Bixler McClure grew up on boats and has been operating sail and powerboats around Seward since 2009. McClure operates his year round boat tour business, Seward Ocean Excursions, out of the Seward Boat Harbor slip M3, which is accessible from the Seward Mariner’s Memorial on the “uplands area” of the harbor. Four of us arrived to find the boat encircled by ice, broken into plate size pieces, waiting for dark to fall so that it could knit itself back together into a solid plate of ice. “I went to the fuel dock earlier today to break the ice in order to be able to get out of the harbor” said McClure. Although Resurrection Bay registered at a steady 36 degrees fahrenheit, the surface of the harbor has frozen regularly this winter, due to the low air temperatures and fresh water that comes from snow melt. Seward has experienced an unusual amount of snowfall this winter. McClure related how he’s shoveled more snow from boats, and broke more ice in the harbor this winter than all the other years combined. After three years with very little snow, Seward has proven this winter that this is Alaska and it is winter.
McClure and his wife, Krystin, started their year round boat tour business because they wanted to have a way to share the scenery with visitors and locals during the winter, when all the other boat tour and water taxi companies close down. “Winter is so great to me because you can go out and have it all to yourself. I didn’t want to shut down in the winter when we started this company, I didn’t want to operate like that” said McClure, gesturing all around the bay, and pointing out that there wasn’t another boat in sight. Our boatload of four passengers and Captain McClure departed the harbor and quickly came upon a grouping of five sea lions swimming offshore from the Seward City Campground. McClure idled the boat so that we could enjoy watching the giant sea lion bodies surfacing for air and then diving into the chilly water. McClure explained that there was likely a “bait ball” under the water, a school of small bait sized fish, that was attracting the sea lions. He said that the warmer air temperatures and more sunlight was waking up the wildlife, as daylight hours are rapidly increasing.
The day was pleasant with direct sun warming our faces and spirits as we gazed out at the passing scenery, cruising out towards the three islands (Fox, Hive and Rugged) that protect Seward from the open ocean of the Gulf of Alaska. As we cruised past Lowell Point, the sonar registered a depth of 450 feet. McClure explained that the topography of the bay mirrors closely the mountains that surround it, with steep cliffs rising directly from Lowell Point Road and those same rocky cliffs continuing straight down under the water, to the bottom of the bay, whose deepest point is nearly 1,000 feet down. McClure is a licensed dive instructor and regularly takes people around Resurrection Bay for diving trips along the underwater cliffs. As such, he was able to speak from experience in describing what would likely be found beneath the surface – rockfish, various eels, octopus, in addition to the large marine mammals such as sea lions, porpoises, and whales.
When I first imagined a tour boat ride on Resurrection Bay in the winter, I worried that I would be huddled up cold, snow pelting my face. In reality, the boat ride was plenty warm enough, thanks to the Hewescraft 240’s enclosed cabin and its Wallace Diesel heater, which kept away the chill. We went around the opening to Resurrection Bay and west to where we could view Bear Glacier, coated in powdery snow. The rolling waves gently lifted us higher to where we could see the huge chunks of broken off glacier far below the glacier’s toe. I had watched many youtube videos previously of this area in summer, taken from various tour boats. The surroundings had a new look though, with the gorgeous contrasting colors of evergreens coated in white snow, against gravel beaches, which had a marked horizontal line across them from where the high tide had melted the beach snow.
Captain McClure explained that the water was exceptionally calm for winter, as he motored us across Resurrection Bay’s opening, between Hive and Rugged Islands.
On the east side of Resurrection Bay opening, tucked behind Fox Island and near dangerous Mary’s Rock, which is barely submerged at high tide, we came upon 50-100 sea lions who had hauled themselves out of the frigid waters onto two large horizontal rocks. They were asleep and basking in the sun. We almost passed them by, their light brown bodies resembling algae on the rocks, but thankfully one of the passengers, Jesse Rebeck, visiting with his partner, Mandi Woods, spotted their tubular bodies. The couple lives in Colorado, and they travel somewhere new each February, because it is one of the predictable times each year that Woods has off from work. They chose to visit Seward because the town was recommended by a friend at work and because they wanted to visit the Sea Life Center. Seward was an extension of their visit to Alyeska Resort in Girdwood. A boat ride was “something that we wanted to do and we were looking for boats that were operating,” Rebeck said, noting that it was challenging to find things that were open in Seward during the winter. He said that McClure’s use of Facebook marketing helped him find his way to the company.
On our way back towards Seward, we passed by the remains of an old bunker located on the top of Barwell Island, a remnant of the WW2 influx of soldiers to the Resurrection Bay area. The foundation remains, weathering more each year, slowly decomposing from the salty air and rain. In close vicinity to Barwell Island is a long gravel spit that extends from the east side of Fox Island. Captain McClure motored us in close to the spit, hovering above a large sunken barge, which became visible on the sonar screen. McClure explained that this sunken barge is an excellent spot to dive, relating a tale of stumbling upon a sunken fishing boat in Prince William Sound some years earlier. McClure had heard a call on the radio requesting assistance with an anchor that was stuck and thus wouldn’t come up. McClure had his diving gear with him at the time and offered to go down and free the anchor. Underwater, he discovered that the anchor was stuck in a sunken fishing boat. “What were the chances” he said. It’s this constant seeking and finding unexplored places that seems to drive McClure to live in Alaska and operate his business. His enthusiasm throughout the day was contagious.
The east side of Resurrection Bay has a number of coves, with various private lodges and a couple of State Park cabins scattered along their cliffs and beaches. McClure is familiar with many of these spots, explaining that in addition to boat tours, he offers water taxi service to anywhere in and around Resurrection Bay that has a beach. He carries passengers and their gear out to these locations, then noses up the beaches, and unloads both passengers and gear from the bow. In order to disembark, he slowly backs away from the beaches, something that his boat with its twin 115 outboard motors and his skill level allow him to do. McClure explained this procedure to me and the other passenger, Becky Peppelman, while we we quietly took in the beauty of Humpy Cove, motors turned off, which allowed us to absorb the tranquility. Peppelman was visiting from Helena, Montana, where she works for AAA. She had been corresponding with McClure for about a month prior to her visit because she knew that she was going to be in Alaska, in Anchorage and around the Kenai Peninsula, on a business trip for two weeks and she “wanted to take a boat ride, but needed to find something that was open.”
As the afternoon lazily wore on, McClure turned the boat towards Seward, crossing the bay, as sea otters began to appear. We had been searching for sea otters the previous three hours, as passenger Woods was hoping to view them. McClure once again idled the boat, and all five of us listened and watched intently as a sea otter crunched a tanner crab just ten feet away from the boat. McClure would be running one more trip that afternoon, a water taxi out to Thumb Cove. A group of local Seward backcountry skiers planned to spend multiple days at one of the State Park cabins and then ski back to the Fourth of July area, thus only needing a one-way water taxi. As we returned to the harbor, McClure once again motored through the chunky ice, smoothly docking the boat. The group of us sightseers disembarked the “Missing Lynx”, full of joy from having been in the fresh air and seeing the beauty that is abundant in this corner of the world. It was my first time being out, and I was full of satisfaction and happy to know the area surrounding Seward a bit more fully.
More information about Bixler and Krystin McClure’s company, Seward Ocean Excursions can be found at: http://sewardoceanexcursions.com/ and on Facebook, where they post photos from recent boat trips.