Three weeks in Alaska yielded a huge species list. That it happened to come out to exactly one hundred identified species is a coincidence. Although by the time our count was in the mid-nineties, I went back and checked and double-checked to see if we could get the satisfaction of one hundred. It’s a good thing that I did, since I’d have forgotten the Steller’s Jay if I hadn’t. Obviously, we saw a great many more species than this (particularly plants), but these were the ones we could identify successfully. The one hundred breaks down as follows: nineteen mammals, thirty-eight birds, no reptiles or amphibians, one fish, eight mollusks/jellyfish/etc., one insect, four blooming wildflowers, twelve trees, and seventeen other plants or non-blooming wildflowers or fungi.
Saturday morning, September 5 marked the beginning of the end of our time in Alaska. At noon, the ferry LeConte would depart Gustavus, and on it our two-say journey home would commence.
But first, we had some last-minute things to do at Glacier Bay National Park.
Our nine-hour boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park continued. That morning, Thursday, August 20, we’d traveled out of Resurrection Bay and down the coast, then in the early afternoon, we’d explored Northwestern Fjord. Now it was time for our last major stop before returning to Seward: The Chiswell Islands, part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Established like so many other public lands in Alaska by the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980, the Refuge is administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and covers 4.9 million acres from the Gulf of Alaska to the Chukchi Sea. Although they are administered by two different services of the Department of the Interior, here off the coast of Kenai Fjords National Park, the National Wildlife Refuge and the National Park act in concert to protect wildlife.
It was just about ten minutes after noon on Thursday, August 20 when the Glacier Explorer rounded Aligo Point at the tip of Harris Peninsula and entered Granite Passage, which would lead us into Harris Bay and its farthest extent, Northwestern Fjord. The morning had taken us from Seward down the length of Resurrection Bay and then along the fjords and peninsulas of Kenai Fjords National Park.
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.
Kenai Fjords National Park was established in December 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which also created six others of the eight National Parks in Alaska. The act resolved the general distribution of remaining federal lands within the state, transferring acreage to various entities, including the State of Alaska, but also retaining millions of acres within federal protection as parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, etc.
As ANILCA worked its way through Congress in the late 1970s, it had much vocal on-the-ground opposition from Alaskans and much lobbyist opposition from the extraction industries. The bill stalled multiple times, causing President Jimmy Carter to establish a series of National Monuments in 1978, among them Kenai Fjords, to ensure the protection of the most important parcels in case ANILCA stalled out completely.
Including a later expansion, Kenai Fjords National Park comprises 670,000 acres of rugged coastline, glaciers, mountains, and deep fjords. It is capped by the Harding Icefield, the largest icefield contained entirely within the United States, 300 square miles of ice spawning forty glaciers. It receives about 280,000 visitors a year.
The northern section of Kenai Fjords lies west (and above) the town of Seward (population 2,500). Seward, established in 1903 and once boasting the start of the Iditarod dog sled race, has seen boom and bust cycles based on railroad construction, shipping, fishing, and tourism. Its easy rail and highway access to Anchorage makes it an important terminus for various Alaska cruises. Its dramatic location on Resurrection Bay and its proximity to wilderness recreation make it a popular draw for Alaskans in the population centers north. And it functions as a gateway community for three major federal lands, Chugach National Forest, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and of course Kenai Fjords National Park.
Sean and I departed on our honeymoon trip to Alaska on Tuesday, August 18, 2015. Although there is a direct flight between Chicago and Anchorage on Alaska Airlines, we were flying on American Airlines because of the stipulations of Sean’s prize. Save that we had to make a connection through Dallas-Fort Worth, flying on American was just fine because it is our carrier of choice.