Valdez, located at the back end of Prince William Sound, is another small waterfront town that was totally re-built after the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake. Unfortunately, it later had another disaster hit that put this little town on the global map: the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of 1989.
Oh, you can read and learn about the Exxon Valdez oil tanker running aground near the Bligh Reef on another Good Friday, March 24, 1989, but folks here want to focus on today and the role Valdez has played in the sea transportation, oil exportation, and seafood processing businesses that keeps the economy going in Alaska. (For the record, approximately 11 million gals of oil covered 1300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean. Surface clean-up of the oil spill is complete but scientists are still studying the long-term consequences. You can read more about it here.)
Valdez is the southern terminus point for the 800-mile Trans-Alaska oil pipeline which begins near the Artic Circle in Prudhoe Bay. The construction of the pipeline and marine terminal gave Valdez new life and today has a population of over 4,000. We were able to drive to the entrance of the terminal and our tour boat floated past the pipelines and tanks, but no tours inside. The crews work 12 hour shifts but we saw very little action. There was one tanker being escorted by a tug, but that was it.
While serious about their security, they did have a sense of humor when it came to their speed limit sign. Since alcohol was a factor in the 1989 oil spill, note that no alcohol or illegal drugs are allowed on site. Duh….
The town still attracts transient workers and we saw housing dormitories near the seafood packing houses as well as across from the airport near our campground.
You can tour the town of Valdez in just a couple of hours (or less). Marinas are always fun to explore and finding a popular ice cream vendor on a warm afternoon means extra time standing in line.
Meeting Friends Along the Route
It is always great to find friends (and friends of friends) when traveling. While we may be thousands of miles away from our usual RVing areas, we have had many opportunities to meet up with RVers we know from the Escapees, the Boomers, the Winnebago-Itasca Travelers (WITs), rallies, blog readers and others.
A recent encounter was at a highway pull-out not far from Glennallen en route to Valdez. We have been playing “tag” with members of an Adventure Caravan tour group at many of our stops in Alaska. While taking a break, we met Dot and Mel Bolton, vendors from various RV rallies we have attended. In exchanging the usual “where are you from” answers, we discovered they were from Pacifica, CA, just south of San Francisco, and just up the road from where my maternal grandparents had an artichoke and brussel sprouts ranch when I was a little kid. It was fun naming streets and family names they were familiar with. Then, an even greater coincidence happened when they learned we were from Cool, California. They have friends in their Good Sam RV Chapter, Jeanie and Carmen Mini, who live just a couple of blocks from us and with whom I have golfed and camped with during our club’s golf trips. Love small world stories.
The next encounter was actually one we were looking forward to. Donna and David Rumrill, SKP Boomers and WITs, are leading a WIT Caravan through Alaska this summer. They had shared their itinerary with us and Valdez was the only place our paths were going to cross. We both had tour schedules to work around, but we did make it over to their Bear Paws Campground for a late evening visit. (We have an Itasca motorhome and are also WITs – #127127 – so it was also fun meeting members of their tour group, too.)
While we forgot to have someone snap a photo of us, they did stand outside their beautiful waterfront camping site to wave to us the next morning as we headed for our Columbia Glacier tour. We took a photo of them taking a photo of us as we headed out of port.
Columbia Glacier Tour
One of our TourSaver coupons was for a 7 hour tour boat to the Columbia Glacier. Columbia is considered the second largest “tidewater” glacier in America and the largest in Prince William Sound. We took the Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Tour and Stan, himself, piloted us through the Port of Valdez, Valdez Arm, into Columbia Bay then home past Bligh Reef, Galena Bay and Jack Bay. Along the way he told historical stories of the area and noted points of interest, waterfalls, and various wildlife habitats. (See the Wildlife section below.)
The scenery along the way was pretty spectacular but we were in awe when we approached the Columbia Glacier in the far distance and the ice fields that loomed straight ahead of us.
Captain Stan explained that this glacier is retreating more rapidly than any others. Just this summer, it has moved another mile and the resulting ice flows have prohibited some tours from actually reaching the glacier for up-close views. He did successfully get us very close. Where we turned around was not accessible just the two previous weeks because of the icebergs. He said we were “in uncharted waters”.
As we moved into Columbia Bay, the icebergs surrounded our boat.
After a while we started giving the icebergs shape names. I thought this one looked like a plane had landed on the water.
As we approached the foot of the glacier we could see that the left side and the right side were no longer connected.
This is what the land looks like AFTER the ice has retreated.
We also got to feel the cold temperatures as we watched the icebergs around us. We were told to “dress in layers” and we definitely needed to. The deck hands also collected a piece of ice for people to inspect. Unlike other glacier tours we have been on, they did not offer to sell us “Glacial Margaritas”.
Besides being on a glacier tour, our guides gave us plenty of wildlife to look at both around the Port of Valdez and in the open waters of Prince William Sound.
We used to get excited to spot one or two sea otters floating on their backs. Here we learned what a “raft” of otters looks like.
Stellar Sea Otters apparently don’t mind the cold as we found many of them “sunning themselves” on icebergs floating by us.
And when they are not on the ice, they will find rock formations along the shore.
The greatest wildlife thrill, however, was tracking a pod of humpback whales and capturing a “tail slap” with my camera. Check another one off the “bucket list”.
Our bucket list also included watching grizzly bears hunting for fish and Valdez was certainly a place to see this. While some people pay big bucks for a bear watching flightseeing trip, we simply drove around the Port of Valdez to the local fish hatchery on Dayville Road where bears frequent so often, they have marked their crossing.
Our first sighting was a huge brown bear that was pretty lazy when it came to getting his dinner. He simply climbed around on the rocks where spawning salmon had jumped to soon and had stranded themselves among the rocks. This grizzly simply had his fill (and left the remains for the awaiting gulls).
He also tried a little fishing from the water at the mouth of the fish hatchery. Obviously, not too difficult.
Visiting the hatchery became a nightly outing for us as well. One night we found a young grizzly fishing along the rocky banks where human fisherman normally cast their lines. I caught that one on video and have posted it on YouTube: Bear fishing along the shore.
Another night we found a bear busy hunting for dinner in a pond not far from the hatchery. I shot stills, while Frank King captured the catch on video: Grizzly fishing in a pond.
The bears were not the only ones taking advantage of the salmon run at the fish hatchery. While anglers had to stay 300 feet away from the fish ladder, the sea lions just floated right into the mouth of the hatchery. We saw as many as 7-10 huge sea lions diving for dinner. They also discard fish remains for the waiting birds.
Finally, we can’t forget our campground black bear. This little guy meandered through our section of the Valdez Glacier View Campground many times during our stay. You can believe we were on high alert when it came time for walking the dogs.
NEXT: Valdez to Tok to Kluane River