Mark Thornton discovers Valdez' tragic past, is awestruck by Columbia Glacier and comes face-to-face with Alaska's wildlife.
The morning was cool and damp when we tumbled out of our Traily bunks in the Valdez RV park, but the low cloud gave the surrounding snow-clad mountains an air of mysterious beauty. Close by through the trees a waterfall tumbled down from the Valdez Glacier high above us, its song muted by the foliage and thick moss.
We had chosen Valdez Glacier Campground over half a dozen others closer to town due to its grand location on the edge of the wilderness. Also, it’s owned jointly by the US Government and City of Valdez and is typical of well-planned and clean government RV parks, which are all designed to keep individual campsites discreet by separating them with spinnies of trees. Ellie, who owns Traily and was thus its most competent handler, reversed the 10m trailer effortlessly into our camping bay. We felt we were parked all alone in a boreal forest, even though the park has 85 sites.
Traily not only has a kitchen with stove, fridge, sink and all the other trimmings inside, it also has an outside stove that slides out of a rear bulkhead. Ellie set to with Luci to make breakfast while Tim and I gathered wood for our site firepit. Jen set the bench table and Dianne and Elke made a rainbow of coloured wool between the cottonwood trees. Then we unlimbered Traily from Ellie’s ute and followed Luci and Tim in their GMC Yukon into town, all offering opinions on where to go over our walkie talkies; each vehicle had its own two-way with call signs ‘Traily’ and ‘Black Thunder’. As a former British Army cadet signaller I tried to introduce correct radio procedure, to no avail.
Valdez sits in the lee of the heavily glaciated Chugach Mountains at the head of a beautiful 16km long fjord called Port Valdez that drains into Prince William Sound. Its location between 3000m peaks at the top of the Gulf of Alaska brings it an annual average of 15m of snow, more than anywhere else in North America. When it’s not snowing it rains a lot; in August it averages 168mm, and even when it’s not raining it’s often pretty moist with low clouds. Surprisingly, the atmosphere does not dampen one’s spirits; the gently swirling, ever-changing mist adds to the character of the place and makes for spectacularly moody photographs.
Just getting there is a thrill. Winding through the mountains the Richardson Highway drops sharply down through Thompson Pass, a gap between the peaks that leads through a narrow gorge named Keystone Canyon with 300m high waterfalls cascading either side of the highway. It’s the only road in. During winter snow ploughs operate around the clock to keep it clear, even so, the drive in or out can be treacherous. Ellie drove the big rig brilliantly through the tortuous pass, her growling V8 echoing off the sheer cliffs.
Valdez was named by explorer Lieutenant Salvador Fidalgo in 1790 after a Spanish Navy minister. The Spanish claim dates from an outrageously presumptuous 1493 decree by Pope Alexander VI, a member of the infamous Borgia family no less, giving Spain exclusive rights to colonize and thus civilise, all the Western Hemisphere. Not that Spain did anything with Valdez, then little more than a temporary fishing camp of the native Chugach people, but Fidalgo was expected to at least plant a flag and thus curb British claims to the Pacific Northwest — Captain James Cook was already mapping the coast in 1778.
The town remained little more than a camp until 1897 when 4000 gold miners thronged through it seeking a new route to the Klondike. They were misled, the trail was too far west. Many died in the terrible winter of 1898 and most of the others left, disheartened. But the US Army recognised the site’s potential to become the northernmost port in America that is ice-free all year and built a highway to link it with the rest of the state. A railway was also proposed but rival companies could not agree who should build it. In true US frontier fashion a bloody gunfight ensued ending in a stalemate after many casualties. The track, which would have required long tunnels drilled through solid rock, would have been prohibitively expensive anyway and was never built.
Now Valdez has a valuable commercial fishery and freight docks serving interior Alaska. The surrounding natural beauty; snow to ski on, glaciers to marvel at and mountains to climb, plus the abundance of wildlife on land as well as in the water, make it a significant tourism centre. The only eyesore is the massive oil pipeline terminal on the south side of the fjord. However, the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company is the largest employer so few complain.
The town became infamous for the Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill on Good Friday 1989 but another tragedy, this one unavoidable, struck in 1964—also on Good Friday. At 5.35pm a massive 9.2 magnitude earthquake, the second largest ever recorded, occurred in Prince William Sound. It caused an underwater landslide and a devastating eight metre tsunami rebounded up and down Port Valdez fjord a dozen times. Amazingly, most townsfolk managed to outrun the wave though it claimed 30 people on a freight dock in the harbour. The town was rebuilt six kilometres to the east on solid ground.
Valdez, nudging 4000 residents in winter but more than half again in summer, boasts several museums. One in Egan St offers such fare as a recreated saloon and old miners’ gear, the second in Hazelet Avenue is called the Remembering Old Valdez, which includes intricate scale models of the town as it was before the ‘quake, but most impressive is the private Maxine and Jesse Whitney Museum in Lowe Street. It’s housed in Prince William Sound Community College, part of the University of Alaska. Devoted to Alaskan Native culture and wildlife, it includes fine crafts and natural history displays, some lifelike taxidermy and a large collection of fossils and arrowheads.
Not much appears to be happening until you get to the dock where there’s bustle on and off the water. There’s a selection of bars and restaurants but we found the best food, best service and best music at the Fat Mermaid on North Harbor Drive. Though described as “an unfussy tavern for American grub and brews” it’s much more than that and the atmosphere encourages conversations with strangers. On the surrounding tables we made new friends, several wearing brown wellies known as ‘Extra Toughs’, which seem to be de rigeur among locals. Tim bought a pair.
The fishing boat harbour is packed with mostly working boats, all with a decidedly seaworthy look about them, even the dinghies. It’s from here you take wildlife and glacier tours. We booked with Stan Stevens Cruises for an all day trip to Columbia Glacier on the eastern flanks of the Chugach Mountains. It was beyond my expectations and, good news for seasickness sufferers, the water seldom gets rough because it’s so protected by the surrounding mountains and islands in Prince William Sound. Skipper Chris Thoma provided a detailed commentary and his knowledge about the natural history of the area and the physical surroundings was boundless. The A$170 fare includes a mug of excellent clam chowder.
On the way we saw golden and bald eagles, kittiwakes, puffins, Steller’s Sea Lions—huge animals up to three metres long weighing three quarters of a ton all living in a colony of 50 or more—fur seals, harbour seals and sea otters, which we discovered eat 25 per cent of their 40kg body weight daily, grow to 1.5m and are members of the weasel family.
The glacier was the star attraction though. Its majesty took our breath away. We slowly closed on it through small chunks of ice known as brash, medium sized blocks named growlers and bigger ones (over five metres high above the water, meaning there’s another 50m below) that earn the right to be called bergs. The glacier seemed impossibly huge. I thought we were getting close until Chris observed we were still 12kms away.
Its face is 80m high and there are another 150m of ice below the water. Up to 10 million tons of ice calve off the face daily, that’s equivalent in cubic metres to 15 Bank West towers. This is a particularly large glacier but travelling round the state you’ll see at least a half a dozen every day—there are 616 officially named in the US Geological Survey while up to 100,000 others remain anonymous. All of them are retreating due to climate change. Columbia has retreated 16 kilometres since 1982. Across Alaska glaciers are losing an estimated 75 billion tons of ice every year.
In 1867 John Muir, the great nature writer, described his first view of a glaciated fjord in Alaska: “The green waters of the fjord were filled with sun-spangles; with the uprising breeze the fleet of icebergs set forth on their voyages; and on the innumerable mirrors and prisms of these bergs, and on those of the shattered walls of the glaciers, common white light and rainbow began to glow while the mountains, changing to stone, put on their frosty jewellery and loomed again in the thin azure in serene terrestrial majesty.” He added that whatever the future might have in store, “the treasures we had gained would enrich our lives for ever”.
On our return we passed a dozen salmon fishing boats at the mouth of the Sound. They looked like giant butterflies with twin booms holding out their nets high above the wheelhouse. They only catch a fraction of the salmon entering the Sound to spawn. At the mouths of the rivers and streams were millions, literally, of salmon writhing in the shallows and struggling to swim upstream. Birds, bears, otters, seals and humans take countless numbers but still the pink and coho salmon throng the water. Salmon caught commercially and by sports fishers—a non-resident licence costs $45 a week—are worth nearly $100 million to the Valdez economy.
In a little shack on the harbour I met Denny, who lives in Tok but spends summer in Valdez running the Salmon Derby. “There are daily, weekly and season prizes for the best fish of each species,” he says. “They’re everywhere, you can even catch them in the harbour. Salmon are very important to us.” I amazed myself but with so much to see, do and photograph, I didn’t have time to fish.
Valdez is invigorating, partly because it’s so different from anything back home. Alaskan towns have a way of endearing themselves to strangers, but Valdez particularly so. Perhaps the people’s past struggles through adversity and their common needs in a demanding environment knit them together. It’s also the isolation. The call of the wild does not just resonate with tourists, remote places such as Valdez rely in summer on college students seeking both adventure and work. They refresh the communities they visit.
We stayed three days but could have spent our whole month in Alaska just there. Too soon it seemed, it was time to take Traily back on the road and head for Anchorage 500km away on the western side of the Chugach Mountains.
Traily's adventures continue in part three tomorrow.
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