Captain McKern and Seward Alaska
I discovered a long lost contact, and I didn’t even need Facebook to do it.
In 2002 I visited Seward, Alaska. It was one of my first big trips, and at the time relatively distant compared to my jaunts around the western United States. Weeks before leaving I consulted with a coworker who was raised in the Last Frontier, excitedly laying out my map and pointing out the cities on the circular road trip I was planning. He asked me how long I was panning to go, to which I replied “10 days.” He wisely suggested I narrow down my city list as it would be impossible to visit so many cities in just 15 days.
I decided on visiting Talkeetna for a few days, where I visited Mt McKinley, attempted a view at the northern lights and met an amazing photographer.
My other time was spent in Girdwood and Seward, two towns in the Kenai Peninsula. Girdwood is a laid back ski town, and Seward a popular cruise destination on the beautiful Resurrection Bay -a large inlet surrounded by mountains and glaciers on three sides, and base for the Kenai Fjords National Park.
While the negative of visiting the Kenai Peninsula during the winter off season was the biting cold wings, it was positively outweighed by scant tourists, allowing us to interact with welcoming locals while wandering into places like the VFW Hall’s taco night, and sitting with local residents at the Community College Culinary school dinners. Or answering the question, “Why are you here in February?”
One morning we boarded a boat cruise down Resurrection Bay. These cruises last a few hours, and give the opportunity to see whales, sea lions, puffins and the immense glaciers lining the sound.
The scene was amazing this beautiful sunny day. The polar opposite to the overcast murky skies of Talkeetna. A few hours into the trip some others were getting cold, and after taking their photos retreated to the indoor cabin. I stayed outside while cruising back into the bay. I stood on the bow, with the bitter wind in my face, reflecting on the the marvel and thrill of the landscape surrounding me on three sides. The photos I took on board were with my old 35mm camera, before I started nightly backups and uploads of travel photos while traveling. Upon my return home I was sad to discover that none of my camera rolls contained the photos from that day. They had been lost along the way, but the mental images of standing alone in the front of the boat for 45 minutes are just as strong.
Also making the day special was Captain Michael McKern, piloting the boat. While greeting us we noticed his forearms and hands were prosthetic. While certainly curious we didn’t do the uncouth and ask about it, but later near the cabin read some framed newspaper articles about Captain McKern. As a teenager he lost his arms to a serious burn accident, and how he had fought the state of Alaska in order to obtain his boating license and still accomplish what he wanted to in life, making his limitations rather irrelevant.
Equally as memorable as his physical differences was his humorous and self deprecating attitude. It was obvious that he loved his job and the outdoors, but didn’t take himself too seriously. Pointing to a group of sea lions floundering about a rock he joked about how stinky they were, and described how he did population counts for the state during some of his rides.
In the years since I had occasionally searched for him online, but never saw any articles or blog posts about the “Seward boat captain with the prosthetic arms.”
Recently while writing a post comparing the sea lions of Alaska to Patagonia (I really don’t know the difference) I typed a fragment into Google and found this article by Heidi Zemach of the Seward City News, about Captain Michael McKern and his career.
I’m happy to know he’s still giving memories to Seward travelers. I would track him down and but true to his spirit he says he’s done doing newspaper stories and simply wants to do his job.
Photo of Captain Michael McKern from Seward Daily News – April 2010.
GoToAk.com also has an excellent article about the wildlife you’ll encounter aboard McKern’s boat.