Wild things and creature comforts at Alaska's Kenai Fjords
The remote Kenai Backcountry Lodge gives visitors comfort amid the Alaska wilderness; it's the only lodge within Kenai Fjords National Park
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Kenai FjordsKenai Fjords National Park — The park is south and west of Seward, which is 126 miles south of Anchorage. There is daily bus service year-round and daily train service in summer from Anchorage to Seward. Air and boat service provide access to the fjords. The visitors center in Seward has maps, publications and information. The park has campgrounds and three backcountry cabins for summer use by the public. www.nps.gov/kefj.
Alaska Wildland Adventures — The company offers several soft-adventure packages that include its three lodges and Alaska's national parks. Its "wilderness sampler" begins at Kenai Riverside Lodge, rafts to Kenai Backcountry Lodge, explores Kenai Fjords by boat and can end with a trip through Denali National Park. The cost for the five-day package is $1,950 a person. www.alaskawildland.com.
KENAI FJORDS NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — After a day of drizzle, the morning sun felt good as it warmed the gray pebble beach where I sat watching three black bears amble in their never-ending search for morsels.
The bears were roaming on the other side of a fast-flowing inlet that lets the tidewaters in and out of a lagoon at the base of Pedersen Glacier, a tongue of blue-tinged ice that curves down between the jagged peaks of the Kenai Mountains.
While gulls swirled and screeched overhead, a dozen harbor seals coasted through the inlet, diving for cover when they spotted a human. Cautious but curious, solitary seals poked up their heads, looking like a watery version of the whack-a-mole arcade game.
Across the lagoon, three kayaks headed out from Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, which opened this summer and is the only lodging within Kenai Fjords National Park. Before, most visitors saw the 600,000-acre park's calving glaciers, ice-capped peaks and rocky coasts by boat and by plane, the hardier backpacking or kayaking in for longer visits. Only Exit Glacier, near Seward, is accessible by highway and hiking trail.
The Port Graham Corp., a Native American group, owns 1,700 acres below the Pedersen Glacier and operates the site as a private wildlife sanctuary within the national park. When the corporation sought a developer to build a lodge, it turned to Kirk Hoessle, whose Alaska Wildland Adventures operates two lodges on the Kenai Peninsula in south-central Alaska. The company's Kenai Backcountry Lodge has earned praise within the ecotourism industry for its light imprint in a setting within a million acres of designated wilderness.
The National Park Service had some concerns that a private developer had been sold a 25-year lease on 10 acres to build the Kenai Fjords lodge. During my three-night stay, the paying guests included Jeff Mow, superintendent of the national park, and his family. He came away impressed.
"This is certainly a park that has minimal development — amongst park staff, there were some questions," Mow said. "But I have known Kirk for 15 years or longer, working on tourism issues in Alaska. The lodge is as I expected from an Alaska Wildland Adventures development."
"It's state of the art in terms of an ecolodge, minimizing impact," said Mow.
Hoessle, 54, comes naturally to his love of wilderness and wildlife. Also visiting the lodge for the first time during my stay was Kirk's dad, Charlie Hoessle, a former longtime director of the St. Louis Zoo. The four Hoessle kids grew up in a home that they shared with snakes, a coyote, a skunk, an armadillo and, until it began raiding the refrigerator, a baby wolf.
Kirk Hoessle came to Alaska at the age of 20 and has been there full-time since 1989. He had visited the area below the Pedersen Glacier some 25 years ago. "I was here on a kayaking trip; we got dropped off by a float plane," he said. "The glacier was a lot closer. It's receded quite a bit."
He was approached by Port Graham Corp. in 2003 after giving a talk on ecotourism at a conference, and he was well aware of the prospects for the site. "The Pedersen Glacier is right in front of you with easy access," he said. "It's a sheltered lagoon and you can almost always go kayaking on it. You paddle up this lagoon, among these icebergs, going in with the incoming current and out with the outgoing tide."
Construction of the $2.6 million project started in the spring of 2008. Eight feet of snow met the first crews, who set up tent camps — and began a peaceful coexistence with the local residents.
"We kept a very clean camp, all food in bear containers," Hoessle said. "In early construction, we had a couple curious bears break into tents, kind of swatted things around inside. They only came after the people had been away a few days. There are plenty of them out there. But they've been pretty darn well behaved. At least so far."
Whales on the way
Getting to the lodge is half the fun. At Seward, we boarded the Weather or Knot, an enclosed aluminum catamaran that holds 23 passengers and has a bow that lowers hydraulically to allow easy beach access. "It's about a four-hour ride to the lodge," Hoessle said. "You can do it in less than that but we take our time, looking for wildlife, and have lunch in front of a glacier."
We saw two humpback whales, seals sleeping on ice floes and scads of clown-faced puffins, and listened, from a safe distance, to the snap, crackle and pop of Aialik Glacier as it calved chunks of ice into the water.
The only sign of development as we approached the lodge from the Aialik Bay side was a road of gray pebbles that led through a meadow into the spruce and alder forest. A meticulous job has been done to protect the forest floor of mosses and ferns during construction.
A 10-minute walk through the woods brought us to the lodge, with 10 cabins on one side and six on the other, each with two double beds, bathrooms and glacier views. All were connected by pebble paths and boardwalks, including a walkway that ended in a stunning view of the glacier reflected in the lagoon. The log lodge and cabins are simple yet sturdy, built to withstand the snow that piles on the roofs each winter.
The lodge is open June 1 through Sept. 10 and costs about $500 a person a night, a portion of which goes to Port Graham. The price includes meals — beer and wine are sold at the bar — the boat ride from Seward, and activities, all of which are guided because of the remote location and ever-present wildlife. You can walk on your own to the beach but must sign in and out. Pepper spray is available.
The lodge's systems run on a propane generator during the day, which charges batteries that are used at night. The walk-in food freezer in the kitchen is among the appliances turned off at night; a barrel of glacial ice helps keep the contents cold.
Returning from an afternoon kayaking adventure on the lagoon, we snatched up a chunk of floating ice and brought it back. Our evening cocktails had ice cubes that were thousands of years old.
As Mow, the park superintendent, said, the lodge and cabins seem to have been dropped, with little adverse impact, into the middle of a mecca of wildlife and wilderness. The bears appear to have accepted the new company, taking daily walks around the tidewater mud flats of the lagoon, passing within yards of the cabins. You can watch the bears, plus the sea otters and harbor seals, from the comfort of the rockers on your private porch.
"The demographic has changed across the country — the National Park Service is struggling a lot with this," Mow added. "Fewer and fewer people are interested in backpacking and camping. There's a lack of nature in the upbringing of the next generation, a nature deficit disorder. They spend more time with computers and video games.
"The lodge is perfect for providing a wilderness experience to a variety of visitors, to a generation uncomfortable in these undeveloped areas. They may be experiencing less nature, but that doesn't mean they don't need it."