During the summer of 2019, writer Tera Swanson spent a week in and around Seward. Each day brought new adventures. However, the Northwestern Fjord Tour was clearly Tera's pinnacle of Alaska experience. Find out why.
It was the end of a week spent exploring some of the most rugged and wild places I’ve ever experienced. The environs of Seward, Alaska were also the most northerly location I’d ever stepped foot.
From the intimate remoteness of Fox Island, where it feels like you’re the only soul in the world, to the jagged rock spires emerging from the ocean in Cape Aialik (a vista that bordered on tropical it was so lush), and with glaciers seemingly around every corner our catamaran covered, I had already experienced some of the most breathtaking locations of my life in just a handful of days. I thought it would be impossible to beat.
Earlier in the week, I'd experienced the six-hour Kenai Fjord National Park tour which covered some of the park's most spectacular highlights. I wondered whether another tour was necessary. So when I boarded the catamaran in the Seward boat harbor for the second time—this time on the Northwestern Fjord Tour—it was with low expectation. How could it get any better?
When researching a trip with Kenai Fjords Tours, whether before your arrival or at the information office near the boat harbor, the Northwestern Fjord Tour may not immediately stand out as a first choice. It’s the longest of all tours offered, and therefore it's not recommended for younger children. The nine-hour return trip over the Gulf of Alaska’s choppy waters can be daunting (or soothing, if you’re that kind of person), and without seeing the glaciers that are on other tours' itineraries firsthand, it can be hard to compare them all.
But this tour was different. It was clear from the beginning that the Northwestern Fjord Tour was going to be epic. Within the first couple of hours of our journey we’d seen more wildlife than the past four days combined. Pods of up to ten orcas danced a short distance away, their dorsal fins breaking the water’s surface as they spouted air like an ocean organ pipe. Puffins sped across the water’s surface, racing alongside the catamaran. The occasional bald eagle was proudly perched atop the spires dotting the craggy coastline. Not to mention seabird rookeries, sunbathing Steller sea lions, and otters floating casually on the water’s surface.
It wasn't a surprise to learn that the Northwestern Fjord Tour was the crew's choice as well. Casey, a deckhand from Philadelphia, said he had personally requested being placed on the Northwestern Fjord Tour for the entire summer. It was his second summer working for Kenai Fjords Tours and while he was a big fan of glaciers like Holgate and Aialik, which I'd admired on the Kenai Fjords National Park Tour (and is also a highlight of the Glacier Dinner Cruise), it was clear this tour was his favorite.
The catamaran slowed as the grays of the sky and the North Pacific blended into one another, eventually giving way to coastline emerging once again. As we approached the shore, layers of glaciers unfolded before our eyes, coming into view and then trailing behind us just as the next one peeked out. The ratio of exposed rock to glaciers slowly teetered to the latter. Soon, we were completely surrounded in an amphitheater of ice. We floated along on the boat’s water current, until the captain turned off the engine. We had arrived.
Although the boat had 30-odd passengers aboard, we floated along in silence, each absorbing the beauty before us in our own way. The only sound we could hear was the crackling ice floating in the deep blue waters surrounding us. Walls of almost neon blue ice towered hundreds of feet above, reaching far higher than any of the glaciers we had visited before. I understood why Casey had requested to work on this tour for the summer.
“Holgate is the people’s glacier,” Casey said. “But this is a cathedral.”
Sheer grandeur and awesome beauty—it was almost too much to take in all at once. I didn't want to miss a single minute. I forced myself to slow down and focus on the details of one area at a time. The glacier’s deep crevasses were prominent like weathered laugh lines, dynamically shifting even in the short time we were there. Tons of ice would calve from the glacier and thunder into the water.
Higher above, we witnessed the birth of a waterfall as a stream emerged from a crevasse above, continuously flowing the entire time we were there. And all the meanwhile, there were dozens of seals perched atop their personal mini icebergs and hardly noticing us.
The captain interrupted our thoughts over the speakers. “Well folks, we’ve been sitting here for an hour watching ice melt," he said. We all smiled. It had felt like ten minutes. And with that, he turned the engine back on and we began the journey back to Seward.
As if the trip couldn’t have been any better, on our way back we came across more orcas breaching in the distance. We approached them safely, giving them a healthy distance so as to not make them feel contained. And yet, one of them came to us. After a flash of its flipper—a sign that it would be going down for a deep dive—it swam under the boat and emerged on the port side only meters away.
The nine-hour Northwestern Fjord Tour departs daily from early June through the end of August from Kenai Fjords Tours in Seward, AK. A light breakfast and lunch is included. Bring your camera, some layers and a healthy dose of wonder.
“They’re longer days at sea, but the reward is unbeatable,” Casey said.