Calling all wildlife weekend warriors
[by Michelle Theall]
IF YOU WANT TO GET A QUINTESSENTIAL TASTE OF ALASKA, and you wan to check a few items off your bucket list in a single weekend, point your car down the Seward Highway, a nationally designated scenic byway, and get your camera ready. The 127-mile trip from Anchorage to Seward can take over two hours (or four hours by train), but trust us, you’re going to want to stop along the way for the massive views, flora, fauna, glaciers, and waterfalls. That said, the drive is a mere appetizer plate for the main course of Seward. The first whets your appetite; the second sates you.
Just as you’re leaving Anchorage (mile 117.4), park and explore the boardwalk over wetlands of Potter Marsh, a birder paradise that’s also rife with spawning salmon and marauding moose. Wooden paths stretch 1,550 feet along sedges and sloughs, affording panoramic views of Turnagain Arm, along with bald eagles, geese, pintails, grebes, Arctic terns, red-necked phalaropes, the aforementioned ungulates, and swimming muskrats.
Most of your drive snakes along the magnificent Turnagain Arm, where you can view or join in on “combat fishing” at Bird Creek (mile 101), where the salmon run and anglers and bears try to catch them. About five miles farther south at Bird Point, take time to glass the cliffs to the south and the water to the north. Dall sheep scale the rock walls in deft, nimble, gymnastic feats. In the tides below, look for the ghost-like silhouettes of the 350 or so beluga whales that frequent the area, along with bald eagles skimming the mudflats and beavers whittling dams inside the bogs.
ALASKA WILDLIFE CONSERVATION CENTER
Walk on the wild side on the 1.5 mile loop inside the grounds of the AWCC (mile 79), a wildlife sanctuary that saves hundreds of orphaned or injured animals and allows visitors to view them in close proximity at ground level and on elevated walkways. Wild bison, black bears, grizzlies, fox, lynx, moose, wolves, and caribou graze and play on over 200 acres of natural habitat.
And now, for the entrée. Just walking the Historic Iditarod Trail along Resurrection Bay, you’ll spot sea otters. Adept at being cute, they drift along chained together in rafts, hugging babies to their chests, or holding mussels and crabs with near-human dexterity. Bald eagles swarm the Seward boat harbor, especially when the fishing boats arrive at the end of the day. These raptors prefer to steal fish from docked vessels or other eagles rather than catch their own meal. Fighting over fresh spoils results in epic midair battles where talons lock and feathers fly. However, most skirmishes resolve without serious injury.
At the end of the path along Resurrection Bay sits the Alaska SeaLife Center, celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer. As one of the world’s foremost marine research centers, the Alaska SeaLife Center generates substantial scientific data necessary for monitoring species preservation, climate change impact, and
resource management and policy. It’s also a pretty great place to encounter some of the center’s permanent residents including Steller sea lions, harbor seals, ringed seals, horned and tufted puffins, eiders, and giant Pacific octopus. The center offers several behind-the-scenes and feeding encounters in addition to general admission tours.
A visit to Seward wouldn’t be complete without taking a day cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park. Covering 670,000 acres, this glacier-filled expanse serves as a playground for more wildlife than we can list without having to add more pages to this edition of the magazine, including more than 190 species of birds, black bear, brown bear, mountain goat, lynx, hoary marmot, moose, mink, river otter, coyote, sea otter, Dall’s porpoise, Steller sea lion, harbor seal, orca, fin whale, gray whale, humpback whale, mink whale, and sei whale. Many threatened or endangered species reside in or migrate through the park. It’s a place where whales fly, birds swim, and worms flourish in icy glaciers instead of soil. Magic, really.
Beyond wildlife viewing, Seward provides adventures for all ages and abilities. Kayak Resurrection Bay, explore the walking paths at Exit Glacier, go dog sledding (in the summer) and cuddle a few puppies at the Ididaride Kennels, or run up Mount Marathon to get your heart racing. Whatever you decide to do: weekends in Alaska were made for this.
Michelle Theall is Alaska magazine’s senior editor and the owner of Wild Departures, a wildlife viewing and photography company. Wilddepartures.com.