Southeast Alaska, Part 1 (Whittier to Haines) - Ferry Voyage across Prince William Sound, then back on the road


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June 17th 2010
Published: August 4th 2010
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Goodbye to our little cabin in PortageGoodbye to our little cabin in PortageGoodbye to our little cabin in Portage

The boys nervously scan around for bears...
17th to 23rd June, By Darryl:

DAY 66: Thursday 17th June 2010 -VALDEZ
It was to be our first ferry boat voyage today on the Alaska Marine Highway, so we were up early to make sure we arrived at Whittier in plenty of time. The boys were quite excited about the prospect and amazingly they all lept out of bed without the usual struggle. No more bears were sighted around the cabins this morning, but we were too busy to take much notice. We packed up quickly and passed on breakfast, keen to get to the Whittier Tunnel - and arrived there at 9:20. The one way tunnel works in shifts of 15 minutes alternating between traffic and the trains, each way. It’s a long narrow tunnel, and an impressive feat for construction around WW2 times.

The town of Whittier is also pretty curious, and is centred on two old concrete multi storey ex-military buildings. We checked in at the Alaska Marine Ferry office and parked the van up at the front of the queue - ready for boarding at 11:30. Then it was down to the shops to get some late breakfast and try to book some accommodation in Valdez.

After a wander about the marina and a phone call to book a cabin in Valdez, we boarded the ship and made a tour of each deck to suss out the options for the day. It was cool and misty but appeared to be lifting, so we started out in the warm front lounge with a wraparound view out over the bow of the ship. The travel was slow but stable, and the sheltered waters incredibly calm. The best spot to hang out and watch the scenery was the heated/outdoor solarium on the top deck.

About halfway along the journey we ventured into the dining room for a late lunch/afternoon tea, and looking out to sea noticed some blue chunks of ice every now and again. Out on the deck the waters ahead were completely strewn with small icebergs which apparently are chunks of ice fallen from the face of the Columbia glacier in another inlet to the north. At one stage the boat slowed dramatically as the icebergs became larger and more concentrated, it looked tricky to find a clear path through them. The shapes were interesting as they became like floating sculptures as they melted, and the colours varied from strong blue to dirty black. After we passed the inlet the icebergs suddenly disappeared, and the next show was a small pod of Orca whales. We only saw them briefly as they surfaced about three times, and they were a bit too far off for a photo.

We really enjoyed the ferry trip, it was relaxing and the scenery stunning. Also a nice change from driving all day!

Valdez is a new looking port, and with the oil pipeline here for loading tankers , I suppose there is plenty of industry and associated business. The town is small but very tidy and well kept. We headed out of town to our next cabin at Bear Creek RV Park. The log cabins are pretty nice, and they have bathrooms included which is a welcome luxury for us now. The only difficulty was the lack of any cooking facility, so we dragged out the gas camp cooker for a meal of Salmon fillets, salad and rice - out on the verandah.
The light rain set in and the mosquitos were pleased to see us. I think I’ll go and have a long soak in
The Whittier TunnelThe Whittier TunnelThe Whittier Tunnel

One way, and shared with trains.
a hot bath to escape.

DAY 67: Friday 18th June 2010 -VALDEZ
We all had a nice little sleep in this morning - making the most of the luxury of cosy beds and a nice warm, dry cabin! However the mozzies here are the worst yet, and they fly right inside your ear, buzzing as they home in on you! The muddy pond outside may have been a nice idea in theory, but it’s a super place to breed mosquitoes!

We cruised into the town of Valdez to have a look around and catch up on a few things. Walking around the marina and checking out all the boats, Callum and I spotted a Sea Otter and got some great closeup shots when he surfaced a few times to float on his back and munch on his seafood snacks.The rest of the afternoon was spent shopping and sampling some more Ravens Brew coffee (I even had my Deadman’s Reach tee shirt on).

Back at the cabin we re-packed the tents as they had been out drying on the verandah, and the boys got stuck into building a campfire while Sarah cooked up another feast of Sockeye Salmon. I reckon we have about three salmon meals to go, so by then we will be hanging out for a change! Its still pretty tasty though, and the boys love it.

DAY 68: Saturday 19th June 2010 -TOK (Alaska)
Back on the road today - the Richardson Highway to be exact. It was a relief to get away from those bloody mosquitoes, and we left the Valdez RV Park at around 10:45am.
Not far up the highway we came across the Bridal Veil Falls (how many are named that!) which were very majestic, so a few photos were in order. The next scheduled stop was at the Worthington Glacier. We were able to walk a short way along a trail and get a better view, and the boys had fun playing in the snow lying around - so we all joined in and a snowball war ensued!

We stopped at a little lake called Pippin Lake for our picnic lunch today, and some way down the road I pulled into a side road to the Wrangell St Elias National Park visitors centre. We checked out the displays here and took a sort walk to check out the views. The country through this National Park was quite beautiful, sometimes rugged mountains streaked with snow, and also thick green trees and vegetation, rolling hills and lakes.

Mentasta Lake was our next stop - for coffee and iceblocks. Further along from here we spotted two Moose out in a small lake grazing, so I hit the brakes and we turned back for a closer look. It was the classic Moose pose - dipping their heads underwater to feed, so I took plenty of pics and some movies.

Close to Tok we also saw another Moose cow right on the roadside - so that makes a total of 7 so far.
We even saw our first Fox today - but only as it ran across the road.
Arriving in Tok the trip meter is now up to 8028km, and its another long drive tomorrow to Haines Junction - so better get an early night in.

DAY 69: Sunday 20th June 2010 - HAINES JUNCTION (Yukon - Canada)
We left Tok in steady drizzle this morning, keen to make some early progress as it was going to be a long drive on a road with a bad reputation! We kept
An original WWII buildingAn original WWII buildingAn original WWII building

Looks like it is still 1944...
going destined for the border control as our first stop, but spied the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge visitor centre which looked interesting and I needed a pit stop. There were two native Indian ladies inside working on traditional beading designs which are attached to moccasins and gloves. We had a good chat, and they tried to keep me talking as they wanted to hear more of my accent!

The US border was a bit further down the road, but we had to pass through some long dusty roadworks before reaching the Canadian entry. No fees this time, and we have collected another stamp on the passports.
The road beyond the border control deteriorates pretty quickly and resembles a roller coaster ride, which could make you seasick. There are sudden patches of severe slumping, rutting and differential settlement, which really tested the shocks and my steering. Apparently the problem is due to the glacial silts which liquefy when the permafrost melts resulting in slumping, and heaving when it re-freezes.

Being back in the Yukon again (even if only for a couple of days) seemed familiar, and the country became quite spectacular the further south we drove. There were some
The other WWII buildingThe other WWII buildingThe other WWII building

These two buildings provide most of the accomodation in Whittier.
nice open vistas of extensive black spruce forest, lots of small lakes, and eventually we passed some impressive mountains to the west.

Not far down the road I spotted a Grizzly Bear on the roadside wandering around munching on grass. It was unusual in that the colouring was very pale, a light yellow/brown. It didn’t seem too worried about us and just kept walking alongside while we took photos. We saw another larger one briefly which was standing up on its hind legs and looked pretty daunting, but turned and quickly disappeared into the bushes.

We finally rolled into Haines Junction at about 8:45pm, so it was a long day on the road. We also had to change our watches forward an hour for this time zone, so that made the day even longer!

DAY 70: Monday 21st June 2010 - HAINES (Alaska)
Along the roadsides here in the Yukon, the wildflowers have become really striking, in purples, yellows, whites and blues.
About half an hour out from Haines Junction we arrived at Kathleen Lake, which was picturesque on such a nice sunny calm and warm day. The water was crystal clear and we could see the
Aboard the MV AuroraAboard the MV AuroraAboard the MV Aurora

Bound for Valdez
odd fish rise, and the steep mountains on the other side added to the drama of this picture. There was some celebrations on for Aboriginal Day, and so we had free hamburgers/hotdogs and even a boat tour around the lake for about half an hour. What a great deal, and such a good find!

Another half hour or so down the road we called into a small state campground at Million Dollar Falls. There was a short walk down to the falls, and that was well worth it. The water thundered through a small channel and crashed down a cascade - a bit like a small version of Huka Falls in NZ.

The scenery from here on just got more and more spectacular. The mountain ranges grew, and the streaks and patches of snow were quite striking. Near the peak of the Haines Highway, the terrain is Arctic Tundra and has an extremely harsh and isolated feel to it. The jagged peaks here are still completely covered with bright white snow.

We crossed back into the state of BC briefly, before arriving at the border control back into Alaska - which was fairly painless, and eventually we rolled into Haines. While checking out campgrounds we stopped briefly at the Chilkoot River to see salmon frequently leaping out of the water, so it looked like a run had started here. The campgrounds turned out to be either closed or really dodgy, so we settled on some basic cabins (Bear Creek) instead.
By this time it was late and we needed to eat fast, but soon discovered that our options here were severely limited so we chose a restaurant down on the waterfront, and for the cost it turned out to be one of the worst dining experiences we have had! There was a bit of drama when a patron complained about bubble gum on his seat which was now smeared all over the butt of his jeans. The staff didn’t handle it at all well, and the couple ended up storming out - which was a good idea in the end, as the food wasn’t great. This town is in serious need of a good old Kiwi Fish & Chip Shop! (Halibut and chips at the other restaurant was $24 each - that’s approx $34NZ!)

DAY 71: Tuesday 22nd June 2010 - HAINES
We woke this morning to steady rain, and it didn’t let up all day! I get the impression its like that a lot here.

The first job today was to get the car sorted out. The passenger rear tyre was flat, and the driver/front wheel was squealing - which I thought might be a stone stuck in the brakes. The rest of the day was spent just hanging out really. Some time in a coffee shop trying to get wireless internet with only partial success. Then onto the library, where I could have stayed at all day, as it had a nice warm atmosphere and good view out the window to watch the rain.

Back at the cabins we cooked up a storm in the kitchen while the boys played board games, and the rain kept on hosing down. There was a steady stream of other campers into the kitchen, so as we had plenty of Salmon in the oven (our last meal of the Sockeye) we gave some away which was well received. First there was Tom, the computer guy from California who is touring on his BMW bike up to Fairbanks and back. Then there was Dan from Aussie, and we also chatted with Danielle from Juneau who works for the DOT as a Civil Engineer, and then Peter who works locally. It was a pleasant evening even though the weather turned to custard, it was relaxing just doing not much really.

DAY 72: Wednesday 23rd June 2010 - HAINES
This bloody rain just doesn’t let up! It became quite heavy last night, and I have never seen it rain so constantly without any break. We were hoping to go to Skagway for the day, so went down to the dock where Callum and I waited in the rain for “standby” tickets, but we missed out as a cruise ship had arrived and the passengers had booked everything out. Oh well, onto plan B which was - “do nothing”!

We went for a swim at the local pool, then onto the “Bear-Ritto” café for lunch. We also had some more attempts at getting on the internet, as we needed to book something in Juneau before too long. Back at the library was our best bet, so we wiled away the afternoon there.

Back to the cabins later, where it was planned to have a combined dinner of Halibut, Chips and salad with some of the others there, as Danielle had heaps of fish that needed eating. The Halibut was really tasty, and we ended up having a great evening just chatting and having a few laughs with Tom, Danielle, Dan and Peter. A few wines kept us going until about 1am talking about all sorts of things.



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