Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Missing Valdez

Every summer I take a trip to Valdez for fishing.  I usually fish for pink salmon in late June or July when they come streaming into Valdez Harbor by the thousands.  Most Alaskans have become picky with their choice of salmon and I've overheard a father telling his son that it wasn't worth casting a line for a pink, so they weren't going to fish.  His son just wanted to fish with his father, and his father was an inconsiderate salmon snob.  I admit that reds or kings are delicious, but if you don't like the taste of your pink salmon, it doesn't mean the fish is bad.  It means you can't cook.  Unfortunately, this year I did not acquire any fresh salmon.  I was at home, rebuilding an old camper.  That's for another blog post.  For now, I will reminisce about previous trips to this beautiful little town.

It's not just the town of Valdez and the fishing which makes this 260 mile trip (one way) worthwhile. The scenery along the way is always lovely.  There are numerous glaciers along the way and lots of wildlife viewing opportunities.  On clear or mild days, you may be lucky enough to see the Wrangell Mountains.  These mountains lie on the east side of the Richardson Highway and include 18,008' Mount St. Elias.  They are part of America's largest national park, the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.  It is an immense 13.2 million acres, larger than Switzerland.  At Copper Center you can find the Wrangell- St. Elias Visitor Center, which offers exhibits, films, books and ranger programs.  Ahtna Athabascans used the Copper Center area as a winter village for over 5000 years.  The first lodge in the area was built in 1896 for the prospectors traveling the Valdez-Fairbanks trail during the gold rush.

Worthington Glacier seen from Richardson
Highway, looking south.
Another must-see stop is Worthington Glacier at Milepost 334 along the Richardson Highway. The glacier was named after a man who survived being swept down the glacial stream in 1899. He was part of a survey party mapping an ice-free corridor to the interior. There are usually high winds here, so I would suggest putting on those layers and dealing with it. It's only a short walk on a paved path, which is also handicap accessible, to the viewpoints.  
A picture of me, not dealing with the wind
very well at Worthington Glacier.
If you're feeling invigorated, there's a tougher, one-mile moraine trail to see the glacier up close and personal.  Just be careful about how up close and personal you get.  This is still a river of ice and is constantly shifting, even if it looks unmoving.
A tongue of the glacier sits on silt-covered ice and rock.
Waterfalls stream down the sides of the mountain,
where the glacier's upper basin sits at 5,500'. 
The road from this point begins climbing up Thompson Pass, the snowiest place in Alaska.  It winds through a gap in the Chugach Mountain Range and receives about 55 inches of snow a year.  In 1952, there was a record snowfall of 62 inches in one day.  Along this stretch of the Richardson Highway, you will see poles along the road.  These poles are markers to keep people on the roadway during white-out conditions.  

Road markers in Thompson Pass 
Thompson Pass offers a chance to play in snow most of the year.  It offers world-class snowboarding and skiing.  Blueberry Lake is a popular stop and there are plenty of blueberries when they are in season.  Trails can be found around every corner and this corridor was originally used by Native Athabascans.  Their trails were followed by surveyors and prospectors seeking Yukon gold. When the oil pipeline was constructed, this was one of the most challenging spots along the route.  Welding had to take place while hanging from cliffs and only the most experienced and daring welder accepted the Thompson Pass and Worthington Glacier job.
A view of the Lowe River Valley from a Thompson Pass trail.
Watch your Step!
Heading south from Thompson Pass brings you to the Lowe River Valley, which can be flooded during rainy fall weather. The mountains suddenly come together and become a dramatic canyon changing the Lowe River into narrow, rushing whitewater.  The road twists through some of the most beautiful scenery in Alaska.  
Looking north through Keystone Canyon
The Keystone Canyon also has an old gold rush trail to meander called the Goat Trail.  It starts near Bridal Veil Falls and climbs to the top of Horsetail Falls.  There's even an old hand-carved tunnel to explore.  It was abandoned when a competing railroad company arrived and a shoot-out followed. A railroad was never built and instead a "road" was put in its place. 
Bridal Veil Falls, a popular icefall climb in winter.
Horsetail Falls with what appears to be Western Meadowrue flowers,
protected by boulders in the middle of the falls.

The abandoned railroad tunnel,
hand-carved during the gold rush.

Continued on next blog post: On to Valdez

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