Just like my gums, everyone knows the glaciers of Alaska are receding at an alarming pace. I had always wanted to go to Alaska but because of its short summer season, I had never made it. I was drawn to choose Prince William Sound although I could just as easily have enjoyed accessing the state ferries along the Inner Passage. Of course I had read some of John Muir's tales of Alaska, especially his true to life adventure story of Stickeen, the little dog that accompanied him on a major glacial adventure.
For reasons never adequately explained, almost all flights into and out of Anchorage are in the wee hours of the morning. After arriving around 1am, I had the unlucky experience of arriving at my B and B only to be told by the manager that she had booked me for the following night and that she had no more room. She drove me around at 3am until I could finally find a Motel 6 and the owner of the guest house refused to compensate me for the mixup. The next day I was determined to remedy the situation by walking along the broad bike and ped trail that borders the bay. I enjoyed the relatively mild day, saw moose scat and made the mistake of detouring along a dirt path and experiencing the clouds of mosquitos that AK is infamous for.
Whittier and Prince William Sound
The next day as I boarded the train to Whittier, the agent let everyone know that all the glacier cruises in Whittier had been cancelled due to a huge rain and wind storm. My tour was booked for the next day so I stayed on the train past Whittier and deboarded at Spencer Glacier to walk the 4 miles round trip and see my first Alaska glacier. I was the only one who got off the train except for the folks who were kayaking the small lake full of icebergs in front of the glacier. With a spring in my step, I walked out into the Alaska wilderness, a light rain coming down along the path full of riotous red fireweed. Spencer Glacier ends in a glacial lake and these glaciers are higher in elevation than valley or tidewater ones. As I am used to seeing glaciers at over 10,000 feet in the Sierras or Andes, it seemed remarkable that the elevation is so low and I could literally stroll to see it, not even catching my breath.
The train came back 2 hours later and I learned that there had been a brown bear on the tracks near Grand View. I reassured myself that with 12 days still to go, I was sure to see a bear later, perhaps even a grizzly if I got lucky. An hour later, with a raging storm outside we traveled through the famous tunnel only completed in 2000 and into Whittier along Prince William Sound . I later learned that no state ferries had come in and out of Whittier that day and that car windows had been shattered in the nearby town of Portage. I made my way to the Inn at Whittier with the wind blowing my umbrella inside out and settled into my room that overlooked the bay. After months of no rain in the Bay Area, the smell, feel and sound of a real storm was exhilarating and I slept soundly for 11 hours. I took my first glacier tour the next day and was impressed with the young woman captain. It wasn't a great day on the water as it was still foggy and raining off and on but we got a close up look from the boat at a small glacier, its crystal architecture a marvelous blue. We also passed a kittywake rookery, where hundreds if not thousands of these birds live in close proximity.
When I awoke, it was to a an enormous Princess cruise ship that had docked next to the inn. I watched a helicopter fly off the top as easily as a dragon fly and I thanked my stars I wasn't one of the thousands who were making their way onshore. The state ferry to Cordova was one of comfort and ease with an observation deck complete with lounge chairs for viewing whales and orcas. Perhaps 75 folks were onboard for the 3 hour tour. My first 2 nights in Cordova, I stayed north of town at Orca Adventure Lodge, a charming and historic ramshackle lodge, originally made for fishing next to a cannery. The owner's son, an 18 year old twin, took me and a party of 4 Canadians kayaking the next day. Bald eagles are quite common and swoop down to feast on left over fish. Rafts of sea otters lay in various poses, mostly on their backs sleeping. In fact we glided so close to a mom cradling her pup on her chest, that I felt bad when she bolted upright and the baby toppled in, as apparently the pups stay with their moms for a year, learning to swim and hunt.
Gourmet meals abounded at Orca Lodge and I had a stimulating dinner conversation with a middle aged man from Mexico City and a city slicker from NYC who was learning to fly fish before he started working at Charles Schwab. Suffice it to say, my politics were a bit more left than theirs. As my room faced west, I enjoyed the never ending sunset but had to add an extra sheet over the window around 11pm so I could get some shuteye.
I had met Dune in Oakland, a Native environmental activist from the Eyak tribe and was delighted to find out that a small lodge along Eyak Lake was available to travelers. The Eyak Preservation Council has been involved in protecting the Copper Delta salmon and its peoples for over 25 years. Two interns who work along the AZ border as volunteers with No More Deaths were also staying there as well as the director Carol. In some ways, the house and community reminded me of the Grail where I had lived in San Jose in my early 20's. We shared some delicious meals with salmon and I also enjoyed smoked salmon for a special lunch. The house was donated by a supporter and has about 5 bedrooms plus a large breezeway filled with freezers full of fish! I rented a car and drive the 20 miles along the Copper River Delta, seeing glaciers along the way and marveling at the expansive delta, crossing bridges along the drive. At the end is the remains of what used to be a bridge til the force of the river washed it out and now it truly is the bridge to nowhere. Across the river is Child's Glacier which one can reach by paying $100 for a special boat ride.
Cordova and the Sheridan Glacier
The best hike of the trip was in Cordova as I began the hike to Sheridan Glacier in hemlock and fir trees with the white puff of cottonwood trailing in the breeze. The trail followed a river and I was happy to have my poles, especially as I only saw two other folks on the trail and they quickly passed me. I had a bear "horn" that I had brought from the guesthouse in case of any encounters. I saw several bald eagle nests along the way and after about 3 miles I began following cairns to mark the path along the scree. Suddenly I lost the trail and foolishly climbed up a steep slope causing mini avalanches before I came to my senses and spotted the trail below that gently climbed up to an alpine basin with dense vegetation under my feet. Finally I saw the two men who had passed me earlier and they assured me the view and glacier was hiding over the rim. I'm not sure what I expected after summiting the rim but I'm not sure I will ever feel the same thrill at seeing a glacier as it spread out before and below me with views perhaps 20 miles in all directions. At the narrow top of the rim were glorious wildflowers while straight below was a blue sheet of ice that seems to go on to infinity. Looking out across the vast delta filled with salmon, I could even see glimpses of the Gulf Of Alaska. I literally felt on top of the world and recorded a video.
I checked out the Alaganik Slough and enjoyed its boardwalks with its vistas and imagined what it might look like during migration season. I relaxed afterwards in historic and charming downtown Cordova and heard I had missed a black bear rambling earlier in town. Later that night I hitched a ride into Cordova to hang out and listen to a jam of folks in town for the annual music camp and festival. The jam took place in a little red house next to a church and the professional musicians were excellent with the banjo, stand up bass, ukelele, fiddle and guitar. Cordova had stolen my heart and it was bittersweet to leave the next morning for the early ferry to Valdez.
Valdez and Spawning Salmon
Coming into the town of Valdez, site of the then largest oil spill in the history of the world 25 years ago, I wondered if it could possibly top Cordova. After all, this was not the fishing village of Cordova, but a major oil town where the Trans-Alaska pipeline ends. As you enter, you see the massive storage tanks that look a lot like Chevron in Richmond, but they are placed under the steep and snow covered mountains with the exceptionally atmospheric harbor below. My host picked me up at the ferry and got me situated in her modern and spacious suburban like house, then set me loose on a bike to explore the fairly modern town relocated to its present location after a major earthquake in 1964 destroyed its previous incarnation. I rode out toward the fish hatchery where my landlady works and where I returned a couple of days later to watch dozens of local residents and their kids salmon fishing near the fishery. I watched hundreds of silvery and pink salmon make herculean efforts to jump over the fish ladder against the fast moving current. I've always been a mediocre swimmer so watching the fish make such an effort made me sympathetic and then within minutes it became almost unbearable to watch as I knew most of them would never make the journey. Bear had been spotted neat the fishery and a local woman showed me a photo of a brown bear she had snapped a couple of weeks before. But bear spotting just wasn't in the works for me. After my return, I read that a woman had been mauled in Cordova when she had been walking her dogs. She was flown to Anchorage for surgery and presumably recovered.
As my first landlady couldn't accommodate me for more than one night, I was lucky to stay in the upstairs room of what must have been one of the best located houses in Valdez, up a steep hill overlooking the harbor and its consorting mountains, right above where I had arrived on the ferry. My new landlady was a school teacher and she lived here with her husband who was the assistant city manager. She noted that winter was her favorite time of the year when she would take a sled to reach the bottom of the hill to get to her classroom.
Richardson Highway and Worthington Glacier
I decided to leave Valdez to drive inland along the famous Richardson Highway, a road that connects to Fairbanks. I took a fork south to explore the little town of Chitina along the Copper River where quite a few locals were camped along its banks to try their luck at catching salmon. A gravel road starts in Chitina and there are shuttles to take visitors to the pristine destination of Wrangell St Elias National Park. I had reserved a room at Chitina Hotel and even checked in but was disappointed with the small and spartan rooms. I checked out and backtracked to Copper Moose Inn in Kenny Lake. The gracious host pointed out the direction of the volcanic Wrangell Mountain I would be able to witness, complete with smoking vapors, but the clouds never lifted . I had to remain content to imagine a snowcapped volcano along the lines of my all time favorite, Cotopaxi in Ecuador. Earlier that day I had climbed up a short path to see the spectacular Worthington Glacier, after passing over Thompson Pass at 7000 feet. I had spotted a few folks climbing over the crevasses at Worthington Glacier and wondered at the wisdom of such a pursuit. Back in Valdez, over a delicious homemade stew, my host told me that only a year before, a grandfather and his grandson had been climbing on the glacier when the grandson slipped and fell into a crevasse. His grandfather managed to call for help and the paramedics were able to rescue the young man 3 or 4 hours later. They had never had anyone completely recover with an internal temperature so low and the reckless adventurers had returned a year later to thank their rescuers.
Back to Anchorage
I returned to Anchorage via the ferry to Whittier where I enjoyed a rare and glorious sun filled day, passing a few hours in transit looking out at the sound with bare feet. I caught the evening train back to Anchorage and took the early morning flight back to Oakland. Next time I might take the short flight from Valdez to Anchorage. But then again, I would have missed that last ferry ride with the glaciers floating by and the occasional flurry of my fellow passengers from one side of the deck to another when a whale had been sighted. At times, the beauty was almost painful to behold. Seward's Folly had become Karen's Fantasyland.