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Kenai Fjords National Park

Geography

The Kenai Fjords are coastal mountain fjords whose placid seascapes reflect scenic ice bound landscapes and whose salt spray mixes with mountain mist. Located on the southeastern Kenai Peninsula, the national park is a pristine and rugged land supporting many unaltered natural environments and ecosystems. The land boasts an icefield wilderness, unnamed waterfalls in unnamed canyons, glaciers that sweep down narrow mountain valleys, and a coastline along which thousands of seabirds and marine mammals raise their young each year.

Though the land is subsiding, a mountain platform 1 mile high still comprises the coast's backdrop. The mountains are mantled by the 300-square-mile Harding Icefield, the park's dominant feature. The icefield was not discovered until early this century when a mapping team realized that several coastal glaciers belonged to the same massive system. Today's icefield measures some 35 miles long by 20 miles wide. Only isolated mountain peaks interrupt its nearly flat, snowclad surface. These protruding nunataks-this Eskimo word means "lonely peaks"-rise dramatically from the frozen clutches of the Ice Age.

The mountains intercept moisture-laden clouds, which replenish the icefield with 35-65 feet of snow annually. Time and the weight of overlying snow transform the snow into ice. The pull of gravity and the weight of the snowy overburden make the ice flow out in all directions. It is squeezed into glaciers that creep downward like giant bulldozers, carving and gouging the landscape. Along the coast eight glaciers reach the sea, and these tidewater glaciers calve icebergs into the fjords. The thunderous boom of calving ice can sometimes be heard 20 miles away.

Exit Glacier, remnant of a larger glacier once extending to Resurrection Bay, is one of several rivers of ice flowing off the icefield. Active, yet retreating, it provides the perfect setting to explore. Here are found newly exposed, scoured, and polished bedrock and a regime of plant succession from the earliest pioneer plants to a mature forest of Sitka spruce and western hemlock.

Humans have had little lasting impact on this environment, although the park includes a few Native American archeological sites and isolated gold extraction locations. The park's overwhelming significance is as a living laboratory of change. Plants and wildlife subsist here amidst dynamic interactions of water, ice, and a glacier-carved landscape relentlessly pulled down by the Earth?s crustal movements. The Harriman Expedition, a steamship-borne venture visiting the fjords in 1899, predicted this area's future value as a scenic tourist attraction. To protect this life and landscape, a national monument was proclaimed in 1978, and the 580,000-acre Kenai Fjords National Park was established in 1980.


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