Published On: Tue, Nov 14th, 2017

Seward, Alaska is a premier wildlife-tourism destination

SEWARD, ALASKA—By the time we spot the Kodiak Killers, we’ve already seen a lot. Sailing out to Reservation Bay in a big catamaran, the wildlife seem drawn to our boat.

Creeping into tiny, beautiful Emerald Cove, two sea otters swim by, followed by a couple of bald eagles on branches near their massive nests; and then puffins, both horned and tufted, tiny and black and vaguely penguin-like — airborne and moving fast. But that’s not the end of it.

As people crowd the decks, some in shirt sleeves on this warm summer’s day, the parade of wild things continues — there, some stellar sea lions, while in the sky overhead, white flocks of kittiwakes and, standing out amongst the lush green grass, way up high, we crane our necks to take in the sight of three mountain goats, white and tiny, their forms just barely visible, clinging to the edge of a precipitous cliff.

I’m on the edge of Kenai Fjords National Park, just outside Seward, a place where soaring mountains meet the sea. Just a couple hours south of Anchorage, it’s a place where the wonders of nature are made available in abundance. Taking a six-hour tour with Major Marine Tours on theSpirit of Adventure, even casual observers are treated to an amazing array of experiences.

Established as a national park back in 1980, Kenai Fjords is, like so many places in Alaska, really huge, covering more than 2,700 square kilometres — making it about half the size of Prince Edward Island. While it’s one of the most-visited parks in this northern state, this place is still relatively peaceful, receiving fewer than 350,000 annual visitors (just a fraction of the number hosted by the most popular parks in the contiguous United States).

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It is home to multiple varieties of whales and bears, plus moose and mountain goats and coyotes and beavers, many types of birds, peaks that near 2,000 metres and at least 38 glaciers.

Seward is a cruise port, but many visitors also come here by road or (like me) by train on the Alaska Railroad, accessing the park by water.

Sailing out of the bustling harbour at Seward, a charming little town that’s nonetheless remarkably busy and jam-packed with tourists in the summer, we’re quickly on our own and surrounded on every side by nature.

After that initial spectacle of fauna — which is capped off by several humpbacks swimming by, splashing fins above the water and putting on a show with their flukes — I tap on the wheelhouse glass to have a chat with the captain.

Captain Terry Federer, who has plied these waters for more than two decades, says driving this boat is just a side gig, while his main job is running a maritime training school in Seward.

He remarks on the flat-calm conditions outside, a rarity at this northern latitude, noting that in autumn, this area routinely gets the remnants of hurricanes that have spun here all the way from Japan, resulting in seas that can pulsate with nine-metre waves.

But unlike the weather, Federer feels that the wildlife today has been fairly average. “It’s always unbelievable and it’s always different,” he says with an even keel. He believes that between wildlife and geography, this is the most diverse park in the country.

“It’s a combination of things, where ice, mountains and ocean all come together. It affects the weather, and the ocean, and brings in the wildlife.”

Federer pulls the boat right alongside the Holgate Glacier. Running more than eight kilometres, from the Harding Icefield, it’s a living, moving thing. I hear the glacier crack and thunder, at one point witnessing a small avalanche on one side, as more of this great monster melts and becomes one with the sea.

As we make our way out of the bay and back toward Seward, more of the glacier reveals itself, running, like a tooth, deeper and further inland, as far as I can see.

I return to Federer as he wheels the Spirit of Adventure fast toward town, running a tiny bit late. But again, we’re waylaid by the wildlife. Just as the captain is finishing up an engaging story about the time his wife was actually knocked to the ground by a rogue moose, we come across a pod of transient orcas.

It’s the Kodiak Killers, so-named because they’re most commonly spotted around nearby Kodiak Island. While resident orcas — which eat mostly salmon — are a fairly routine sight, seeing transients is a rare treat.

“This is the true wolf pack of the sea,” Federer explains from behind the controls, seeming a tiny bit excited himself, pointing at the pod before us, black dorsal fins out of the dark water, noting that their bodies are quite scarred and dinged from doing battle with the sea mammals they eat, and each other.

But then, the whales go into what Federer calls “stealth mode,” dipping lower into the sea and moving fast away from us. And, seemingly just a moment later, we’re back in Seward.

The harbour bustles around us again as the ship draws to the dock, all that ice and wildlife now just a memory. The train awaits, impatiently steaming, ready to spirit me back to Anchorage.

Tim Johnson was a guest of Alaska Travel Industry Association, which didn’t review or approve this story.

When you go:

Get there: Air Canada flies direct into the Anchorage from Vancouver. From there, you can reach Seward by road (about two to two-and-a-half hours) or train on the Alaska Railroad (which takes more than four hours), where you can view the passing scenery from their Gold Star dome car, which features an open-air platform for better photographs (and a real sense of what’s outside).

Explore: The six-hour sail on Major Marine Tours takes you deep into the heart of the wilderness and is their most popular excursion. While the Holgate glacier is a standard stop, they brake for whales and other wildlife, and tours follow their own course, navigating according to that day’s particular conditions aboard the Spirit of Adventure, a stable catamaran. The excursion costs $ 159 (U.S.), not including tax, harbour fee and on-board meal.

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Seward, Alaska is a premier wildlife-tourism destination