Kenai Fjords National Park

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Kenai Fjords National Park derives its name from the long, steep sided, glacier carved valleys that are now filled with ocean waters. The seaward ends of the Kenai Mountains are slipping into the sea, being dragged under by the collision of two tectonic plates of the Earth's crust. What were once alpine valleys filled with glacier ice are now deepwater mountain flanked fjords. The forces that caused this land to submerge are still present. In 1964, the Alaskan Good Friday earthquake dropped the shoreline another six feet in just one day. As the land sinks into the ocean, glacier-carved cirques are turned into half-moon bays and mountain peaks are reduced to wave beaten islands and stacks.

Though the land is subsiding, a mountain platform one mile high still comprises the coast's backdrop. The mountains are mantled by the 300 square mile Harding Icefield, the park's dominant feature. The icefield was not discovered until early this century when a mapping team realized that several coastal glaciers belonged to the same massive system. Today's icefield measures some 35 miles long by 20 miles wide. Only isolated mountain peaks interrupt its nearly flat, snowclad surface. These protruding nunataks—this Eskimo word means "lonely peaks"—rise dramatically from the frozen clutches of the Ice Age.

The mountains intercept moisture laden clouds, which replenish the icefield with 35-65 feet of snow annually. Time and the weight of overlying snow transform the snow into ice. The pull of gravity and the weight of the snowy overburden make the ice flow out in all directions. It is squeezed into glaciers that creep downward like giant bulldozers, carving and gouging the landscape. Along the coast eight glaciers reach the sea, and these tidewater glaciers calve icebergs into the fjords. The thunderous boom of calving ice can sometimes be heard 20 miles away.

The park's wildlife is as varied as its landscape. Mountain goats, moose, bears, wolverines, marmots, and other land mammals have reestablished themselves on a thin life zone between marine waters and the icefield's frozen edges. Bald eagles nest in the tops of spruce and hemlock trees. A summer burgeoning of life occurs in the fjords. Steller sea lions haul out on rocky islands at the entrances to Aialik and Nuka Bays. Harbor seals ride the icebergs. Dall porpoises, sea otters, and gray, humpback, killer, and minke whales ply the fjord waters. Halibut, lingcod, and black bass lurk deep in these waters, through which salmon return for inland spawning runs. Thousands of seabirds, including horned and tufted puffins, black-legged kittiwakes, common murres, and the ubiquitous gulls, seasonally inhabit steep cliffs and rocky shores.

Exit Glacier, remnant of a larger glacier once extending to Resurrection Bay, is one of several rivers of ice flowing off the icefield. Active, yet retreating, it provides the perfect setting to explore. Here are found newly exposed, scoured, and polished bedrock and a regime of plant succession from the earliest pioneer plants to a mature forest of Sitka spruce and western hemlock.

Humans have had little lasting impact on this environment, although the park includes a few Native American archeological sites and isolated gold extraction locations. The park's overwhelming significance is as a living laboratory of change. Plants and wildlife subsist here amidst dynamic interactions of water, ice, and a glacier carved landscape relentlessly pulled down by the Earth's crustal movements. The Harriman Expedition, a steamship borne venture visiting the fjords in 1899, predicted this area's future value as a scenic tourist attraction. To protect this life and landscape, a national monument was proclaimed in 1978, and the 580,000 acre Kenai Fjords National Park was established in 1980.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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