Thursday, June 26, 2014

Whittier: the Great Glacier Tour

     Departing Seward we reversed our course a bit to visit with Molly Tatarka, a good friend and USAF veteran who lives in Sterling, AK.  It was a wonderful afternoon, catching up on old times and friends as we toured the log home she and her husband are building as well as meeting her 3 very cool young sons. 

     We did something NEW the next day; we said the "heck with it" and slept in, delaying our departure by a day.  Afterwards we once again turned our sights east and set sail for Whittier, AK. 
     This small village is located on the northeastern most part of the Kenai Peninsula in a small fjord on Prince William Sound.  The area is surrounded by 26 glaciers that in effect create the weather patterns for the surrounding area so we were treated to lots of low clouds, drizzle, and rain during our stay.  Our camping area was on the northern edge of the village next to the long term boat parking area.  They cleared out an area and leveled out the crushed gravel near the glacial river in order to create some 50 odd spots to park RVs or tents next to the river.  It is private, but cost $20 a night for a parking spot.  There are no services here, but there is an RV dump and potable at the city maintenance building only a block away.  It is the only place to camp in Whittier.  Because of the weather we were forced to run sparingly off generator power during our stay.  The hills surrounding our camping area contained a dozen large waterfalls that are the drainage for the Whittier Glacier which is situated right above the village.  You can hear these waterfalls 24 hours a day. 

     In order to get to the village you pass through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.  This 13,300 foot tunnel lies beneath Maynard Mountain.  It is the 2nd largest combined railway & highway tunnel in North America.  The round trip toll was $20 for us and the RV.  It is the ONLY way to drive into or out of Whittier. 
     I have to admit we were a bit surprised at the village.  It is quite small, most residents being seasonal.  There is a large railroad yard and longshoremen to load/unload ships, but other than that everything else is seasonal.  In fact the travel brochures tell you that most people come to Whittier to leave:  via ferries, charter boats, cruise ships, cargo ships, and tour boats.  The entire downtown harbor area is a few blocks long.  The harbor is deep and houses all different types of vessels.  There is one small island of credit card only non-manned (2) gas pumps.  Unleaded was $4.62, diesel $4.99.  Fortunately I had gassed up the Honda Gennie and had a spare can when I arrived.  There are only 2 very small grocery stores, neither carrying fresh meat or vegetables.  Most everything is canned, boxed, or frozen.  Still, sticker shock is the rule of the day.  There are only two apartment complexes in town (1 is a low income HUD high rise) and we saw very few houses. 

     We had our next shipment of mail forwarded here and it took us a bit to find the post office.  The large yellow building in the background of this photo houses many apartments, housing office, DHS office, a small convenience store, the medical clinic, union office, and the Post Office.  The other large building in town is the Alaska Railroad HQ.  In spite of all this the people of Whittier are very blue collar and just as friendly as anywhere we have been so far.  In fact the tour personnel we talked to said they love living here part time.  It is safe to say that Whittier, Alaska should be a link to other activities, but maybe not a destination. 
     So why are we here?  This is the port for our Tidal Glacier Tour Cruise.  Once again we booked through Major Marine Tours.  Our tour was a 5 1/2 hour Catamaran tour of the Chugach Mountains while viewing Billings, Leonard, Surprise, Blackstone, Beloit, and Whittier Glaciers while navigating the tight fjords of the northern end of Prince William Sound.  I much prefer the Catamaran vessel as it is more stable on the open water, especially navigating around glacial icebergs.  We got some incredible pictures (nearly 300) of glaciers, mountains, and the Prince William Sound on a beautiful day.  We also saw more Eagles, Sea Otters, Harbor Seals, Dall Porpoises, and even another Humpback Whale.  As it was also the opening day of commercial pink salmon season we had plenty of company on the water as well.  I will not bore you further with commentary, but instead just post some of the many sights of our day. 
The Chugach Mountains surround Prince William Sound.
There were literally hundreds of sea otters everywhere we cruised all day.
Cruising near our destination we were treated to 3 of Chugach's tidal glaciers.  It was such a wonderful day to sail.  The weather was beautiful with calm winds all afternoon.
We saw many eagles our entire day.  These two were in the nest near a large group of salmon on a river (what a shocker!)  It is a mother and immature yearling.  It's head will not turn white till it is 5 years old. 
What trip would be complete without another Humpback Whale showing itself.  There are many of these magnificent beasts all over Coastal Alaska this time of year.  Although we did not get to see a full breach, tail lobs seemed to be the rule of the day.  We NEVER got tired of watching them.
Of course the main attraction of the day was a close visit to Surprise Glacier.  We got within about 3/4 of a mile in a fjord littered with many smallish icebergs.  Believe it or not, as the passengers wore down many a digital camera battery, the crew netted a piece of pure glacial ice to use making complimentary Glacial Margaritas on our return trip!  
The most incredible part of a tidal glacier is that it's terminus lies on the ocean.  This means that with increased pressure from above and the constant rise and fall of ocean tides, the glacier will continually 'calve' itself.  This means the glacier is fracturing and splitting off pieces of itself into Prince William Sound, hence the mini-icebergs.  You REALLY have to be on your toes as this action takes place as you are waiting for it......and the sound rivals that of a close thunderstorm or Babe Ruth's bat!  What an echo!
I should say that this experience is incomparable, but the only other thing I have witnessed and could describe as breath taking is my first viewing of the Grand Canyon. 
     Whittier Alaska is one of the finest places on Earth to view this type of natural miracle.  We made our way back to the north after this stop, leaving the Kenai Peninsula after 3 1/2 weeks.  We will refresh, restock, and take care of another nuisance RV problem as we travel through Anchorage and Wasilla.  You have to put in perspective that our RV is 10 years old with nearly 40,000 miles on it;  maintenance issues will occur.   So far these have not been too costly.  We plan on visiting another Air Force buddy that I haven't seen in 39 years.  WiFi in Whittier was spotty at best, even with our Verizon Hot Spot.  We posted these from our campsite in Wasilla on arrival. 

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