Monday, September 08, 2014

Alaska trip - Valdez, then home

The fourth and final blog entry for our 16 days in Alaska. 

It was time to leave the quaint little town of McCarthy, but we didn't get to fly out the way we flew in.  We walked across the footbridge, piled back into our van and headed towards Valdez.  It was nice having an easy day after our big Bonanza Mine hike.  The road from McCarthy follows the railroad tracks that were built to haul out the copper ore.

Here is one of the remaining railroad bridges.  You can kind of imagine how long it would take them to build that bridge today.  Two years for EPA studies. A year to bid it out.  A year to debate the size, style and price.  Then 2 years plus the extra year they hadn't planned on, to build it.  When they were doing this 100 years ago, they built it in 11 days.

The road out of McCarthy is slowly being improved.  Improved simply means nicer, smoother gravel instead of deeply rutted gravel.  Unfortunately, if you drive on the edge of the newer and much looser gravel, bad things can happen. The irony is the tag line on the back of the rented camper: "Great Alaska Holidays".  They probably aren't feeling the love as they dig out from under it.  At some point during the day, they probably got pulled out by the DOT crew working with heavy equipment a few miles down the road.
This is Julie posing on one of the more clever inventions I have ever seen.  It is a water-powered salmon catcher.  You float it out into the stream and then anchor it into place.  The movement of the river causes the wheel to turn.  There are two paddles and two big fish buckets.  As the wheel turns, the fish buckets just scoop up the salmon swimming upstream. As the wheel rotates, it dumps the fish into a big container that doesn't move.  No effort. No gasoline.  Just free fish.  There are some very tight restrictions about who can use these and where.  Primarily they are used by groups or towns who use the fish for winter sustenance.
At a number of spots along our trip we saw the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.  It runs north to south, from Prudhoe Bay to the shipping harbor in Valdez.  At 800 miles in length and 48 inches wide, the pipeline itself holds a lot of oil. The production has been dropping over the years and if it gets down its minimum operating level of about 200,000 barrels a day, it will be shut down. Once it is shut down, the entire thing has to be removed including the pipe and the 11 pumping stations.
As we got closer to Valdez, we stopped to play around on another glacier.  The little red dots at the base are people.
I felt sorry for Ian, but comforted.  Everywhere we went he did a great job of keeping track of us, making sure we didn't do anything terribly stupid or dangerous.  Sometimes we made his life a bit more challenging by wandering off in different directions.  At least there were only four of us.
The water melting off the glacier had cut a very narrow channel through the rock.  I am certain that some thrill seeker in a kayak would find this exciting. For me it just meant Ian keeping a closer watch to make sure I didn't slip and try it without the requisite kayak.
Almost a week after Danny had discovered tossing rocks into moulins, the games had expanded to skipping rocks.  Here we have Joe giving it his best efforts.
In most places, a view like this would be extremely special.  In Alaska, it was just another view from just another parking lot.
I couldn't figure out how to make this into a great photo, but I really enjoyed  watching the water splashing down through the rocks.  The back lighting made the splashes prettier.
Does every town, city or at least state have a Bridal Veil Falls?  At least they seem to give that name to fairly significant falls. This one was gorgeous with water coming down in sheets.  It was a long hike to get here.  Actually it was about 50 feet off the highway.  Convenient!
Here's a closer view of one of the sections.
Welcome to the town of Valdez and their native wildlife.  Not native actually but certainly the predominant species.  Apparently someone decided to release a handful pet rabbits. You would assume they would be eaten by the numerous eagles or freeze during the winter.  Not the case.  They just procreate and wander around town. 
The Fat Mermaid's outdoor tables were an instant hit.  Notice that we have left all that crappy rain behind.
Valdez seems to be focused on two things: oil and fishing.  Although the oil probably doesn't require much attention any more, the huge storage containers and tankers are a big part of the city.  The harbor was quite pretty, well protected and full of fishing boats.  This was one boat's catch for the day.
You could have your fish cleaned professionally right on the docks.  Look at the hefty fish he's pulling out of that wheelbarrow.
I mentioned the eagles.  There are quite a few in the area.  This isn't a great shot but I liked the look he was giving.
Valdez has a salmon hatchery.  Where do salmon go when they spawn?  Back to where they were born.  If you wanted to see thousands and thousands of salmon, you just had to go over near the hatchery.
The gulls were having a feeding frenzy, probably eating the salmon eggs.
This gull had to be thinking: "I know I will probably drown if I latch on to that big salmon, but if I can only get it to shore."  We were hoping to see some of the grizzly bears that occasionally wander into this area, but no such luck.
We did get a nice sunset out of the deal though.Notice the fog rolling in.
The next day we went kayaking in a protected bay to visit a glacier.  The water was mostly calm and the scenery was great.
Julie and I in a kayak selfie.
We got up early the last morning to take a ferry ride from Valdez to Whittier.  There was some low level fog, which ended up making for nice photos.  This tug boat was from New York City.  I can't imagine how something that slow travels that far.
The ferry system in Alaska is superb.  If all mass transit in the US was like that, well, we would be in Europe.  The boats are comfortable, have great view platforms, and full restaurants.  We were walk-on passengers while Ian drove the van on.  Only when we were getting off did we get to see how the vehicles were packed in.  Incredible.  They were in so tight there was no way to get a photo.  Cars, vans, buses, RVs, all crammed in about a foot apart. Whoever guided that must be a Tetris master.
The ferry ride was a treat.  The sun was coming up, the fishing boats were heading out and it took a while before the fog burned off.
In 16 days in Alaska, this was one of my favorite photos.  Very spooky.

A low cloud deck provided some interesting shots.

It wasn't exactly the Titanic, but you did see a number of ice bergs floating around.  Given how dense the ice is (about a ton per cubic meter) and that about 90% of the berg is below water, this is probably 25-50,000 pounds.  Not something you want to boat into.
We saw quite a few birds, mammals and fish along the way.  The most exciting were these Dall's Porpoise, which would shoot along side the boat before zipping off.  They looked like little miniature Orca's.
Julie and Ian, up on the bow.  It was a beautiful day, but with the breeze it was quite chilly. I discovered that the restaurant had all the coffee you can drink for $4.
Part of the way through the ferry ride, they did their weekly catastrophe training.  Given the ice berg we had gone by, I was happy to see all the different forms of life boats they had on board.  These were quite serious.
As we pulled into the port at Whittier, we saw this.  I appreciate that some people love cruises but this is my nightmare:   Me and my 7,000 "friends" all trapped in a small space, driven to someone's schedule. I am very happy that Julie completely shares this view of vacation. 
One the drive from Whittier to Anchorage, we stopped to hike up to one last glacier. This appeared to be some form of glacier parts, but it was actually just the remnants of a huge avalanche months ago. Most of it has melted off during the summer.  That must have been exciting to see coming down the hill!
As as we loaded back into the van one last time, I got the sense that we were at the end of our summer and it was about time for Fall.
I included this picture earlier in my Alaskan blog entries but I thought it deserved one last view.  This group really made a great trip even better.  Julie put together an excellent agenda for us and found wonderful companies to tour with and lead us on adventures.  Ian was as nice, friendly, and competent as any guide could be.  Joe and Danny were interesting, fun and enjoyable to share 10 days with.
My trip summary:
  • If you haven't been to Alaska, go!  It is simply magnificent. It takes time to even begin to see part of it.  Make it a long trip.
  • Get Up and Go Tours provides an excellent, well thought out, very experienced trip.
  • Consider blowing off the cruise.  My favorite areas were the smaller, less traveled areas like Tangle Lakes and McCarthy.  The cruise ships just dock at the ports.
  • If doing this again, I think I would probably go in June or July instead of August.  You get more people and more insects, but less rain.
  • I would love to be able to do this trip again with a focus on photography.  There was just so much beautiful scenery!

Friday, September 05, 2014

Alaska - Chitina to McCarthy

Continuing from part two of our Alaska trip, we pull up in the van at Chitina International Airport.  That would only be true if you hired someone to fly you to Canada.  What you see below is the entire airport with the exception of the gravel runway.  Thank God Julie and I both have our TSA Pre clearance so we didn't get stuck waiting in the long lines.
As we were waiting for our plane to fly in, I took this shot.  If you double-click on it, you get a better view of the float plane going by.  I was wondering if those clouds were going to give us a rough ride.  Thank goodness, no.
And our limo arrives... It is a 6 seat Cessna with almost no room for cargo.  Fortunately, Ian was taking the van and all our baggage the long way around.  We got to do some nice flightseeing on our 30 minute trip.  I took some photos but they weren't interesting compared to our flight two days later, so I won't bother you with them.
We flew into the lovely town of McCarthy, Alaska.  McCarthy is right up the road from Kennecott, a copper mining town from the early 20th century.  For those of you in the Salt Lake City area, the company used their success here to open the Kennecott mine at the base of the Oquirrh mountains.

McCarthy was more like the Alaska I had pictured and this photo tells a huge part of the story.  This is the main street (and almost the only one).  There are dogs wandering around keeping in touch with each other and all the day's events.  That Subaru is parked in the middle of the road.  The people on the left are at the town's bar and restaurant which was clearly the social focal point for McCarthy.
This is the hotel where we stayed.  The owner is one of the 20 people who spend the entire year in town.  Everyone else leaves as the tourist season ends. To spend a long, snowy, dark winter in a tiny town, hours from anything resembling civilization takes a very strong character.
Somewhat like Park City, there is a lot of history everywhere you look.  McCarthy had something unique though.  For a long time, the only bridge to town was a walking bridge.  To get a car over, you waited for the river to freeze.  Now someone built a private bridge and for a fee, you can cross.  However, with the significant burden of getting a car there and the harsh roads and climate, the trend seems to be: "Drive it until it stops running and leave it there." The same applies to snowmobiles and ATVs.
We ate a dinner and a breakfast at the Roadside Potatohead.  What a wonderful, tasty local dive.  The burritos were excellent and more than filling.  The small town feel was great.  You ordered, got your food, ate, and then whenever you got around to it, paid. Try that in a big city.
Here is the local watering hole in McCarthy.  Hard to see, but sure enough, there is a bottle of Park City's High West bourbon.  That stuff is everywhere.  We were lucky enough to be sitting at the bar one night when one of the locals rang a large bell.  That meant he was buying a round for everyone at the bar.  Nice!
The area around McCarthy and Kennecott was spectacular.  No wonder tourists work so hard to get there. 
There were a few interesting waterfalls in the area.  I love taking long exposure photos but I didn't have a tripod.  That makes it hit or miss, and mostly miss.  This one shot came out OK though.

Our first big activity in McCarthy was to go hiking on the Root glacier with St. Elias Alpine Guides.  This glacier runs into the Kennecott glacier where two valleys merge.

I keep mentioning the problems with judging size in Alaska.  See those people walking at the bottom of the picture?  They look like they are about half way there.  Actually they are still about 6 miles away from the 7,000 foot tall ice fall.  For reference, the tallest mountains around Park City are about 3,000 feet above the surrounding area (in topological terms, that's called prominence).
We saw numerous moulins on the glacier.  These are holes where water flows from the surface down into or under the glacier.  They can be very deep.
For traction on the glacier, we were all wearing our stylish crampons.  They provide great grip but it seems easy for someone with weak ankles (me for instance) to catch a spike and roll an ankle.
The shapes and colors on the glacier were beautiful, especially on a sunny day.
They have texture on a very large scale.
Julie and I were in a small ice cave when a Danny head popped into the picture.
To judge the depth of a moulin, our guide let us toss rocks down in and listen to the delay before it splashed.  Once Danny discovered this idea, the rocks just kept getting bigger. We began to worry that he might actually fill all the moulins in, changing the structure of the glacier.
Our group, taking a break in the sun.
Up on the hillside were stunning rock formations and very green foliage.  Once again, that peak is over 4,000 feet above where we are standing.
The leaves were just beginning to change, but you could see the variation day-to-day.  If we had been there 3 or 4 days later, I think it would have been wide open Fall.  That's 16,400 foot Mt Blackburn in the background (the 5th highest in the US).
After spending most of the day hiking around the glacier , it was time for our next activity.  We had enjoyed the short flight in so much, we opted to take another flightseeing trip, this time in the evening. I think we were finally getting payback for all the rainy days we endured.  If it was raining or very cloudy, we couldn't have seen a thing.  Clear blue skies and it wouldn't have been as pretty.  Instead, just enough clouds to make it one of the most breathtaking things I have ever done.
It is so hard to convey the magnitude of what we were seeing.  These mountains soar 10,000+ feet from their bases.  Ones that seemed close enough to fly into were a half mile away.  Mountains off in the distance weren't 10 or 20 miles away, they were 100 miles off.
The evening light was gorgeous and our pilot from Wrangell Mountain Air was as knowledgeable and interesting as you could ask for.  The only downer was having to shoot through a small plane's plastic windows. 
The Wrangell St. Elias National Park includes 13.2 million acres of land and it is part of a Unesco World Heritage site that spans both sides of the U.S. - Canadian border.  It is called Kluane / Wrangell-St. Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek and includes 32 million acres of protected land.  You would think Unesco would hire a marketeer from Disney to come up with better names for their special areas.

One of my favorites.
This is a rock glacier.  It is formed by leftover debris from an ice glacier.  It actually continues to move like a glacier, slowly coming down the hill with the freezing and thawing of snow fall and ice.  One of these rock glaciers is predicted to destroy the little town of Kennecott, but they have well over 1,000 years to go.
Two interesting things to notice here.  The first is the clearly defined line between different types of rocks.  It turns out that this transition is where they found all the copper. The second is the Erie Mine's bunk house.  I wish I had been able to capture how it sit on the edge of thousands of feet of very steep hill. What a great job it must have been to tell newly arriving miners "You?  You'll be up at the Erie Mine.  Right up there."  Then just watch their total disbelief.
Still in the plane, looking down at the Root Glacier.  There were beautiful blue ponds in the ice and the little streams that are created never seem to follow a straight path.
This is what is left of the town of Kennecott.  It is in surprisingly good condition. The top building is where the oar came down the hillsides in a tram. Back in the 1950s, the original owners paid to have the town destroyed to remove any liability.  Fortunately that work failed.
This is the reason these places are even on a map.  Copper.  When mining was at its peak, the ore was 70% copper and had noticeable traces of gold and silver. It was the richest copper deposit in the world. It took a very serious commitment to get that ore out of Kennecott.  They build over 100 miles of railroad through some extremely harsh, difficult terrain.  It took the money of JP Morgan and the Guggenheim family to pull it off.  Several major railroad bridges had to be rebuilt after every spring because the flooding was so severe.
Mount Blackburn again,  25 miles away.
The second day in McCarthy, we went for a little walk.  This was actually one of the steepest hikes I have ever done. It was only 4 miles up, but you climbed 4,000 feet along the way.  For those bike racing fans, that's over a 17% grade. This photo was shot when we were about 75% of the way up.  In the shade on the left you can see an old oar tram tower.  Further up, in the sunshine, is what is left of the Bonanza Mine.

By the way, Julie was very happy with her new pack, very functional, comfortable, and purple.
Here's the old Bonanza mine.  Not quite ready for a makeover.  Boys will be boys, so we carefully walked through it.  Every step was carefully tested before you put any weight on it. There were four other mines as part of the Kennecott complex.
At the far end of the mine, only accessible by traipsing through the wreckage, sat this little Ptarmigan. No idea what he was doing hanging around in the ruins, but he seemed quite happy with where he was.
The reward for going to the very top was a spectacular view. Danny was enjoying the sights, with his GoPro on his head.
We started this hike from down in the valley. My poor cartilage-free knee knew that we had to walk back down that 4,000 feet.
One our last night in McCarthy, Julie and I got up at midnight and walked about a half mile to the footbridge.  As you might expect, this town doesn't have any streetlights.  Actually, it doesn't have electrical service, phone, gas or sewer.  Those are all up to you. There is no grid up there to even bother being "off of".

We wanted to see the Aurora Borealis, and we did!  It wasn't quite this pronounced to the human eye, but it was obvious.  This was the result of setting my camera on the bridge and taking a 20 second exposure.  Pretty cool, including the reflection in the river.  As we sat there for 30 minutes or more, it moved around, disappeared, and then came back.
The Milky Way was amazing.  You could see stars by the millions.  To capture this photo, I just laid the camera flat on its back on the bridge and tried to snap a shot without moving it too much.  Did I mention I wish I had one of my tripods? It is a crappy shot with no horizon in it, but I couldn't do that unless I could get the bridge to turn up at a 45 degree angle and that would have been an indicator of something very bad happening.

We loved McCarthy and our flightseeing trip was off the charts stunning.  I would love to get back there again sometime.

One more blog entry as we head to Valdez and then on to Anchorage.