Our original plan was to head to the Russian River next, another famed salmon opportunity. There’s also a hike we were very excited about – one to Russian River Falls where you can see the bears catching salmon. The only access to this river is at the Russian River Campground. We were hoping that arriving on a Monday would be perfect timing as many locals only camp on weekends. (Other RV tourists are here for several weeks or months so weekdays are the same as weekends to us.) We arrived to find the campground was full from reservations and we couldn’t get in. We decided to go ahead with the hike since we were there and wanted to see the river. The website had said the hike was 2.4 miles so we grabbed a water bottle and bear spray. Turns out that 2.4 miles was one way. When we got to the entrance gate, we were told our rig wouldn’t fit at the trailhead so we would need to hike down the road an extra mile (each way.) It was a beautiful hike though, well worth the walking. The falls were bigger than we expected. We stood for awhile and watched the salmon attempt to swim up them. Saw a lot of efforts, no successes. A local docent said 70-80% of salmon eventually make it up, which sure surprised us based on the failure rate we saw. There was a fish ladder there as well but they only use it in years that the fish run is low. Much to our disappointment, we didn’t see any bears on the trail or at the falls. The Russian River was much smaller than the Kenai and crystal clear. The water level was shallow too, with many rocks that would make fishing tricky. We found out that we could walk another 1-1.5 miles (each way) to get to the confluence of the Russian and Kenai Rivers and that is where the majority of the fishing was happening. You know Mark wanted to check that out! (And that is how our hike turned from 2.4 miles into 10+.) We kept walking and sure enough, we approached a scene similar to that of the Kenai, milky turquoise water, thigh high, flowing fast into the much smaller Russian. There were fisherman about the same distance apart as the Kenai, though their techniques looked a bit more varied and the catch rate and fish size seemed to be much smaller from what we could see and those we talked to. All in all, we enjoyed the hike and decided not to stay in the area after all.
After a long day of travel and hiking, we pulled into Seward around 7pm. We knew it would be too late to find a campsite so we found a pretty place to boondock (see photo below) right near Exit Glacier, along the Resurrection River. We never unhook when we boondock so it makes for a quick morning of minimal preparation. Seward is another town with city owned oceanfront campsites and that was the aim. Their campgrounds are first come, first served, with no reservations so our goal was to arrive around 11am and catch a newly vacated spot ideally located by the ocean. Exit Glacier had 2 hiking options so we headed there first and opted for the 2 mile hike to the overlook. Officially in Kenai Fjords National Park, it gives us a new national park to cross off our list. As we were approaching a ranger led hike, I saw him pointing out a berry plant I had been wondering about. It’s called a watermelon berry and I overheard the ranger say it was in fact edible. We passed the group and I found a plant and plucked a berry and threw it in my mouth. What do you know? It tastes like watermelon, totally like watermelon. Crazy! I ate a few on the trail but didn’t stop to collect any. There were markers starting along the road we drove in on with numbers. We later learned those marked where the glacier terminated that year. The glaciers have been receding since the late 1800s, though more quickly since the 1970s.
We pulled into the Marathon campground, the first along the cove of city campgrounds, with fingers crossed. Just in time to see someone pulling out of an ideal location. He waved as he passed, as if telling us to enjoy his previous spot, but when we got to the campsite, he had left a few bins so we weren’t sure if he was leaving or coming back. Mark parked the camper so we could walk the campground and see if we could find a spot. The car who had left was stopped at the dumpster to dispose of his trash so I asked him if he was leaving. When he said yes, I mentioned that there was a bin still there. He was so happy that I told him! Turns out it was a box that absolutely could not be forgotten. He retrieved his box and we scored on a great site! Parking in Seward turned out to be very tricky, with pay lots everywhere. Our campground was an easy half mile walk to downtown so we were able to walk to dinner and shopping. We toodled around, taking in the new city for the day.
When I research a city, I look up all the options we might want to do and write them down. Then when we arrive, we evaluate what we actually want to do. This was one place with a lot of options that we pared down fairly quickly. Originally, I was really looking forward to sea kayaking here. I pictured gliding up to glaciers and maneuvering around massive ice chunks in the ocean, with possible whale and otter sightings. It turns out the tour I had envisioned cost $425 a person and involved paddling over 10 miles, which was not our cup of tea. The much shorter and more affordable kayak trip was just in Resurrection Bay, far from ice, and was basically what we could see every day from our camper windows. Needless to say, we scratched the kayak trip. We had planned to do a glacier and wildlife cruise in Valdez, but when I found out that Seward’s glacier cruise was in Kenai Fjords National Park, it was an easy decision to sign up. We chose the Northwestern Fjord tour, which was 9 hours, and scheduled it fo the next day.
We made the right decision! We weren’t in the boat longer than 20 minutes when the captain spotted the first whale – a fin whale. I never actually saw it, but Mark was able to see the spout from it’s blowhole. It really was a whale of a day! Really killer! Especially on hump day. Okay, enough whale puns for one paragraph, but we did get to see two pods of orcas, also known as killer whales even though they aren’t actually whales. In fact they are a relative of dolphins. The first pod of 9 were resident orcas, meaning they live in Alaska year round. The second pod toward the end of the day were transients who migrate. While we got good views of them, they never gave us a great show so our pictures reflect what we saw, identifiable whales who kept most body parts in the water. Our boat captain was most excited about birds so we learned a lot more about birds than would normally peak our interest. Then again, it is pretty fascinating to know that the cute and popular puffins can dive 300 feet and swim by flying underwater as opposed to peddling their feet. They look like flying footballs when they fly in the air and must continuously flap their wings to stay airborne, with no possibility for gliding or soaring without falling. There were 3 kinds of myrrh birds, which can dive 600 feet and learn to swim before they learn to fly. Luckily when we were supposed to be learning about birds, there were generally other marine mammals like stellar sea lions or harbor seals around to watch. We spotted some sea otters, but none close enough to take pictures of. Because otters don’t have much body fat, they have to eat 1/3 their body weight every day to keep warm in these waters!
Glaciers are definitely cool. A Fjord is the void a glacier has carved, then filled in by sea water as the glacier receded. We spent half an hour sitting at the face of the Northwestern Glacier hoping for a show. The warm temps and weight of the ice causes huge chunks to fall off, with a satisfying display of calving. You can see the chunks fall long before the distinctive cracking sound actually catches up, which means you have to keep watching the glacier if you hope to see any action. Our glacier had some minor calving action, but nothing to write home about. Once again, we were otherwise entertained by the seals who were warming up by beaching themselves on chunks of floating ice at the surface of the water next to the glacier. They hang out there to escape predators as well as to warm up. They arc their bodies so that as little of their surface area is touching the ice as possible to best increase their body temp, oddly comfortable hanging out looking like seal bananas. Mark has taken to calling them sausages on ice. Though we only sat in front of the one glacier, we were in a valley surrounded by 7 glaciers so it was an awe inspiring view day.
Though the captain attempted to find more whales on the way home, even going farther out into the ocean and heavy waves, he somehow found extra time to go view more birds. It wasn’t until we turned back into our home bay that we spotted the humpback. It was slapping its’ tail in the water over and over, almost begging for us to come take a closer look. The cool/frustrating thing about whales is they go under and disappear and you have no idea when or where they will pop up. We were in for a treat as this humpback reappeared right next to our boat. Mark got some tail shots, but my 5’2″ frame was unable to get a good viewpoint or camera shot as the whale swam from one side of the boat to the other. The last Orca pod rounded out our trip to end the tour the way it began, with beautiful black and white marine mammals. The day was a great introduction to this new to us national park and we were thrilled to have enjoyed this awesome day on the ocean! We celebrated our fantastic day by splurging on king crab legs and ribeye for dinner. Alaskan king crab that is caught down south in the Dutch Harbor area (of Deadliest Catch fame.) In order to maximize their short fishing season (Oct through beginning of November), the fishing boats dump their freshly caught crab at a floating processing station that boils, cuts, and freezes the crab legs instead of having to come back to shore with each haul.
Again going back to research and expectations, some things we have to make decisions on once we actually get somewhere. I was very excited about the hike to Caine’s Head. Rated a top 10 trail in Alaska, we packed up lunch and the dog in preparation for sheer amazement at this coastal hike. In fact, this hike had to be meticulously timed with the tides. Miles 3-5 had to be done at low tide or it would be covered in water. While we could have done a 7.8 mile one way hike, we wouldn’t have been able to come back in one day because that area of beach would be underwater by the time we returned. We had an option to pay $37 per person for a one way water taxi, which we require further careful timing and planning. We finally decided to keep it simple and do a shorter out and back. We got up at 5am in order to start the trail at 6am. The first two miles were absolutely stunning and reminded us of Washington state. The trail cut through ferns and such lush growth that the trees had moss hanging from every branch. Red berries waved from elderberry bushes, devil’s club, and even ripe salmonberries. Part of the trail was on boardwalk that elevated us off the forest floor a few inches. Seward gets enough precipitation to be considered a temperate rainforest. At mile 2, the trail opened up to a view of the ocean and surrounding glaciers. Our timing was spot on as the water was well below the area we needed to walk. We were expecting beach (meaning sand) to walk on. The reality was big rocks, slippery rocks that were wet just minutes before, day ending bone breaking rocks. After half a mile of cautiously hop stepping, we decided the risk of injury outweighed our adventure factor. Instead of heading back right away, we just sat down and enjoyed the view. An otter played in front of us. As fate would have it, our cell phones worked so we both made some work calls. Hard to beat our office view today! Before starting back, we chatted with a Boy Scout troup who was kayaking and camping their way down the bay. We munched our midmorning sandwiches close to a stream so we could watch the chum (AKA dog) salmon beginning their journey. I spotted and tasted some blueberries. Though blue, they were not ripe yet and quite tart.
We enjoyed campfires and s’mores with the couple camped next to us on 2 of the 3 evenings in Seward. A small cruise ship arrived in port each day we were there. Though several days is not enough to see everything in one place, we feel we got a reasonable glimpse into another unique Alaskan coastal town. It was a good balance of adventure, discovery, and relaxation.