A couple of days drive from Valdez and we were in Seward (pronounced soo-word) on the east coast of the Kenai Peninsula, just a couple of hours south of Anchorage. It really is beautiful.
Seward has a history as an essential rail-head and is unique in Alaska as Alaska’s only deep-water, ice-free port with rail, highway and air transportation to Alaska’s interior. It was founded in 1903 as the ocean terminus of what is now the Alaska Railroad, opening up the interior of Alaska as far as Fairbanks in the 1920s. Like Valdez, Seward is now a major tourist spot and fishing port and along with land-based visitors, it welcomes 5 cruise ships a week in peak season. It didn’t seem too busy despite the additional people in town.
From Seward we took an 8 hour boat tour into Kenai Fjords National Park. Our lesson learned in Valdez, we booked this tour several days in advance. We all had a fabulous day. The weather was perfect, the sun shone & the sea was incredibly calm. We saw orcas, a humpback whale, puffins, sea otters, sea lions, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, gulls of all types, oyster-catchers, and so many more sea birds.
We also spent time up close to three spectacular tidal glaciers. Listening to them groan and crunch and calve ice into the water was memorable. It was a privilege to be able to do this and we recognize how lucky we were that the good weather made it even more beautiful.
From Seward we drove around to the south western corner of the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Homer….another tourist destination. With a winter population of just 5,500, Homer swells in the summer months with RVs and cruise ships and people staying in their ‘summer homes’ trebling the population. Homer is friendly and trendy. We enjoyed a beer at the Salty Dawg, driving along the ‘spit’ to the end of the road, eating yummy fish and chips in a café overlooking the marina and visiting the Saturday Farmers’ market.
North of Homer along the Kenai Peninsula some communities have Russian and Nordic heritage mingled with the ancient Dena’ina Dene (Athabascan) people. The Russian history is visible in the Russian Orthodox churches dotting the area, Russian names for roads and even some towns.
We visited the Kasilof Homestead Museum in the hamlet Kasilof. Named by Russian trappers, Kasilof means ‘tall grass’. Kasilof was not a major settlement but the name remained after trappers moved on. The little museum had several restored log cabins which we found interesting for the timber and structural techniques used, some of which are not seen anywhere else outside Norway.
The Kenai Peninsula is incredibly diverse as you can see by our photographs. The roads are lined with the purple Fireweed, or tall spruce & aspen trees. Driving from West to east on the Sterling Highway, the road passes through the hamlet of Cooper Landing which exists to provide accommodation and services to recreational fisherman, many of whom live in Anchorage just 2 hours drive away. There are people everywhere catching salmon.
This area has been severely effected by bushfires and we drove through some of the heaviest smoke we have ever experienced on our way back towards the top of the peninsula. The next day that same stretch of road was cut for almost 24 hours.
The last town we stopped in on the Kenai Peninsula was Whittier, a tiny deep water port with significant strategic value. To get there, you drive past more beautiful glaciers then pay $13 to drive through a one-lane rail/road tunnel built shortly after WW2 to take advantage of the railroad we mentioned from Seward. When you come out of the tunnel you are in Whittier.
Today Whittier has a seafood processing facility, is a secure harbour for fishing and storage of boats, an Alaska Marine Highway port and a jumping off point for tours in the fjord – fishing and sightseeing. We followed the ‘historic walking tour’ map which took about half an hour and included a walk under the railway lines through a pedestrian tunnel.
Two large high-rise buildings dominate the skyline here. Built during the Cold War as accommodation for staff one is now derelict but once housed most things a small town would need along with accommodation for 1,000 officers….a hospital, church, prison, bowling alley, theatre, bakery, barber shop…you get the picture.
After all that excitement(!), we visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre where we finally saw moose (at least when we see one in the wild now we’ll know what it is!) plus other animals close enough to photograph, including grizzly bears, caribou, reindeer, a coyote and a live porcupine, which was good because all the other porcupines we have seen have been road kill!