The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Project affirms traditional Exit Glacier uses


NPS Photos | Keith Knighten Collection

A hunter poses for a photograph of the sheep he took at Harding Icefield.

A group of Alaska oral historians and national park staffers has, in a rigorous, academic fashion documented the historical and traditional uses of the Exit Glacier area and Harding Icefield from 1950 through 1980. That's when the Kenai Fjords National Park was established under the terms of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.

Drawing from in-depth conversations with 23 long-term Seward residents including Val Anderson, Keith and Jackie Campbell, Bob White, Gary Zimmerman, Warren Huss, Doug McRae, Dan Seavey and Maranda Nelson, interviewers learned a good deal about things people used to do the park at various times, including hunting, trapping, berry picking, mushing, skiing, climbing and snow-machining. They also heard about physical changes in the glacier and giant icefield, the flora and fauna of the area and local animal populations; how people experienced the 1964 Earthquake; a former snow-machine tour operation on Harding Icefield; the effects of the establishment of Kenai Fjords National Park; and the construction of Exit Glacier/Herman Leirer Road.

Dr. Rachel Mason, with the National Park Service Alaska Region, and Karen Brewster, with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program conducted most of the interviews. They had assistance from Shannon Kovac with the Kenai Fjords National Park. After compiling the interviews, photos, and other documentation, Douglas Doeur, working in collaboration with KFNP and the University of Washington-Pacific Northwest CESU compiled the stories and their themes into a comprehensive report for the park service called, "A Study of Traditional Activities in the Exit Glacier Area of Kenai Fjords National Park."

The project had duel purposes, Duer said.

First, the oral history interviews will help the community to preserve the local history of the area, and will help the park to educate and interpret that history for its visitors.

Second, the research was primarily undertaken to help future park leaders to accurately define what constitutes "traditional activities" in and around Seward in order to help them make informed management decisions about what activities are allowed in the park.

Public comments received on the Exit Glacier Area Plan and a recent amendment to the General Management Plan addressed concerns relating to traditional use in Kenai Fjords National Park. However, the term "traditional activities" was not defined. The national park's inability to define traditional use resulted in the postponement of management decisions in two Exit Glacier zones, the Backcountry Semi-Primitive Zone and the Backcountry Primitive Zone.

Since its establishment there have often been various user-conflicts by those wishing to access certain areas of the park, or to perform certain activities there, and this report will help guide future leaders through these sometimes thorny processes, said former KFNP Superintendent Jeff Mow, who commissioned the report and saw it more or less completed before leaving his post in Seward.

During the interviews participants used colored pens on USGS maps to mark the areas they used to frequent, and what types of activities they performed there. They also shared photos they had collected. The maps, marked areas and photos can all be viewed on the Exit Glacier Project Jukebox website. Residents interviewed openly shared their stories and opinions on access to certain areas and on uses that they felt were positive or negative.

The interview data firmly established that motor vehicles were commonly used to access the Exit Glacier area prior to the park's creation in 1980, especially snow machines and automobiles, Duer concludes in the report. Snow machines were used for hunting, trapping, and recreational uses in the Harding Icefield and Exit Glacier areas. Lands now in the park were also used for such purposes as berry picking and non-motorized recreational activities prior to the park's creation. All of these are "traditional" activities, by legal definitions of that term, are potentially admissible under ANILCA under certain conditions, the report states. Even following the national park's creation, many of these "traditional" uses and modes of access have continued in reduced form.

Duer gave a presentation describing the report and some of its findings Sept. 18 to the Seward Historical Preservation Commission. He hopes its report's contents would make interesting reading for local residents, as they contain so many stories about the area and its people. It should enlighten newer residents about their fellow residents who they might not know well, adds Shannon Kovac.

Some examples of interview topics:

Anne and Ralph Hatch described Ralph's experience growing up at the Jessie Lee Home, their life in Seward in earlier days, and the 1964 Earthquake. Ralph also talks about his father's cabin at Black Point and other cabins in the area, hunting in the Seward area, and expeditions on the Harding Icefield.

Page Spencer talks about growing up in Seward, her family's outdoor-based lifestyle, her parents' backgrounds, her father's Dave's work and refuge management issues, changes in wildlife populations, mining and working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill for Kenai Fjords National Park.

Bob White talks about changes in Exit Glacier and the surrounding area, about bear hunting and the effect of the establishment of Kenai Fjords National Park on his hunting activities.

Dan Seavey talks about hunting black bear in Box Canyon, about living on a homestead on Old Exit Glacier Road, about riding horses and training sled dogs in the area, the 1964 earthquake and the new road to Exit Glacier.

Ule Kilcher, a Swede (who was interviewed 1998 but included in the history project), talks about some of his mountain explorations on the Kenai Peninsula, and his 1968 pioneering expedition (with Dave Johnston) that traversed the Harding Icefield from Homer to Seward that gave Exit Glacier its name.

For information go to and look up Exit Glacier Project.


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