11 September 2011

Whittier and Prince William Sound (Day 5)

On the fifth day of the trip, we again went out into the ocean, this time to see a '26 glacier tour' of the Prince William Sound, which was made famous as the site of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker crash back in the 1980s. Our departure point wasn't Seward this time, but rather a tiny, bizarre fishing town called Whittier. Whittier probably deserves an award as the quirkiest town I've ever visited. The 200 or so residents of the city work entirely in fishing, transportation or tourism. Almost all of them live in a single city called Begich Tower, which was once the largest building in the entire state of Anchorage. This led to a lot of discussion about how families move around in the building. Whittier was originally chosen as an 'alternate route' into Alaska (with Seward being the original) and had a railroad tunnel built (at great expense) to ensure that a foreign power could never conquer Alaska simply by taking Seward. The two and a half mile tunnel is the only way into Whittier, other than via boat. Nowadays the railroad tunnel carries car traffic twice an hour (15 minutes into Whittier and 15 minutes heading out), but our guidebook warned us that the tunnel closes frequently due to excess exhaust inside. Back in the 90s, the tunnel carried railroad traffic only and Whittier was a pain in the rear to get into. Anyways, nowadays its main purpose is shipping and receiving, or taking boats out into the Prince William Sound. While there (we took a 9:30 tunnel to make sure we didn't miss our boat) we saw a stream with running salmon, and took a look around the Whittier harbor.

Our trip out into the Prince William Sound was much more comfortable than the Kenai Fjords tour. The boat was larger, so there were less waves, and the weather was considerably better. It rained at times (as it does in that part of Alaska), but not as bad as the previous day in Seward. On the way out of the harbor, our guide gave us a useful prediction about the tour: "I'm never quite sure what we'll see on this trip, but I can always promise glaciers." As such, we didn't see nearly as much wildlife. Part of that was the tour, which stopped only for Glaciers, and part was that the Sound had less wildlife. We saw some good wildlife, though, so the trip wasn't a complete loss in that department.

We did see some glaciers, though. None of them were as active or exciting as Northwestern Glacier, but there certainly were a lot of them. We had to skip a whole segment of the trip due to intense rain. The fjord we skipped was called College Fjord, so named by the original expedition to study the glaciers in this area. College Fjord features glaciers named after famous colleges in the New England area (Dartmouth, Harvard, Wellesley, ...). The fjord we did visit had glaciers named after all sorts of various people -- explorers, crew members on the visit, and more. We visited three main glacier groups on the trip: Harriman Glacier, Surprise Glacier and a three-glacier bay consisting of Barry, Cascade, and Coxe glaciers. Surprise glacier was the most interesting of these, but the three glacier bay was quite beautiful.

On the way back to Whittier, we stopped by a Kittiwake rookery. Kittiwakes are a variety of gull native to northern latitudes. The rookery was cool in that we were able to see thousands of gulls, as well as a hawk that was apparently picking off gulls one by one.

For more photos, see my Picasa page.

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