Kickin' Back on the Kenai

Kenai Mild Life
  |  Gorp.com
Hikers on Exit Glacier
Hikers on Exit Glacier

I begged off the renovated Best Western in favor of the Van Gilder Hotel, a Victorian-era remnant listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Instead of a cable TV and in-room coffee, the Van Gilder offers guests a walk-up room with mismatched antique furniture and lots of character. I half-expected to look out my window and see gas lamps lighting the way for sourdoughs as they staggered out of honky-tonk saloons. Don Nelson gave up wildcatting on the North Slope ten years ago and opened the hotel with his wife. He, too, has noticed that the new breed of tourist is different, especially the cruise-ship devotees. They're apt to hop on a charter bus and go daytripping to Denali as soon as they hit town.

"It isn't like before," said Nelson. "They used to rent a car and go off exploring."

Admittedly, I was slow coming out of the exploration blocks, having made the classic mistake of compiling too long a check list of things to do, failing to bear in mind that the Kenai Peninsula covers a formidable 16,000 square miles. I squandered a day nibbling upper-peninsula appetizers when I should have proceeded directly to the super-scenic main course. I rented a car in Anchorage and drove all of 40 miles down Seward Highway before stopping at the town of Girdwood, where nearby "ghost forests" serve as reminders of the granddaddy earthquake that shook south-central Alaska like a dust mop on Good Friday 1964. The epic flooding left acres of trees pickled from prolonged saltwater exposure. They're eerie but hardly a must-see. Ten more miles and I pulled into Big Game Alaska, the state's only drive-in wildlife park. Mildlife park is more like it. Ogling fenced-in caribou, musk ox, and elk in Alaska seemed profane, akin to visiting Rome and dining at McDonald's. Big Game Alaska might get high marks with six year olds, but I couldn't pull away fast enough.

Another five miles brought me to Portage Glacier. This is Alaska's number one tourist attraction; more a function of proximity to Anchorage than inherent grandeur. The lakeside glacier has receded two miles in the past 50 years, but it is still impressive and not without its charms. The crew that operates the tour boat exudes uncontrived good cheer. A rare and quirky iceworm also inhabits the glacier. But, alas, Portage places a distant second to Exit Glacier, which lies 75 miles due south on the fringes of Seward.

The stretch of highway between the two winds through a flume of mountains. I pulled into the parking lot at Exit Glacier on a drizzly morning. The sun was almost audibly straining to bust through the gauze of cloud cover. A"sucker hole" is how locals describe such tantalizing breaks in bad weather. There are two short loop trails at the base of the glacier, plus another that winds four miles uphill. The latter parallels the protruding tongue of Harding Icefield, a frozen desert that straddles Kenai Fjords National Park and Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. It sprawls 1,000 square miles, blanketing almost the entire lower peninsula that separates Seward and Homer.

I placed my bets on Harding Icefield, and it turns out to be a lucky day for suckers. The clouds lifted. The panoramic views pulled into focus. I'd hit the hiking jackpot. The trail climbed through thickets of cottonwood and alder, then through clusters of red salmonberry and fireweed. Up and up. Alpine meadow surrendered to alpine tundra. I bumped into Don and Debbie Muggli, a Seattle-area couple who gave themselves an Alaska vacation as a 25th-anniversary present. Don's a hunter and bear buff. He pointed toward a sunny patch of green on the opposite mountainside about a half-mile away.

"There's two bears up there," he says. "Any meadow like that, they dink around up there."

I got out my binoculars. Sure enough. Two black bears were on their hind legs, locked in playful embrace. Dinking around. Dancing a clumsy ursine tango. Don figures they're yearlings since they don't yet have the telltale baggy coat of adult males.

"They haven't got a care in the world," he adds. "Who's gonna bother them up there?"

Of course, the same could be said of us. As long as those dancing bears stayed across the valley, who was gonna bother us up here? Not the pudgy marmots scurrying in and out of trailside burrows. Not the magpies swooping above. Certainly not those fuzz ball mountain goats, the Garbos of the high country, that occasionally could be glimpsed sunning on an unreachable rocky perch.

After three and a half hours of steady hiking, the trail topped out at 3,500 feet in a moonscape of glacial moraine and shale. Harding Icefield appeared to have no bounds. The whiteness unrolled like a carpet over the horizon. Earlier I had literally crossed paths with park ranger Doug Lowthian. In 1996 he was part of a small expedition that attempted to cross the icefield in mid-winter. They gave up after getting bogged down in a snow squall that lasted four days. Lowthian huddled inside his tent reading a French allegorical novel over and over till the storm passed.

"It was a very intense wilderness experience," he said.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

Best Hotels in Kenai

$79
Average/night*
    •  
    •  
    •  
    •  
    •  

#1
Aspen Extended Stay Suites Kenai
$89
Average/night*
    •  
    •  
    •  
    •  
    •  

#2
Quality Inn Kenai

advertisement

Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »