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The Enticing Sounds of Seward

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By Lesley Sauls

Drip, drop, the rain echoed on my rubberized hood, and squeak, squish, my boots scuffed across the rough boat deck for better balance. Click, whizzz, I disengaged the bale on my reel and flung my line out into the rich, green water that pattered playfully in the gentle rain and added to the cacophony of sound that is fishing in the arctic summer waters of Resurrection Bay outside Seward, Alaska.

"Fish on!" yelled a fellow fisherman on the other side of our boat, and I heard thumping feet rush to grab a metal-framed net that scraped across the floor and shot out into the water where a 15-pound silver salmon splashed and flipped into it. Plop — another bait hit the water, and then click, click, click, it was carefully reeled in to entice another silver. The anticipation was exciting, but who knew fishing would be so noisy?

I was in Seward for a long weekend and had every intention of landing enough salmon to ship home and enjoy for months to come. Fortunately, I was there in early August when the silver salmon make their appearance in droves as they move toward the streams where they were born in hope of leaving the eggs that will continue their age-old life cycle. I was on a boat with experienced fishers and had enough enthusiasm for all of us. I was not disappointed, and soon I was the person yelling "Fish on!" as the crew scrambled to net my catch.

The day before had also been spent on the water, but on a much bigger vessel where I was an observer more than a participant. I was out for the day to look at the wildlife that teems in Alaska's verdant summer waters. In a chilly August breeze I found my perfect perch near the bow of the boat where I could better see breaching killer whales and diving puffins, but I soon realized that the best view was at the back of the vessel out of the wind where the deck was clear of other adventurers.

Our experienced captain shared statistics and details as he guided his tour toward pods of humpback whales previously spotted by other boats in the area. He steered us gently into tight coves where cormorants and puffins perched side by side, and gulls swooped down to catch abundant fish for lunch with a screech as they soared by. Near the mouth of Aialik Bay, he introduced his passengers to the endangered Steller sea lions who make their homes in these abundant waters. We cozied up to a tiny island where a harem of these giant creatures lazed in the sun and were barked at by the even larger male as we got too close for his comfort.

Leaving these noisy creatures behind, we headed deep into Aialik Bay past Holgate and Pederson glaciers to the bay's namesake, Aialik Glacier. Again the noises surprised me. As we neared the tidewater glacier I could hear the gentle thump of ice cubes against the hull of our vessel and a sound like tinkling glass as the ice chunks clinked against one another in our wake.

The air cooled even more, and ahead of us loomed the glacier whose massive size was more vast and breathtaking than I had imagined it would be. The blue crevasses of pressed snow folded in on one another and calved in chunks that splashed into the bay with clattering echoes that resounded in the silence left by the wise captain who had stilled his engines for the majestic display.

Turning back toward Seward, we were escorted out of Aialik Bay by a playful pod of Dall's porpoises that surfed the bow waves of our boat and leapt from the water in graceful arcs. Their bon voyage display was matched by the greeting we received from the small and sleek endangered sea otters who make their home in the Seward harbor with a few harbor seal friends.

The antics of these aquatic creatures all inspired the whirs and clicks of dozens of cameras that sought to capture their elusive charm.

For those of us who were too gobsmacked by reality to think of training a camera on the quickly moving creatures, the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward provides up-close encounters with a variety of marine mammals and birds. Built on the site of the former harbor that was lost in a devastating 1964 earthquake, this building is filled with educational hands-on exhibits and is home to injured animals that are being rehabilitated to go back into their natural habitats. I stood transfixed as an enormous Steller sea lion glided past me with only a thick pane of glass between us.

In another exhibit I learned that puffins swim; they actually dive below the water and flap their wings as if they were high in flight as they seek the fish upon which they feast. Still intrigued by the salmon run, I was fascinated by the mounted fish that show the physical changes endured by these prehistoric animals as they move through their life cycle.

Prehistory was recounted for me again as I drove up toward Exit Glacier through the temperate rainforest. Small signs along the road indicate where the glacier's toe reached thousands of years before people ever recorded their visits to this wilderness. As I moved from ancient forests into more recent ones and then new growth, I could see for myself the effects the receding glacier has on the land beneath and around it.

Moving downhill from the same Harding Ice Field that feeds the tidewater glaciers I had visited two days before, Exit is the only glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park that is easily accessible by road, and it boasts a creative hands-on nature center where the ice fields, glacial movement and archeology of the area are explained through interactive displays. A knowledgeable park ranger is also available to answer questions and lead a daily hike up to the edge of the glacier.

I opted to explore the windy path on my own and feel the gravity of my impermanence as I neared such an awe-inspiring and primeval force of nature. I could hear the gravel crunch beneath my feet and knew it was deposited there by the giant ice floe. It was one more sound to remember from my summer retreat to Seward and the temperate rainforest of the Kenai Fjords.

WHEN YOU GO

Fly into Anchorage and rent a car or arrange a bus trip. Seward is a 126-mile drive around the Turnagain Arm off Cook Inlet and is filled with stunning views of the bay and mountains surrounding it.

There are many quaint and comfortable places to stay in Seward. I snuggled in at the Harborview Hotel, where the amenities are few but the rooms are clean: www.sewardhotel.com. Plan ahead during the fishing seasons.

The Fish House Fishing Charters is based in a local hardware and fishing supply store that can outfit any interested fisher: www.thefishhouse.net.

Captain Jack's on the wharf will freeze and ship your catch for a fee: www.captainjacksalaska.com.

Kenai Fjords National Park encompasses the glaciers around Seward: www.nps.gov/kefj.

Alaska SeaLife Center is open year-round and costs $10 to $20 per person: www.alaskasealife.org.

Many tours into Resurrection and Aialik Bays are available; Kenai Fjords Tours is known for professional and comfortable service: www.kenaifjords.com.

After a chilly day on the water, a warm drink and fresh seafood at Chinooks is welcome: www.chinooksbar.com. Downtown, a hand-tossed pizza at Christo's Palace fills the bill: www.christospalace.com.

Lesley Sauls is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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