Captain Cook is known for exploring and mapping out much of the Pacific Ocean including New Zealand, Australia, and Hawaii. But his exploration of Alaska was for one purpose: to find the elusive Northwestern Passage. He entered the Cook Inlet, and began sailing through only to find a dead end 6 miles in. It was yet another failed attempt causing him to “turn again” to continue the hunt for the passage.
Legend has it that Turnagain Arm, the long, narrow fjord south of Anchorage, got its name because when Captain Cook explored the area in 1778, looking for a “Northwest Passage” to connect to Prince William Sound, he was disappointed when his teams of scouts returned to say it only led to a river. It was his second dashed attempt to find the passage through that area, and he named it “Turn Again” in frustration.
The highway south from Anchorage is thought by many to be one of the most beautiful in Alaska. It closely follows the Turnagain Arm down to the Kenai Penninsula with numerous turnouts to see the awesome views. One of the highest tidal variations in the world—32 feet—occurs at Turnagain Arm creating a phenomenon called the “bore tide”. The “bore” is a tidal phenomenon in which the leading edge of the incoming tide clashes with the flow of the outgoing tide to form a wave that travels up a river or narrow bay. These tides, which can reach 40 feet, come in so quickly that they sometimes produce a bore tide wave that can reach 10 feet high and travel miles up the arm. On the larger tides locals have taken to riding this wave out on a kayak or board, one really long wave. I wasn’t in the area at a good time to watch one of these come through but that is definitely on my list for next time.
“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” — John Muir
As a day trip from Anchorage we headed south with the idea to see glaciers and wildlife. The first stop was at Portage Glacier to take a one hour boat cruise on Portage Lake to see the glacier. A Forest Service naturalist was on board to give narration and although the weather was a bit overcast and rainy the views were still great.
Travel between Prince William Sound and Turnagain Arm has always been a vital part of life in Alaska, although modes and routes have continued to change.
Chugach Eskimos have hunted and gathered in this area for thousands of years. They trekked over Portage Pass and Portage Glacier to trade and fight with the Athabaskan Indians of Cook Inlet. Many miners and prospectors also used Portage Pass to reach the gold fields of Cook Inlet and the Kenai Peninsula in the late 19th century. Often dropped off at the head of Passage Canal, these adventurers used pack trains, sleds, and pulleys to drag equipment and supplies over Portage Pass in hopes of striking it rich in Cook Inlet or on the Kenai Peninsula. During this period, Portage Glacier still covered most of Portage Lake. Travelers climbed to Portage Pass and traversed the eastern edge of Portage Glacier to Bear Valley. From there they would walk the front of the glacier onto the base of Begich Peak and drop down to Portage Valley.
“Without us, Earth’s geology will grind on. Winds and rain and blowing sand will dissolve and bury the artifacts of our civilization. Human-caused climate change will probably delay the start of the next glaciation, but we haven’t ended the cycle of ice ages. Eventually, the glaciers will advance again. A million years from now, few human artifacts will remain.” — Randall Munroe
In 1941, the U.S. Army began construction of the railroad spur from Whittier to Portage. This line became Alaska’s main supply link for the war effort. Anton Anderson, an Army engineer, headed up the construction and the Whittier tunnel currently bears his name.
The Alaska Railroad began offering a shuttle service between Portage and Whittier in the mid 1960’s. This unique form of rail service allowed vehicles to drive on to flat cars to be transported between Whittier and Portage. As the numbers of people traveling to and from Whittier increased, so did the demand for more convenient and affordable passage into Whittier.
After studying all the options, it was determined that the best solution was to construct a highway to Maynard Mountain and transform the existing railroad tunnel into a one-lane, combination highway and railway tunnel that allows cars and trains to take turns traveling through the tunnel. The one lane tunnel is managed by a strict schedule that allows for vehicle and train traffic into Whittier and is an interesting route to drive. The time between tunnel access gave us just enough time to wander through the little seaside town of Whittier.
On the way back to Anchorage from Whittier is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a 200 acre sanctuary dedicated to preserving Alaska’s wildlife through conservation, research, education and quality animal care. It is a great place to see Alaska’s wildlife up close and personal and really get a sense for some of these majestic animals. The center takes in injured and orphaned animals and provides them refuge and spacious enclosures (some of the largest enclosures of any zoo or center of this type). Animals that cannot be released into the wild are given a permanent home at the Center.
“No one species shall make the life of the world its own.’ … That’s one expression of the law. Here’s another: ‘The world was not made for any one species.” ― Daniel Quinn, Ishmael:A Novel
Involved in international conservation projects, including the Wood Bison Restoration Project, where the Center is caring for the once thought extinct Wood Bison. The Wood Bison at the Wildlife Conservation Center are currently the only herd in the United States.
At the center Wood Bison plod through 65 acres of tidal flat terrain, as part of a program that will one day restore the species to the Alaskan wilderness. Wood Bison were actually on the extinction list for 17 years, prior to a pure bred herd being found in the northern regions of Canada in the early 1950’s. It’s from this herd of 23 that we have the entire population of Wood Bison in the world today at the center.
The center is also home to a caribou herd, caribou and reindeer are in essence the exact same animal. Reindeer are simply given the term “reindeer” because of domestication, whereas caribou are their wild counterparts. People have been domesticating caribou for over 7,000 years with it originally taking place in Scandinavia. Over time, reindeer in captivity will tend to be smaller and stockier, whereas caribou in the wild will have a more significant and developed antler system. Caribou are also the only member of the deer family where both males and females will grow and shed their antler.
“And this is what happened, and this is why the caribou and the wolf are one; for the caribou feeds the wolf, but it is the wolf that keeps the caribou strong.” ― Farley Mowat
The wolf pack at the center is made up of animals that have largely been bred in captivity and these animals are used as ambassadors for their species in outreach programs. Viewing the animals up close at the center is a great way to see Alaska’s wildlife without causing a traffic jam on the highway!
This was a good day trip from Anchorage and we knew that we would be back in the area again before Deanne’s visit was over.