In the grand scheme of my time in Alaska, I had a day last week that I can easily throw into the top five. It was a simple concept, a travel package including a ride down to Seward & back, then some time out at sea. Fateful Bear Feeders know that I am no stranger to Seward, and this would be the fourth time I would take a boat out of there too. So what made this so spectacular? Well, there are lots of places you can go that are amazing in Alaska, there are a lot of ways to get there that can be amazing, and there are just experiences that make it amazing. This day had all three.
It’s common for me to tell visitors, “If you have an hour to kill, make sure you drive Turnagain Arm; if you have a day drive to Seward.” Heading down there you get to see some of the most compact beauty that changes and excites the mind. I’ve gone off about Turnagain before, and the rest of the drive to Seward; so I will spare you the details here. In short what makes it so incredible to visit is just the towering Mountains rising up from the sea, with wildlife and glaciers spotting the landscape. Since we went out on a boat, that meant sealife, more glaciers, and the the great expanse of the Northern Pacific Ocean.
Thing is, if it was just a drive, then it would have been great. Instead, this time, the day I spent to Seward included a hundred mile ride on the Alaska Railroad (ARR). The ARR is much like your Lower 48 railroads that it is a vital transport of goods around the state (well, not ‘around’ the state, just Seward to Anchorage to Fairbanks and points in between). Unlike those you see down there, it also does a lot of passenger traffic — most of which is sightseeing tours. Everyday a train runs down to Seward and back again solely for the purpose of tourism. Even the schedule supports this fun, because it leaves out of Anchorage before 7AM, spends enough time down in Seward to do whatever fun you want to do, then heads back so you can have dinner and be back in Anchorage by 10:30PM. Sure, a full day, but still a day trip. Sure, I’ve driven to Seward a few times and really enjoyed it, but there are benefits for the train ride. The first 40 miles along Turnagain Arm, one of the prettiest drives by car in America, comes in a different perspective as the train goes higher or lower than the road. Then as the road heads through the Kenai Mountain valleys, the train runs along glacial pastures before heading up and over high summits. The land is more untouched and wildlife is more unafraid. Along the way you get a few tunnels, some incredible vistas of mountain lakes, and a final run down into the fjords of Resurrection Bay.
When we arrived in Seward, we immediately jumped a bus, took a ride over to the harbor, then was on a boat within a half an hour. Heck, that transition was just as fast getting back to the train that night. That’s not by accident. The Kenai Fjords Boat Tours have sea tours designed for the ARR day traveler, and it seemed our train was full of people doing the same routine. The worry we had of making our boat or making our train was nearly laughable with the ease it took to get it done.
Like I said, to make a really amazing day, you still need the experiences. What can really change for a trip like this is weather and wildlife. Threatened with rain throughout the day, we didn’t see it until nearly home. Not just that, but we had near nil winds. This meant that the seas were smooth and the water pretty flat. At times, that meant that those summit lakes were nothing but a mirror for the grand landscape around it.
But this wildlife thing … this was where things stepped up. On the train, we saw a mountainside of Dall Sheep, moose as small as babies and as big as the fullest rack you have seen. We spotted a bear, we spotted beaver, and nearly a dozen bald eagles stood by or chased us at some point during the rides.
That’s when we got to the boat; and that is when my day became epic. I love a good day at sea, and it’s a bonus if I can see me a whale or two. In my life during different cruises, I’d say I have seen three or four whales lifetime. Beat that! From the moment we left the harbor the captain told us to keep an eye out for a humpback, and there it was. The further out we got, there was a clear sign something was up when the we seemed to be driving away from the Glaciers – then she let us in on the secret, there was a pod of Orca (killer whales). They say it’s uncommon to see Orca here, and when they do, its odd to see more than one family meaning you could see maybe 2 to 5 at any time. I counted 15. It was a frickin’ family reunion out there. We had three more humpback experiences, once one just showed up a hundred feet off the front of the bow. Then the Fin Whales peaked their heads in there. Throughout the day, we had Dall’s Porpoises – which are dolphins that look like baby orca down to the coloring – wanted to play. Like literally, they wanted to play. They swam within 10 feet of the boat, jumping through the wake, and watching us as the dove and leaped.
The most common thing I heard on the boat and on the train was: “We don’t see this often, but ..” It was truly an amazing set of experiences continually hitting us the whole day.