We Alaskans are easy to please, it appears. Just give us one sunny weekend, and we're all shouting from the rooftops: "Spring has sprung!"
On a drive to Seward last weekend, it was a bluebird day -- and you couldn't find a parking spot for love nor money at many of the roadside turnouts along Turnagain Arm. Alaskans were out in force: hiking, rock climbing, checking out the critters -- or just laying out in the sun. It was about 45 degrees out. But 45 degrees never felt so good!!
Seward is an uber-popular summertime destination, but there are a couple of activities that put this picturesque town in play around April 1. First, the annual migration route of gray whales from Mexico runs right by Resurrection Bay. About 20,000 of the big beasts lumber on through the area on their way up to the Bering Sea. Major Marine Tours and CIRI's Kenai Fjords Tours both offer four-hour whale watching tours around Resurrection Bay between now and early May.
Anybody who cares enough to spy on wildlife from a boat in April will surely be inspired by a visit to the Alaska Sealife Center. It's open year-round and there's always a rotation of guest critters to keep things interesting. For the truly curious, I recommend the "back of the house" tour, such as the Marine Mammal Encounter. I've never seen sea lions up close and personal like this. It's a wonder to behold how the center's specialists can work with animals that could use one of their flippers to slap them into the next county.
It's possible to leave early in the morning from Anchorage and make Major Marine's 12 noon departure from the dock. It's a good idea to bring along your own snack. In fact, there's a Subway right across the street from the harbor. Most of the folks on board brought their own 12-inch sandwich with them, along with chips and a drink.
We sailed on the 65-foot "Viewfinder." It's a smaller boat, with a low-to-the-water profile. Capt. Nicole Lawrence likes it because "you can get closer to the animals."
We barely got out of the harbor before we spotted some otters. Of course, there are jillions of otters there in Seward, but these were particularly playful, so we putted in close so everyone could get a few pictures.
There is a big interior cabin on the boat -- and Major Marine provides binoculars for everyone. Even when we sailed through a "spring" snowstorm, most folks were outside trying to get a glimpse of the birds, the goats, the sea lions or other critters.
Indeed, Capt. Nicole know right where to look for eagles in the trees, goats along the shore and sea lions pulled up on the rocks. In the background was a selection of spectacular snow-covered mountains and smooth water. Out in front was an incredible variety of seabirds including puffins, cormorants, murres, kittiwakes and more. The only thing missing, it seemed, were the gray whales. But, as Capt. Nicole said at the beginning of the cruise, "Sometimes we see them, sometimes we don't."
It would have been nice to see the giant sea mammals, but we all had a great time watching the playful Dall's porpoise rolling on the bow wake from the boat. The cost for the four-hour Wildlife Cruise is $79 per person.
The wildlife cruise really sets you up for a visit to the Sealife Center. You can see up close many of the critters that you saw whizzing by in the wild: puffins, seals and sea lions. Then, you can see what's under the surface: the wolf eel, king crab, the halibut -- and the salmon. Kids in particular love staring at the fish through the thick plate glass windows. Don't forget to take the kids up to the "touch tanks" where they have invertebrates and other lagoon creatures.
Kids under 12 are permitted on only one of the back-of-the-house tours: the Pacific Octopus Encounter (they have to be at least 6, though). It's a chance to feed the giant octopus and learn more about "cephalopods."
The Marine Mammal Encounter definitely gets two "thumbs up" on the "WOW" scale. It's amazing to watch the Sealife Center staff train the seals and sea lions. And just watching each sea lion, for example, it's easy to see how each of them has its own distinct personality. The "encounters" are limited to four people. The cost is $79, in addition to your admission. Be sure and call ahead for reservations.
I recommend spending the night in Seward after a day on the water. I stayed at the Historic Van Gilder Hotel -- walking distance from the Sealife Center. The hotel was built in 1916 -- and there still are many artifacts from Seward's early history on display. Although there is a community kitchen on-site, there's no coffee service or food at the hotel. We went over to the Sea Bean Cafe for some tasty espresso. It's just a half a block down the street toward the Sealife Center. I think they have the fastest wireless Internet in town.
For breakfast, though, we hopped in the car and drove down to the "Train Wreck" by the harbor. This is a collection of three old train cars that form a triangle. It includes a bike rental place, a B&B and the Smoke Shack restaurant. It's worth the drive from Anchorage to get one of their delicious burritos. I love the huevos rancheros. Everything is good.
Use the wildlife cruise as a way to jump start your summer activities. Seward is fun, the drive is great and everyone will have a great time. Take time on the drive down to snap some pictures. The snow-capped mountains are just awesome!
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com.