After setting up at the really nice Williwaw Campground in Portage that we learned about from our friends Joe and Judy, we decided to drive our car to Whittier, which can only be reached via The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. The tunnel is the longest combo vehicle-railroad tunnel in North America. It is open to vehicle traffic to travel directly over the railroad track once per hour from each direction, subject to interruptions by train passages. The tunnel is 2.5 miles long and takes about 7 minutes to get through. The cost was $12.00 round-trip for the car, but a large RV would cost over $125.
Whittier is a very cool small fishing town that you might want to check. It is the gateway to Prince William Sound. The drive through the tunnel is a fun experience, and once you arrive and get parked there are several things you can do and see.
We walked and hiked almost all day, since it was nice out and we wanted some exercise. There is a great view of yet another glacier from the Shotgun Cove Hiking Trail, which is on the west end of town. You have to go through a pedestrian tunnel, which passes under all of the train tracks, to get downtown and on to this hiking trail. We stopped at a cove and saw some salmon trying to run upstream to spawn, as well as dead Salmon.
This is an easy walk on a new road that takes you past the abandoned Buckner Building, which was built in the 1950’s and was once the largest building in Alaska.
We had lunch at the Swiftwater Seafood Cafe at the harbor, and can’t recommend it enough! The food is very fresh, and the beer is served cold in frosty glasses. After walking several miles it got a “gold star” from us. It’s a tiny place, but you get just the right feeling about the atmosphere and service there.
After lunch, we walked all the way back to the tunnel to hike the Portage Glacier Pass Trail. The hike is a moderate one – a steady ascent for a mile, finishing at a promontory (elevation 750ft) that offers views of Portage Glacier and Passage Canal to the east. It took us about 45 minutes to hike up the trail, after the 30 minute walk from town. We were rewarded with a fantastic view of the Portage Glacier and surrounding mountains. This hike was a “WOW!”
When the sun is out, it brings a whole new perspective of the surroundings. It was a beautiful day at Whittier and everyone we saw were all enjoying the break in good weather.
One morning in Seward we woke up with a surprise, the sun showed up! When we reserved for the Kenai Fjords National Park tour, we were expecting rain and so were happy the sun chose to come out this day. We took a 7-hour cruise tour of the Kenai Fjords National Park and on board was a knowledgeable national park ranger to point out interesting wildlife and answer questions from the passengers. This tour also offered a prime rib and salmon lunch buffet that is actually very good.
We saw a lot of water wildlife on this tour, including humpback whales, sea otters, puffins, eagles and a bunch of dall porpoises that gave us a great show right next to the boat.
We learned how the fjords have been created as two tectonic plates collide and sea water fills in the glacier-carved valleys. We really enjoyed hearing and watching the Holgate and Aialik glaciers calving, as we were able to get very close with the small boat and then sit there and experience them. Very cool!
The many glaciers in the Kenai Fjords Park are spawn from the Harding Icefield, named after Pres Harding. This icefield is the largest icefield contained entirely within the United States and one of the reasons the park was established. Both Holgate and Aialik glaciers that we approached are tidewater glaciers terminating at sea level and calves directly into the ocean.
Although there were some swells as we crossed into the Gulf of Alaska (where Deadly Catch is filmed), it was a great tour and a great day. We heard different voices from the moaning of the Murres, to the grumble of Puffins and chirping of the Gull chicks. Not to be outdone, we heard the growling of the Steller sea lions and the slap of flukes of the Humpback whales and splashes of the playful Dall porpoises.
We recommend this tour (Major Tour Co) to everyone going to this part of Alaska!
After basking in the sun in Kenai, we packed up and moved to the southeastern side of the Kenai Peninsula to Seward. It is a small picturesque city ringed by steep mountains on one side and the sparkling waters of Resurrection Bay on the other. This is not only a fishing town but it also offers a little bit of everything, hence tagged as “Alaska starts here.”
We left the sun shine and drove thru rain again. The plan was to stay here for five days but the forecast for that time was rain, rain and more rain. The consolation however was that the RV park we stayed in had awesome views – we were entertained daily by playful sea otters, bald eagles, sea gulls, kayakers, and cruise ships passing over the bay outside our front window.
What to do on a rainy day and not get wet? Go see some animals at the Alaska SeaLife Center. The center serves as a marine research center as well as an educational institution. This sea life center is filled with amazing and wonderful displays of sea life and birds in Alaska that would otherwise be a rare sight. There is a bird rockery display where beautiful and cute puffins were flying around.
It continued to rain the following day, but we went ahead and explored Exit Glacier, one of the attractions in Seward. Exit Glacier is one of the most accessible by foot and it emerges from the Harding Icefield . We followed a moderately strenuous hike which lead us to the wall of the blue ice at the edge of the glacier. The trail has markers showing where it ended on various years as it continues to recede during the past hundred years.
After the 4th day we realized that the rain was going to continue, and we had seen just about everything we wanted to. So we hooked up the car and headed to Portage, which also had some nice surprises to offer.
After a few days in Homer, we back-tracked on the Sterling Highway and went up north to Kenai, the largest and the oldest city on the Kenai Peninsula . This was a “lazy stop,” since we had been in this area before and didn’t need to explore much. The RV park we stayed at had spectacular views of the Kenai River, Cook Inlet and on a clear day two of the four active volcanoes, Mt Redoubt and Mt Iliamna.
When we pulled into the park we noticed immediately that all of the guests seemed harried and in a frenzy, full of energy. We later learned that we arrived here at the peak time of the Kenai River personal use salmon dip netting season. The season began on July 10 and ends July 31. This is the period during which all Alaskans put everything on hold and fill their freezers with FRESH SALMON.
So what is dip netting? To dip net, anglers stand in the mouth of the River holding large nets with long handles. As the fish move from the ocean to the river, they swim along the shoreline in large groups. When the time is right, one can catch enormous amount of Salmon in this way. And this type of fishing is exclusive only to Alaska residents, no tourists allowed. However, the seasonal harvest limit is 25 per household, plus 10 per dependent, and all fish must be marked. As you can imagine, it’s somewhat of an “honor” system. As I mentioned in my previous blog, fishing regulations are complicated .
Old man showing off his catch
We became spectators of the shore-based dip netting frenzy at the Cook Inlet shoreline while we were there. Especially on the first day, we saw hundreds of fish literally jumping out of the water and into people’s nets. It was an amazing sight to see hundreds of people, including children, intent on the family project. Only in Alaska can you see this kind of frenzy.
On our last day here we were invited to a BBQ party in Nikiski, 17 miles from Kenai. I finally met Gemma in person whom I initially met on a Yahoo group for the high school I graduated from. We continued our friendship on FB and finally visited her and family in Nikiski. That was an exciting day for me and I met her husband also named Steve, her sisters and cousins. We had a great time and we met nice local residents.