Tolsana Wilderness Cmpg to Valdez, AK

Tolsana Wilderness Campground to Valdez, AK

Friday, August 9, 2013

Overcast, 54 then rain, heavy at times

Today we followed the Glenn & Richardson Highways toward Valdez.

We first stopped at Wrangell – St Elias National Park & Preserve Visitor Center. “Why both a park and a preserve?” you ask. It’s at least partly about hunting. Both places permit subsistence hunting; the traditional taking of game, fish and plants. Only parks can permit sport hunting. Wrangle is notable for it’s active volcano, huge ice field and number of glaciers. It also contains the popular Kennecott Mine that we will visit later.

We stopped along the way to walk in to Worthington Glacier. There’s a boardwalk, with a fenced observation platform at the end, that takes the visitor within about a half mile of the face of the glacier. While they do nothing to encourage visitors to walk the rest of the way to the ice, they don’t do much to discourage it either. So walk we did, as did many others. It turns out that this is probably the most easily accessible glacier face in Alaska. It was really neat to touch the ice. We could see others, presumably on guided tours, high up on the top of the glacier. They appeared to be roped together; a good idea since there are said to be many hard-to-see crevasses on its surface.

Worthington Glacier may be Alaska's Most Easily Accessed Glacier Face
Worthington Glacier may be Alaska’s Most Easily Accessed Glacier Face

Just a few miles further on we crossed over Thompson Pass. It’s a beautiful area but that’s not what it is most famous for. It has the distinction of being the snowiest place in Alaska with an average annual snowfall of about 550 inches. In 1952-1953 a total of 974.1 inches fell, the most ever recorded in one season anywhere in the fifty states. And on December 29, 1955 a total of 62 inches fell, the most snow in a single day anywhere in Alaska.

The fast flowing Lowe River runs down from the pass toward Valdez. It creates the Keystone Canyon, a narrow, winding canyon that long frustrated people wanting to head inland from Valdez. Waterfalls line the canyon walls, notably Bridal Veil & Horsetail falls which were especially beautiful from recent (and continuing) rains.

The combination of severe weather, heavy snows in the pass, glaciers and steep canyon supposedly made these last few miles of the Aleyska Pipeline the most challenging of any along its 800 mile length to build.

Emerging into the coastal plain near Valdez you enter a lush, rain-forest environment. It was very cloudy, foggy and rainy as we arrived so we could only get glimpses of the surrounding mountains but what we could see was beautiful.

We chose to stay at Bear Paw RV Park located in downtown Valdez. There were several RV parks to choose from and this was one of the smallest. It was nice, though, and just across the street from the small boat harbor and very near most of the town’s attractions.

We had a dinner of appetizers at the restaurant at the Best Western with Bill and Kay. Good place!

Afterwards, we drove out to the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery. What an amazing place! There is a large waterfall just 75 yards from the harbor waters. The rushing stream that issues from the waterfall leads under a bridge, past the hatchery, over a fence-like weir and into the harbor. Many hundreds of thousands of salmon were either trying to jump the weir or were giving up and spawning in the shallows just downstream of the weir. In many areas there was literally more volume of fish than there was of water! We didn’t quite understand how all of it worked and decided to come back later to find out. Besides, there were said to be several bears who fed in the area and we hoped to see them.

Salmon Struggle to Spawn at Solomon Gulch Hatchery
Salmon Struggle to Spawn at Solomon Gulch Hatchery

Valdez, AK

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Steady rain all day with heavy cloud cover, low 50s

According to Sandy, a rainy morning is a good morning to make pancakes. Bill agreed and it was a good feed.

We spent some time planning how we would best use the ferry system to tour Alaska’s “Southeast”. The tour would mark the end of the Alaskan portion of our trip. Since none of the towns we want to visit are accessible by road, the ferry system is our only choice to visit them. We hope to load car, Tin Tent and all onto the ferry and, over five or six legs, complete our tour. We’ll have to make reservations as the ferry system can get fully booked and ferries may only visit a given town every few days so it’s impractical to just wait it out until there’s an opening.

First we choose the towns we wanted to visit, decided about when we wanted to depart and figured out about how much time we wanted to spend in each place. We then went to the Marine Highway Ferry Terminal to an agent about an actual itinerary and prices. We were served by a very knowledgeable and patient fellow. Our hoped-for schedule actually worked pretty well with the available ferries and the price was lower than we expected. We took the proposal home for final consideration.

We were pleasantly surprised by the Valdez Museum. It does an excellent job of presenting an great collection of Valdez memorabilia. And, the docent who ran the place was chock full of information that he was anxious to share. The modest admission price was also good for a companion museum down the road.

1907 Steam Fire Engine Gleams in Valdez Museum
1907 Steam Fire Engine Gleams in Valdez Museum

Our day would not be complete without another visit to the fish hatchery. Due to the continuing rain the waterfall was really flowing heavily. And there were even more fish at the weir. This time we took the little self-guided hatchery tour and discovered much more about the facility. It is operated by commercial salmon fishing interests. They take fertilized eggs, hatch them and turn the salmon loose to populate local waters. During the fishing season they harvest many of them. Their goal is to 10-15 million eggs from pink and Coho salmon per day for a total of 230 million eggs over the spawning season.

We also stopped at two “natural” spawning areas. One was just a mile from the hatchery. Hundreds of salmon, no bears. The other, at a National Forest Service visitor center just a mile from town, is next to another small natural spawning area. Again, lots of salmon but no bears.

We’re slowly learning more about salmon. There are five varieties here. They are king (Chinook), red (sockeye), silver (Coho), chum (keta or sliverbite) and pink. They spawn at different times and not all varieties spawn in every river. The run we’re seeing here is pink. The run of silvers is just starting.

Time for drinks! We found some good ones at the Fat Mermaid, a bar right next to our campsite. While there, we talked with a guy who works for the Aleyska Pipeline Co. His family is back home in Wisconsin but he’s here seasonally because there’s good-paying work here. He works an 84-hour, 7-day week (44 hours are overtime) and gets a couple of weeks off every six weeks or so. Meanwhile, he’s investing in real estate back home and will soon be heading back there permanently.

We made a dinner of Teriyaki chicken tenders and steamed broccoli.