“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu
As I mentioned in my last post, Valdez wasn’t originally in my plan for this trip. Before actually visiting my only perception of this place was shaped by the Exxon Vadez oil spill in 1989, but acting on a recommendation I headed that way. As soon as I crossed over Thompson Pass and started dropping into the town I knew I had made a good choice.
Valdez is located on the north shore of Port Valdez, a deep-water fjord in Prince William Sound. Surrounded by the Chugach Mountains, the tallest coastal mountains in North America, rising from sea level to a staggering 7,000 foot elevation they dominate the surrounding landscape. It is the southern terminus of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Interestingly enough, there are very few cruise ships that visit Valdez as part of their itineraries. The ones that do are the small higher-end companies. There seems to be a number of different reasons but needless to say it was nice visiting a town that isn’t inundated by thousands of cruisers each day.
“The two principal parks in Alaska are Denali and Glacier Bay. Tourism is just overriding the protection of resources that tourists want to see. We have too many tourists in Denali and too many big cruise ships in Glacier Bay.” – Michael Frome
The Port of Valdez was named in 1790 by Senor Fidalgo for the celebrated Spanish naval officer Antonio Valdez y Basan. due to its excellent ice-free port, a town developed in 1898 as a debarkation point for men seeking a route to the Klondike gold fields. Valdez soon became the supply center of its own gold mining region, and incorporated as a City in 1901.
Valdez isn’t terribly easy to get to, it’s five hours by car, or 45 minutes by air, east of Anchorage. Valdez gets epic levels of snow in the winter more than 300 inches — we’re talking “snowiest place in the United States” epic. When all that snow melts, it makes its escape by pouring down the mountainsides in some of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls. They’re just about everywhere as you travel the Richardson Highway into Valdez as well as the cliffs and canyons around the town. A half-hour before arriving in Valdez, the Richardson Highway (and the only road into Valdez) traverses waterfall-laced Thompson Pass, one of the snowiest places on the planet the snow there averaging 551 inches (that’s 46 feet) a year, that begins falling in September and doesn’t stop until May.
When the magnitude 9.2 Good Friday Earthquake struck just 56 miles west of Valdez in 1964, it spawned a massive underwater landslide that collapsed the town’s docks and caused some $15 million dollars in damage. Thirty people were dead. Homes were flooded. And in a town that relies on fishing, the waterfront docks and buildings had washed away. While most of the buildings were still standing when the shaking stopped, many of them were uninhabitable and therefore condemned. Over the next few years, the Army Corps of Engineers gradually relocated 62 of the surviving buildings to the new, more stable town site where Valdez sits now. That’s some serious resilience. The Valdez Museum hosts a cellphone walking tour that’s linked to informative markers standing amid fireweed and brush that is left.
“We are down on one knee, but we are going to get back up.” – Bruce Woodford, Valdez Mayor 1964
Nearly 25 years later to the day — and, coincidentally, also on Good Friday — another disaster, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, struck. On March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, rupturing its hull and spilling nearly 11 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay crude oil into a remote, scenic, and biologically productive body of water. Picture the swimming pool in your community. The amount of spilled oil is roughly equivalent to 17 olympic-sized swimming pools. The oil slick fanned out as far as 500 miles from the tanker’s crash site and oozed along 1,300 mi. of shoreline.
Direct contact with the oil slick killed at least 140 bald eagles, 302 harbor seals, 2,800 sea otters and 250,00 seabirds within a few days. Four people died as part of the clean-up efforts. Tarred, feathered sandpipers and oil-coated otters featured in devastating nightly news footage. Salmon and eagle populations were decimated. Thousands of seals and a quarter of a million shorebirds died. And despite a massive, multi-year cleanup effort that cost Exxon billions of dollars, the region is still suffering.
While the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico teem with bacteria that have helped break down some of the crude unleashed by the massive 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, the icy waters of Prince William Sound inhibit decay, and oil patches that can be traced back to the Valdez still linger on remote beaches, just below the sand. Random tests along the shoreline in 2009 revealed that an estimated 20,000 gallons of oil remained.
While the lessons learned in the Alaskan cleanup may have led to a better response to the spill in the Gulf, the most enduring lesson is that maritime oil spills are devastating even with the best possible response. The truth is, regardless of how safe we make oil drilling, tankers, or pipelines, we’ll never reduce spill risk to zero.
“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill
Clearly, Valdez is a town that refuses to throw in the towel. While visitors may be drawn to its colossal catastrophes, its stunning setting on glacier-studded Prince William Sound is what creates awesome memories.
Today’s Valdez survives on the oil pipeline, fishing and tourism. I was able to get in some great hikes in the area as well as a kayak trip to Valdez Glacier. Any of these I would recommend to Valdez visitors.
The Mineral Creek Valley hike is billed as one of the most scenic valleys in all of Valdez and they are not exaggerating. Heading out Mineral Creek Drive the road turns to rough gravel and runs about 5.5 miles before ending at a gate, after which the trail becomes a dirt footpath. With mountains rising to over 5,000 feet and cascading waterfalls on each side, the scenic vistas are spectacular and the trail ends at the remains of the W.L. Smith Stamp Mill. This mill was built in 1913 and used in conjunction with the Mountain King Mine, which was located about 3,000 feet above sea level on the east side of Mineral Creek.
The Shoup Bay Trail runs from the trailhead on the outskirts of town to Gold Creek Bridge. This scenic trail traverses the West Mineral Creek flats along the base of the Chugach Mountains. In places a bit marshy and squishy there are boardwalks installed to help keep your feet dry. With amazing views of Prince William Sound and fields of beautiful wildflowers this was probably my favorite hike in the area.
“We don’t stop hiking because we grow old –
We grow old because we stop hiking.”
– Finis Mitchel
Did I mention that dogs are allowed on all of the Valdez trails? Yes, Cory got to go along on all the Valdez hiking adventures.
The well used Dock Point Trail, although rather short was easy to walk to from the RV Park (and practically any part of town for that matter). Spruce trees, ground dogwood and other wildflowers offered excellent photo opportunities. The West and East trail overlooks provided views of Harbor Cove and the Port of Valdez.
Wanting to get out on the water and do something different I found a company (Anadyr Adventures) that leads kayaking tours to the Valdez Glacier. As this is an inland glacier it is not as dynamic and dangerous as the tidewater glaciers and you can get much closer in your kayak.
So off we went to Valdez Lake. This lake sits at the terminus of the Valdez Glacier and is often home to chunks of ice that are making a go of it on their own. There are unimpeded views of the Chugach Mountains and the Valdez Glacier as well as beautiful floating ice bergs of all sizes.
The Valdez Glacier was one of the key factors for Valdez’s success during the Gold Rush days of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. This glacier was the main trail for prospectors and people headed into the Alaskan interior to find wealth in the gold fields, this trail was named the All-American route due to the fact that prospectors did not have to cross Canada into Alaska. Due to Valdez being the northern most ice free port, this was as close as you could get to the interior during the spring months when travel was possible over the glaciers of the Chugach range.
The ice on this glacier has been more or less retreating for the last 10,000 years. At that time, this part of the Chugach was buried under more than 2,000 feet of ice. What’s there now is certainly notable, but as you look at the carved glacial valley it give perspective of how small it has become. Now the only way to see this magnificent glacier is from the water or the eastern shore line, which make kayaks a great way to get to the actual glacier. We paddled out past ice bergs of all sizes and right up to some of the larger floating bergs before getting to the Valdez Glacier.
In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous.” – Aristotle
Walking out onto the glacier was a unique experience. The sounds and feel of the ice makes it feel as though the glacier is alive under your feet. Water runs off the ice in miniature streams forming artistic patterns in the ice. Rocks that were deposited thousands of years ago in the ice peek out a little at a time until tumbling into the lake as the ice around them is melted away.
“The glacier was God’s great plough set at work ages ago to grind, furrow, and knead over, as it were, the surface of the earth.” – Louis Agassiz
The day was perfect for the trip with a mixture of sun and clouds that created awesome photo opportunities, plus the bonus of getting out on the water and walking on a glacier.
While in Valdez I camped at the Bear Paw Adult Camper Park. It was the more expensive of the options in the town but the location provided for an amazing view right from my site. With a 180 degree view from the small boat harbor out the channel to Prince William Sound and the Church Mountains across the water it was probably my best view location since I arrived in Alaska! Valdez also has a community pool located at the high school that provides lap swimming hours. Although I could have spent much more time there it was time to move on and start heading north again.