RESURRECTION BAY -- A bird-filled sky above, snow-capped mountains all around and frozen rivers of ice filling valleys. It's hard to know where to point a camera.
Add sea otters rolling in glacial green water, Steller sea lions roaring on rocky haulouts and humpback whales lazily feeding.
It's enough to overwhelm the most skilled photographer.
Such are the challenges of Resurrection Bay.
But Kenai Fjords National Park Ranger C. J. Rea has the perfect solution: a different way of seeing.
"I talk to people about their cameras," Rea said. "I don't blame them for bringing cameras, but what I hope to do is introduce new ways of seeing so they'll have other memories, like the sound of a whale spouting or the slap of its pectoral fin on the water."
In her seventh year as a ranger, Rea knows what she's talking about.
"Every day is different," she said. "There's always something new to see. This area never ceases to amaze me."
Thanks to an agreement between the park and two Seward tour boat operators, Rea is part of a program that connects rangers with tour boat passengers, which lead tour boat ranger Doug Capra estimated at 87,000 visitors.
"This is a good program," said Capra of the opportunity that has been offered to all area tour boat operators. "It helps us accomplish our mission of informing people about the area and gets our rangers out every day so we can see what's going on."
The public's enthusiasm for the onboard ranger program has resulted in the addition of program volunteers.
"It's very difficult for the rangers to balance talking with a microphone and answering all the questions," Capra said. "Having a volunteer on the boat really helps give folks better service and helps us with a volunteer program, too. And it gets more local people involved with the park."
Before leaving the Seward harbor, Rea makes sure passengers 4 to 14 years old have an opportunity to participate in the junior ranger program. Used throughout the national park system, the program encourages appreciation of both the land and the wildlife. She and volunteer Cindy Capra, a first-grade teacher at Seward Elementary School, distribute books that are geared to specific age groups and help the youngsters identify and record what they see during the cruise.
"You're not just visitors here. You're the owners," Rea reminds young and old alike, encouraging appreciation and respect for the bay and the adjacent Kenai Fjords National Park.
Immediately upon leaving the confines of the breakwater-enclosed harbor, visitors are aware they have sailed into another environment. It is not unusual to see otters rolling in the icy water, a movement that pulls warming bubbles of air to their thick coats. Or the animals might be seen floating on their backs, eyeing the ship.
Bald eagles sail overhead, their wings a perfect silhouette against the sky. Others, perched on pilings, use their yellow eyes to return the stares of curious onlookers. The salty scent of the ocean greets the nostrils, blown in from the Gulf of Alaska. The icy breath of glaciers rolls down two sides of the bay and mixes with the sea air.
Moving farther out on the bay allows a good look at the community of Seward, home to some 4,000 residents. Spread out on the alluvial fan formed by Lowell Creek, the city snuggles at the foot of 3,022-foot Mount Marathon. Directly across the bay, Mount Alice stretches another 2,000 feet into the sky.
The distinct shapes of mountain valleys give clues to their origins. Creeks formed V-shaped valleys. U-shapes signify the handiwork of glaciers. Similarly, tectonic plates are the reason behind the dramatic angles of the rocky cliffs. Shifting of these plates also explains the presence of one specific type of rock that originated in California and hooked a slow-moving ride north.
Of interest to ships are less visible rocks toward the center of the bay. "Mary's Rock," in particular, was named for the person that struck it with a boat not just once, but twice.
Other rocks serve as haulouts for Steller sea lions, where the 1,500-pound bulls can stake their claims. Their roars, echoing across the waves, caution passersby to keep a respectful distance. The females, weighing in at a mere 600 pounds each, add their own chorus of growls as they flop back and forth from the water to the rocks.
Behind a rocky wall near the entrance of Resurrection Bay, a crowd of winged neighbors has taken up residence. Puffins, murres, gulls, cormorants and guillemots flood the air with their calls and the telltale odor of their fishy diets. Horned puffins attest to the value of this location. Guilty of overindulging, they run along the surface of the water, temporarily unable to lift themselves to their nests in the crevices of the cliff.
Recently, Rea had an opportunity to witness a peregrine falcon approach a colony of kittiwakes.
"The falcon flew in, the kittiwakes left their nests, and the peregrine perched," Rea said. "I've heard about peregrines, but I've never seen one perch. I really got a good look at it. Every time I go out, it's something new. It never fails."
Continuing through Eldorado Narrows toward the mouth of Resurrection Bay, the ship slides along the backside of Fox Island. There, a skeletal stand of trees reminds visitors of the devastating effects of the 1964 earthquake that caused the land to drop six feet. As a result, salt water soaked into the ground and killed the vegetation.
Passing the island, the calm waters of the bay are replaced by the swells of the Gulf of Alaska. The mountains push back and the view opens up. Montague Island can be seen stretching in the distance to the southeast.
Barwell Island, a rocky, barren outcropping, is just off the tip of the Resurrection Peninsula. And at the top of Barwell Island, facing the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska, is a deserted bunker, built by the U. S. Army during World War II.
According to Capra, there are several research projects under way in the area. One project, the identification of killer whales, is being conducted by the North Gulf Oceanic Society. Since 1976, the group has tracked interactions between killer whales and humans, documented the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and worked to protect the habitat and food resources of the resident and transient killer whales in Southcentral Alaska. To the trained eye, killer whales can be identified by the unique pattern of the white saddle patch directly behind the dorsal fin.
Humpback whales, which winter in Hawaii, also move into these waters during the summer. Unlike killer whales, they can be identified by the black-and-white pattern on the undersides of their flukes. The silhouette of their "blow" on the horizon always draws attention. These huge creatures of the deep tip the scales at 35 tons and stretch to lengths of nearly 50 feet. It is not uncommon to see them feeding in the bay.
And then there are the Dall's porpoises. These 6-foot-long black-and-white critters seem to know how to have a good time. From out of nowhere, they'll appear heading straight for the ship, where they roll and jump alongside and dart back and forth under the bow. Then, just as suddenly, they will be gone, headed to some unknown destination, leaving passengers laughing and shaking their heads.
Just as Rea said, the surprises and discoveries of this area never end.
"There's a point on the ship's return (to Seward) when you look over at Harding Ice Field," she said. "And there are times when the light is so incredible. That's an everyday thing for me. I look over to check and see how the light is."
Her enthusiasm is occasionally matched by those she meets.
"One little girl was so incredible," Rea said. "She came right up to me and started asking about how to become a park ranger. She was so straightforward for her age -- about 6 or 7 -- and very able to look me in the eye and communicate. I told her she already had the skills and should become a ranger."
At the completion of touring Resurrection Bay, Rea swears in and gives certificates of achievement to the new junior rangers. And for young and old alike, there is the lingering chill of the glaciers. A bald eagle's unwavering stare. The roar of a Steller sea lion. The sudden flash of a whale's tail.
All the memories of Resurrection Bay captured by a new way of seeing.
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