Monday, July 19, 2010

Discovering Valdez – Alaska Adventure 2010

July 10 – 13: Four days in Valdez was a combination of rain, sun, cruising, museums, salmon, halibut and piles of laundry.  To start off, we chose the Valdez Glacier Campground as our home. It’s a woodsy setting about two miles north of  town that offers electrical hookups, water and a dump for $25.00 per night. The non-hookup sites are $15, but we were in the mood to plug-in for a while. The electric sites are in a new portion of the campground, are generously sized and the price was reasonable. We prefer the less crowded, non-rv-park type places, so this was just right for us.  Besides, as we traveled the road to and from our spot we got to see the black bear at the pizza joint’s front door or shuffling across to another location where he smelled food.

Our first evening in Valdez, we took our usual get-acquainted drive. It was still rainy, but that doesn’t stop people in Alaska from getting out. It didn’t take long to find them fishing.  On the other side of the Valdez Inlet there’s a fishing campground and a salmon hatchery. Young people with their salmon catches in Valdez, AK. It was fun to nose around there watching the salmon in the endless pursuit upstream to spawn.  Many people were fishing at the 300-foot distance away where it was allowed.   The limit was six fish per person and we saw a good many walking out with their catches.  Eagles were hanging around as well, waiting for a few leftovers.

The next morning we awoke to sunshine.  Wow!  Let’s get moving. We were hoping for a clear, sunny day to go on the Valdez glacier cruise. There’s been plenty of rain lately.  So we threw the cameras, binoculars, hats and jackets in the backpack and hustled off to find the cruise office in the harbor.  We had an excellent recommendation on the Stan Stephans Glacier and Wildlife Cruise, plus we had our TripSaver coupon that gave us two-for-one on the $115 trip.  We were living right today, I guess. We walked up with just ten minutes until the departure for the nine-hour cruise that we were hoping to catch.  

What a day!  Captain Stan and his staff brought us the excitement of the Prince William Sound’s marine wilderness and we met some very interesting people.  During the nine hours on the water we were entertained by wildlife, gazed at awesome glacial and mountain scenery, learned about the Alyeska pipeline and terminal at Valdez and enjoyed our fellow passengers and a friendly, knowledgeable crew.  Our group included travelers from Ohio, Texas, Kansas, Washington, Italy, Japan and Germany.  Actually, there might have been more non-English speakers on the boat than otherwise.  We found that we were sharing our experience with 24 Germans who were together on a unique type of bus tour.  A member of that group, Gelinde,Gelinde and Nancy enjoying the cruise on the Valdez Spirit. made a special contribution to our day on the Sound.  She is a fun lady and spoke fluent English, having been married to an American.  We talked about not only her fascinating trip across Canada and Alaska in the “red bus” but about Germany and our lives in general.  It was great to spend a while with her. (Their bus is self-contained, beds, kitchen and touring seats. I have photos in the album at the end of this post.)

There were several highlights of the cruise on Prince William Sound.  Perhaps, thinking back now, we would choose being close by for gazing at the Columbia  and Meares Glaciers. Or maybe it was witnessing the humpback whales performing their acrobatics for us. We know it wasn’t the choppy waters we experienced late in the day.  Really, I think it was the total package that will be a part of our good memories. We have jillions of photos of the floating ice and glaciers.  I’ve included a couple below and will also put some into the album. But this is one of those experiences that is so awesome in person.  Huge pieces of ice that were once a part of the glaciers float in the Prince William Sound.  We rode through these on the way to our viewing spot.First the boat starts gliding through the huge chunks of ice floating in the water, clunking on the hull. We learned that the ice floating in the water after chunking off the glacier replenishes every 24 to 36 hours.

As your boat slowly approaches the glacier,  you start to see the massive ice creation in the distance.  The brilliant blue colors become clearer in the cracks of this magnificent, thousands-of-years-old, wall of ice. 

In Alaska there are 30,000 square miles of glacier ice.  The glaciers in the Sound are both retreating and advancing.   The first one we visited, the Columbia Glacier, is 460 square miles and extends 1600-2000 feet below sea level.

Our captain brought the boat within a quarter of a mile of the Meares glacier (below) and then idled, keeping the boat steady for what seemed like forever - while we all gazed quietly and snapped our photos.  We heard and saw some calvings, the ice clapping against the water after it slid down in sheets off the front of the glacier. . This shows just a portion of the 100 foot high wall of the Meares Glacier as it extends into the water.     

Sea lion relaxes as we cruise out.The sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals and humpback whales entertained us on the way to and from the glaciers.  The Steller sea lions average 1200 pounds for males.  This guy was sunning and resting on the buoy, posing for us. 

The sea otters with their old-man whiskers are floating around on their backs in the water, looking as though they might be waving or clapping.   An exciting part of the day was the whales. We were lucky enough to have humpbacks around us for quite a while.  They puffed and glided and shot out of the sea, twisting in the air and flopping powerfully back into the water. We just watched rather than try to catch photos.

Then there were the harbor seals, with their cute little round heads, large eyes and tiny front flippers.   They live out on the ice bergs and dive up to 600 feet for food. Take your pick. They’re all fascinating in some way. 

Harbor seals lounging on the ice.

The day after our cruise the weather returned to rain, so it was perfect for exploring the historical museums and catching up on laundry.  The history of Valdez involves the Gold Rush in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as does much of Alaska.  And most of us remember the Exxon Valdez tanker accident that spilled millions of gallons of oil into the waters of this area in 1989.  But there is another historical event that moved the entire town, the 1964 earthquake that measured 9.2.   It is the strongest ever recorded in North America, devastating much of South-central Alaska.  In Valdez the waterfront area dropped 35 feet into the bay and 30 people lost their lives.  The movie at the Valdez museum includes moving accounts of several people who experienced the quake. Most of the buildings in Valdez were impacted, some totally ruined. But the townspeople decided to rebuild.Oil storage tanks at Alyeska Terminal in Valdez, AK.  They moved some buildings that could be salvaged and built new ones.  The town site selected was four miles away, on a more solid base than the original town.   Of course, since that time the town of Valdez has changed somewhat.  In addition to commercial fishing and tourism as a means of support, many depend on the oil industry for their livelihood. The 800-mile pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, completed in 1977, results in an average of 52 tankers per month docking in Valdez.   In the photo above you can see the tanks that hold 500,000 gallons each of crude oil in storage waiting for the tankers to carry the oil to refineries in other parts of North America. 

After our museum visits, it was time for the laundry.  We put it off way too long this time and it took more loads than I want to mention.  But now the drawers and closet are stocked again. Our water tank is full and the waste tanks are empty.  We’re ready to go north on the Richardson Highway.  Who knows what’s next. Stay tuned and take care.

P.S. If you’d like to take a look at a few more Valdez cruise photos, click on the album below.

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