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!

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