An Adventure to Cordova And The Gulf Of Alaska - Part Two
We arrived in the relatively sheltered waters of Prince William Sound from Vancouver Island after a journey of 1600 miles, over 26 days. Relatively few cruising boats make it here for, to reach it, any boat too large to be trailered must be placed on a barge or brave a 500 mile transit across the open and often tempestuous waters of the Gulf of Alaska.
It can be hard to coordinate firm dates over these distances with the vagaries of the weather but, with the Gulf in a benign mood, we arrived in Cordova - our first port of call - with time in hand before the arrival of our first guest. One of only three towns within Prince William Sound, Cordova is a busy fishing port on the edge of the huge Copper River Delta - a 700,000 acre wetland which, in springtime, provides a vital stopover for as many as 20 million migrating birds between late April and early May. Its multi-branched waterways are also a breeding ground for the famed Copper River salmon. The town is dedicated to commercial fishing but many slips in the boat harbor were vacant when we arrived. The industry is tightly controlled by a series of 'openings' based on estimates of fish returning to spawn in different localities. These openings may only last for a few hours and result in a mass exodus of fishing boats heading out to take advantage of these limited opportunities.
Prince William Sound suffered from two major disasters twenty-five years apart - both, ironically, on Good Friday. The first, in 1964, a 9.2 earthquake with its epicenter under the Sound caused massive destruction in Anchorage and resulting tsunamis almost wiped out the towns of Cordova, Valdez and Whittier along with the traditional village of Chenega. Both Valdez and Chenega were relocated and Seward, just outside the Sound, also suffered serious earthquake damage. The second disaster, in 1979, was the oil spill from the Exxon Valdez which devastated the Sound and its surrounding waters.
The fine weather deserted us along with the arrival of our first guest. Brian, from our dealership in Western Canada, joined us here having flown in from Anchorage to land at Cordova's Merle K (Mudhole) Smith airport. The unusual name reportedly stemming from the time in the late 1930's when a bush pilot of the same name dropped one wheel of his Stearman bi-plane into a mud hole and spent the night scraping mud out of the engine with a putty knife and a screwdriver!
Apart from Captain Chris and myself, we were now five aboard with Brian, Christine and Kaylin who, as crew, was gaining sea time and experience in furtherance of her chosen career. The following day was grey and misty when we left Cordova for Sheep Bay. Here we launched the tender to find ourselves surrounded by salmon leaping from the water at the mouth of the stream to which they had returned after three years in the open ocean. That evening we took the tender into Sahlin Lagoon fed by Sheep River. Kaylin spotted a bear browsing the grass on the shore which, sadly, beat a hasty retreat while we were still some distance away. Bears are trophy hunted in this area and this, the only bear we glimpsed during our month in the Sound sadly, but very wisely, recognized the potentially lethal threat we represented. We saw many sea otters today and took photos of them floating like teddy bears on their backs on the surface. They reminded me of the time when, living on a houseboat in Hong Kong, my eldest daughter threw all her stuffed toys over the side and watched them as they floated away line astern. "Teddy swimming", she said.
Over the next week we explored the eastern side of the Sound calling first at Snug Cove used by Captain Cook on May 16th 1778 to careen and repair the Resolution, one of his two ships. According to his log, some of the seams had gaps as wide as 2 or more inches which had to be caulked with rope!
On a misty and rainy day we passed through Tatitlek Narrows and passed Tatitlek village - the largest native village in the Sound. I was surprised to see that the most dominant building was a pale blue Russian Orthodox style church with onion domes.
It was cold and raining as we approached the scene of the Exxon Valdez disaster. We followed the same 180 degree course line even to the extent of running directly over Bligh Reef but, as Venture drew only 5' compared to the ill-fated tanker's 65 ft there was no risk. We saw Busby Island light where they had intended to start their turn (but didn't) and later the Bligh Reef beacon almost hidden in the mist as we crossed the shipping lanes into Columbia Bay. The reef is named after famous Captain Bligh who, as a junior officer, accompanied Cook on his 1778 voyage.
When a fully laden tanker, operating in confined waters, was forced by ice flowing from the Columbia Glacier to switch lanes and navigate close to well charted underwater reefs, it would surely be reasonable to expect that special precautions would be in order. So why did a tanker with an experienced crew run aground? The National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded that a number of factors contributed to the accident, including a lack of effective escort services, an ineffective traffic system in the Sound, the failure of Exxon to provide a sufficiently supervised and rested crew, and the failure of the ships captain to provide proper navigation watch. In the jury trial, the captain was found not guilty of operating a vessel under the influence of alcohol, but was convicted of the misdemeanor of negligent discharge of oil. The fact that the tanker was there at all stemmed from the moment when the US congress was split 50/50 over the decision whether to route tankers through the hitherto pristine Prince William Sound or to build an overland pipeline to connect with an existing pipeline in Canada. The deciding vote in favor of using tankers was cast by Spiro Agnew, later discredited on charges of extortion, tax fraud, bribery and conspiracy.
Although it continues to retreat at a rapid rate, the Columbia glacier no longer spews ice into the shipping lanes in quantities sufficient to disrupt shipping but we encountered floating ice as soon as we entered Columbia Bay. We turned aside into Header Bay and anchored at the head of the bay where we could see large chunks of ice stranded in shallow water. In nasty, cold, rain, we launched both tenders and picked our way between floating and grounded chunks of ice. While alongside a floe, a sudden bang - as loud as a signal gun - was followed by the immediate and total disintegration of the floe. Large slabs of ice tumbled into the water, became submerged and then rebounded with water sluicing off them only inches away from the tender. It was a stark lesson to keep a safe distance from these beautiful but treacherous icy sculptures. We had limited time to explore because the water was shallow and the tide falling. The prospect of being stranded out among these blocks of ice in the cold and unremitting rain was not an attractive one.
The following day, we continued up Columbia Bay towards the glacier at its head. We were faced with an apparently solid line of ice but, as we drew closer, openings appeared between the floes. We cruised among them for about an hour and saw a few seals on one piece of ice and a couple of otters on another but the face of the glacier itself was still several miles distant when we retraced our steps. We re-crossed the shipping lanes, making sure that there were no tankers en route. Draconian penalties await those who interfere with tanker traffic although the number of ships is greatly reduced now that the flow of oil down the pipeline has dwindled.
It was the 4th of July when we passed through Valdez Narrows between Entrance Point and Entrance Island. There were many fishing boats at anchor waiting for the announcement over the VHF about the next opening due at 2 pm that afternoon. Valdez was even more crammed with commercial fishing boats than Cordova and we were requested to hang around outside the harbor until after the opening was announced, giving the harbor master a better idea of available berths. Finally the harbormaster managed to squeeze us in with Venture looking very much like a swan amongst her working cousins.
The port of Valdez suffered a major disaster during the 1964 earthquake when the dock - and the land on which it stood - collapsed due to liquefaction. This created a local tsunami which surged back and forth between the Narrows and the town causing ever more damage. A ship had been moored at the jetty when it collapsed and 31 townsfolk people lost their lives. The town was moved to a new location on higher and more stable ground. A very interesting museum has a model of old Valdez and details of the disaster. The town has a road connecting it with Anchorage 304 miles distant. Normal annual snowfall here is between 300 and 500 inches with a record 557" set in the winter of 1989/90.
Brian left us here and we were joined by Steve d'Antonio, the technical editor of Passagemaker Magazine and technical consultant to the marine industry. Independence day was celebrated with a fireworks display within clear view of Venture.
The following morning we found ourselves in dense fog as soon as we left the harbor. Shadowy forms of fish boats materialized in the mist as we navigated cautiously, using radar to guide our way. Visibility improved once we passed through Valdez Narrows. We turned into Unakwik Inlet and pushed aside ice to reach the face of Meares Glacier. As is often the case, the weather improved as we approached the glacier. A tour boat gave scale to the surroundings just as Venture provided scale for them. There were many otters and seals on the ice floes. We waited for a couple of hours but, although the glacier cracked and groaned we saw little in the way of calving.
It rained heavily during the night which continued into the morning. We crossed Eaglek Bay to Cascade Bay at the tip of which Cascade Falls, described as the largest in the Sound, thundered into the bay. We continued around Ragged Point leaving Bald Head Chris Island to port and Squaw Bay, with Papoose Cove, to starboard. We passed through Esther Passage into choppy Port Wallis and crossed to Barry Arm with the wind slightly on the starboard beam. Just short of Point Pakenham the water depths reduced abruptly from more than 1000 ft to less than 100 and then back up to over 400 as we crossed the terminal moraine left by the glacier before its retreat. At the head of Barry Arm were three impressive glaciers: Barry, Coxe and Cascade as well as an impressive multi-branched waterfall.
We continued into Harriman Fjord and then to Surprise Inlet to visit Surprise Glacier where there was much ice with many otters floating on the floes. A triple-decked tour boat hovered at the foot of another huge waterfall coming off Cataract Glacier. We reached our farthest north today at 61 degrees 10.3 minutes and anchored for the night in Heney Bight.
The following morning we continued up Harriman Fjord to Harriman Glacier. A sliver of land at its base was evidence that this was no longer a tidal glacier so there was little ice in the water which allowed us to get within 1/8th of a mile of the face. The 1964 earthquake caused the whole of the sound to tilt - with the southern portion of the Sound, at the west end of Montague Island, being raised an incredible 31.5 ft and the northern portion, around College Fjord, sinking 8 ft. The encroachment of the sea upon the land created Ghost Forests. Along the shore, we could see the bleached skeletons of dead trees standing in mute testimony to the upheaval.
We retraced our route down Barry Arm and turned into College Fjord passing close to epicenter of the 1964 earthquake. We saw both Harvard and Yale glaciers but, while still at least six miles from the face of the glaciers, the accumulation of ice made it impractical to proceed. A number of floes carried chunks of rock; we saved a handful from a watery grave to keep as souvenirs. Many side glaciers and waterfalls, too numerous to count, had been named after American colleges by the 1899 Harriman expedition.
Our cruising now took on a more leisurely pace - moving only a few miles per day as we explored the features of this magical area. The following morning we moved to Hobo Bay where we anchored at noon. Chris and Kaylin stayed on board to carry out boat maintenance while Christine, Steve and myself went ashore in the small tender to search out the remains of a derelict mine, reputed to be accessible along an easy trail. It is not until you attempt to hike ashore that you appreciate the achievements of the early prospectors and pioneers who surveyed this terrain. What appears to be meadows turn out to be boggy muskeg into which you sink calf deep. Portions of the route were steep and required bush-wacking through tangled undergrowth. At one point we had to ford a mountain stream over slippery rocks and mosquitoes and other bugs were a pest requiring the use of head nets. Although we came across occasional signs of a trail and footprints we never found the mine. The prospect of having to retrace our steps did not appeal so we called on our handheld radio for Chris and Kaylin to pick us up in the big tender from the shore on the other side of the peninsula.
The following morning we awoke to sunshine for the first time since Cordova. Our next destination was Blackstone Glacier at the top of Blackstone Inlet - nicknamed Deathtrap because of its propensity to drop large chunks of ice down to the water from a steep slope, out of view, above its vertical face. This area was exceptionally beautiful with a couple of magnificent waterfalls. A gaggle of kayakers were reduced to the size of insects by the immensity of their surroundings. We moved next to the adjacent Beloit Glacier with another beautiful waterfall and, in peerless weather, hovered impatiently for ice to calve from the craggy cliffs of ice. The lack of ice in the water - which allowed us to approach the face - was an indication that the glacier was not very active despite giving forth a continuous litany of bangs and groans.
It was time for another change of crew - this time at the town of Whittier. Located at head of Passage Canal, the town originated as a military dock and fuel depot in 1942. The small harbor was mostly filled with much smaller fishing boats than we had seen in both Cordova and Valdez and there was a continual flow of boats shuttling in and out of the narrow harbor entrance. There was no space for us at a marina berth so we were tied up at a floating breakwater which necessitated using the tender to get ashore.
In a major undertaking, a rail spur linking Whittier to Anchorage was built in 1943. This required the construction of two tunnels - one of which was 2.5 miles long under Maynard Mountain. In June 2000 a road was built to share this tunnel with the train and, for the first time, it was possible to drive to Whittier from Anchorage. After considerable difficulty we were able to rent a car from Avis in Whittier where the rental office is in the back of a general store. Passing through the blackness of the rough-hewn tunnel we drove the sixty miles to Anchorage where we dropped off Steve and collected Louisa who had flown in from Taiwan. We provisioned and bought a few necessities before returning to Whittier with its population of around 200. This is a port of call for cruise ships and tour boats take visitors out to the nearby glaciers. Whittier has 16 ft of rain per year plus 20' of snow. (By way of comparison, Seattle get 7' of rain).
We refueled here, taking on 1420 gallons of fuel - our first since leaving Juneau. While at the fuel dock we received an invitation to attend a boat show at Eshamy Lodge located some 35 miles south of Whittier. Our schedule did not allow us to make the show but we said we would stop by in a couple of days.
From Whittier we continued to move south and over the next couple of days revisited Blackstone and its glaciers so that Louisa could see them. We passed through Culross Passage and anchored in Nellie Juan Cove. We visited Deep Bay and Mink Island before reaching Eshamy Lodge. Duke - who had made the invitation in Whittier - met us on the dock. He and Pamela, who handles the booking, housekeeping and cooking showed us around the small lodge which is attractively situated, hidden in the trees. It is accessible by boat or float plane from Whittier and has limited but nice accommodations. Duke went to check his gill nets and came back with many salmon of different types. He sold most to a pick up boat waiting in the bay but generously presented us with two fillets which Pamela cooked. This is a pleasant spot to visit and we enjoyed a convivial evening with our generous hosts and other visiting boat owners, one of whom gave us shrimp he had caught that day.
We spent the next evening in Barnes Cove in Drier Bay on Knight Island. Overlooked by tall peaks, this was one of the prettiest anchorages we had visited in the Sound. We made a couple of expeditions ashore and climbed a knoll overlooking the bay. Below us, in beautiful weather, Venture floated on water that was gin-clear and translucent green.
A couple of days later we were underway in Knight Island Passage when we overheard a radio call saying that there were exceptional numbers of whales, both orcas and humpbacks, off Point Helen towards which we were already heading. The caller said he had not see such numbers for 10 years! Through binoculars we could see tall fins and blows all across the horizon ahead of us over a calm and glassy sea. We arrived at the spot within forty minutes and spent the next hour surrounded by whales who did not seem unduly disturbed by our presence. We moved slowly and took care not to go too close. It was a magical experience. We continued on to isolated Needle Rock where many Stellar seal-lions were hauled out on the craggy rocks.
Retracing our course we passed the site of old Chenega Village. On March 27th 1964, many of the villagers were at the post office at the top of the hill picking up their children from school when they felt the quake and watched the sea level drop about 120 ft. Many ran to get the children left at home when a wave swept over the village and 70 ft up a hill, sweeping away the dock and all the waterfront houses. 23 people - 30% of the inhabitants - died. The village elders decided against rebuilding the village on the original site because of painful memories. Although it took them 20 years to achieve, in 1984 the survivors moved to New Chenega on Evans Island. They had barely settled in when they were again assaulted - this time by oil washing ashore from the Exxon Valdez.
Chenega Glacier was our last tidewater glacier. Huge numbers of Harbour Seals, far too numerous to count, warily watched our progress as we made our way to within a few miles of the glacier face. The glacier was active and very vocal and we spent a couple of hours here waiting and watching for ice calving from the fissured face and we were not disappointed. We anchored that night in 7 Fathom Hole off Jackpot Bay where care was needed to navigate around two unmarked rocks in the narrow channel leading to the anchorage.
We were coming to the end of our visit to Prince William Sound. The following morning we passed down Bainbridge Channel, bypassing Flemming Island, and, for the first time in four weeks, felt the surge from the open ocean as we made our way to South Twin Bay on Elerington Island. We had decided to include a visit to Seward in our itinerary before heading back across the Gulf of Alaska and the scenery around the headland at the entrance to Resurrection Bay was some of the most dramatic we had seen during the entire trip.
A steady stream of small fishing boats passed us on the way up the bay. There were many more pleasure boats in Seward than we had seen at the other places we had visited in the Sound and initially we had difficulty finding a berth in the marina. Situated at the head of Resurrection Bay, Seward is at 149 degrees 26.2 minutes longitude which made it our farthest point west. Its latitude is 60 degrees 7 minutes so we had already come some distance south.
From here we made a stop at Montague Island before heading directly across the Gulf of Alaska to Cape Spencer and Icy Strait - a straight shot of 392 miles lasting 42 hours. We had spent 28 days cruising Prince William Sound but, with a coastline longer than that of Oregon and California combined and encompassing an area of 25,000 square miles, we could spend a lifetime exploring this beautiful area.