Seward trip provides close-up view of climate change effects

Standing at the bow of the Viewfinder, President Barack Obama gripped the steel railing as the boat cut through the deep blue water of Resurrection Bay amid the mountains, islands and glaciers in the Kenai Fjords National Park. 

For two hours, the president’s boat sped through the park, stopping briefly at Fox Island and the spit where dead trees — salted during the 1964 earthquake — stood in stark contrast to the sunny blue sky. He sat chatting with a park ranger as his boat stopped to look for humpback whales and then to slowly roll up on a group of Steller sea lions basking on a rock. Nearly an hour into the trip, the president’s boat drew close to Bear Glacier where he paused to talk about its rapid retreat. 

It was the final public trip of a day in Seward during which the president spent hours at Exit Glacier before leaving to tour the fjords. 

President’s arrival

After more than an hour of waiting, a crowd of at least 200 people lining the Seward Highway near Exit Glacier Road finally got their chance to wave at the President of the United States Tuesday morning. Or, at least, his motorcade. 

It wasn’t clear which vehicle Obama arrived in and rampant speculation was fueled by the sporadic arrival of three Huey helicopters and three Ospreys, each landing in a parking lot several hundred yards away from spectators. 

“It’s a pretty historical moment and pretty cool for our little town,” said Seward resident Rebekka Federer. Her 2-year-old son Finn was less impressed with the growing crowd and seemed more interested in darting out of his mother’s arms and into the road. “We couldn’t miss this opportunity. I’ve probably never been this close to a president.”

Federer said she would pull her daughter out of school early and head to the family’s home on Exit Glacier Road to catch a glimpse of the president leaving his tour of Exit Glacier later in the afternoon. 

Obama left Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson at about 10:45 a.m. Tuesday and flew to the port town of about 3,000 on the Kenai Peninsula for a day of touring Exit Glacier, filming with famed survivalist Bear Grylls and eventually boarding a vessel for a tour of the Kenai Fjords National Park. 

Amelia Mueller, 11, got to skip a day of classes at Kenai Middle School to get up at 6:30 a.m. and make the nearly two-hour drive from Kenai to Seward with her dad Marcus and brother Tucker. 

Mueller said she was excited. 

“I’ve never gotten to see the president before, I don’t think I’m going to get to again for a really long time,” she said.  

Several signs and flags lined the Seward Highway heading into the town, most bearing welcoming messages for the president. Outside of the Seward Animal Clinic, one hand-lettered sign warned readers to “hide the women” as the Secret Service had made it to town. 

Seward resident Lori Landstrom stood with Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly candidate and Seward resident Brandii Holmdahl as the two wrestled with a blue tarp as the wind picked up. 

On the tarp, a message gave the president a Denali-sized welcome to Seward. “Duct tape on a blue tarp,” Landstrom said. “It doesn’t get any more Alaskan than this.”

Landstrom said she has been excited for the president’s visit to the state. 

“The changing of (Mount McKinley’s name to Denali) is just an added bonus,” she said. 

Several in the crowd supported Obama’s stance on global warming and want him to take a hard line on climate change. 

A polar bear dubbed “Frost Paw” from the Center for Biological Diversity stood in the crowd waving alongside several activists protesting Shell’s drilling activity in the Arctic. Steve Jones, who donned the polar bear suit for the day, said he wanted to see the president work to keep climate change at the forefront of public discussion. 

“We’re really happy to hear Obama focusing on climate change, we just want his actions to match his words,” Jones said.

Another man wearing a “NObama” shirt stood nearby but, despite their politics, nearly everyone in the crowd waved as the president’s motorcade drove by, heading toward the glacier. 

“It seems like everyone is saying  ‘No matter what your politics are, this is kind of cool,’” said Tim Lorimer, of Wasilla. 

Lorimer said he was glad to see the president visiting the Kenai Peninsula. 

“For all of us, we think this is pretty special. There’s the Great Wall of China, the Coliseum and we’ve got Exit Glacier and the fjords,” he said.

After visiting Exit Glacier, the president stopped to get out on Fourth Street in Seward where the roads were blocked and a large crowd gathered. He stepped into Sweet Darlings, a fudge and dessert shop, for an ice cream — taking orders from some in the press pool and for secret service agents hovering nearby. 

“Ring us up!” he said as he prodded those around him to order in between bites of his chocolate and coconut ice cream. 

Icebreaker announced

Just before he embarked on his tour of the fjords, the president stopped at the Seward City Dock to announce a proposal to accelerate construction of a heavy icebreaker.

During a trip that has largely focused on climate change, Obama said he wanted to talk about the changing nature of the Arctic and its strategic implications for the country. 

He said the country had just three icebreakers, down from seven just after World War II. Russia has 40 either planned or in construction, he said. 

“It’s important that we are prepared so, whether it’s for search and rescue missions or national security reasons, whether it’s for commerce reasons, that we have much greater capability than we have now,” he said. 

Kenai Fjords

While the president spent most of his time looking at the natural wonders the Kenai Fjords have to offer, he did stop at the base of Bear Glacier to talk about its rapid retreat in recent years. 

Park Ranger Colleen Kelly said the glacier has retreated 2.22 miles in the last 15 years. It drew back just 1.17 miles in the 112 years prior, she said. 

“(It’s) amazing and pretty unsettling,” she said. 

When asked what he thought of the wall of ice that dwarfed the phalanx of boats circling the president’s vessel, he said “spectacular.”

At the base of the glacier were several large icebergs floating in a freshwater lake. 

“Each of these icebergs is the size of a Costco,” Obama said, drawing grins from several listening members of the press. 

After the trip, the president headed back to the Seward airport at about 7:25 p.m. and boarded Marine One for his flight back to Anchorage. 

On Wednesday the president traveled to Dillingham to meet with area fishermen and families, and attend a cultural performance. Wednesday evening, the president was to travel to Kotzebue to deliver remarks there before heading back to Anchorage for the return trip to Washington, D.C.

Rashah McChesney is the city editor at the Peninsula Clarion.