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Travel: Exploring Valdez

Glaciers and rainforests meet near Alaskan harbor town

Ice melting after breaking free from the receding Columbia Glacier near Valdez, Alaska.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

Alaskan coastal rain forest near Gold Creek.

Valdez is best best known for an oil tanker disaster in 1989, when the ship’s hull was ripped open and subsequently flooded Prince William Sound with 11 million gallons of crude oil that covered an area extending 470 miles to the southwest. However, the port of Valdez today is a biologically vibrant and beautiful part of the coastal rainforest that extends along the Alaskan coastal region.

Bus transportation is available from downtown Anchorage to Whittier, where ferry service delivers visitors to Valdez. I chose to drive the 265 miles across Alaska from Palmer, through the Matanuska River Valley, in order to pass Matanuska Glacier and explore Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  Along the way, I camped beside Squirrel Creek, a river filled with fast-running, opaque, silt-filled glacial water. Next day, I dropped from a glacier-covered pass to the coastline at Valdez.

At the harbor, I joined a Stan Stephens tour of the Columbia Glacier on a sunny sky, passing friendly sea otters, whales, sea lions, and porpoises. According to the Boulder Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, Columbia Glacier has receded nine miles since 1980 and is expected to lose another nine miles during the next fifteen years. Discharging two cubic miles of ice into Prince William Sound each year, the Columbia Glacier is the largest North American glacial contributor to rising sea levels.

Tidal marsh, forest, and tall peaks surround the Port of Valdez.

Kim Fenske touring the glaciers around Prince William Sound, west of Valdez.

After a seven-hour cruise, I established base camp on an intimate, wooded knoll overlooking the harbor in an adult-only section of Bear Creek RV Park. In the morning, I went sea kayaking across the port of Valdez to the rain forest and waterfalls of Gold Creek. During the evening, I spent hours viewing sea lions and bald eagles dining on a massive pink salmon run at Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery. The mature salmon were stacked so densely they seemed to form a shimmering walkway across the inlet. The following day, I rested, took care of camping chores in the modern facilities of the campground, toured the harbor area, and visited the modern public library a few blocks away.

In the morning, a heavy, chemical-stratified fog cloaked the Port of Valdez. I took a second boat tour to Meares Glacier at the head of Unakwik Inlet in Chugach National Forest. Along the way, we passed a colony of sea lions arguing over positions on the rocky shoreline. Bald eagles soared overhead, while porpoises and whales fed in the fertile waters of Prince William Sound. After a pleasant evening, it was time to begin the final week of exploration across inland Alaska forests and tundra, with a second trip down the Kenai Peninsula, amid daily rain showers.

Foggy morning on Valdez Harbor.

Sea otters relax in the milky waters of Prince William Sound, near Valdez, Alaska.

Sea lions basking on a buoy at the gateway to the harbor at Valdez.

A whale diving for krill after surfacing for air.

Coast Guard boats moored near Bear Creek RV Park.

A silvery marmot forages on the rocky shoreline in the Port of Valdez.

A sea kayak ready to launch from the shore beside Gold Creek.

Gulls feast on pink salmon stranded by low tide.

Fog enshrouding Valdez.

Coastal scenery near Valdez, Alaska.

One of the boats that gather the salmon catch from trawlers netting near Valdez.

The Columbia Glacier near Valdez, Alaska.

The Columbia Glacier near Valdez, Alaska.

The Meares Glacier, near Valdez, Alaska.

 

Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.

Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”

Alaska:

Spring excursions:

Kim’s winter 14er series:

Autumn hikes:

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