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One of the best ways to see the wonders of Alaska's Prince William Sound and the Kenai Fjords National Park is on a boat with someone who knows them well.
Tour boats that ply the glacier-lined waters of Southcentral Alaska are floating classrooms. National park rangers stand by the railings, ready to answer any question about the birds and sea mammals nearby. Captains, as familiar with the pristine waters as they are with their crafts, offer rich narratives and often alter their routes to make sure passengers don't miss breaching whales or calving glaciers.
The two bodies of water are easily within the reach of travelers to Alaska. Although the stunning settings offer many of the same opportunities - sightseeing tours, sea kayaking, calving glaciers, whales, astounding fishing opportunities and miles of pristine shoreline - they are very different.
PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND
Prince William Sound, with roughly 3,000 miles of coastline and 150 glaciers, lies within the boundaries of Chugach National Forest, the second largest national forest in the country. The sound is home to high concentration of tidewater glaciers and is popular for sightseeing tours. Although it's in the far northern Gulf of Alaska, the waters are mostly protected by a series of islands. Calm bays, a plethora of islands and so many glaciers that they aren't all named provide unparalleled opportunities to explore one of Alaska's most impressive and accessible bodies of water.
Most tours from Anchorage begin in Whittier, a scenic 90-minute drive from Anchorage. Once in Whittier, a small enclave originally built to be a self-contained army community, travelers can throw sea kayaks into the sound or catch an Alaska Marine Highway ferry, or buy a ticket on one of the numerous half- or full-day tours provided by tour companies.
Like the captains who ply the waters of the Kenai Fjords National Park, Prince William Sound captains and crewmembers provide information and insight into the wildlife and glaciers along the way.
You'll gaze at huge, sheer walls of prehistoric ice, watch other chunks of glacial ice - some call them icebergs - float, freshly calved away from the sound's spectacular Columbia Glacier. There is another option to get to see the sound: a trip encompassing Valdez, Cordova and Whittier, involving a six-to-eight-hour drive to Valdez from Anchorage, a ferry to Cordova and onto Whittier, then a return drive to Anchorage.
The drive to Valdez, spectacular to even the most seasoned Alaskan, peaks at Thompson Pass, where the Worthington Glacier is accessible by car. Valdez, a lively little berg famous for the recently resurrected World Extreme Skiing Competition usually held around the end of March, wild rafting, unsurpassed fishing and the termination of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. It's also home to internationally acclaimed Last Frontier Theater Conference, an August event that draws playwrights and actors from all over the country.
Cordova is an amazing spot, a quaint fishing town of about 2,300 set in the Copper River Delta. The docks are lined with weathered canneries and the harbor filled with commercial fishing vessels.
About 50 miles outside of Cordova, along the old Cordova River Road, is Childs Glacier. A 300-foot-wall of ice sits across the Copper River. When the mighty glacier calves, a steel bridge - still unfinished but open to pedestrians - reverberates with the thunderous sound. Tours or taxi rides to the glacier are available from Cordova.
Birders love Cordova, as do anglers. Camping and fishing tips are best gotten from the U.S. Forest Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In May, Cordova fills with birders to catch some of the five million birds stopping through on various migration routes. The Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival marking the event provides opportunities to share birding information and enjoy the small-town charm of the town.
THE KENAI FJORDS
When local Alaskans have visitors, chances are you'll find them driving three hours south along the Seward Highway, a National Scenic Byway, to Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords National Park. Here, it's almost embarrassingly easy to impress visitors who have traveled north to learn first-hand about Alaska's natural wonders.
And travelers who arrive on their own find opportunities to study the sea life and surrounding glaciers from national park rangers. Rangers who work on many of the daily commercial tours, staff the ranger station and sometimes can be found walking along the docks of Seward, enjoying a sunny day.
After a drive through the nation's best salmon-fishing country, the road trip ends in Seward, a small, friendly community of about 2,700 that lies nestled where turquoise waters meet with the timbered Kenai Mountains. The town is a mix of working fishermen, young cannery workers and people in the tourist trade. It's lively and a tribute to its somewhat rocky history.
The city is named after William H. Seward, U.S. Secretary of State in 1867 when Russia agreed to sell Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million. Seward drew widespread criticism for fostering the purchase, hence the state's early monikers of "Seward's Folly" and "Seward's Icebox."
Fourth of July weekend is one of the busiest in Seward. Over 30,000 people gather to enjoy a parade and street fair filled with food and craft booths. But the big attraction that weekend is the Mount Marathon Race, when some 3,000 men, women and youth race up the steep 3,022-foot peak.
If you can't make it in July, plenty of other activities that mix spectacular Alaska wilderness with the hometown fun of Seward go on all summer. The town hosts a silver salmon derby every August and is home to an active yachting club, which stages regattas and races throughout the summer, filling the harbor with colorful sails.
The harbor area is lined with charter boat offices, gift shops, a small grocery/sandwich shop, a couple of restaurants and the public boat launch.
One of the area's premiere attractions is 670,000-acre Kenai Fjords National Park. Dominated by the immense Harding Icefield, the area surrounding the fjords feeds dozens of deep-blue glaciers that tumble down into the waters of the bay.
Out on the water, it's not hard to find communities of Steller sea lions, otters, puffins, bald eagles and calving glaciers. Whales sometimes make it deep into the fjords, but the odds of seeing one increase as you boat further into Resurrection Bay.
To get out on the water, take one of several tour boats or smaller charter boats that provide tours from the small boat harbor. Tours range from 3.5-hour cruises across Resurrection Bay to the edge of the national park, to 9 hour cruises deep into the fjords. The sizes of the commercial tour boats vary, holding from less than 10 to 200 passengers.
The cruises offer a rare chance to have the beauty of Alaska interpreted by experts. National park rangers staff many of the cruises and tours. Captains also provide ongoing narratives during the tours, often altering their route to give travelers closer viewing to whales and sea lions. Maps and other printed guides allow for even more study of the glaciers and wildlife along the way.
Personalized sightseeing tours and fishing charters are also available out of Seward, with operators offering trips to catch ling cod, halibut and salmon or to simply cruise the bay.
If you're not inclined to head out onto the water to see glaciers, downtown Seward is a short drive from the foot of Exit Glacier. Part of the national park, this glacier empties out at a trailhead nine miles off the Seward Highway just outside of Seward. Energetic hikers can scramble up the seven-mile roundtrip trail alongside the glacier to overlook the Harding Icefield. Or you can simply walk to the face of the glacier. A nearby ranger station offers maps, literature on glaciers and, as always, helpful rangers who love to talk about the region.
Much of the best of the Fjords' wildlife can be seen at the Alaska SeaLife Center. This $52 million state-of-the-art marine research, rehabilitation and educational facility has three main exhibits including Steller sea lions, harbor seals and a variety of seabirds. The research center was designed and built as an outgrowth of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Its mission is to rehabilitate marine birds, mammals and fish while allowing the public to observe.
The displays are top-notch. Huge glass tanks make visitors feel as if they are standing under the bay's waters. In the "Discovery Zone," you can get up-close looks at sea stars, sea urchins and a passel of other marine invertebrates. Descending into the display, "Denizens of the Deep," you'll watch sea lions and other marine species in their natural elements while another underwater viewing area boasts of wolf eels, giant octopus and various species of crabs.
A variety of organized packages can get travelers to Seward by rail, bus or plane. The independent traveler can also arrange transportation on those modes, or drive.
For information about Prince William Sound, the Kenai Fjords, and travel and lodging information, contact the Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 1603, Valdez, AK 99686, 907-835-2984, Cordova Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 99, Cordova, AK 99574, 907-424-7260 or the Seward Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 749, Seward, AK 99664, 907-224-8051.
For Alaska Visitor Information contact: 800 862-5275 or visit our website http://www.travelalaska.com
State of Alaska Tourism
Media Line: (800) 327-9372
Media email: Alaskatravelmedia@thompsonpr.com