Ports of Call: Seward, Alaska
The small port town of Seward, Alaska, is a singularity, like a seafood stew made exclusively with such wonderful and strange ingredients that its flavor is unlike anything else. For a hint as to why, just look at a chart and note the geography.
Tucked in a small patch of the Kenai Peninsula of Southcentral Alaska and surrounded by the mighty Kenai Fjords National Park, Seward sits at the northern tip of Resurrection Bay’s bight and at the terminus of Alaska Highway 9 and the Alaska Railroad. Additionally, it is home to the Seward Airport and the location of a large cruise ship terminal.
Seward thus serves as a major crossroads and launch point for commercial fishermen and ecotourists, residents and visitors, and boaters and backpackers. Essentially the folks with stories to tell. For many embracing a life of adventure, Seward—a town of around 3,000 residents—is that last sip of civilization before casting off the dock lines for the wild blue yonder.
The town is also steeped in history, giving it a rich, real Alaska feel. The beginnings of the town go all the way back to 1793 when famous Russian explorer-trader Alexander Baranov established a fur trade post where Seward stands today.
Seward is also the historic starting point of the Iditarod Trail, also known as the Seward-to-Nome Trail. Mile 0 is proudly marked at the southern border of town.
The historic depth of the place is further accentuated by the very name Seward, homage to the former U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward. The man is accredited with masterminding the purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867 while serving under the Andrew Johnson administration. The purchase was widely mocked as “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox;” however, the criticisms quieted a few decades later with the Klondike Gold Strike in 1896.
Whether visitors come by cruise ship or boat up Resurrection Bay, train down from Fairbanks, RV via open road, dogsled, or airplane, Seward is a welcome stop for resupply. For boaters, Seward is several days transit from civilization both east (Whittier) and west (Homer) along Alaska’s Southcentral coast. Entrance to the well-endowed Seward Boat Harbor is not complicated — especially when compared to all that an intrepid boater would have to brave just to get there.
To maximize your time in Seward, you should know the basics of the transportation options at your disposal. Boaters in the marina should be aware of a free shuttle service during the summer that runs between the airport/cruise ship terminal and downtown every 20ish minutes. The stop is across the road from the marina at the train station, saving you a mile or two walk to downtown proper. Leave a nice tip!
As mentioned previously, Seward is the southern terminus of the Alaska Railroad. The train system goes north over 400 miles through Anchorage, Denali National Park, and to Fairbanks. It’s a beautiful, relaxing, and affordable trip, making the railway a great resource for crew who need to get to/from Anchorage or who are starting/ending another chapter of their Alaska adventure in town.
Also noteworthy is the airport, the most direct connection to the greater world. It’s also a good chance to give smaller local airlines like Ravn a try, often security checkpoint-free.
Loving Sea Life
Having an affinity for the critters of the deep is part of the boating lifestyle, so the Alaska SeaLife Center should be on most people’s to-do list. Prominently positioned on the south shore of downtown Seward next to Mile 0 of the Iditarod, the SeaLife Center is an excellent aquarium that also supports a top-tier marine life rehabilitation and research center.
It’s all made possible with a partnership with the neighboring University of Alaska Fairbanks – Seward Marine Center, and watching the shiny-eyed graduate students in waders releasing a sleeper shark into a rehabilitation tank or bottle-feeding orphaned harbor seal pups is part of the charm. Hopefully the Alaska university system will survive a recent round of devastating budgets cuts from their state legislature.
Between the puffin and seabird aviaries, harbor seal and sea lions exhibits, touch tide pools, interactive education stations, giant Pacific octopus, and more, this institution serves as both a tourist attraction and pillar of the community. You can check out more information and pricing online at alaskasealife.org.
Hiking Through History
Seward’s downtown and waterfront are best enjoyed via a casual stroll, and it’s fun to connect the dots between the various historic markers and monuments. Naturally, there is a William H. Seward Monument to honor the man who made Alaska part of the U.S., and it can be found at the intersection of Adams Street and 4th Avenue.
Mile 0 of the Iditarod is on the south waterfront of downtown near the Alaska SeaLife Center and a Centennial Statue that commemorates the historic trial’s blazers, both human and canine.
If you want a taste of nature, the mountains that make up the scenery are ripe for you to visit. The Mount Marathon trailhead is within striking distance from town on the western border. The Lowell Creek Waterfall is just south of the University of Alaska Fairbanks – Seward Marine Center and worth a look.
An element of Seward to appreciate is that it is a self-sustaining community with its own vibrant small-town culture. It’s worth keeping eyes peeled for events that offer an authentic afternoon mingling with the locals.
Seward hosts its own version of Washington’s Opening Day of Boating festivities with the Seward Harbor Opening Weekend in mid/late May. The fun includes the Seward Mermaid Festival. Apparently, mermaids in Alaska are hardy enough to stand the cold.
Among the fishing derbies (Halibut Tournament in June and Silver Salmon Derby in August), the 50-plus-year-old annual Mount Marathon Race is quintessential Seward. Held during the town’s Fourth of July festivities, gluttons for punishment ranging from ages 7 to 83 run up Mt. Marathon, which towers over town. How do they return? In a controlled free fall.
As explained in this year’s published guide, “Don’t be shocked if you see some dirt, mud, shale, and blood – if you make it out of the Mount Marathon Race unscathed, you should have tried harder.” Yikes! You can see what events are going on during your visit at seward.com.
There’s plenty to do in Seward, but there’s a lifetime’s worth of experiences awaiting you beyond the city’s borders. What you do depends on personal preference, but Seward offers recreational fishing charters, ecotourism charters to the glaciers and migrating whales of Kenai Fjords National Park, day and multi-day kayak tours, seaplane expeditions, and more.
The list of companies is too staggering to list here, but seward.com (the website for the Seward Chamber of Commerce) is a good start.
If you’re on your own hull or living out of your backpack, you can be your own adventure company. The onus is on you to be safe and plan well, so a visit to the Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center on the west shore of the marina is a natural start. Their website (nps.gov/kefj/)posts hazards (bear, ice falls, etc.), displays useful maps, hosts campsite reservations, and more.