Postcard From Alaska: Aboard The Serac At Kenai Fjords National Park

Without a boat and rubber waders you'll have a difficult time negotiating Kenai Fjords National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Photo by Stacey Kehaulani Torigoe.

Editor's note: Stacey Kehaulani Torigoe, an intern with the Student Conservation Association, spent her summer pulling invasive weeds from the backcountry of Kenai Fjords National Park and Preserve in Alaska. The following traces a few of her days in the park.

Aboard the Serac, the Kenai Fjords National Park research vessel, we bob gently in Aialik Bay, listening to the sounds of gulls, surf, and an ancient tidewater glacier calving. Every five minutes or so, a piece of the massive ice wall half a mile ahead rips away with the noise of thunder and gunshots exploding all at once, and plunges into the sea below, sending up a cloud of spray.

Icebergs float by on either side, gliding serenely across the surface of green-blue silt-tinted water. I am an Exotic Plant Management Team intern with the Student Conservation Association (SCA). Tim, from the regional office and Eric, the EPMT Educator at SCA, are joining fellow intern Travis and I to help with the monumental task of pulling weeds in the furthest reaches of the park.

Most of Kenai Fjords is inaccessible unless you have a boat, a helicopter, or both. That’s a big reason why there are so few weeds here—with few boots and wheels to track seed in, the glaciers and fjords remain pure, untainted. This is probably one of the most beautiful places in the universe, these rugged miles of spruce-set coastline home to whales and otters and birds and salmon.

We’ve been blessed with a window of glorious weather for days—and subsequently cursed with bugs. Clouds of black flies, moose flies, and mosquitoes, commonly quipped as “Alaska’s state bird,” storm the shores, out for blood. They are vicious, biting through gloves and clothes, hurling themselves with audible “thunks” against our meshy bug shirts. We look like aliens, or Druids, in our heavy green hoods. There are other nasties here as well.

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A field office with a view! Photo by Stacey Kehaulani Torigoe.

Bluegrass and dandelions ride in on kayak gear, or boots hauled from Colorado. Plants are a blessing in one place but a curse in another. We were all cursing dandelions (and maybe the people who brought them) when we’re pulling Taraxacum officinale by the pound from the cliffs of Dinglestadt Glacier.

Dinglestadt is still infested with them, even after years of manual control. The lines and polygons of infestation data seem like they grow every year with the population, interrupting ecological succession on the newly-shed moraines.

The next day, we’re back out in Aialik Bay, surveying a new beach for weeds. Freshly uncovered by the receding glacier, this fragile land is susceptible to invasion without the inoculation of a native ecosystem.

We find no weeds, but document a poppy to key out later. (It turns out to be a native). As we watch from the beach, a large chunk of the front face, a vertical sheet of ice maybe a hundred meters long and weighing several tons, shears off with a thunderous rumble and falls into the sea. A cascade of snowy ice follows, pouring down from shelf liberated above it.

Watching the chain reaction of glacial calving is addicting. In the warmth of the afternoon sun, thousands of tons of ice build and break and melt and pass away in the forward march of time and tidal recession. Who needs TV when you have this?

As the glacier recedes, it leaves moraines sown with grass and geraniums, and blue glacial silt, and warmth, and the beauty of a calm fjordland bay on a sunny day.

The ecology of the North faces dire shifts with climate change, and the future, too, melts into dissolution—recycled, evaporated, the cold-loving seals and otters and glaciers long lost to the relentless northward march of climate warming. And dandelions.

Still later, we reach the end of the Harding Icefield Trail. Here, it feels like the end of the world. There is no plunging cliff, no soaring overlook. Just flags through the snow, and tracks, and then nothing. Our crew braved rain, cold, and biting katabatic winds from over the icefield to flag the route through the crumbly rock and snow of the alpine zone. It’s cold enough for a dusting of fresh snow on the mountaintops just above us.

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Calving glaciers in the background is part of working in Kenai Fjords. Photo by Stacey Kehaulani Torigoe .

Snow, and rock, and Exit Glacier, and the far reaches of the Harding Icefield on the horizon, still heavy-coated with thick sugary white. Our toes are numb through rubber boots and wool socks, and visibility is low. But morale is high as we reach the end of the trail and snap photos.

After working on it all summer, the trail feels like an old friend. We hiked it twice a week, hauling in flags and re-vegetation signs, shoveling snow off the trails and sending hikers up the more stable routes over rocks. We know the plants, looking up geoms and Sitka valerian and buttercups in Pojar's Guide to the Plants of the Pacific Northwest.

“You packin' the Poj today?” I’m asked pretty much every other day. It's our trail, in a way. It’s our legacy, albeit a fast-melting one, this hand-maintained path in the snow. And our gift to visitors and staff at Kenai Fjords.

It feels slightly anticlimactic, but all good things must come to an end. So does this trail. So does my SCA internship. It’s time to return to my native Hawai’i. Aloha.

Stacey Kehaulani Torigoe, who grew up in Hawaii, is majoring in biology and English at Westmont College in California when not pulling weeds in Alaska.