#1 Vancouver to Skagway
#2 Haines to Valdez
#3 Kenai Peninsula
#4 Denali National Park
#5 Dalton Hwy to Arctic Ocean
#6 Dempster Hwy to Inuvik
#7 Whitehorse to Prince Rupert
#8 Queen Charlotte Islands

Road Report #2
Haines to Valdez

July 5, 2008

Up at 4:45 to catch the 7 am ferry. That is how they do it here – get up and drive the ½ block from the field we are camped in to sit in line for two hours so the fellow can walk by and say, “Got your propane turned off?” Eventually we board a ferry that is ¾ empty for a one hour trip across the pond to Haines.

Expensive too - $120 for van, passenger and driver. It’s an Alaskan Ferry, part of “Alaska’s Marine Highway System” but obviously not subsidized by the government. Nice ride though, past rugged, evergreen-cloaked coastline.

Off loaded in Haines and located the locally-endorsed cafe by the parking lot full of pick-up trucks. After our early rise felt entitled to a hearty breakfast of corned beef hash, poached eggs and a biscuit - $12. Tons of food, all delicious.

Haines, AlaskaHaines is a real small town of the kind we are seeing so many of up here. We’ve discussed this kind of thing with some of the other travelers we’ve met – how third world some of these places are in terms of getting services or products. From medical assistance to the right-sized washer, what you need will be hundreds if not a thousand miles away. Life is a constant process of improvisation and making do. Takes a self reliant breed to thrive here.

Up the road a ways is Haines Junction. At one time this was a military base, established specifically for the purpose of holding the US claim to this piece of rfoxeal estate. Now it has been turned over to civilians. Many of the larger and grander officers’ homes have been made into B&Bs.

Carried on up the Haines Highway to Beaver Creek through the Tatshenshnini Provincial Park and Kluane National Park. Stunning vistas as the road climbs to 4,000 feet - high altitude tundra where lichen put their best effort into covering the bare rocks and the landscape is pockmarked with a million little lakes, puddles in the permafrost. Even in July snow clings to the higher valleys.

Puddles in the PermafrostThe road itself is abysmal, built over muskeg that swells and contracts constantly leaving the road rolling dangerously and pockmarked with frost heaves and potholes that jar the van when we make a direct hit. Travelers pulling a trailer or tow vehicle can get into trouble on this road with traumatic hits to their tow bars and hitches.

July 6, 2008

This day finds us traveling up the Alaska Hwy to Tok, then Valdez. We stop in Squirrel Creek State Park, a pretty place in a grove of slender white birch - big creek roaring through. Rained all night.

We see many people free camping at the rest areas – or “waysides” as they are known here. This seems to be completely acceptable and many of the waysides actually have the tent symbol on their signage. Of course this is dry camping, no facilities except pit toilets and a bear-proof garbage can.

Up the next morning and soon find ourselves at Worthington Glacier. This is a magnificent glacier that is easily accessed by a 30-minute scramble over the moraine fields and up the rocky ledge to touch the actual front end of the glacier. The intensely compressed ice is exceptionally blue. Considering that two years ago I couldn’t walk without a cane and would not even have considered walking the path to the edge of the moraine field, the fact that I scrambled up to the glacier itself was a pretty big thrill for me.

Route MapOn to Valdez. This is the little town that took such a beating in the 1964 earthquake and tsunami. Actually, a nearby Indian Village, Chenga took it worse, with the town losing many of its children who were playing on the beach while they waited for the Friday night move to get started.

The front 30-40 feet of the town of Valdez, the harbour and everyone working on it, were simply swallowed up by the ocean. In what was actually a series of humongous waves the tsunami tossed a docked freighter up onto the land, completely high and dry, then back out to sea on its side, then up on the shore, then eventually back out to sea, relatively unharmed. But the men who were unloading her all vanished.

In the weeks that followed the town came to realize that it had been situated on a moraine field at the foot of the Valdez Glacier – that this was exceedingly unstable, waterlogged foundation – a precarious place. So the town found a new location with better soil conditions four miles away and within two years the whole town had been moved there.

The fellow at the museum is quite a character and says the people here do not understand how it is that the people in New Orleans are still wallowing in misery. There is a can-do spirit here in Alaska - people do not wait around for someone else to fix their town – they just get it done.

While we were there the Pink salmon run was just coming on. What follow the salmon,Salmon Shark at Valdez but the salmon sharks. Didn't even know these existed but they do and they are huge. Have a look at the photo!

Valdez, of course, is also where the big oil spill happened some years ago. That probably accounts for all the hotels and restaurants we see that are empty and/or boarded up. The north is so vulnerable to boom or bust economic conditions. A new highway is built or a pipeline is pushed through or a disaster like an oil spill occurs and the town fills up with people so they build the facilities to accommodate them. Then poof, they are all gone ...till the next time.

Tourism has filled in the gap for a lot of these towns but now there is real concern that the price at the gas pump is going to kill tourism. It takes a long time and a lot of miles to get up to Alaska. fComing from Vancouver, we have already burned up 2500 km and spent $975 on gas. We are only 1/3 of the way into this trip and we are driving a comparably fuel efficient van (8 km per litre or 18 ¼ miles per US gal). The lifeblood of tourism up here are the retirees who come up for 3-4 months in their big 5th Wheels and diesel pusher buses. We cannot begin to imagine what they are paying to fill those tanks – but it is about double what it would have been a couple years ago.

Will they keep coming? Vendors told me that the people they talked to said they came this year because with fuel prices going up so rapidly they felt it was “now or never.” What will happen next year?

They will survive because that is what these people do. That becomes patently clear when you wander through their museums and visitor centers.

Samme GallaherIn the Valdez Museum I met Samme Gallaher. She is now elderly but she first came up to Alaska as a fifteen-year old. She had quite the adventure then, surviving out on the traplines by sleeping out at -40, learning to mush dogs and shoot bears and live off the land. She wrote a book about it and was at the Valdez Museum to sign and sell copies. I bought one and thoroughly enjoyed it – although the adventure would clearly have been a bit much for me. Given the same conditions she obviously thrived in I freely admit I would have been sitting around the roadhouse woodstove whimpering till spring came and I could ship back out to San Francisco.

July 8, 2008

Took the Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruise today from Valdez. I don’t normally recommend specific vendors but this is a family-run operation and they really went out of their way to give us all a great day so I am happy to: www.stanstephenscruises.com

Columbia GlacierThe cruise took us into Prince William Sound with the primary objective of putting us into close proximity to the Columbia and Meares Glaciers. Columbia is receding but the Meares Glacier is advancing. In the high excitement surrounding global warming I hadn’t realized that some glaciers are still advancing.

The cruise boat is only a couple years old and very comfortable with tables and comfy seats and good deckspace for outdoor viewing. Ticket price included lunch, a late afternoon snack and drinks.

Cruised by the oil farm across the water from Valdez. Captain offered some narration about the pipeline and the famous oil spill in Prince William Sound. The court cases with Exxon still drag on, some twenty years later, so the bitterness permeates the presentations we see in local museums and by local guides.Meares Glacier

The Columbia Glacier is easiest to see at a distance. Once you get close what you experience are the thousands of small chunks of ice it is constantly calving. Made me feel like we were bobbing about in the giant’s punchbowl. Funny little sea otters floated about, the males having nothing better to do than hooking up to each other (called “rafting”) to socialize. There were hundreds of them throughout the sound.

The Meares Glacier is advancing and growing steadily larger. This is the glacier that is featured in so many photos – a 3-400 foot wall of blue ice that is continuously throwing new ice to the oceStellar Sea Lionsan floor as it moves forward, advancing its coverage. The captain turns the boat’s engines off. What we experience is a profound silence – then the thunderous roar of the glacier moving, gunshots cracking through the air as it breaks and calves another iceberg. Then silence.

Stunning west coast landscapes – massive snow-capped peaks, rugged rock faces, rafts of charming sea otters, eagles staring you down from their nests in the ancients, massive Steller sea lions loHumpback Whaleslling about on buoys or gathering in a writhing mass of wriggling bodies on the sandy beaches.

A number of humpback whales cruised on by but one took a look at us and chose to put on the performance of a lifetime. Fluking as he took the deep dives necessary to power his massive body into a full leap into airspace, he demonstrated these full-body breaches at least 12-15 times. When he decided we’d seen enough, he flipped to his side and waved his flipper over and over again.

Being a west coaHumpback Good Byester I’ve seen my share of whales, but this was hands down the most impressive performance I have ever experienced.

Carolyn Usher

Next: Kenai Peninsula