by Lee Foster
From my tent on Growler Island in Prince William Sound I gazed at vast expanses of the Alaska wilderness.
In front of me, across the waterway, stretched the huge Columbia Glacier, second largest in Alaska, slowly crumbling or “calving” at the water’s edge. I peered out at the 440-square-mile river of ice, a “tidewater” glacier because it empties directly into the ocean. The Columbia Glacier was born in the snowfields of the Chugach Mountains and gradually meandered 23 miles beyond its ancestral fiord.
In back of me extended a wilderness hillside on neighboring Glacier Island, which I had hiked that morning, reaching plateaus in the spongy, muskeg forests where perhaps no humans had stepped before. I had meditated on the rapidly transforming red blossoms of the fireweed, the most showy Alaskan flower. The gradual shriveling of the red blossoms, from bottom to top, is a natural calendar predicting the coming of another, harsh Alaskan winter.
To my left, in one of the numerous fingers of the Sound, I could see otters feeding busily on shellfish. Canadian geese attentively paraded their young. Bald eagles nested in the trees, easily visible as white patches against the green of the spruce forest. One morning I canoed out on these pristine waters to savor the silence.
To my right, a hundred yards away, was my umbilical cord to the more civilized world, the cook shack where a local chef was preparing a feast of salmon and halibut. Each day a tour boat brought day visitors and supplies to Growler Island, but only a few people arranged to stay overnight, as I did, to enjoy the solitude of an Alaskan summer night, when daylight persists almost to midnight and the call of the Arctic loon marks the long twilight hours.
For such a luxurious but wilderness experience, Prince William Sound has few equals.
If you are an independent traveler who would like to put together a special Alaska itinerary, Prince William Sound offers many intriguing options. I chose to fly to Anchorage, then take a commercial jet to the fishing village of Cordova, then fly by small Cessna from Cordova to Valdez, the oil port. From Valdez I took a tour boat out on the Sound to see the terrain and stay at Growler Island. Then I traveled by motorcoach from Valdez back to Anchorage, passing the Worthington Glacier up close, and immersing myself in the fertile, agricultural Matanuska Valley, home of olympian cabbages.
Such an itinerary is typical of the elements you can put together as an independent traveler in Prince William Sound.
Encountering Prince William Sound
Whether you cross the Sound by air or water, the expanse is a magnificent and rugged wilderness, tainted somewhat by the 1989 oil spill disaster and, more critically, scarred by the ongoing clear-cutting of the Western Hemlock and Sitka Spruce forests. The Sound was the home of the Chugach Eskimos and was named for Prince William Henry, England’s King William IV.
In Alaska, as everywhere, there is competition for the traveler’s attention. In Alaska there is Glacier Bay, near Juneau, and Prince William Sound, relatively near Anchorage. More people see Glacier Bay, with its glaciers, than visit Prince William Sound, which has equally impressive glaciers. Travelers encounter Glacier Bay by cruise ship, but you have to arrange a more rustic adventure to peruse the far reaches of Prince William Sound. I have seen both and heartily recommend both areas. Prince William Sound is 15,000 square miles, larger than the 5,000-square-mile Glacier Bay. The Sound has 50 glaciers, while Glacier Bay has 16. And the Sound has interesting small towns, while Glacier Bay is a total wilderness.
The oil spill put Prince William Sound on the world travel map, an irony of the highest order. On March 4, 1989 the Exxon Valdez went aground on Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of oil. Lest we be complacent, the locals feel it is likely that the tragedy will happen again.
“The terrible weather here is unbelievable,” said Captain Stan Stephens, a longtime Alaska resident of Valdez who runs a tour boat operation and sits on the inquiry board investigating the spill. “This shipping lane will always be treacherous when a ship loses power in bad weather, as sometimes happens.”
“Human exhaustion was the main culprit, in my opinion,” he added. “We now have better management plans and regulations in position. For example, we have a local skipper taking charge of all vessels entering and leaving Valdez. This gives the on-board skipper a rest, which is wise. And we require that ships wait out bad weather before leaving Valdez. The ships can also no longer travel at night.”
At Bligh Reef today there is no visible sign of the oil disaster. The oil has sunk. Oil soiled 10 percent of Prince William Sound’s 3,500-mile shoreline. How persistent the environmental disaster will be, only time will tell. When you visit the Sound, you will see evidence of the $2 billion cleanup prosperity in Valdez and Cordova, including all the new fishing boats bought by oil spill cleanup money. (The new boats were a legal issue in themselves, as follows: the spill created unfair competition by allowing the purchase of new, modern fishing boats, more efficient than the older boats. Owners of the remaining old boats sued.)
Ironically, the one-time oil spill disaster competes for attention with another and insidious concern, the clear-cutting of forests.
If you want to raise the hackles of a Cordovan, ask them about the Eyak Indian policy on the forests. As in all matters Alaskan, you need to peel back levels of irony to glimpse the truth. Eyak Indians own some of the land. The Indians, not some paternalistic overseer, manage the land. But the Indians are not of one mind on the use of the land. The controlling Indians favor clear-cutting the forests. Japanese interests purchased the forests as junk lumber, meaning cellulose fiber. The land was stripped of trees in a brutal manner that leaves a bare scar. Do the Indians actually receive significant income from this operation? Erosion notwithstanding, will tourists return for generations upon generations to see a landscape denuded of its trees? Where are the long-term profits in the Indian-owned lands? A small-plane flight from Cordova to Valdez over clearcut areas will raise the issue.
Years ago none of the cruise ships in Alaskan waters ventured beyond Glacier Bay in the Southeast “Panhandle” of the state. Today some cruise ships skirt Prince William Sound and offload passengers at Seward for the short overland trip up to Anchorage.
Cordova is an authentic, small fishing town, an out-of-the-way village for 2,100 people. Few cities this small have scheduled commercial jet service. Even fewer cities have no highway in or out. The commercial fishermen catch halibut, salmon, and herring, appreciated for its eggs, or roe. Expert local sport fishermen take cutthroat and Dolly Varden trout, as well as salmon, in the streams.
Ask to be taken to Power Creek, where you will see salmon spawning in the swift, shallow waters. Watching the primordial urge of the salmon to spawn before perishing is an overpowering experience. Sleek bears and gorged eagles feed on the salmon carcasses.
Along the roads, you can feast on salmon berries of various shades.
The lodging and restaurant of choice here is The Reluctant Fisherman. The menu items to immerse yourself in are halibut and salmon.
On Lake Eyak you will see graceful, huge trumpeter swans.
At the Eyak Packing Company you can buy souvenir cans of select smoked salmon. Standing in the drying sheds surrounded by the alder smoke can whet your appetite.
Flight-seeing over the Sheridan and Sherman glaciers carries you through the turbulent downdrafts that the ice masses can create. Ask the pilot to fly over the lush grasslands and spruce forests of the Copper River Delta to bring you up close to a few of state’s estimated 150,000 moose. From 1900-1938 the Kennicott Copper Mine took out ore from here, until the price dropped as competing international sources developed.
The small-plane flight to Valdez allowed me to savor the region from the air.
“There is no area more beautiful than right here, if you catch the right weather,” noted my pilot, suggesting the traveler be forewarned that in a rainforest environment you should expect some rain.
At Valdez, a city with a history of boom and calamity, huge, new oil cleanup boats guard the harbor. Their oil vacuum capacity will help deal with future spills. The city prospers because some two million barrels of oil per day are shipped from here.
I stayed at Birch Tree B&B, about as friendly and homey a place as you can imagine. Typical of Valdez residents, the proprietress does not lock her front door and simply leaves the keys perpetually in her car. Summer is fairly idyllic here compared to the winters in recent years.
“We had 47 feet of snow in our driveway last winter,” said the B&B owner. “You have to shovel fast just to keep ahead of the snow. Sometimes we use a chain saw to cut through the accumulated snow and ice to get out to the street.”
The Valdez harbor has a spanking newness that comes from having just been built. Valdez was wiped out in a Good Friday 1964 Earthquake. The 8.4-Richter upheaval triggered a tidal wave that washed away the town, which was rebuilt completely at a new location, four miles away.
Starting in the 1970s, the 4,000 people of Valdez have prospered. Valdez was chosen as terminus for the 800-mile oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay because it was the most northerly ice-free port. Oil shipments began in 1977. About 85 percent of the entire Alaska economy is oil and gas.
After oil, in economic importance, comes tourism and commercial fishing. Valdez is an RV haven for the rubber-tire travelers who want to rest up after the long trip north to Alaska. RVs are parked everywhere around the harbor.
Zodiac-boat trips offer special pleasures on Growler Island. Zodiacs are small, engine-powered, rubber rafts that can go almost anywhere in the Sound, even up shallow inlets.
I took a zodiac up Heather Bay, adjacent to Columbia Glacier. One treat of that jaunt was a small bay covered with feathers. I discovered a flock of Canadian geese who, protecting their young, scurried up a hillside rather than fly away. Massive numbers of scooter and merganser ducks guarded their young in every small inlet. On the open water abundant otters cavorted.
The pleasure of hiking on adjacent Glacier Island in the uncharted wilderness was another special experience. My guide had a reverential feel for the rocks in streams. Occasionally, he would stop and turn over a rock, marveling at his displacement of the rock, which had rested undisturbed for so long in the grand cosmological scheme.
The food on Growler Island was an inspired diet of salmon and halibut, hardly a menu to quarrel with. The Chef had finally gotten it right after cooking some 22,000 pounds per year of halibut and salmon for the tour-boat day visitors, who stay for a meal.
“The secret of moist, rich fish is to cook them slowly, perhaps 200-250 degrees per hour per inch of thickness,” he said, quarreling with those who would recommend higher temperatures and shorter times.
Part of the joy of my Prince William adventure was the ride out to Growler Island and back in Stan Stephens’ tour boat. Along the way, this grizzled, bearded mariner, grand old man of a multi-generation clan, shared his 30 years of navigating on the Sound, pointing out the gold mines and alerting me to the bears occasionally seen onshore. The boat nudged up close to the Columbia Glacier, so I could see the blue ice and hear the thud as chunks of glacial debris broke off the 260-foot-high face of the ice mass. Columbia Glacier is “retreating” rapidly, melting more quickly than it is being replenished.
The Ride to Anchorage
A motorcoach trip on the day drive from Valdez to Anchorage gave me a further opportunity to comprehend the land aspect of The Great Land, as Alaska is often called. I surveyed mile after mile of spruce forest, passing Wrangell National Park and Mt. Wrangell. The size of the area and the expanse of wilderness are the defining experiences. Four Yellowstone National Parks can fit into Wrangell with space left over.
I also passed glaciers, such as the Worthington, and had a chance to get out and walk right up to the ice mass.
Along the way, the Alaska pipeline is alternately buried and hoisted above ground, as the terrain and permafrost require.
Finally, I passed the fertile Matanuska Valley with a stop at the Palmer Visitor Center. Demonstration gardens show how even fruiting crops, such as squash, can be grown in this short-summer climate. Though the 120-day growing season is brief, the plants grow almost 24 hours a day, especially in June. Hay and potatoes are major crops in a region first settled by 203 pioneering families from Minnesota, Michigan, and Ohio in the 1930s.
If you are of a mind to put together an Alaska adventure of your own, elements in Prince William Sound can create a pleasing trip.
Alaska’s Prince William Sound: If You Go
For tourism information on Alaska, contact the Alaska Travel Industry Association at http://www.travelalaska.com.