After leaving Chicken on Tuesday we spent one night in Tok, before heading down to Valdez. Tok is one of the first towns you come to after crossing the border from Canada on the Alaska Highway. It sits at the junction of this highway and the Tok Cutoff which ultimately leads you to the Glenn and Richardson Highways – two of the “major” roads in Alaska. We will be spending the night here again on our way back so didn’t explore much of what it had to offer.
Wednesday we were up and out early to make our way to Valdez via the Tok Cutoff and Richardson Highway. The roads continue to be a challenge to drive with numerous frost heaves and broken pavement that sometimes require you to come to a complete stop to gently glide over. We have also noticed that Alaska’s DOT does not mark the poor road condition as well as Canada. They simply put a sign at the start of the highway that says “Rough Road” and you know you have a fun day of driving ahead of you! To spot the heaves one need only watch the lines on the road as they appear to ripple like a ribbon ahead of you. Art is getting masterful in this skill!
The weather was cloudy as we started out and we were feeling keen disappointment that we would miss the views along a stretch of road known for its scenery. Thankfully, within an hour or so, the clouds began to lift, the sun began to poke through and patches of blue sky revealed themselves! With the blessing of long range views, we saw the towering Mount Sanford, one of Alaska’s top ten tallest peaks at 16,237 feet, and the truly spectacular Chugach Range. We saw the Worthington Glacier, roadside waterfalls and glacial streams making their way down the mountains. I was literally hanging out of the window snapping pictures of the beauty unfolding…this was the majesty of creation that one can expect to see in Alaska. And, as an added bonus, our awe and wonder did not stop when we got to Valdez!
Chugach Range from Richardson Highway
Valdez sits at the head of a fjord off the Prince William Sound and is surrounded by mountains. It is the nation’s northernmost port that is free of ice year round and the receiving end of the oil that flows through the Alaska pipeline. Oil tankers can navigate the waters here without the worry of ice and millions of barrels of crude oil pass through these channels. Thus, its economy is robust with the oil revenue and fishing and tourism complement that. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989 that occurred on a reef 25 miles from Valdez. After seeing this beautiful area it is hard to imagine the depth of this tragedy to the marine life. Today, safeguards are in place to insure against a repeat of this spill by using an escort system for tankers to lead them through the sound into open waters. These escort boats are equipped with containment apparatus and a trained response crew in order to address any incident quickly to minimize its impact. Good to know…
Oil tanker with escort
Our free day in Valdez was spent visiting the Valdez Glacier and lake and a salmon hatchery that was known to attract bears. No luck with the bears, but we did see lots of salmon, sea lions and an eagle. Not a bad outing. That evening the campground provided a salmon bake (right off the boat that day) and each camper was to bring a dish to share. Pretty tasty and I’m not even a huge fan of salmon!
Eagle Sighting at Fish Hatchery
Our last day in Valdez was spent on a 9 hour, 125 mile round trip boat tour of the Prince William Sound. Meandering through waters that were smooth as glass we enjoyed nature at its finest – rafts of otters floating by, sea lions along the shore and frolicking alongside the boat, eagles in the high branches of the trees, puffins flitting in and out of sea caves, and even one humpback whale! Our ultimate destination on this trip was the Meares Glacier, a large tidewater glacier at the head of the Unakwik Inlet. The face of the glacier is about 1 mile wide and over 100 feet tall and is, quite frankly, one of the most astounding things I’ve ever seen. The variations of color set against the backdrop of a gray sky were incredibly striking and I took more pictures of this one object than anything else on this trip. The captain stopped the engines about ¼ mile from it and we sat there for about 45 minutes listening to it crack like ice cubes in a glass of water but on a much larger scale. We were rewarded with the glacier calving (chunks of ice breaking off and falling into the water) which reverberated like gun shots in the quiet of this inlet. The captain said he never tires of watching this phenomenon and I can see why, it was for me one of those humbling moments when I felt incredibly small in a picture much larger than I could ever fathom. Welcome to Alaska.
Sea Otters – Gosh are they adorable!
Listen carefully to the sound of the splash