Valdez & Wrangell St. Elias NP – Wow!
With our time on the Kenai peninsula having come to an end, we trained our sights on south east Alaska, namely Valdez (pronounced Val-deez) and Wrangell St. Elias National Park. While it is tempting to skip both of these stops given their remote locations, I can assure you it is well worth the detour.
Valdez, best known for the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in 1989, is a small fishing and shipping port tucked into a remote cove off of the coast of Alaska. It is a two hour detour from the main road and is accessed by the Richardson Highway that weaves through the mountains, over snowy passes and by glaciers. Fun fact, Thomson Pass, which is the large mountain pass you must traverse before heading down into Valdez, is the snowiest place in the state. In the winter of 1952 it received 80 feet of snow. Yes, 80 feet. Come prepared as it can snow here in almost any month of the year. Anyway, the drive itself is pretty spectacular and we were rewarded with some early fall foliage and road side waterfalls. For history nerds, the Richardson highway was Alaska's first road and it was completed in the early 1900s as a route for gold prospectors to connect Valdez to Fairbanks. It was all part of the US Government's plan to justify the purchase of Alaska from Russia. The initial trail was a 5 foot wide foot path hacked through the dense vegetation by destitute prospectors armed with machetes. In 1910, it was upgraded to a wagon road by its namesake, Army Captain Wilds P. Richardson, and the rest is history. Anyway, it was a very beautiful way to spend a few hours behind the wheel.
Rolling into town, we spent our first night at the mouth of the Valdez Glacier. It was a pretty cool setting (not to mention free!), the blue glacial ice cascading down the mountain with an open lake at the bottom, icebergs floating all about. If you were to bring a kayak along it would make for a nice adventure, if you didn't, some of the outfitters in town offer kayak tours. With a brisk night in the books, we headed downtown the next day to check things out. It is a very small and quaint town along the waterfront with a few small shops and restaurants to satisfy the masses. We wandered around for a bit to familiarize ourselves with town and what it has to offer.
Stop number one was the fish hatchery on the other side of the cove. It is neat in its own right and the work that they do helps to sustain an entire community and ecosystem. Take the informational walking tour that wraps around the building so you can see the lifespan of the salmon that come here to spawn and send another generation back to sea.
We originally came for the grizzlies but stayed for the marine life, which was good of course since there were no grizzlies to be found. Instead, we were treated to a wonderful display of marine and avian biodiversity. There were no shortage of animals, and, in no particular order, we saw seals, otters, bald eagles, salmon, sea gulls, and my favorite, the sea lions. Now, the design of the facility meant that a portion of the salmon population would not make it up the salmon ladder to spawn and would instead be marooned at the mouth of the river, floundering about. This crush of salmon inevitably leads to predators, and none were as ferocious and hilarious as the sea lions, with one in particular providing most of the entertainment. We dubbed him Brutus, and over the next few days we watched him fumble 90% of the salmon that went into his mouth while the remaining 10% were chomped in half with blood spraying everywhere. It was truly a sight to see.
While Brutus was busy floundering around by the salmon ladder, the seals, who were clearly not the alpha predators in this environment, stealthily swam around the perimeter picking off straggler salmon. They operated with an air of precision, never staying in place for very long and working together as a team to ensure everyone was well fed.
On account of the aforementioned fish carcasses and pieces strewn about, it was, understandably, a haven for birds that feast on the salmon, namely the sea gulls and bald eagles. The sea gulls were here, there, and everywhere, flying around, perching on the building and the gates, all of them squawking up a storm that made it difficult to hear yourself think.
Every now and again though they would fall silent and scatter. We wondered at first what was the matter until we saw the big bald eagles swooping in to get their share of the feast. While their numbers paled in comparison to the sea gulls, their presence loomed large over the bird kingdom.
The fish hatchery is also an awesome place to hang out later in the day due to the incredible sunsets.
In addition to the fish hatchery, which we spent far too much time at, Valdez also had the fascinating Maxine and Jesse Whitney Museum. This free museum holds the collection of Maxine & Jesse Whitney, two white folks in the early 1900s that ventured into the bush of Alaska to collect native artifacts. Maxine was a true badass and didn't abide by any of the societal expectations of women in those days. I won't spoil her story, but it's well worth the visit to learn more about this inspirational woman.
Another fun encounter came when we took the dogs for a walk around town. We detoured off into a little park and stumbled across this little guy scavenging for salmon carcasses on the beach. He watched us warily before darting off around the corner.
This just so happened to be the way we were walking, so we cautiously followed. Just so happens we rounded a blind corner on the trail and came face to face with him again. He bolted, as did we. As fate would have it, we of course ran into him a third time on the way out of the park where he ran behind a tree and chuffed at us. Not wanting to provoke him we took our pictures and left him to his fishy feast.
Leaving Valdez, we set our sights on Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Wrangell is a funny park, there are very few entrances and practically no trails to speak of considering it is America's largest National Park. Together with it's neighboring Kluane National Park (Canada's) and Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, they combine to form the world's largest protected land area, which is awesome. The defining feature of the park is the St. Elias and Wrangell mountain ranges which house the majority of America's highest peaks, both of which feature dormant and active volcanoes. Owing to its remote location, it receives very few visitors annually, many of whom only scratch the surface of a park best seen by the airplane or raft.
For those in the area, we heard that the trip to Mccarthy, while rough and slow, is well worth the detour. We chose not to go due to it's remote location, but in hindsight I think we both regretted not taking the opportunity. Oh well!
Sadly, our departure from the park marked the end of our time in Alaska. It was a whirlwind six weeks filled with inclement weather, glaciers, mountains, all kinds of wild life and an experience truly worthy of the last frontier. While I wish we could have spent more time there, British Columbia was beckoning and it was time to heed the call.