Archive for May, 2012

AK Ingenue: Best of both worlds

Written by leehart on May 1st, 2012. Posted in AK adventures

Sunny spring days inspire folks in Valdez to get out on the water – kayaking, sailing, fishing, and shrimping. Sailors love summer in Valdez when a west wind almost always arrives in the late afternoon.

Yesterday, my friend Josh McDonald invited me along on Bema, his 27-foot sloop, for a quick happy hour sail around Prince William Sound. It’s just a little shakedown before heading out for a weeklong sailing/skiing adventure. When summer kicks in, Josh leads folks on super cool, small group, custom kayak adventures as owner and lead guide of  Unbeaten Path.

Thanks and cheers Josh!


AK Ingenue: Tweener season

Written by leehart on May 1st, 2012. Posted in AK adventures

Spring has arrived here where the Chugach Mountains spill straight into an arm of Prince William Sound. During this Tweener Season Valdez takes a breather. The streets are deserted, parking lots have emptied, customers in stores and restaurants are few and far between. Hitching rides up and down the Pass will require longer waits and better luck as vehicle traffic, if you could have ever really even called it traffic, thins out to as little as one car or few truck every 20 minutes or more. The lull won’t last long. In about two weeks time the summer parade of RVs come to town. Fish, fishermen and fishing derbies take front and center stage. Summer is far busier here than winter so Tweener season allows time for the locals to recalibrate and recharge for the next wave of visitors.

Springtime in the Rockies has nothing on Springtime in Valdez when it comes to fickle weather which can change dramatically from day to day and even within a day. The morning can break under a thick blanket of clouds and fresh snow up high then get sunny and turn to perfect corn fields at night. The long days this far north mean you can work a full eight-hour day and still have another full day’s worth of light left to play. The other day, we didn’t even start our ski tour until 7:20 p.m. and, though we were cutting it right to the wire, the light lasted until we skied to the road 3 hours later.

Elsewhere there are plenty of other common markers of springtime in North America, the crocuses are poking up through the snow; a random robin flies by.

Arctic tern

Arctic Tern

Arctic terns have returned. A little more than a foot long with a wing span of 26 – 30 inches, these cool little birds are strongly migratory. These terns never deal with darkness as they migrate from their northern breeding grounds along a winding route to the oceans around Antarctica and back always in summer, a round trip of about 44,300 miles each year. According to Wikipedia, Arctic terns win the prize for, by far, the longest regular migration by any known animal.

At the Best Western Valdez Harbor Inn, H2o Guides is packing up its heliski season offices while Stan Stephens Cruises readies theirs for the annual influx of tourists. More than just a glacier cruise, the guides help guests spot a wide array of wildlife – whales, sea lions, puffins, seals, sea otters, eagles, goats, bears and more – and regale visitors with stories about the history of the area. Topics include Alaskan Natives indigenous to the Sound, gold & copper mining, commercial fishing, the 1964 Alaskan Earthquake, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the 1989 Exxon oil spill, and it’s aftermath.

One of the season's first fishing boats unloads at Peter Pan dock in Valdez AK

Commercial fishing gets under way in Prince William Sound.

The Robert Magnus showed up today, and while maybe not the very first, it’s the first commercial fishing boat I’ve seen unload at the Peter Pan Seafoods facility across the harbor. Just as the last of the skiers heads out of town, the season’s crop of a couple hundred cannery workers, is trickling into town. Peter Pan processes halibut and black cod in addition to the much prized Copper River Salmon. Next door, Silver Bay Seafoods will open tomorrow for onsite fish sales of the million pounds of mostly salmon and herring they harvest each season. During the five-month season from May through September, the cannery workers live in on-campus dorms steps from the unloading docks, freezing and processing facilities.

Elsewhere around the harbor it’s cool to see signs of life on the docks that rested dormant during the winter. Owners and captains, often one and the same, are returning to get their vessels ship shape for summer. Giant boat lifts keep busy all day long transporting boats from dry dock back into the water.

Geographically speaking Valdez enjoys two unique claims. It is the northernmost port in North America that is ice-free year-round, which is why it is the terminus of the Alaska pipeline.  It is also the northernmost point of the coastal Pacific temperate rain forest is in Valdez, at the border with the sub-polar rain forest. I wish I were staying here for at least a taste of summer. My friends tell me the various shades of green that break out here, too numerous to name or count, is when Valdez really shines. I want to venture up into Sawmill Bay State Marine Park where 4000 foot mountains jut straight up from the sea. I want to lose myself kayaking around the icebergs at the mouth of the Columbia Glacier, and I’d definitely like to kick back, maybe do a little yoga session and enjoy the scrumptuous food at the Prince William Sound Lodge in Ellimar.

I’ve only explored a fraction of Valdez which is an even smaller fraction of all that is Alaska but I do know this for sure: I’ll be back.