By Donna Barnett
I wanted to see an exotic puffin up close and personal. I had read articles about the photogenic orange-billed, web-footed Atlantic puffin that lured me to European shores. But what about an area closer to home? I asked my personal assistant: "Siri, are puffins in the Pacific Ocean?" She responded that puffins are in the North Pacific Ocean.
Indigenous to the Pacific Ocean, tufted and horned puffins mate for life, breed in large colonies, and, in my mind, chirp, "Welcome to Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park."
My journey to the puffins started at the historic Downtown Anchorage Depot, where I boarded Alaska Railroad's Glacier Discovery Train. Considered one of the most scenic train routes in the world, its large windows offered nature and wildlife viewing.
Our train snaked south toward Seward, the gateway community to Kenai Fjords National Park. We passed Cook Inlet, where white beluga whales shimmered in the sunlight. Eagle nests topped trees. Bald eagles flew. The Alaska Range towered in the distance. Conductor Davy Registe ensured passengers' comfort as we traversed a lush green landscape where water cascaded down jagged mountains and an occasional moose turned to say hello.
I disembarked at Portage to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, one of several Alaska organizations that protect and preserve wildlife. AWCC was staging the greatest comeback of the wood bison. A subspecies of the North American bison, the wood bison — larger and taller than the plains bison — roamed Alaska for centuries before extinction due to overhunting and ecological changes. In cooperation with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, AWCC obtained 13 bison from Canada's Yukon Territory for breeding. Thanks to this historic conservation effort, in spring 2015 up to 100 wood bison will be released into Alaska's Lower Innoko wilderness 300 miles west of Anchorage. AWCC also provided a two-mile loop to view rescued musk ox, moose, elk, caribou and adult bears in a new 21-acre enclosure.
I returned to the train for a brief ride to Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop. Ranger Liz Finch led a 2.6-mile round-trip hike through the Chugach National Forest's alder, willow and cottonwood trees to Spencer Glacier, an icy mountain and glacial lake dotted with luminescent blue ice chunks. An Anchorage Boy Scout troop worked on a lookout bench.
"We're taking graffiti off this bench while practicing leave-no-trace camping," the scout master said. "The Boy Scout motto is, 'Do a good turn daily,' and we do our best."
After staying overnight at nearby Girdwood's Alyeska Resort, a year-round destination with fine dining and a saltwater pool, I boarded the Coastal Classic "GoldStar" train to Seward. The two-level dome cars offered large curved-glass windows for optimal viewing, an outside platform and dining room.
My puffin anticipation mounted. Our train climbed through the Kenai Mountains to the 1,063-foot Grandview summit, where a picturesque landscape evolved: Trail Glacier, Moose Pass and five tunnels along the Placer River Canyon. Photographers poised cameras on the outdoor platform, looking for wildlife. Mountain goats navigated steep fjords. Silver salmon jumped in Salmon Creek.
Fog greeted my arrival to the colorful "Mural Capital of Alaska" Seward. I checked into the Seward Windsong Lodge near Resurrection River, where my room with a balcony overlooked serene spruce trees. In the hotel's lobby, a local guide awaited Exit Glacier hikers. I joined a group on the 10-minute shuttle ride to the Kenai Peninsula's only road-accessed glacier.
Exit Glacier's dense blue ice and forest views were accessible by lower and upper trails, including access for people with disabilities. Signs marked the glacier's receding points due to climate change.
Thanks to my quiet room at the forest's edge, I woke the next day energized for the occasion of my journey to the puffins. I boarded the Kenai Fjords Tour Boat on Resurrection Bay as sunlight filtered through ribbons of fog. Sea birds sang. Sea otters rolled. Each of us had a Wildlife Guide to check off all that we saw, though I hoped for just one puffin.
On the outside deck, Ranger Lani Lockwood told of Russian fur traders, the hunted-to-near-extinction sea otters (with a million hairs per square inch) and the establishment of the 669,984-acre Kenai Fjords National Park, thanks to the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
All eyes were focused on the horizon, looking for whales. Glaciers appealed to my senses, as did silent dogwood forests on distant shores. Thumb Cove. Humpy Cove. Cirque Glacier. Exquisite. But where were the nomadic puffins?
At secluded Fox Island, where a lucky few stayed in log cabins overnight, we had a delicious lunch. A gift shop sold postcards, including one with six adorable puffins standing on a rocky cliff, but we hadn't seen a puffin. Not one. I sighed and reached for the postcard.
On the second half of our journey the boat approached Bear Glacier, one of 40 glaciers that flowed from the Harding Icefield. The majestic tidewater glacier appeared "candy-striped" with black silt streaming along white ice. It was here that a marine symphony slowly began.
The deep exhale of a humpback whale was like a deep bassoon's whistle. The whale breached, slamming the water. And again. Pectoral fins slapped the line where one world begins and another ends.
Pearls of water danced. Sea birds flew. Now five orcas. One leapt, a ballerina. Bald eagles chittered; their melody added life to a growing marine crescendo. And inches above the bay, orange webbed feet darted, flew and dove. Colorful horned and tufted puffins were everywhere!
The boat followed the jumping orcas to the magical Emerald Cove near Cape Resurrection. "Follow-us, puffins," I whispered. "Follow."
We approached a cove of craggy islets and grass-capped bluffs. Water splashed rocks, receding to reveal yellow and red sea stars. The graceful arms of a purple octopus emulated tai chi. Orange jellyfish swayed. My eyes rose to the sheer cliff ledges where common murres purred. Horned puffins perched regally on rock crevices, and tufted puffins stood like voyeurs in burrows.
Pigeon guillemots whistled. Wide-eyed black-legged kittiwakes sang a metallic sharp kitti-weeeik. Steller sea lions lazed away on haul-outs, roaring. A peregrine falcon saluted on treetop, while orcas played in the distance. The aliveness of the marine symphony made me grateful for the conservationists who have ensured that this ecosystem stays intact.
According to Ranger Lani, "Once you've been to Alaska, you never get all the way home. Beauty knocks you over." True.
The next day at Seward's Alaska Sealife Center, a research facility that protects marine life, I was asked if I'd like to hand feed puffins on a Puffin Encounter Tour. Finally I was up close and personal.
WHEN YOU GO
Alaska Railroad: www.alaskarailroad.com, 800-544-0552
Kenai Fjords Tours: www.kenaifjordstours.com, 888-478-3346
Seward Windsong Lodge: www.sewardwindsong.com, 907-224-7116
Alyeska Resort: www.alyeskaresort.com, 800-880-3880
National Park Service, Kenai Fjords, Puffins: www.nps.gov/kefj/naturescience/puffins.htm
Donna Barnett is a freelance travel writer and photographer who writes the blog "Chasing Clean Air." To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.