Kenai Fjords National Park: Where the Mountains Meet the Sea

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Orcas

Next morning, Thursday, August 20, we woke early, although not as early as for the train the day before. At 9am, our tour of Kenai Fjords National Park was scheduled to depart. We’d assembled our day packs, binoculars, cameras, and extra layers of clothes, after dinner the night before. Check-in for the boat was at 8am, so by 7:40, we were headed out of Hotel Seward toward the small boat harbor a short walk away near the north end of town.

The weather was even better than we’d hoped. Over the previous week, I’d begun following the weather forecast for Seward closely, watching without daring to hope that the day of our boat tour would be beautiful. Now here it was, cloudless with a forecast high of 68 degrees. The morning sun was warm as it rose over the peaks of the Resurrection Peninsula opposite town.

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Seward Small Boat Harbor

For the tour, we had opted for one of the two main tour concessionaires working within Kenai Fjords National Park, rather than some sort of charter. We had chosen Kenai Fjords Tours for several reasons: they were highly recommended in Fodors, they are Native Alaskan owned, and their prices are slightly lower. Of Kenai Fjords Tour’s offerings, we’d chosen the longest tour, both in length and distance, the nine-hour tour into Northwestern Fjord, a 150-mile round trip. Kenai Fjords Tours was also the concessionaire that had pioneered tours into remote Northwestern Fjord once its glacier had retreated far enough for navigation to be possible. The only thing that gave us a little pause was that the other concessionaire, Major Marine, had NPS rangers on board narrating the tours. But the length of the tour and remoteness of Northwestern Fjord was too tempting.

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Boarding began at 8:30am, and a few minutes before then we joined the line on the pier. Two spots behind us whom should we discover, but “Glacial Erratic“! The thing is, when we went back and thought about it, we never saw her again. She was in line. She was openly telling people that she had a ticket for the Glacier Explorer going to Northwestern Fjord, but we never actually saw her on the boat. For the rest of our trip, we’d say things like, “What if Glacial Erratic suddenly appeared riding a caribou?” or “What if we saw Glacial Erratic hitchhiking?”

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When we first went aboard, we scoped out a spot at a table by a window in the main cabin. But then, after a few moments we second guessed and thought that maybe we should grab a seat outside. “What’s in your heart?” Sean asked. “Outside. It’s so beautiful out.” That was it. The only other times we’d be inside the whole trip were to go to the lunch counter or visit the head. We spent the entire nine-hour trip on deck.

Captain Mark Lindstrom’s voice came over the speakers. He introduced himself and the crew and reviewed the rules and safety procedures. He also told us that we were exceptionally lucky to have such gorgeous weather, that we could just stay here docked and we’d have a great time just from that.

Then he began talking about Kenai Fjords National Park, and any small reservations I may have had about not having NPS staff on board completely evaporated. Captain Mark has been sailing tours into Kenai Fjords for twenty years. Before that, he worked at Denali National Park. His passion for the Parks and these landscapes was evident.

Then he said:

If you are a United States citizen, each of you owns a small part of these places. You will be visiting places that have been set aside for you and for future generations. You may someday be asked to make a decision about these places, and this is your chance to see them up close and personal.

If you are from a foreign country, welcome. Know that the United States’ culture is still evolving. We are a young nation. We have no pyramids. Our heritage is wild places.

And with that, we set off.

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Seward, Alaska

Almost as soon as we left the small boat harbor and entered Resurrection Bay, we saw two Sea Otters. But I wasn’t able to get a good shot. I’d yet to get my photographer sea legs.

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We were heading south toward the mouth of Resurrection Bay, which is not visible from Seward because of its position nestled into the northwestern most part of the bay. Seward and its immediate vicinity are the only parts of the shore of Resurrection Bay that are inhabitable to any extent. The rest of the bay is ringed by mountains that incline steeply into the bay.

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To the west (above), the morning sun blazed on the mainland of the Kenai Peninsula. To the east (below), the ridges of Resurrection Peninsula were silhouetted.

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Resurrection Peninsula

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As we continued south, the mountains in the distance began to resolve into islands guarding the entrance to the bay.

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Caines Head (right)

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Caines Head

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Although the mountains ringing Resurrection Bay and extending southwest along the coast of the Kenai Peninsula are rather low, only generally some two thousand feet, they feel immense. Their drama comes both from rising literally from sea level and from the fact that the tree line, because of the intensity of the weather and the cooling effects of the Harding Ice Field, is very low. Consequently, the mountains pack coast, coastal rainforest of Sitka Spruce and Hemlock, alpine meadows, bare rock face, hanging glaciers, and jagged peaks into a relatively short vertical rise.

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Prospect Glacier (left) and Porcupine Glacier (right)

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Before we reached the mouth of Resurrection Bay and entered the Gulf of Alaska, we were served a continental breakfast. Sean opted for the free refill coffee thermos, which fueled us throughout the day.

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Fox Island (far left), Hive Island (middle left), Rugged Island (left), and Aialik Peninsula (right)

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Callisto Head

It wasn’t until we reached the mouth of the bay that we could even see Kenai Fjords National Park. The coast of Resurrection Bay is a mix of state and private land. To the right in the image above, Callisto Head, which marks the western edge of the mouth of the bay, is not part of the National Park. Everything else to the left is.

We were not yet to Kenai Fjords, proper, but we had one brief stop to make on Fox Island near the eastern side of the bay. Kenai Fjords Tours owns a lodge and cabins on the island, and we were picking up a few more passengers for the day’s tour.

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Fox Island

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Fox Island

The stop at Fox Island, even though we didn’t disembark, was a thrill in its own right because of its connection with painter, illustrator, and writer, Rockwell Kent. In the autumn and winter of 1918-1919, Kent lived on Fox Island with his nine-year-old son. The two lived in a cabin owned by an old Swede, a former trapper and prospector who now operated a small fox farm on the island. Hence its name. The journal Kent kept while on Fox Island would become his book, Wilderness, A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska. The drawings and prints he (and his son) made there would become the book’s illustrations.

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Fox Island

I came to Alaska because I love the North. I crave snow-topped mountains, dreary wastes, and the cruel Northern sea with its hard horizons at the edge of the world where infinite space begins. Here skies are clearer and deeper and, for the greater wonders they reveal, a thousand times more eloquent of the eternal mystery than those of softer lands…Alaska is a fairyland in the magic beauty of its mountains and waters. The virgin freshness of this wilderness and its utter isolation are a constant source of inspiration. Remote and free from contact with man our life is simplicity itself.

– Rockwell Kent, from Wilderness

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Fox Island

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Fox Island

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Fox Island

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Resurrection Peninsula

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Our stop at Fox Island was brief, and soon we were underway again. Our course took us almost due west across the mouth of Resurrection Bay toward Callisto Head and into the waters of Kenai Fjords National Park.

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Callisto Head

As we rounded Callisto Head, Bear Glacier came into view. During Kent’s time in the area, Bear Glacier was a tidewater glacier, calving icebergs into the bay. Since then it has retreated across a lagoon created by its own terminal moraine, the debris left by a retreating glacier. The glacier had been stationary, and its moraine built up enough that it was higher than sea level. Then it retreated rapidly, creating the lagoon. Trees have since established themselves on this long, slender spit of land.

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Bear Glacier

Note the icebergs trapped in the lagoon in the image below. The trees in front of them provide scale.

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Bear Glacier

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Callisto Head

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Black-Legged Kittiwake

From Callisto Head and Bear Glacier, we continued on a south, south-easterly course along the rugged coast of the Kenai Peninsula. Now all the mainland was part of Kenai Fjords National Park. The islands, though, were part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge is massive, comprising 2,400 islands and 4.9 million acres. It stretches from the Gulf of Alaska to the Alaska Peninsula, the Aleutian Islands, the Bering Sea, and the Chukchi Sea. Together, these two units of the Department of the Interior protected virtually everything in sight.

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Hive Island (left), Barwell Island (center), Rugged Island (right)

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Aialik Peninsula

Not far from Bear Glacier Point, we spotted our first Humpback Whale. Usually the captain spotted them, but sometimes passengers did. Then the captain would position the boat broadside to the whale so that we could have the best chance of a good view. He would also maneuver closer if the whale were in the distance, but not so close as to disturb it while it fed or traveled.

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Humpback Whale

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Bear Glacier Point. Image: Sean M. Santos

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Glaucous-Winged Gulls

The waters off of Bear Glacier Point must have been littered with fish because in addition to the whale, there were abundant seabirds, including our first puffins.

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Horned Puffin

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Common Murres

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Horned Puffin

In fact, while most of the rest of the passengers were waiting, breathless, for a whale to reemerge, I’d set off excitement with a shutter click. But I would just be shooting birds.

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Marbled Murrelet

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Common Murres

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Humpback Whale

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After our first whales, Captain Mark sailed us into Porcupine Cove so that we could get a closer view of the exceptionally rugged shoreline, including dramatic sea stacks and the intertidal creatures that clung to them.

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Porcupine Cove. Image: Sean M. Santos

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Ochre Sea Stars, Sunflower Sea Star (lower right), Acorn Barnacles

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Ochre Sea Stars

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Glaucous-Winged Gull, Blue Mussels, Rockweed

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Ochre Sea Stars

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Image: Sean M. Santos

Always the Gulf of Alaska was to the other side of us. But today it was shimmering, rather than raging.

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Gulf of Alaska

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Even on the sea stacks, wherever there was the remotest possibility, vegetation and even small groves of trees, clung.

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Sitka Spruce

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Aialik Peninsula

As we continued along the outer side of the Aialik Peninsula, we overtook some smaller charter tour boats grouped along the shoreline, a pretty good indicator that there was something worth seeing nearby.

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Aialik Peninsula

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Sure enough. Orcas!

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Orcas

In the image above, the Orca to the right with the larger, straighter dorsal fin is a male. The other two, with the smaller, curved dorsals are female.

Two of the three types of Orcas are regularly present in Alaskan waters, resident Orcas and transient orcas. (The third type, deep sea Orcas, are little studied because they are, well, in the open ocean.) Resident Orca pods have smaller ranges and eat fish. Transient orca pods range much farther along the coast and eat mammals (seals, sea lions, otters).

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Orcas

The four Orcas we encountered were a transient pod. In fact, they were identifiable from their markings (and the notch in the dorsal (see the image above) of one of the females) as Orcas 2, 3, and 4 (the other Orca the crew couldn’t ID) of the AT Pod. The AT Pod, notoriously, was one of the most severely impacted by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound east of where we were. The pod of some thirty-plus Orcas was reduced to the handful we saw. Orcas are matrilineal, and the matriarch had not been seen for a couple years. Researchers were uncertain which of the remaining females was now the pod’s leader.

We usually don’t think of Orcas as dolphins, but they are. They are the largest dolphin. Somehow, though, the graceful white marking on the female below did put me in mind of dolphins and porpoises.

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Orca

It was while we were watching the Orcas that Sean and I discovered a trick. Usually if marine life were off the port side of the boat, all the passengers would press along the deck railings on the port side to get the best view. But all that weight caused the Glacier Explorer to tip to port. The tip was enough that it lifted the starboard side high enough that if you were standing there, you were raised above the heads of everyone else crushed against the port railing. It offered, usually, perfectly clear sight lines of whatever it was we were looking at without having to jostle for position. From here on out, if there were a whale to starboard, we’d immediately move to port and allow ourselves to be lifted up into a great view.

While we were performing this little trick to view the Orca, I got talking to a fellow passenger, Cathy. It was one of those moments when you’re so excited you just have to share it with the person next to you who is also so excited. Cathy and her husband were traveling with their kids (a son who just graduated high school and a daughter still in high school). They were from Dallas, but were moving soon to Saint Louis. We were chatting about our trips. This was the culmination of their ten-day Alaska adventure, and they would be heading home the next day. She was envious both that this was the start of our trip and that our trip was so long.

How did you get that much time off?

Well, it’s our honeymoon.

Cathy was so excited and congratulated me. Then the Orcas resurfaced close to the boat. After the excitement, we got chatting again. She pointed out that guy in the red cap as her husband. So I pointed out that guy in the knit cap as my husband.

Oh, you’re gay! That’s wonderful. I’m so supportive of gay marriage. Texas is just awful. I can’t stand our lawmakers. Congratulations! That’s so wonderful!

We chatted about our trips some more. And about our wedding. For the rest of the day, we’d chat for a bit whenever we encountered each other on the boat.

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Cheval Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

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Aialik Peninsula

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Aialik Peninsula (Note the boat for scale.)

We continued down the peninsula, finally heading out toward a huge, looming island, No Name Island, which was part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Captain Mark held his cards close to his chest, but he knew what we’d find on the far side of the island…

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No Name Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

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Aialik Peninsula (Note the boat for scale.)

Sea Lions!

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Steller’s Sea Lions, No Name Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

Video: Sean M. Santos (wide-angle), Brandon Hayes (close-up)

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Steller’s Sea Lions, No Name Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

Although this group was robust, napping or roaring or swimming, Sea Lions in the western part of the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands have experienced a major decline in numbers. They are rebounding a bit now, but researchers aren’t sure what caused the die off, whether its part of a long term natural cycle or the impact of over fishing. That’s the thing we would be struck with time and again in Alaska. We non-Native people haven’t been around long enough in Alaska…or even in North America…to truly understand the sweep of natural systems.

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Steller’s Sea Lions, No Name Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

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Steller’s Sea Lions, No Name Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

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Glaucous-Winged Gulls, No Name Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

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No Name Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

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No Name Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

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Glaucous-Winged Gulls, Marbled Murrelet, Common Murres

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No Name Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

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Steller’s Sea Lions, No Name Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

We departed No Name Island, rounded Aialik Cape, the tip of Aialik Peninsula, and began crossing Aialik Bay.

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Aialik Cape

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Aialik Cape

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Aialik Cape

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Aialik Cape (foreground), No Name Island (middle ground), Alaska mainland (background)

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Chat Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

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Aialik Peninsula

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Aialik Peninsula

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Chiswell Islands, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

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Glacier Explorer’s sister ship. This is essentially what we looked like on the water.

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Aialik Bay

In deciding which tour to take, the major decision was between the eight-hour tour that explored Aialik Bay or the nine-hour tour into Northwestern Fjord. I fretted about that decision for days as we were planning the trip. Ultimately, though, because we were also going to Glacier Bay, we opted for Northwestern Fjord. Aialik Bay and Glacier Bay felt fairly similar. But the clincher was that many online reviews said that if you really want to see a lot of wildlife, go with Northwestern Fjord.

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Aialik Bay

And so we went with Northwestern Fjord, and after crossing Aialik Bay we approached it in earnest. Captain Mark observed that this was the farthest point most tour boats reach. Now we’d have the waters essentially to ourselves.

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Dora Passage between Harbor Island (left) and Harris Peninsula (right)

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Harris Peninsula

We hugged the outer coast of Harris Peninsula, which separates Aialik Bay and Northwestern Fjord.

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Harris Peninsula

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Harris Peninsula

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Harris Peninsula

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Harris Peninsula

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Matushka Island (left) and Lone Rock, Chiswell Islands, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

3 thoughts on “Kenai Fjords National Park: Where the Mountains Meet the Sea

  1. Pingback: Kenai Fjords National Park: In Northwestern Fjord | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

  2. Pingback: Kenai Fjords National Park: The Chiswell Islands of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

  3. Pingback: Alaska Interlude: The Alaska SeaLife Center, Seward | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

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