Monday, August 4, 2014

Anchorage to Valdez and Back Again

Have you noticed that we keep circling back to Anchorage?  Well, it’s not that we’re that enamored of Anchorage, but to get anywhere in southern Alaska, you have to go through the city.  If you look at the map of the state below, you’ll notice that there aren’t too many highways in Alaska.  Most of them are centered in or around Anchorage.  That’s also the reason we’re only traveling in the south-central portion of the state.  There are no highways out to the western portion - it’s only accessible by boat or air.  The southeastern islands around Juneau are accessible only by ferry (very costly for an RV). 

The northern portion of the state has one “highway” that stretches 414 miles from Fairbanks to Deadhorse on Prudhoe Bay.  It was originally built as a supply road to support the Trans-Atlantic Pipeline System in 1974.  The highway parallels the pipeline and is one of the most isolated roads in the U.S.  There are only 3 towns along the route: Coldfoot (pop. 10), Wiseman (pop. 22), and Deadhorse (pop. 25).  Fuel is available at mile 56, at Coldfoot (mile 175), and 239 miles later at the end of road in Deadhorse. To quote the Alaska Highway Department: “The road is very primitive and small vehicle and motorcycle traffic carries significant risk.  Anyone embarking on the route is encouraged to bring survival gear.”  Gosh, can’t imagine why I didn’t want to take off on that drive!  This is actually a “destination” road for motorcyclists coming up from the lower-48.  Considering that the road is desolate, with no services for hundreds of miles, making it to Deadhorse is a badge of honor for some motorcyclists – Heinz decided to pass.

Highway map of Alaska.

We’re still enjoying this area of Alaska.  We recently headed south out of Anchorage turning our eyes toward Valdez. 

Along the way, Heinz wanted to stop at Matanuska Glacier, chosen by Alaska Magazine as #2 of “49 Places to go in the 49th State”.  Matanuska is the largest glacier that can be reached by vehicle.  A valley glacier, it is a body of solid ice that flows like a river under its own weight through an existing valley.  Matanuska Glacier Park is a privately owned park that has the only public access point to the glacier.  You can drive up to the parking area, then walk on foot onto the ice, explore the glacier on your own, or choose to take advantage of one of the local guide companies.  We decided to go out on our own.  We did not have any crampons – spiked attachments for the soles of your shoes that make walking on ice much easier.  Not having crampons made for some interesting moments trying to figure out the best route, with the least amount of black ice, clear ice, blue ice, rocks, boulders, mud, crevasses, etc.  We’ll probably go back when Heinz’s cousin gets here in August and I think we’ll spring for the guided tour (with crampons) next time.
Matanuska Glacier, 27 miles long by 4 miles wide, seen from Glenn Highway.

 Trekking through the moraine to get to the glacier.

Backpack-check, camera-check, gloves/jacket/scarf-check, hat-check. 
OK, I’m ready to go!

Standing at the edge of the ice you feel very small.

Glacial flour.  Ground by glacial ice from solid rock to very fine particles, this material then flows out from beneath a glacier in the meltwater. 
 Black ice on the glacier, very slippery!

Crevasses in the ice. 

Close-up of a crevasse.  This one is only about 10”-12” wide, but you can’t see the bottom.  Others are large enough to lose a person forever.

Blue ice in Matanuska Glacier.

Me standing on the terminal moraine (accumulation of rock, clay, and gravel at the outermost edge of a glacier).

Matanuska River, formed by glacial melt.

When we got down to Valdez we planned on around 3 days in town, next thing we knew, we’d spent a week in the area.  One of the most important ports in Alaska, the year-round population of Valdez is about 4,200.  Located on Prince William Sound the town is a port for both commercial and sport fishing.  Freight moves through Valdez bound for the interior of Alaska.  Sightseeing in Prince William Sound and heli-skiing are major sources of tourist income.  In addition, Valdez is the terminal for oil from the Trans-Alaska pipeline and the port from which it is shipped to refineries around the world.

Valdez was started in the late 1800’s as a scam to lure prospectors off the Klondike Gold Rush trail.  Some steamship companies promoted the Valdez Glacier Trail as a better route for miners to reach the Klondike gold fields and set up sleeping and eating accommodations at the end of Port Valdez Fjord.  The prospectors who came found that they had been deceived.  The glacier trail was twice as long and steep as reported, and many died attempting the crossing.  Once the Richardson Highway was completed in 1899, connecting Valdez and Fairbanks, Valdez shook off its unsavory reputation and became the first overland supply route into the interior. 

In the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake liquefied the glacial silt that formed the town’s foundation forming a massive underwater landslide, which resulted in a section of the shoreline breaking off and sinking into the sea - causing a 30-foot high tsunami.  Thirty-two residents on the city’s main freight dock were lost.  After this, the city moved to more stable ground 4 miles away and the old town site was destroyed.

Valdez town limits cover 277.1 square miles for a population of 4,022.

One of several glacial melt waterfalls just outside of town.

Heading into Valdez through the Chugach Mountains.

The small boat harbor, filled with charter boats, commercial fishing boats, kayaks, and privately owned pleasure boats.  Commercial cargo ships and tankers use a different deep water harbor.

Nets on a commercial fishing boat.

Chugach Mountains surrounding Valdez from across the fjord.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  The spill occurred as the oil tanker Exxon Valdez was leaving the terminal at Valdez full of oil.  Approximately 25 miles into Prince William Sound the ship ran aground on Bligh Reef spilling 11 million gallons of oil and devastating much of the marine life in the surrounding area.  This is an amount roughly equivalent to 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools.  Approximately 1,300 miles of shoreline were contaminated.  It took more than 4 summers and $2.1 billion dollars before authorities shut down the operation.  At its peak the cleanup included 10,000 workers, about 1,000 boats and roughly 100 airplanes and helicopters.  Industry representatives claim that everything is now fine in the area.  However, government and university studies estimate that at least 20,000 gallons of oil still remain and will be present for at least another 25 years, if not longer. 

Many species of animals, birds, and marine life have slowly recovered from the spill, but many have not.  The list of those considered to have recovered include among others: bald eagles, common loons and murres, cormorants, pink salmon, river otters, and sockeye salmon.  Among those that are still on the slow road to recovery include harlequin ducks, harbor seals, killer whales, sea otters, rockfish, and black oystercatchers.  Two species that have shown no sign of recovering are Pacific herring and pigeon guillemots. 

 Sea otters resting.  Hunted almost to extinction in the 1800’s sea otter populations rebounded after international agreements placed a ban on hunting.  40% of the population was killed in the immediate aftermath of the Valdez spill.  Continuing studies of mortality and birth rates suggest that relatively poor survival of otters is directly related to chronic exposure to hydrocarbons from the oil still remaining in the area.  The population is slowly increasing but is still less than half of pre-spill rates.

Bald eagle on the wing.

After the oil spill, several changes were made in how oil tankers are managed until they cleared Prince William Sound and enter open seas.  All tankers transporting oil in the Sound are now required to be double-hulled.  All tanker captains, and any crewmember suspected of consuming alcohol are now subject to alcohol tests before sailing.  Crews receive more training and work hours are limited to reduce accidents caused by fatigue. The Coast Guard now monitors the speed and heading of all tankers and other vessels in Prince William Sound through improved radar.  The Exxon Valdez left the existing tanker traffic lane because of reports of ice drifting into the lane from the nearby Columbia Glacier.  One of the many improvements to help avoid such problems includes the installation of an ice-detecting radar system on Bligh Island. 

In addition, all tankers are required to have two escort tugs. One tug is required to be attached to the tanker at all times.  These tugs are designed to keep a disabled tanker off the rocks and carry equipment to begin immediate cleanup if a spill occurs.  These tugs are extremely powerful.  On it’s own power, a fully loaded tanker takes about seven miles to come to a stop.  These tugs can stop a tanker inside of one length of the tanker – I would not want to be onboard when it comes to that screeching halt! 
Oil tanker being escorted out of the Sound by tanker tugs.  The yellow tug is attached to the tanker.

So, just how does the oil get to Valdez?  The Alyeska Pipeline Company was founded in 1970 to design, construct, operate, and maintain a pipeline to transport oil from the field on the North Slope of Alaska to the ice-free deep-water port in Valdez.  The pipeline was built between March 1975 and June 1977, running 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to the Marine Terminal at Valdez.  The first barrel of oil traveled through the pipeline in 1977, and full-scale production began by the end of the year.  Several notable incidents of oil leakage have occurred since; including those caused by sabotage, maintenance failures, and accidental gunshot holes by hunters.  As of 2013, the pipeline had shipped almost 17 billion barrels of oil.  The maximum daily throughput was 2,145, 297 barrels on Jan. 14, 1988.  Decline in oil production is now posing a serious problem for the pipeline.  By 2015, it is anticipated that daily oil throughput will approach less than 500,000 barrels per day unless additional sources of oil are developed.  By law, Alyeska is required to remove all traces of the pipeline after oil extraction is complete.  As of today, no date has been set for the removal.
A cold and wet me standing under the Alyeska Pipeline (better known as the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline).  Approximately 420 miles of the pipeline is elevated on 78,000 vertical supports.  The radiators on top of each post are designed to keep the permafrost at the bottom of the post from thawing out.

Terminal storage facilities outside of Valdez.

The first barrel of oil pumped through the Alyeska Pipeline on July 28, 1977.

While in Valdez we took a day and enjoyed the Meares Glacier Excursion offered by Stan Stephens Cruises.  A 9-hour tour, the boat travels across Prince William Sound, past the Columbia Glacier and Glacier Island, to Unakwik Inlet and Meares Glacier.  The glacier is one mile wide where it ends in the inlet.  It is also one of the few glaciers in Alaska that is advancing rather than retreating.  We had a great trip out with some interesting scenes along the way.

The Northwestern.  This is one of the boats featured on the TV program Deadliest Catch.  During the summer months it travels to Prince William Sound and acts as a go-between tender between fishing boats and the processing facility.

Mining probe along the shoreline.  Miners began exploring for copper and gold in Prince William Sound around 1900.  Some ore was found, but better deposits elsewhere caused interest to decline.

Waterfall along the shore.

Sea otter checking us out.

Humpback whale spouting.

And then diving.

And then, oh my, we arrived at the glacier. 

Ice in Unakwik Inlet.

More ice floating in Unakwik Inlet.  Remember, only 10% of an ice floe is above water, this one was around 20 feet from end to end. 

Sea otters on the ice, staying safe from killer whales. 

And then, there it was, Meares Glacier, 1 mile wide and ½ mile deep.

Harbor seals lounging on the ice in front of the glacier.  It’s a great spot for avoiding predators.

Checking us out while we checked him out.

Hmm…you’re getting a bit close for comfort!

Later, dudes…

Ice floating away just after calving off the glacier.  Ice calving is the breaking off of chunks of ice at the edge of a glacier due to the movement of the glacier body.  Calving is often accompanied by a loud cracking sound that sounds like a loud thunderclap.  The entry of the ice into the water causes large, and often hazardous, waves, so boats often cannot approach closer than 1-2 miles.

Hanging out in front of Meares Glacier.

Along the way back to Valdez we got to see some other really cool things.

 Humpback whales are known for their acrobatic displays.  This is a humpback performing flipper slaps.  The function of this maneuver is unknown.

Completion of the flipper slap.  The black shape on the right is the left side of the whale’s tail.

Humpback whale beginning to breach.  A breach is where a whale generates enough upward force with its flukes to lift approximately 2/3 of its body out of the water.  Researchers believe it may be related to courtship or play activities.  While this one was beautiful to watch, just before it we were treated to the spectacular sight of two whales breaching side by side.  I don’t think anyone on board got a photograph; we were all too busy ooh-ing and ahh-ing.

Dall’s Porpoise with calf playing alongside the boat.  Dall’s Porpoise are found only in the north Pacific.  They can swim up to 33mph and dive to 300 feet.  They have never been observed to sleep by researchers.

We found a wonderful little museum in Valdez, the Whitney Museum.  Maxine Whitney came to Alaska in 1947 with her husband.  Over the years she traveled to Native villages throughout the territory, buying items directly from the artists to sell in her gift shop.  She continued to collect artwork for the next 40+ years.  In 1998, Maxine donated her collection to Prince William Sound Community College.  The college built a state-of-the-art museum to house the collection. 

Native waterproof coats made of bear gut (left) and seal gut (right).

Mammoth tusk carving.  Notice that each sled dog is different.

What are considered to be typical Alaska Native dolls were created only recently to sell to outsiders.  These were made for Maxine’s niece.

While in Valdez Heinz talked to the locals and found a great place to fish.  Allison Point is across the inlet from town and close to the salmon fishery, so there are tons of salmon trying to get back to their birthplace to spawn.  The pinks were running and Heinz put some great food on the table, not to mention taking me along to get some great photos.
 Heinz and I agree, this is how we’ll always picture Alaska…fireweed, water, and mountains.

The seagulls also agree that this is a great spot for fishing.

As well as the bald eagles.  There must have been at least 40, if not more, eagles hanging out and chowing down.

Even if he doesn’t catch anything, how can you not love fishing in a setting like this?

But as I said, he stayed busy putting food on the table, not to mention into the freezer.

After leaving Valdez we headed east to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  At 13.2 million acres, this is the largest park in the National Park system and one of the least visited.  Wrangell-St. Elias stretches from one of the tallest peaks in North America, Mount St. Elias (18,008 feet) to the ocean.  Yet there are only two roads into the park, both packed dirt/gravel.  At the northwestern end Nabesna Road-42 miles- leads to several camp sites, hiking, and wildlife viewing areas. 
If you’re interested in history, take the Edgerton Highway on the southwestern end of the national park to Chitina (pronounced chit na).  At a population of 126, this is not the booming town it once was.  In 1900 copper ore was discovered along the northern edge of the Chitina River valley.  This brought a rush of prospectors and homesteaders to the area.  By 1914 there was a railroad, stores, stables, 5 hotels, several rooming houses, bars, restaurants, and a movie theater.  The mine closed down in 1938 and Chitina became a ghost town.  Current activity in town revolves around the dipnet fishing for salmon every summer and the few tourists that stop on their way to see the Kennicott mine.

Abandoned trucks in town.

Butter and Eggs blooming in the middle of town.

Photo of prospectors and an almost pure copper find, circa 1908.
Leaving out of Chitina, the McCarthy Road takes you along 56 miles of dirt road into the towns of McCarthy and Kennicott.  Both of these were railroad and mining towns or were until the copper ore ran out.  At one time there was even a hospital and a grade school in Kennicott.  Now there are approximately 40 year-round residents. 
In 1900 two prospectors spotted a green patch on the side of Mount Kennicott that turned out to be one of the richest deposits of copper ore ever found.  Bought out by a consortium backed by the Guggenheim brothers and J.P. Morgan, the Kennecott Corporation (I’m not messing up my spelling…the town is spelled with an “i” and the corporation with an “e”) started mining operations in 1906.  The next hurdle was to transport the copper ore from the mine to the coastal town of Cordova where it would be shipped to Tacoma, WA for smelting.
The railroad (owned by the Kennecott Corporation) was built in 1908 and stretched 196 miles from Cordova to the Kennecott mines.  In Cordova, the ore was shipped by way of the Alaska Steamship Company (also owned by the Kennecott Corporation), to the smelters in Tacoma, WA (also owned by the Kennecott Corporation). Nothing like a good old American monopoly is there? 

Over the next 30 years, approxiomately $200,000,000 worth of copper ore would be extracted.  By 1938 the price of copper had dropped too low and the ore was running out so the mine was closed and the railroad abandoned.  In November of that year the last train departed from Kennicott taking the last of the ore and most of the residents with it, leaving two ghost towns behind.

While in Kennicott we walked around, but saved the mine tour for later this month when our guests arrive.  So you’ll hear more about Kennicott later.

 The Kennecott Mine buildings. 

Abandoned winch system across the river.

Abandoned railroad.

Mine tailings stretch for miles.

Ghost town.

But all that abandoned equipment does make some interesting flowerpots for the locals.

We’re now back in Anchorage for a few days until we head out to find a lake, some fish - maybe some trout or char this time - and some peace and quiet.  It’s also the beginning of berry picking season, so I’ll need to poke around and see what I can find.


Leaving you for now with our friends of the day.
We went to toss the trash one day and decided it wasn’t our turn.  Maybe later!

Yak burgers on the hoof.  I tried one in Chitina and found it to be very tasty, much like almost fat-free ground beef.

Aw, come on people, I’m trying to nap here.

Furs for sale in one of the local shops.  Now this should make PETA nice and happy.

Along with this…funny, when I think about it we haven’t seen any PETA members around here.

Stellar Jay who wasn’t happy when we settled in next to his nest.


Our national bird chilling on an ice floe.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist).