Alaska Travelogue Part 3 – Whittier

Day 2 – Whittier

Our second day in Anchorage started cold, grey and rainy.  Hmmmm.  I was hoping this wasn’t going to be a foretaste of the rest of the trip.  After a rather unremarkable breakfast at the B&B we headed off for our 26 Glacier Cruise out of Whittier.  I had decided not to bring our Garmin so I printed myself a point-to-point set of directions off Google Maps.  It’s a pretty cool feature – you type in a list of the places you will be going, in the order in which you will be visiting them (don’t forget to get yourself back to the hotel at the end of the day!), and it will print out a set of turn by turn directions.  Anchorage is extremely easy to get around in, and once you get out of the cities your choices of roads are few and far between so I never felt like we were in danger of being lost.

The hour and a half drive to Whittier on AK1 was beautiful despite the on-again off-again rain.  I couldn’t stop snapping pictures out the window!  The entire trip was an ever-changing array of mountains, glaciers, marshy meadows, lakes, waterfalls and a low-tide seashore.

My sweet hubby John is such a good sport.  He always does all the driving on vacation, allowing me to enjoy views like this lowland marsh.

My sweet hubby John is such a good sport. He always does all the driving on vacation, allowing me to enjoy views like this lowland marsh.

One thing I learned about the beaches in this part of Alaska was to stay off them in low tide.  The “sand” is really glacial silt, and at low tide what looks like walkable beach is really a quicksand-like death trap.  Several locals warned us of the danger by relating sad tales of animals and people alike who get stuck in this quicksand and drown when the tide comes back in.  Aside from the sheer beauty of the landscape another thing that impressed me on our drive was that there was a campground, day use facility or simply a trailhead parking lot every few miles.  Alaskans are very serious about enjoying their beautiful state, and all that oil money is being put to good use!

Seriously, the views on this stretch of AK1 were amazing!

Seriously, the views on this stretch of AK1 were amazing!

The only road into Whittier passes thru the 2.5 mile-long Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, which is open to auto traffic only once an hour in each direction.  We left Anchorage in plenty of time to make the 10:30 tunnel opening, and in fact would have been there for the 9:30 opening.  Not wanting to spend thatmuch time in Whittier, we decided to backtrack a bit and hit one of the numerous hiking spots we passed on the way.  We pulled into a small camping and hiking area on the Portage Glacier Road which had several easy trails for viewing Portage Glacier and even a special area for viewing spawning Salmon in Portage Creek.

You can see a bit of Portage Glacier directly above me.

On the bridge over Portage Creek

This is my kind of hiking – minus the bear threat.

We were completely alone on the trails and when we came upon some “evidence,” shall we say, that a bear was also out on the trail that morning we starting singing and whistling as we walked.  Bears are most dangerous when you surprise them, and black bears in particular will give you a wide berth if they can hear you coming.  But the fact that we were alone in the middle of nowhere with a bear really started to freak us out so we hot-footed it back.  In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to watch that “When Bears Attack!” show about all the people who’ve recently been mauled by bears in Alaska!

A few spawning Salmon in Portage Creek – they were literally in inches of water and looking quite worn out from their long journey.

Anyway, before heading back out for Whittier we spent some time at the salmon viewing area watching the fish and reading the informative displays about the different varieties of salmon and their life cycle.

The tunnel to Whittier was originally built during WWII to service what was then a strategic military base.  Until recently it only serviced rail traffic, but it was opened to vehicle traffic in 2000.  I was imagining a multilane tunnel, or at least a tunnel with the railroad tracks on one side and the road on another.  Once again Alaska surprised me.  This tunnel is juuuuuuuust big enough for a train to squeak through, and the auto traffic drives over the train tracks.  It is NOT for the claustrophobic!

The entrance to the tunnel – that black rectangle in the middle shows how wide the tunnel actually is!

We had about a 15 minute wait for the tunnel to open and it was fun to see everyone pour out of their cars and start snapping pictures of the glacier-covered mountains around us.  I wonder how long you have to live in Alaska before you stop wanting to take pictures of everything.  One gentleman spotted a bear high up on one of the mountains and was letting everyone use his binoculars to see it.  I snapped some pix of what he said was the bear and frankly, I think I got pictures of a big black rock.

We absolutely made the right decision not to spend much time in Whittier, because the hour we did have to kill was spent wandering about the oddest “why is this town here?” town ever!  I get why the US Army established a base there in WWII, but I don’t get why this town still exists today.  There are around 800 year round residents, almost all of whom live in one high-rise building.  I can’t decide if that would be a really fun, social environment or a nightmare.

This is Whittier – the large building on the right is where everyone lives. The large building on the left is where everyone used to live before the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake/Tsunami destroyed the building. No idea why it wasn’t torn down in 1964.

At last it was time to board our little cruise, which was a high-speed, 5 hour jaunt around Prince William Sound to view some 26 different glaciers (weather permitting).  I read many glowing reviews of this tour, but a few nay-sayers complained that their day was “ruined” by poor weather limiting the scope of the tour.  The rain had stopped, but it was cold and cloudy, so I wondered what that would mean for our trip that day.

The map for the 26 Glacier Cruise

The 26 Glacier Cruise goes out on a large catamaran that seats some 300 people.  We were assigned to a window table with a fun couple from Memphis.  I was really glad we liked them, because 5 hours is a long time to spend at a table with weirdos!  The entire trip is narrated by a Forest Service ranger, and tho I can’t remember our guy’s name, he was a sweet older man who peppered his nature talk with personal stories and life lessons.  I’ve never been on a tour where the guide did that, but it happened several times in Alaska.  Must be something about Alaska that gives a person room and time to think about what is most important in life.

Our guide assured us that even tho it was cloudy, we should not despair because it was the perfect weather for viewing glaciers.  I took that remark with some suspicion, but it turns out to be true.  Glacial ice is so compressed that all the air has been squeezed out, leaving nothing but pure water which appears blue.

Bright sunlight makes the surface ice (non glacial) and snow reflect all the colors in the spectrum, so the whole glacier appears snow-white.  A cloudy day allows the deep blue of the glacial ice to shine through and the glaciers glow the most beautiful shades of blue.

Close-up of Surprise Glacier showing the blue glacial ice

Close-up of Surprise Glacier showing the blue glacial ice

As if that wasn’t blessing enough, visibility on the sound was near-perfect that day.  We were therefore able to not only visit every scheduled point on the tour, but also approach several of the glaciers much closer than they are normally able to.  The highlight was a lengthy stop at Surprise Glacier, where in the frigid stillness we could hear the ominous pops, groans and booms the ice makes as it inches toward the water (sounded a lot like mortar fire!).  We were even blessed to see a few chunks calve off into the sound.  Our guide kept remarking on what a rare day it was!

College Fjord – the smaller glaciers on the left are named after women’s colleges; the large glacier is Harvard Glacier.

L-R Cascade, Barry and Coxe Glaciers

Surprise Glacier

Sea Lions and Sea Otters lounging on calved ice at Surprise Glacier

It was indeed a rare and wonderful day – we enjoyed the gorgeous drive to and from Whittier, stretched our legs on a lovely hike near Portage glacier, saw our first spawning salmon, viewed a fascinating variety of glaciers, watched adorable sea lions and sea otters bob by on their icy rafts, enjoyed meeting some interesting people and capped the day off by picking up my sister Cristal at the airport.

One last “fun” Alaska fact.  They are nuts with the liquor laws.  Cristal wanted to buy a bottle of wine so we popped into a supermarket.  The wine was sold in a separate “room” in the store, and when Cristal went up to pay for the wine the guy wanted to see all of our ID’s (Cristal’s, my husband John’s and mine).  Huh?  I hadn’t brought my wallet with me and the dude almost refused to sell her the wine because I couldn’t produce ID.  Mind you, I am 45.  It’s a state law that everyone with you has to show ID if you are purchasing alcohol – even if you’re a pack of memaws scootin’ up to the counter in your Hoverounds.  I just found that really a bit much.

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