ridge to reach the bluffs above the point where the glacier melted into the river. We were way past the proper end of the hiking trail, but we did respect some signs that warned that further progress was dangerous because of ice falls. This despite the fact that there was no ice over our heads.

                Beneath us, the glacier met the river, melting out an ominous-looking frozen cave. I both wanted to enter that cave and dreaded it like the gates of hell. Above us, the glacier stretched for what looked like miles to the point where it met the Harding Ice Field on top of the mountains. Both my son and I marveled silently for a few moments, and that silence from a garrulous nine-year-old should speak wonders, then began climbing back over the gray rocks to try and reach the main trail.

                The path I chose, thinking it looked well-trodden, instead led us into a narrow defile choked with alders. I looked at it and my roleplaying instincts kicked in. It was the perfect place for an ambush. If we ran into a bear nibbling berries in that thick stand of bushes, there would be no way for him to leave, as the guidebooks say, with dignity. But there was no other route. So, we jingled our bells as loudly as possible, and pushed through the mosquito-infested trees until we reached the trail. Whenever I tumble out from some unexpected place, such as a bear-haunted glen of alders, to the surprise of more normal tourists, I picture the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones emerges from the water onto the deck of U-boat to the cheers of a pirate crew. That mental scene played now as we surprised the hikers on the main trail. I had to imagine the pirates cheering for me, but it was still a thrill.

To Be Continued Wednesday…

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