Many Alaskans have grown up visiting Kenai Fjords National Park. Specifically, we've taken the boat trips from Seward to go see the glaciers, the mountains and the spectacular wildlife: whales, otters, puffins, seals, sea lions -- even the occasional mountain goat.
But the truth is that unless you have a boat the park is tough to navigate. You can hike into the park at Exit Glacier just outside Seward. But the most popular trail just leads to the toe of the glacier. There's a more strenuous trail that leads up to the Harding Icefield. It's impressive -- but it's impossible to get the same spectacular views that you get from the water.
The wild character of the park is one of the features that drew Kirk Hoessle to the Kenai Peninsula. Hoessle's company, Alaska Wildland Adventures, operates three lodges on the peninsula: Kenai Backcountry Lodge on the south shore of Skilak Lake, the Kenai Riverside Lodge in Cooper Landing and the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, deep in the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park.
There are a few other remote lodges in Resurrection Bay: Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge on Fox Island and Orca Island Cabins in Humpy Cove. But Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge is the only lodge inside the park. And unless you flew over the lodge near Pedersen Glacier, you wouldn't know it was there. It's tucked away from the shore. That's consistent with Hoessle's desire to minimize the lodge's impact on other park visitors. In fact, Alaska Wildland has a robust environmental impact philosophy -- this is a real "eco-lodge."
Hoessle developed the small lodge (there are just 16 cabins) in conjunction with the Port Graham Corporation, an Alaska Native corporation that had some land inside the park.
Glaciers, puffins, porpoises and more
When you visit the lodge, your adventure starts right at the dock in Seward. You'll be able to see the big glacier cruisers in the background, but your boat is somewhat smaller. The Wild Lander is a twin-engine high-speed catamaran customized for the lodge. It's an amphibious lander, so it can run up on the beach. That's good, since there's no dock at the lodge.
On the cruise from Seward, your crew will be on the lookout for wildlife. And yes, they're willing to slow down even for an otter or a puffin. However, a Dall's porpoise seemed to enjoy swimming alongside the boat as it was cruising at full speed.
After leaving Resurrection Bay and rounding the point into Aialik Bay, the Wild Lander takes a different course from the larger boats operated by Major Marine Tours and Kenai Fjords Tours. Instead of heading to the face of Aialik Glacier, the Wild Lander bears left and eases up to the face of Holgate Glacier. This massive glacier isn't as big across as Aialik, but the Wild Lander is typically the only boat there. If you want to visit Aialik Glacier, the lodge offers a full-day kayaking trip that launches from the beach.
After visiting Holgate Glacier, the Wild Lander runs up on the beach and the crew extends the long gangplank for an easy walk. Your bags get to ride in a trailer pulled by a four-wheeler. But you get to walk back to the lodge, less than a half-mile away. But your first stop is at the edge of the beach, where your guide gives you the Bear Talk. Of course, you're in the middle of bear country. The lodge has specific bear-related protocols, mostly regarding food. No food in your cabins. In fact, no food anywhere but the dining room. The staff also shares essential "bear-aware" behavior in case you encounter a bear on the trails. After the exciting safety briefing, everyone proceeds through the mossy woods to the lodge. Of course, everyone is clapping and making lots of noise!
Dining and a dash up the beach
Arrivals are set for mid-afternoon, so there's typically a chance for a hike or a paddle before dinner. The lodge is set on a small bluff overlooking one of two lagoons in front of Pedersen Glacier. Most of the cabins offer a full-on view of the glacier -- it's just stunning. We opted for a paddle around the lower lagoon just to get a better view of the surroundings. It's easy to see where the glacier has receded and the vegetation is filling in the barren rock; first comes the lichen, then a series of bushes and trees.
Meals at the lodge are sumptuous and delicious. Just grab a plate and help yourself to the buffet. Of course, there is an ample supply of fresh Alaska seafood, but it's not the only main dish. And the staff can accommodate most dietary restrictions. In between meals, there is no shortage of snacks, and they'll pack you a lunch in advance if you're headed out on a full-day adventure. The bar offers a good selection of Alaska microbrews and an eclectic choice of wines.
After dinner, we needed to get out and walk around after our long day on the water. As part of the bear safety talk, we were encouraged to hike with a friend and to make a lot of noise. We hiked back to the beach where we landed and just kept going. We didn't see anyone else, which is one of the blessings of being deep inside the park. All of the day boats had returned to Seward for the evening. And even if you're walking along the beach in midday, there are just a few boats that cruise this far out, and they are miles away, on track to see the face of the Aialik Glacier.
Even in midsummer, there can be a chill in the air. Hoessle and his team settled on propane to power the lodge and the well pump because it has the smallest environmental impact. In keeping with that small footprint, all of the cabins are built up off the ground and boardwalks connect many of the cabins to the main dining area.
Most travelers stay two or three days and choose one of the hiking or kayaking adventures each day. For the hiking trips, everyone gets in a big canoe and paddles across the lagoon to the trail head. We opted for a hike to the upper lagoon, which was choked with icebergs in front of Pedersen Glacier.
Our journey back to Seward was supposed to be pretty quick, but we kept seeing whales -- first humpbacks and then orcas.
Several guests on the return trip were headed to one of the other lodges as part of Alaska Wildland's "Guided Journeys" package. There are several variations, but travelers can stay two days at Skilak Lake, go fishing for a couple of days on the Kenai River and then come to Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge. Other itineraries include a visit to the Kantishna Roadhouse at the tail end of the road through Denali National Park.
Rates at the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge are all-inclusive. That means your transportation on the Wild Lander, your accommodations and all meals and activities are wrapped up in the price (the price does not include tips or charges for beer and wine). In peak season, the cost is $1,350 per person for three days and two nights. Between now and the end of the season on Sept. 5, Alaska Wildland is offering Alaskans two-for-one pricing on available dates. According to the reservations staff, there are more available dates starting Aug. 17. Call their office in Girdwood at 783-2928 or visit the website at alaskawildland.com.