Dispatches from the Far North, Part V (Seward and the Fjords)
SEARCHING FOR SERVICE. I peered down at my phone, bleary-eyed, at 5:30am, forgetting that there was no phone or WiFi signal at our cabin. Just as well, I thought. We're in rural Alaska - embrace it. There was, however, service at the main office, a quarter-mile up the dirt road, and we stopped there, morning and evening, to catch up on messages prior to heading out or retiring. While it felt good to unplug, I'm all for balance; being completely cut off didn't feel quite right either.
Our first day on the Peninsula had arrived, and I was excited to take a 6-hour guided boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park. First, though, we had to make the 20-minute "commute" to a delightful coastal Alaskan town.
Seward (pronounced SOO-erd), pop. ~3,000, rewards the visitor with a handsome, if somewhat gritty, harbor and downtown. It's a mix of real-world fishermen and outdoor-themed stores with the inevitable gift shops and other tourist-related infrastructure. Despite the latter, some might even call the town cute. Thankfully, in mid-September, there was plenty of room to explore the historical environs.
What makes this town more than just another tourist haven is its stop-in-your-tracks magnificent setting. After gawking at great pyramidal peaks, one turns 180 degrees and is faced with a stunning harbor surrounded by more mountains. These are no slumping hills, either - they're the apexes of children's paintings - pointy, snow-covered, and oh so dramatic.
Normally this is a town of fog, low clouds, and a tremendous amount of rain - 73+ inches per year. In fact, 9.86 of those inches (13%) on average fall in September, the most of any month! Our good fortune at having what would be two consecutive bluebird days was almost unfathomable. Perhaps if conditions had been more typical, my starry-eyed impressions would have been turned on their ear.
A sunny day in Seward, then, is pure enchantment - the stuff of daydreams. The crag-ensconced bay rippled gently, cloaked in reflections of sultan-esque gold. An occasional kittiwake or bald eagle cleaved the brilliantly crisp air. The whole scene was framed by the aforementioned precipices, protectors of the harbor since time immemorial.
Temperatures were in the mid-50s but felt warmer as there was very little wind. Sounds ranged from helicopters and small planes giving folks lifetime memories to hushed conversations between awestruck couples at ground level.
Thinking we'd grab a quick breakfast at a local diner, we sweated it out as our food took way too long to arrive. The music was some of the twangiest imaginable, making the wait feel even longer. We then had approximately 8 minutes to gobble down our breakfast and book it over to the boat tour office.
This experience was similarly harried. Probably 80 people (masked, thankfully) were stuffed into a space the size of a dentist's waiting room, trying to check in for the boat tour. There were no ropes, signs, or other guidance for where to line up, so folks were left to fend for themselves, asking each other "is this the line?" "No, it starts over there". For such a well-respected tour company, the lack of organization was abominable.
We were on the boat soon enough though, and all was forgiven when our fair vessel, the Aialik Voyager, sprung to life and cast off from the crowded dock. It was to be a day of more excessive grandeur, almost so much that I felt guilty enjoying this while others were stuck in cubicles, or worse: waiting for their food with that awful country music blaring in the slow-as-molasses diner... shudder.
I don't think I've ever been seasick in my life, but at one point when we hit the open sea I did feel a bit queasy. When lunch was served (a chicken caesar wrap whose lack of chicken was masked by some interesting vegetable arrangements), I didn't even want to look at it.
We were seated across from a couple, perhaps 60, from Petaluma, CA. The man, a Troy Aikman lookalike but for his outdated 90s-style jacket, provided pleasant conversation for much of the day. The wife was so soft-spoken that I struggled to hear her over the din of the vessel, despite angling my ear toward her awkwardly when she talked to me.
Really though, we were never seated for more than 30-45 minutes, but rather kept walking around outside: fantastical rock outcroppings here, a massive glacier there. Adjusting sunglasses, winter hat, ballcap, and mask every time I walked around became comical and tiresome, but those were minor annoyances compared to the expansive teal brilliance around us.
I was a bit disappointed to not see any whales or porpoises all day. Our wildlife was limited to a single otter - who teased us by popping up then emerging again somewhere far off - some sea lions sunning themselves on a boulder (above), and a distant bald eagle.
The glacier itself was spectacular, but our enjoyment of it was dampened by the knowledge of how much it had receded since (pick a year). We would learn more about this the following day, when we'd approach a different glacier... on foot.
Our second day in Seward was a Sunday, and began with a trip to Mass. Good Lord, did we have a lot to be thankful for! We found a tiny church in between downtown and the harbor. As always, it felt right to be here. Amazingly, the priest was originally from a small New England town near where dad grew up. In fact, there were several northeasterners in the church that morning as well. As 'small world'y as that is, I also didn't like it. I didn't fly 8 hours to be surrounded by people from my own part of the country!
It made me think about Alyse and Julia (whom I had been able to call yesterday despite the poor signal and four-hour time difference), and all the people I love in this world. My initial guilt at coming on this trip had long been suppressed, but that didn't mean it was totally gone. I'm so prone to second-guessing myself, and I question constantly whether my decisions are right (morally or otherwise; should I have chosen cheddar on my burger instead of Swiss?). Tough as it is to admit, that issue that many would consider minor can sometimes cripple me.
I was heartened that morning by a memorable line in the homily: "Saints are just sinners who never stopped trying." I'm human. I make mistakes. If my heart is in the right place though (which I think it usually is), that's worth a lot. If I do make a wrong decision, let it go and move on. Learn from it. Do better next time. Don't. Stop. Trying.
My heart felt lighter having heard that. When we emerged from the tiny church, the warm sun brightened my face and I knew that, despite all the internal chaos, I'd be OK. Maybe more than OK. No matter how dark the night, it's always followed by a sunrise.
After a fantastic, eye-opening trip to the Alaska SeaLife Center (a major portion of which was funded by Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement funds), it was time to do a bit of hiking. We reluctantly departed downtown Seward for the last time, stopping briefly at a roaring cataract.
We then entered Kenai Fjords National Park a second time, by land. Armed with highly recommended bear spray and an air horn for safety, we trekked over and through landscapes straight out of a painting. Sometimes, the backdrop for photos didn't even look real.
Finally, Exit Glacier presented itself. Any enjoyment of seeing a glacier close-up was dampened considerably by the realization of just how fast this icy leviathan was receding. Throughout the hike, there were markers noting where the glacier had been, beginning with the 1800s. When we got to the 2005 marker, I was thoroughly astonished.
In the grand scheme of our lifetimes - and infinitely more so, the planet's lifetime - 2005 was not that long ago. I realize that to some extent natural changes in the environment are inevitable, but this was a wake-up call the likes of which I'd never seen. The stout breeze tousled my limited hair supply as I pondered these mixed feelings: awe at nature, and disappointment at humankind for our contribution to its gradual destruction.
Our time in Seward was up. We returned to our cabin, another Alaskan extravaganza having taken hold of our senses. Daylight was slowly fading, but I made time for a final evening walk to Kenai Lake, reveling in cool, contemplative solitude.
I had begun the day instinctively looking at a phone seeking service. Now my gaze rested on the calmness of gently rippling waves and broad-shouldered mountains ready for another evening's slumber. The scale of nature here still blew my mind.
What was I seeking? What are any of us seeking? As I yawned, I realized the search would continue tomorrow, and every subsequent day. Perhaps it's best to acknowledge the impossibility of fully satisfying our restless nature in this world. For now though, appreciation of what was right there in front of me - and what awaited me back home - was satisfaction enough.
It was almost time to bid a fond farewell to Alaska, but Dad and I had one last place on our itinerary. We were heading north yet again...