7/2/19. Gold Creek Lodge, King Salmon, Alaska
7/5/19. Wilder B&B, Port Alsworth, Alaska
Kenai Fjords National Park and Glacier Bay National Park are really tough to tell apart. There are some technical differences, but to the normal national park visitor, it is very difficult to distinguish them. They are both protecting glaciers, mountains, valleys, and streams. They are both on land bordering the Gulf of Alaska. The terrain is nearly identical, being formed by glacier arms carving U-shaped valleys out of river slopes that descend steeply into the ocean waters. The mountainous areas are formed by the same plate tectonics that causes uplift as the crustal tops of terranes are scraped off as they subduct under the North American plate. High humidity air flows off the Gulf and then, thrust quickly upwards by the mountains, it cools and falls as copious amounts of rain, drenching the soils here. Since glaciation the rains have helped build a maritime rain forest of Sitka spruce and western hemlock that is pretty much the dominant tree cover over most of the lower elevations.
If you take the National Park Day Tour at Kenai Fjords, as we did, you will observe, not just the similar geography, but the wildlife will be very similar. Pretty much the same bird population is in both parks and they are both popular sites for sighting whale spouts and tail flukes, as we did. In both parks, we also saw large populations of male sea lions basking on the rocks. Sea otters, and seals, played in the harbors. On both tours you get up close to calving glaciers, although they have different names. In Kenai Fjords we got to see Orca whales, a pod of three of them with their dorsal fins proudly cutting through the waves. But we got to see mountain goats on our Glacier Bay tour. (And I’m told by park rangers that both animals are in both parks.). Briefly, towards the end of our trip, a school of porpoise began to swim alongside the tour boat, playing happily with us as we cut through the waves. We saw a black bear on the Kenai tour, but that hardly compares to our grizzly story on the Glacier Bay trip.
The rock formations might be a little starker – I’m not certain. Both parks were formed in the same manner – by the accretion of terranes – but they may have a slightly different mix of rock types and ages. They are both the results of glacier fingers carving deep and narrow valleys out of the rocks until they plunge deep below the Gulf of Alaska. Maybe Kenai Fjords is a little younger, and therefore a bit harsher in texture, than Glacier Bay.
From a park perspective, there are some important differences that may play out over time. Glacier Bay National Park includes all the water in the bay itself and, as I commented when we were there, that means they can regulate the traffic and use of those waters. Cruise ships are limited to two a day and fishing is tightly restricted. Boats are also very limited in how close they can get to wildlife. Kenai Fjords park boundaries, on the other hand, appear to end at the water’s edge – the park has little or no control over ship traffic, or the fishing industry inside the waterways. In the long run, controlling activity in the water may impact the long term viability of several species, especially of the endangered whale population.
Regardless of the fact that the two parks are very similar, you can’t get too much of a good thing. Glaciers, Mountains, Wildlife, and Ocean – they are in abundance in both parks and always a terrific Alaskan experience.