Alaskan Adventure, August 2005

Day 12: Wednesday

We got up and out around 9:00, on a beautiful sunny morning in Valdez, on which we could clearly see mountains on all sides of us. We ordered breakfast burritos to go from Ernesto’s and drove down to the small boat harbor to gaze at the mountains and the water and take pictures while we waited for our food. Burrito bags in hand, then, we drove to an empty lot at the edge of the city dock near the ferry terminal and ate our burritos while looking at mist on the mountains across the way. At left, clouds, sun, mountains, cars, and boats in the Valdez small boat harbor.

Since it had been quite so rainy last night, we hadn’t been able to brave the construction and ripped-up, muddy road over to the salmon hatchery and the Old Valdez town site (before the 1964 earthquake that decimated much of populated Alaska). So, we hadn’t yet seen the throngs of salmon trying to return to the hatchery that Valdez is known for at this time of year. Instead, I walked Robert to the edge of the dock and started peering over the edge.

“Hey, I see a fish!” he said. “Look!”

I already had my camera out and was taking pictures of the hundreds of salmon throwing themselves on the rocks below, trying to get into a drain pipe that must have had some scent of their home hatchery waters. “Yes,” I said. “I see a lot of fish.”

Robert seemed confused, and he kept peering at the water for a minute. Then, he said, “Hey! Look at all those fish! Wow!” and I knew he had finally realized the churning dark masses below were pinks and silvers, most not yet turned full spawning colors, trying to get into their native waters. At first, I had to restrain Robert from running up to everyone he could see and yelling at them to look at the fish, too; he slowly began to believe that yes, other people had seen these fish, and that it might not be the rare sight we thought it was. We took a movie of the spectacle, though, because it was truly impressive. Play the movie below for a little taste of the experience (Robert forced me to narrate).

Trying not to think about the fact that we could have gotten fishing licenses yesterday and rented a fishing pole and now stood here with easily our two dozen quota of fish, we stood and watched the fish until it was time to go to the ferry terminal and check in for our 11:45 ferry to Whittier. The ferry was a great experience; technically, it’s a highway, the Alaska Maritime Highway, but driving onto it was difficult and more maneuvering than most highways require. Each car required two men in orange pinneys directing it to drive forward, then back up into spots alongside the slanted ferry walls. It was tight, to say the least, but Robert was suave and unconcerned.

On deck, everyone was madly claiming plastic chairs and rubber-slatted lounge chairs, and setting them up near the rails to get a good view. The view leaving the harbor was indeed spectacular, with many glaciers and mountains and clouds to photograph.

These new, high-speed ferries cut the travel travel time down to just under five hours (plus loading and unloading) from the over seven hours it used to take. We saw real icebergs floating in an inlet off to the side near a tidewater glacier; we saw lots of gulls, kittiwakes, and migrating birds; and we saw more large brown stellar sea lions relaxing on rocky beaches and on buoys (I think the state or Coast Guard or whoever should install far more buoys--the sea lions looked particularly comfortable on them).

Although at first the wind was strong and it was brisk outside, and we went inside a few times to warm up and to eat the popcorn (excellent--blueberry, strawberry cheesecake, and vanilla from the Alaska Popcorn Company in Soldotna) and salmon strips (not so excellent--a random store brand that wasn’t nearly as good as Old Glenn’s Salmon Strips in Seward) and ends of our burritos in the nice dining area, it soon become very warm and sunny on the aft end of the boat. In fact, the families and crazy European tourists (they seem to like this highway--all around us were Belgians, Germans, and Russians, oddly) were now all lounging on their chairs facing the south side. Two German men took off their shirts, but everyone else settled for unzipping their jackets and feeling the hot sun beat down on our faces. I took a lovely nap on the ferry, though Robert made sure to stay awake and patrol for animals, birds, and glaciers.

Above, four views from the ferry: top left, snow-capped mountain with odd horizontal rainbow (no, that's not an artifact of the photo--it was really there, turn our heads from left to right and squint all we could); top right, spontaneous waterfalls from yesterday's rains; bottom right, looking back at Valdez; bottom left, Valdez harbor, with mist and clouds and mountains and glaciers.

This day was our pretend-cruise-ship day, in which we emulated the experience of those unadventurous folk who take a cruise to Alaska and end up seeing far less of the state than we did; still, it was gorgeous and relaxing and a great day.

When the ferry arrived in Whittier (left), we agreed with one of my guidebooks that it really is a very good town--nowheres near as scenic as Valdez or Seward, it was built as an ice-free, sheltered, hard-to-attack port during World War II, and nearly the entire town still lives in one large apartment building (with a grocery store on the ground floor and an underground tunnel connecting it to the school) that dates from the Navy era. The tunnel that goes from Whittier to the Seward highway near Portage, heading to Anchorage, is a one-lane affair tunneled into the rock during the war; as Robert observed, it’s very clearly a hasty WWII effort with bare rock sides, like Batman’s cave, rather than a luxurious, muraled Depression-era tunnel. The tunnel has the distinction of being the longest tunnel in North America, at 2.5 miles long; because it services both trains and cars in two directions, though, and because it’s unventilated and must be aired out in between cycles, it’s only open to cars in our direction ten or fifteen minutes each hour. We were lucky and made an open period just as we arrived, so we only had a short wait in line before taking our turn in the exciting tunnel.

On the road again, we looked one final time for the Bore tide, but we didn’t see it. We did see some people fishing at Bird Creek--or, as I like to think of it, Salmon Creek--but we didn’t stop. In a fine mist, rather than a rain, we did stop once again at Potter Marsh; there were way fewer fish than last week, but we did see some salmon. (Robert reflected that I’m “unnaturally obsessed” with salmon, but I’m not sure that’s really fair. What would give him that impression?)

In Anchorage, we tried to go over to Earthquake Park (the part of the city that was destroyed in the 1964 earthquake, now turned into a park with new vegetation growing over the old rubble, but we got fouled up in construction on our way, and after taking several detours that led us down muddy, ripped-up streets, and dumped us into the middle of nowhere in a residential neighborhood, we turned back and stopped instead at a McDonald’s on Northern Lights Boulevard to have a snack of an ice cream cone and to use the bathroom. Our McDonald’s happened to be a very lucky stop, actually, because it was one of the fanciest McDonalds we’ve ever seen: brand-new, with all automatic bathrooms, and a second floor with fireplaces, easy chairs, a couch, computers for kids to play games on, and free wireless access, and--as Robert in his economist’s hat observed--a Big Mac that wasn’t at all a particularly expensive one.

Our destination for the evening was the Bear Tooth Cafe and movie theatre, highly recommended by Sarah; we just barely got a spot on the street in front, and even though it was a Wednesday night, the theatre was mobbed with a crowd ranging from high school kids to couples to older people. Apparently, this is quite the destination for low-key Anchorage night life. Once you paid for your $3 movie ticket (the only thing playing was the Orlando Bloom crusade movie, “Kingdom of Heaven,” which Robert had seen and I had slept through, but we clearly weren’t here for the movie), you stood on line to get into the theatre and ideally had one person in your party put in your order for food. We got grilled salmon tacos, which were really tasty, with a nice sweet chile sauce, and a small garlic chicken pizza, along with a draft root beer. You take a cone with a number on it, which you then keep with you in the movie theatre, and when your food is ready, it’s delivered to you in the movie by number. Once in the movie, you take your seat in movie seats or booths (we got a coveted curvy booth near the back), each with its own individual table. We got some fresh-brewed apple ale from the bar at the back of the theatre (high school kids have to sit in the alcohol-free balcony, where there are tables, but no beer), and we enjoyed dinner and a movie in a relaxed environment. We actually left before the final climactic battle, because I believe Robert that nothing much happened after that, and went back to Sarah’s parents’ house, where we visited and talked with her mother Karen, her sister Leah, and Leah’s boyfriend Matt until bed. It was a lovely day and evening.

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Introduction  |  Day 1  |  Day 2  |  Day 3  |  Day 4  |  Day 5  |  Day 6  |  Day 7
Day 8  |  Day 9  |  Day 10  |  Day 11  |  Day 12  |  Day 13  |  Day 14

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Created: 8/29/05. Last Modified: 8/29/05.