Soaking up Alaskan adventure, unswayed by rain
ON FOX ISLAND, Alaska — A torrential downpour lulled me to sleep the night before my all-day kayaking expedition in the waters around Fox Island off Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Through the cracked windows of my log cabin, I watched the waves slap the slate beach as rain pounded the roof.
When I awoke, the storm had stopped. In its place, low fog clung moodily to the peaks on surrounding islands. All around, I saw different shades of green and gray, and though the forecast was dubious, I still packed my sunglasses. After all, it was August and I am an optimist, and spending a day kayaking under crystal clear Alaskan skies had been a lifelong dream.
I had come to southwestern Alaska with three friends to cap off the summer with an ocean adventure. We signed up for a multiday tour with Pursuit, an adventure travel company, and arrived in Anchorage along with the storm clouds. At first (and naively), I was surprised. Despite Alaska’s location in the verdant Pacific Northwest and the state’s massive temperate rain forest, I somehow expected clear visibility and smooth sailing. I blame picture-perfect marketing materials and my glass-half-full attitude. Nevertheless, I learned an important lesson: When headed to Alaska, especially the coast, pack a durable raincoat, no matter what time of year you’re going.
As it turned out, the rain didn’t limit our experience. From Anchorage we boarded the Alaska Railroad to Seward, a 4½-hour, 114-mile journey on the Coastal Classic. Our seats on the double-decker GoldStar Dome car included a full-service breakfast. It was the first time I’d ever enjoyed caribou sausage while traveling through old growth forests and past glaciers, and I hope it’s not the last.
In Seward, we spent a night at the Windsong Lodge before boarding a boat for the 12-mile ride across Resurrection Bay to Fox Island, a mountainous island named after the type of farming practiced there around the turn of the 20th century, when farmers bred foxes for their furs. The fox farmers let the canines run free during the day and corralled them at night. I had first learned of Fox Island when I came across “Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska” by Rockwell Kent, an American artist who retreated to the island in 1918 with his 9-year-old son. The book chronicles how artistic success had eluded Kent, who hoped to find inspiration through surviving an Alaskan island winter. The respite, though challenging – Kent and his son weatherproofed a goat shack and learned to forage – proved fruitful; upon return to New York, Kent’s career took off and he became known as a premier American graphic artist, printmaker and illustrator.
Today’s Fox Island is more hospitable. Staff met us at the boat dock with umbrellas and shepherded us to the main lodge for a hearty lunch of stew and fresh bread. Afterward, my friends and I hiked through the thick, wet forest. A single hiking path leads to one of the island’s high points, and after a slippery few hours, we emerged breathless and soaked onto a ridge that, I suspect, affords stunning views when the air is not thick with rain clouds.
Fortunately, we each had a cozy waterfront cabin (the wilderness lodge has eight overnight accommodations) with piping hot water for warming up. Then we convened before the wood-burning stove in the intimate guesthouse and savored a glass of wine while scanning for sea otters through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
In case it isn’t obvious: The Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge is a refuge where the pace is deliciously slow. There is no WiFi or phone service available to guests on the island, although there is a phone in case of emergencies. All the overnight guests dine together on meals prepared by head chef Landon Schoenefeld, a former star restaurateur in the Twin Cities culinary scene who walked away from his hard-charging life after publicly acknowledging depression and unhealthy habits.
Minnesota’s loss is Alaska’s gain. After our first evening meal of fresh salmon, pureed turnips and a savory creative twist on fiddleheads and roasted asparagus, the simple elegance of the lodge truly made itself evident.
The next morning, it was time to kayak. As the clouds threatened to open up once more, I asked our guide, Danny, my first question of the day: What would we do in case of rain? He laughed. As it turns out, Alaskans don’t take rain days because if they did, they would spend a lot of time waiting out storms. Anyhow, he said, it’s preferable to kayak when it’s overcast or raining. Blue skies tend to bring high winds, a potentially problematic complication when you are your boat’s motor.
And paddle we did, across Resurrection Bay and toward an inlet called Humpy Cove. Danny promised us our destination would be scenic. The journey certainly was. The four of us followed our guide past puffins and seals, bald eagles and rocky beaches, all made more dramatic by the ever-changing sky. Up the cove we went, with spruce-lined slopes dropping into aquamarine water. We reached a narrow beach that sidled up to a weeping wall covered in vegetation. He pulled our kayaks ashore and we excavated ourselves from the plastic hulls to admire the scenery.
But there was more. Around the corner of that wet wall, we encountered a massive waterfall. At least we “outsiders” found it so. To Alaskans, this powerful cascade didn’t even warrant a name. Nameless or not, it was significant to the dozens of enormous salmon that were struggling upstream to spawn. On the banks of the cove, river otters piled on top of one another, quick, curious and cute. Then, as if to reward us, the clouds parted and a glimmer of sunlight slipped through. I wore my sunglasses on the paddle back to the lodge.
The weather held, and the following day dawned cloudless for our boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park. Nothing could have prepared me for the sensory stimulation of this six-hour adventure. Almost 40 glaciers flow from the Harding Icefield into the Kenai Fjord, and the best way to see them is from the sea. Humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, seals, otters, puffins, and more thrive here, and as we navigated the ocean from Fox Island to Aialik Bay, the wildlife viewings were abundant. I sat on the boat’s bow along with several other hearty travelers, the bracing wind at our faces, and the crisp air keeping seasickness at bay. As we approached the Aialik Glacier, the captain slowed the boat to a crawl. Chunks of ice scattered throughout the sea, and we heard thunderous cracks as parts of the glacier broke off and dropped into the water, a natural process called calving.
Established in 1980, Kenai Fjords National Park covers an area of nearly 1,050 square miles and is a stunning combination of jagged peaks, dense forests and receding and melting glaciers. Scientific studies have documented the impact of climate change on the park’s glaciers. The melting rate of the state’s glaciers has increased in recent decades, contributing to a rise in sea level. According to the National Park Service, from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, the rate of glacial thinning in Alaska tripled compared with the period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s.
The boat’s captain shared his encyclopedic knowledge of glaciology, climate change, wildlife and more, but so all-encompassing was the experience of witnessing the gigantic glacier up close and absorbing so much information that I left determined to do more research on my own.
In my experience, this is typical of a trip to Alaska, a land so remote and wild, so different from most people’s everyday lives, that you leave inspired by what you’ve experienced – and by what you want to learn more about. That’s what happened to Rockwell Kent. Unlike him, I didn’t spend seven harsh months in this remote and beautiful area. My duration lasted only five days, but his experience more than resonated, particularly with this passage from “Wilderness.”
“America offers nothing to the tourist but the wonders of its natural scenery.... The night is beautiful beyond thought. All the bay is flooded with moonlight and in that pale glow the snowy mountains appear whiter than snow itself.... Fox island will soon become in our memories like a dream or vision, a remote experience too wonderful ... to be remembered or believed in as a real experience in life. It was for us life as it should be, serene and wholesome.”
Kayaking near Fox Island. Most of the kayaks available for guided tours accommodate two people, which makes the activity available for those of all abilities.