Alaska News

In trip to Seward, Obama mixes business and sightseeing

SEWARD -- By air, by land, by sea, President Barack Obama saw the sights in Seward on Tuesday, both an excited tourist and studious observer in the presence of Alaska's most picturesque examples of climate change.

Even the president himself couldn't have ordered up the stunningly clear 60-degree day that presented itself in Southcentral Alaska on the second day of his three-day tour.

Marine One landed at the airport in Seward shortly before noon, along with five other helicopters filled with staff, press and his military detail. The sheer number of people, cars and general hubbub that traveled with the president in his roughly 20-car motorcade made every movement around the town of about 3,000 people a spectacle.

And the spectacle seemed generally welcome, at least among the throngs that lined the streets from the Seward Highway to Exit Glacier Road and downtown on Fourth Avenue, where the president stopped for an afternoon snack and chat with some local children he met on the street.

At times Obama seemed the ardent tourist -- out for a walk in the woods, checking out Exit Glacier, grabbing gelato at Sweet Darlings, taking a boat tour of Resurrection Bay.

But he was no tourist, and his trip came with a mission. Obama was in Seward to talk about climate change, to be photographed in front of glaciers that are retreating far faster than they once were, to push forward with his plan to land an international climate agreement in Paris in December.

But as the sun gleamed off the sparkling, teal water of Resurrection Bay and poured onto the green crests of the Kenai Mountains, the message fit smoothly into a day not unfamiliar to many Alaskans. Except that few Alaskans are greeted by streets lined with supporters touting flags and signs -- "Denali-sized welcome to Seward" and "Thanks Obama, no, seriously, thanks," to name a few.


And it's unlikely that the National Park Service shuts down Kenai Fjords National Park for anyone else, whether you bring scores of people with you or not.

Reporters scuttled down the path to a scenic viewing point for Exit Glacier just after noon Tuesday, where they awaited the president and heard a lesson in glacier retreat from Deborah Kurtz, an NPS physical science program manager.

Last year alone, the glacier retreated 187 feet, and since she began working at the park in 2008, it's retreated over 800 feet. Since 1815, it's retreated about 1.25 miles, she said. "Climate is the primary driver for retreat of glaciers," Kurtz said.

Obama strolled up the pathway a bit later, accompanied by Rebecca Lasell, the superintendent of Kenai Fjords National Park. He wore hiking boots and more Alaska-style outdoor clothing than most of the suits that have surrounded Anchorage in recent days.

"How's this? Beats being in the office," he called out to the waiting press.

Obama noted the signs along the trail -- from 1917 to 1951 -- that denote the prior location of the glacier's edge and spoke of the glacier's accelerating retreat.

"This is as good a signpost of what we're dealing with when it comes to climate change as just about anything," Obama said. "It sends a message about the urgency that we need to have when it comes to dealing with this."

He turned and took a good long look at the glacier before walking on and adding: "We want to make sure that our grandkids can see this."

It was there that the president went off into the woods with staff, a film crew and a wide array of tactically dressed and heavily armed men. Over the next several hours, he presumably filmed an episode of "Running Wild with Bear Grylls."

The press accompanying the president saw no bears -- animal or reality TV star. The president later ate lunch in the Exit Glacier Nature Center -- a small building at the entrance of the trail, just off the parking lot.

The president presumably was ready for a post-hike snack after lunch, and made a surprise stop to a local confectionery shop where he insisted on buying gelato for anyone who had the nerve to speak up. "Come on -- you know you want some!" he said to some of the reporters, photographers and Secret Service agents who accompanied him into the shop.

Obama himself had some coconut and coffee gelato before heading out to the street where throngs of people had gathered, drawn by the advancing motorcade, and a few children with their parents were hustled up to a rope line for a greeting from the man himself.

The president, as he often does, seemed taken with several of the small children. He accurately guessed the grades of some first- and third-graders outside the Gold Rush Alaskan Bistro, and teased one small boy about the hot chocolate on his face, while checking to make sure he was clear after his own snack. He checked in on how preschool was going for a few others, greeted their parents, and then hopped back in the "Beast" for a quick ride over to the docks in advance of his three-hour tour.

But first it was back to business.

Obama took a quick stop on the dock to address the nation's limited number of icebreakers in the Arctic before heading offshore, flanked by protected Coast Guard officers in small boats.

The changing Arctic presents "a whole series of strategic implications" related to "maritime issues and commerce." After World War II, the U.S. had seven icebreakers and now has only one heavy-duty icebreaker, Obama noted. By contrast, Russia is heading toward 40 icebreakers in the near future, he said.

He proposed finding a way to fund more, and quicker. "And it is something that has been championed by Republicans -- like Sen. (Dan) Sullivan here in Alaska -- and Democrats like Maria Cantwell in Washington." He vowed to "work with Congress to make that happen."


For the remainder of the afternoon, Obama set sail on a private boat and received a guided tour from Laura Sturtz, National Park Service operations supervisor for interpretation.

At least six boats cut through blue-green waters amid mountainous scenery and majestic glaciers. The president got a good view of some sea lions basking on a rock, uninterested in the many photographers that followed the president's quiet, scenic moments.

Just after 6 p.m., Obama approached Bear Glacier, another rapidly retreating glacier.

Park Ranger Colleen Kelly, riding with press on a separate boat, said the glacier has retreated 2.22 miles in the last 15 years, compared to only 1.17 miles in the 112 years prior.

It is "amazing and pretty unsettling," she said.

Obama, shouting to the press boat pulled alongside his, declared the glacier "spectacular."

"The icebergs are sitting in a lake, then periodically they break off. Each of those icebergs is the size of a Costco," he said.

There was a rustle among the boat -- reporters unsure if they'd heard correctly. But they did, Obama's boat, the Viewfinder, radioed back. He said "Costco."

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is Alaska Dispatch News' Washington, DC reporter, and she covers the legislation, regulation and litigation that impact the Last Frontier.  Erica came to ADN after years as a reporter covering energy at POLITICO. Before that, she covered environmental policy at a DC trade publication and worked at several New York dailies.