Kayaking amongst the glaciers, icebergs and wildlife in Aialik Bay, Kenai Fjords National Park has been one of my favorites on a trip full of truly magnificent experiences. It was a long weekend filled with breaching whales, thunderous calving tidewater glaciers, curious seals, fun conversation and (perhaps most thrilling to me) lots of new knowledge about glaciers and Alaska.
Many (most?) of Alaska’s national parks are almost entirely unreachable by car, including Kenai Fjords National Park. You can get to Exit Glacier just outside of Seward, and that lies inside the Park, but otherwise your only options for exploring this beautiful national park that lies on the southeast side of the Kenai peninsula is by boat or plane. So we did a bit of research and decided to venture into the Park by kayak.
Ryan and I are not Olympic kayakers by any means, but we have had our share of kayaking adventures and have always loved the sport. We love being on the water and kayaking gives us the opportunity to stretch and test muscles that we don’t usually put to work, get a different perspective on amazing scenery and try out a little teamwork as well since we normally are in a tandem kayak. Poor Ryan, it’s true that he carries more than half of the burden of rowing us around, but he doesn’t seem to mind. I’ve got photos to take!
Sea kayak selfie – have to do one.
We booked our kayak adventure through Adventure 60 North, an outfitter out of Seward, Alaska, and couldn’t be happier with how the trip went. We were contacted by our guide, Rachel, about a week before the trip to arrange for a pre-trip meeting and to answer any burning questions that we might have before we got to town. At our pre-trip meeting, we went over the gear that we had, what we would need to get from her (namely kayaking gear), and discussed our route for the three days we would be out on the water. She was anxious to learn what were our priorities for the trip so that she could customize the route for what we wanted to do. Of course wildlife viewing is my top priority just about always and we were certainly rewarded on that front!
We met Rachel at the A60N headquarters, just outside of Seward, early on Saturday morning, unloaded our camping gear and food, left the camper behind their headquarters for the duration of our trip, and packed our things into a van that would take us down to the docks for our departure. We loaded up the kayaks and our gear onto a water taxi and headed out with some day trip kayakers towards Kenai Fjords.
The water taxi rides was one of the highlights of the trip. It was a 2.5-3 hour ride out of Seward, down through Resurrection Bay into the open ocean and around into Aialik Bay, which is the next big inlet to the west of Resurrection Bay. Riding by boat through these waters is one of the best ways to see the wildlife in this area.
There are tons of bird colonies along the rocky cliffs, including Eagles, gulls, Puffins (!) and so many others, Stellar Sea Lion resting spots, Harbor Seal sightings, and of course these waters are often filled with whales.
Now you may or may not know that I have recently become whale-obsessed. My marine life infatuations have shifted over time. First it was dolphins as a youngster, then sharks when I wanted to be an Ichthyologist and devote my life to studying sharks (oops, went wrong and became a shark of a different type, no?!), and now it’s turned to whales. I can’t say why but it might have started with watching Blackfish. I’ve made Ryan watch every whale documentary that there is on Netflix, and we’ve done a few whale watching adventures.
So I was REAL excited when we spotted a Humpback Whale just in front of the boat, watching it come up for air, show it’s humpback and tail and then amazingly come up with a huge pectoral fin out of the water to give us a little wave! And then we spotted the ORCAS. And my dreams came true.
I have been on an Orca-spotting mission for this entire trip. We went kayaking in the San Juan Islands in search of some Orcas, but weren’t lucky enough to see any. And my eyes are always glued to the ocean anytime we are near the coast up here in the Pacific Northwest and now Alaska. On this trip, we watched as a group of Orcas frolicked not far from the boat, including a couple of babies swimming alongside their mamas. And then THIS HAPPENED:
And my heart burst with happiness. I cannot believe how lucky we were to see the whales breaching – it was a mama Orca breaching and her baby following suit as it learns how to be an Orca! Everyone on the boat was stunned by such a magnificent sight, clapping and exclaiming with wonder. Especially when the mama Orca breached almost on top of one of the fishing boats. We are quite sure that she was not happy with the boat motoring through her pod, so close to her precious baby, so she was making a statement and letting that boat know who is boss around those parts. I can only imagine the shock those fishermen must have experienced when they heard the tremendous splash right behind the boat. I hope it teaches them a lesson that they need to pay attention and obey the law, which is that you have to stop the boat when the whales are passing through.
Baby Orca spy hopping to see what is going on!
At this point I’m not sure how the trip could have gotten any better, but somehow it did. The Orcas went on their way and we continued out into the ocean towards Aialik Bay. We dropped off the day trippers and then headed to a different shore to unload our kayaks and gear for our three day trip. We started the day with a little hike through the bush near Holgate Glacier, where we had a little snack before loading up the kayaks for our first bit of kayaking.
We kayaked about 7-8 miles that first afternoon, heading up towards Holgate Glacier, past Surprise Glacier, where we did a bit of hiking during our afternoon rest, where we watched a Stellar Sea Lion swimming around and then found a River Otter perched on the side of the rock watching what we were doing.
We photobombed Rachel’s selfie.
Surprise Glacier and our kayaks for scale
That night, we camped at an amazing spot just opposite (well, when I say just, it means a couple of miles away) Holgate Glacier and Jackie Glacier, which is really an unnamed glacier so we solved that problem.
We pitched our tents on the smooth rocky beach, carried the kayaks (boy are they heavy!) up the shore to make sure they wouldn’t be swept away by the extreme tide changes, and started thinking about dinner.
View from the tent!
We cooked our dinner over stoves near the bear boxes at the site, chatted briefly with another group of kayakers who were sharing the campsite with us, and snuggled up for a great night’s sleep listening to the thundering of Holgate Glacier calving icebergs into the sea. And thunder it did all night!
We woke up the next morning after an amazing night of sleep. A bit of rain made it even better – there are few things I love more than falling asleep to to the sound of rain on the tent/camper/roof. After a little breakfast we packed up our camp, loaded the kayaks and were off for a day of adventure on the water. We kayaked out of the little bay that holds Holgate Glacier, around into Aialik Bay and along the rocky cliffs towards the next inlet, Pedersen Lagoon.
We were lucky enough to have the high tide at just the right time so that we could paddle our ways into the lagoon to check out Pedersen Glacier. It is not always an option because the tide swings are so drastic, so you’ve got to kayak into this lagoon during high tide and head back out again as the tide sweeps out. But as evidenced by the breaching Orcas, this was destined to be a lucky trip for us.
We kayaked through the very shallow waters of Pedersen Lagoon and when we rounded a corner we were confronted with a huge tidewater glacier – Pedersen Glacier – at the end of the lagoon, and with huge icebergs floating in the lagoon in front of the glacier.
Fun fact: there are different names for the different types of ice that come off of a glacier, depending on their size. Icebergs are only those huge chunks of ice that are bigger than a house. Chunks of ice that are smaller than a house, but larger than a kayak are called Bergy Bits – is that not the BEST name? Bergy bits are obviously my favorite. Ice chunks smaller than a kayak but bigger than a toaster are Growlers and smaller than growlers, ice chunks are called Brash Ice.
Our guide Rachel was so knowledgeable and not only tolerated my outrageous amounts of questions about everything we were seeing, but she encouraged us to ask the questions – that is the best kind of guide to me!
We kayaked through the icebergs and bergy bits, watching the Harbor Seals who were resting on the ice and making sure to stay as far away as we could so that we didn’t disturb them. Interestingly, the seals were sending out scouts to check us out and make sure we weren’t a threat – more than a few times we’d see a seal head pop up near our kayaks, observe us for a few seconds and then swim away. It sure looked cold on those floating bergy bits, but that’s where the seals like to have their pups.
Little lookout seal peeking at us.
Pedersen Glacier was thundering away and calving like crazy while we were there. We could not believe how much ice was falling from the front of the glacier, including a humongous chunk – maybe 25% of the face of the glacier fell in one huge calving. It made a tremendous thundering sound and a huge splash as the chunk of ice fell into the water. Didn’t seem to phase the seals too much though – they must be used to this by now!
We had such an amazing morning and afternoon in Pedersen Lagoon that we didn’t want to leave, but we had to get out of there before the tide was too low! So we headed out, explored a spit of land to stretch our legs, and then kayaked across Aialik Bay for a big crossing that took us to our campsite. We kayaked about 15 miles or so that day and set up camp on a rocky beach on the eastern side of Aialik Bay. We had a gorgeous view of Aialik Glacier and the campsite was all ours – though we did have to share it with some pesky Marmots! The campsite had a couple of beautiful waterfalls and a lovely clear pool to take a dip. We had another wonderful long night of sleep, exhausted from such a great day of kayaking and exploring, and fell asleep to the sound of Aialik Glacier thundering away as it calved new icebergs, bergy bits, growlers and brash ice!
While we had a great view of Aialik Glacier when we went to bed, not so when we woke up! We emerged from our tents to a foggy, mystical world in which we couldn’t see very far in front of us. It was raining a bit too, adding to the magical ambiance. We piled into the kayaks for a morning jaunt over to Aialik Glacier to get a closer look at it. We kayaked through a field of ice, bumping through the bits of ice and trying not to ram pieces that were too large – we all remember what happened to the Titanic. I felt like we were scientists aboard those huge icebreaker boats in the Antarctic while we were kayaking over to Aialik Glacier!
We saw an otter mama and her baby taking refuge on a chunk of ice and watched several seals swimming around and checking us out. Aialik Glacier did not disappoint and calved quite a few times as we looked on, enjoying a PB&J for lunch on the water so that we could watch its performances for a bit longer. We kayaked back across Aialik Bay to our camp to pack up and wait for the water taxi to come and grab us. Another 7-8 miles the third day, and we kayaked a little over 30 miles in total – not too shabby, and my shoulders were definitely sore by the end of the trip but what a great workout!
A three hour water taxi ride, complete with sightings of eagles, mountain goats, Humpback whales, Stellar sea lions and lots of puffins and other birds, and our adventure came to an end. And we joked about just turning around to do it all over again.
What a once-in-a-lifetime experience! I highly recommend taking some time for sea kayaking in Kenai Fjords National Park if you are ever in the Seward, Alaska area. And go for the big trip – those day trippers got a quick view of one of the glaciers, I’m sure, but they missed so much by not camping out there and spending several days on the water. Splurge on it – it is worth every penny and minute that we spent out there. Adventure 60 North was an awesome outfitter and especially Rachel was a top notch guide – I cannot more highly recommend both!
Love the puffins.
LOCATION Aialik Bay, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska