Kenai Peninsula

Saturday was a very long day, beginning with a 5:50 am departure from our B&B.  We were up early to catch the to Coastal Classic train, traveling 6 hours down the Kenai Peninsula to Seward for some maritime exploration of the Resurrection Fjord.  Crystal, wildlife spotter par excellence and a great photographer, contributed several photos to this post.

At the train station entry.

When we arrived, the Anchorage station was jammed with people waiting to board this very popular scenic train ride.

We were booked into Gold Star service, which comes with second floor dome top seating, breakfast in a fancy dining car and 2 free alcoholic beverages. (At 7am??  Yes, for some folks.)

Once free of Anchorage’s sprawling suburbs, our train traveled south along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, past miles of mudflats created through deposition of glacial silt.

Kenai means “flat land” in Athabaskan, although the Kenai range is very high – peaks rise average 4000 feet from sea level.

Captain Cook was looking for a sea passage through North America to Europe when he visited Alaska. He named this inlet “Turnagain”  in frustration after being turned back again and again while searching for a through route.

There is a 10 foot difference between low and high tide on these Cook Inlet arms, creating marvelous sculptural mud art. 

This route has several whistle stop and portage depots, serving as pick-up and drop-off points for people heading into the Kenai wilderness.

Wildlife spotted along the way included nesting swans in the Potter Creek marsh, dozens of bald eagles perched on trees and feeding on the marsh near Girdwood, and a moose with calf running from the train near the Placer River Bridge. No pictures, sadly, since I’m not a good enough photographer to capture wildlife from a moving train – the passing landscape is challenging enough! But here are a couple of representative marsh photos to help you build a picture in your mind’s eye.

Dining was in the car’s lower level, accessed via a narrow circular stariway like those on double decker buses. 

Each Gold Star coach has its own kitchen with at least half a dozen employees. Service was of the white napkin style common in earlier eras of train travel.

With the Turnagain Arm behind us, we traveled back into winter, with snowfields and glaciers all around us. The Kenai Mountains are topped with multiple glaciers, many extending down from the 700 square mile Harding Icefield (which spans over over 1100 square miles if you include the adjacent glaciers).

This river is fed by the Spencer Glacier, visible from the train.

We passed through Moose Meadows, then followed Moose Creek up to Moose Pass (I’m sensing a theme here…), passing through several tunnels along the way.

On the other side, we traveled beside Upper and Lower Trail Lake to Crown Point,

Climbing up Grandview Pass, there is an abandoned S curve train line, where the train used to curve around itself to climb a grade too steep for earlier engines to manage.

Descending on the other side of the pass, we traveled back to temperate forest, following the 23 mile long Kenai Lake for much of the descent into Seward.

The Seward Train station is tiny and very informal,with luggage simply dropped beside the train for pick up.

Seward today has a population of about 2800 people, but it was Alaska’s major industrial port until 50 years ago. Alaska experiences minor earthquakes about every five minutes because it sits astride the Paciic and North American tectonic plates, which are constantly pushing against one another. In 1964, the state exeperienced an earthquake measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale which lasted five minutes – 2nd largest ever recorded anywhere on earth. Centered around Kenai, the quake dropped the land surface by 10 feet and generated a tsunami with waves uo to 220 feet,  obliterating many towns, including Seward  The town of Seward was rebuilt, but the industrial port was moved to Anchorage.

Kenai Fjords 2D.

Today,  Seward’s port hosts mostly tourism and fishing boats – many, many, many boats.

We walked all the way down to the end of the harbor to join our find our small Seward Ocean Excursions boat, captained by the amzing Elena Wisecarver.  I highly recommend this company, and Elena was an amazing pilot and guide.

Our 3+hour tour (cue Gilligan’s Island theme) took us cove-hopping down the west side Resurrection Fjord past Callisto Head for a glimpse of Bear Glacier (part of the Harding Icefield), and east across the inlet to islands and cliffs with seabirds nesting, then turning north to return to the Seward harbor.

Resurrection Bay.
Kenai Fjords 3D.

Right after launching, we came across this Northern Sea Otter otter, unconcernedly munching on a starfish as boats trawled by. Otters will eat anything they can get their little claws around – including hard shell species like mussles. Their jaws have the same biting power as a leopard.

Past the harbor breakwater, we encountered hundreds of gulls, terns and kittiwakes feasting on scraps froma a fish canning operation located at the head of the inlet.

We encountered a family of otters in typical otter pose: floating on their backs, back feet pointed skyward.  

We were lucky with weather, and travel across the water inside the inlet was very smooth.  

Near Caines Head at the end of the inlet, we pulled in close for views of geologic features and with hopes of spotting Dall Sheep

We saw five (!) pairs of female Dall Sheep with newborn lambs near the base of the cliffs at Caines Head. The females descend to the shingle beaches to give birth, then hang out on the lower slopes with their young lambs for safety from bears – although the tiny lambs are still vulnerable to predation by Bald Eagles.

The water got very choppy (“sporty” in Elena’s terms) as we ventured around Callisto Point into the more open waters of the Bay. We took a quick peek at the massive Bishop’s Glacier, then rocked and rolled back into the inlet for intensive birding on the eastern side.

Birding was great all through the trip, including views of the much sought after Horned and Tufted Puffins. Below is gallery of Crystal’s bird list for the day. (Photos courtesy of Cornell Labs’ All About Birds, creatorts of the Merlin bird identification app, since rolling water and fast birds made photography very tough for us.)

Black Oystercatcher

Marbeled Murrelet

Marbled Murrelet.

Pigeon Guillemot

Pigeon Guillemot.

Common Murre

Common Murre.

 Black-legged Kittiwake

Black-legged Kittiwake.

Arctic Tern

Arctic Tern.Pelagic Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorant.

And…drumroll.. the stars of the show, Horned and Tufted puffins – who zoom around like little aerial race cars.  Elena gave us a mnemonic to remember which was which: Tufted  are tough guys, dressed  in black, Horned are elegant, wearing tuxedoes.

Puffins live entirely at sea as juveniles, returning as adults to same nesting cliff on which they hatched when they begin to breed. Tufted Puffins sport feathery plumes for the breeding season, and burrow deep into the earth to create their nests,

Horned Puffins sport little fleshy ridges (the “horns”) above their eyes. Unlike other puffin species, these guys nest in crevices on rocky ledges. It was the start of breeding season here, and we saw two Horned Puffins fly into little gaps on the cliff. Puffins lose the gaudy beak after breeding season.

Several of these species nest on rocky cliffs on the islands we visited across from Callisto Point, with gulls dominating by numbers.

We saw Stellar Sea Lions swmiing and basking on convenient rock faces.

We returned to dock windblown and joyful after a marvelous afternoon. 

We rode the Coastal Classic train back to Anchorage, departing Seward at 6pm and arriving at our B&B about 10:30 pm, tired and happy after a very full day.

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