This was to be our last day on the Kenai Peninsula as we were due to sail from Whittier to Valdez across the Prince William Sound.Apart from needing to make the ferry we had to time it right to get through the Anderson Memorial Tunnel, a single lane toll tunnel that is (obviously) open each way only at certain times - we had to be there by 11:30. The scenery on our journey north was glorious and we made good time as we headed past fast flowing glacial rivers, shimmering lakes, snow-capped mountains, glaciers and everything that nature could throw at us.Pity we didn't have time to stop and take more of it in, especially when we turned off the highway towards the Tunnel and came across the Portage Glacier area.We passed a small lake with mini icebergs floating indicating just how low temperatures remain here even in mid June.
We had a good blether with the woman at the toll point - hearing about the cost of living in this part of the world set against the quality of life. She sounded just like Rosanne. We were in our lane ready for the off in plenty of time with instructions from 'Rosanne' how to treat the many sets of lights, speed through the tunnel and distance between vehicles. It was an interesting experience because with such a large vehicle there was not much room for error on each side and we were effectively driving along a rail road track - because the tunnel is shared with the Whittier to Anchorage railway line. After less than 15 minutes we were through the 2.5 mile tunnel and driving into Whittier.
The ferry terminal is at the other end of town (every town so far is a dead end) where we found a general free for all - cars, RV's everywhere trying to get through the checkpoint - the Alaska Marine Ferry had obviously never heard of organised queuing. We forced our way forward confident with our electronic ticket to be told we still needed boarding tickets so we were asked to park while M went inside the office. By the time she emerged with the right documents, we were last in the queue! The ferry (Aurora) was already in port and loading had begun.It was a slow process but one by one vehicles disappeared into the vessel. One of the ferry staff came across regularly to look at 3 RVs like ours, plus ours, with a very puzzled expression which seemed to say "How on earth are we going to get these 4 RV's on the ferry?".This of course worried us as E rummaged about looking for the email that confirmed we had booked our place on the Aurora 10 weeks previously. As sailing time neared we waited anxiously but then all 4 RVs were ushered forward, and with a final check of documents, driving licences (apparently required for driving onto the ferry), passports, goods being carried, inside leg measurements, etc we were on board with only a small amount of room to spare - phew!!
We had a very calm day for the crossing and just as well as the Aurora is a very small ferry in comparison to many we've used around the world.We stood out on deck for much of the 6 hour journey marvelling at the seascape, landscape and wildlife.As for the latter, we saw loads of sea otters, Steller Sea Lions, Dall's Porpoise and a pod of Orcas (killer whales). Although it was cool on deck it was nice to spend time with others who were scanning the horizon, but it was also good to pop to the solarium at the rear of the ship - on this ferry this is a semi-enclosed area on the upper deck with overhead heaters, and very much appreciated they were too. By the time we reached Valdez we didn't have time to find camp for the night so M set off as a foot passenger to get off the ferry early and book in at a nearby campsite which we'd seen from the ferry.
Valdez is a compact little town and within a short time we were hooked up at Bear Paw RV Park, just a stone's throw from both the harbour and the town centre.Needing some grocery essentials we headed to the nearby grocery store for a few supplies. Not for the first time in Alaska, either locals or check out staff gave us the benefit of their store cards - this provided us with big discounts on our bills , and very much appreciated this was too. As we had eaten in for the past few nights we decided to eat out at one of the three places recommended by the RV park's owners as being good for halibut.So after a quick beer at the Totem Inn we ended up at The Alaska Bistro, only a few doors away from the RV park, when we saw that its menu promised paella complete with locally caught seafood.Hadn't had rice for ages so couldn't resist and the food lived up to its promise - absolutely delicious. The head waiter, a middle-aged chap from Madrid who only spends two months a year in Alaska, was a real character and because we had to wait a while for the paella kept our beer and wine glasses topped up at no extra cost.But the main entertainment was the banter between him and the young waiter who he jokingly referred to as his brother-in-law and who clearly had little clue about the skills of waiting tables as he left us with no cutlery and continually had to be prompted to do the right thing.Being the US of course, the portions were enough to feed a family of six so we now have a plentiful supply of paella in the freezer for consumption at a later date!
Having spent a few nights on site without full facilities laundry was a priority and M was up at the crack of dawn - although we were rudely awoken at 1.30am our time by a phone call (who was the culprit?) - to catch up with the washing before we set off on a day cruise to visit local sites.While at home we'd considered whether or not our trip to the Antarctic would lessen the Alaska experience, but in the end had decided that we shouldn't miss a glacier and wildlife boat trip to the Columbia and Mears Glaciers. We'd booked with Stan Stephens, who were conveniently located a few yards away from our RV site.And we had a wonderful day. It was a great trip and well worth the time and money.We had nine hours starting with a glorious sunny morning which showed the Valdez area in all its beautiful splendour, a long sighting of sea otters playing and cavorting in the bay, bald eagles aplenty perched high in the spruce trees, Stellar Sea Lions lounging on the rocks and playing in the water, wonderful sightings of hump backed whale and various sightings of other seabirds including the black oyster catcher, tufted and horned puffin, kittiwake and the bonnie wee pigeon guillemot.We then sailed through the ice field of the Columbia Glacier where we saw more wildlife, including the harlequin duck, and the nearer we got to the glacier, which chucks out 13 million tons of ice a day!, the colder and colder it got. We were only able to see the face of the glacier from afar because of the massive ice field in front of it. Seeing the great mass of ice floes it wasn't surprising to learn that the ice from the Columbia glacier contributed in part to the Exxon Valdez disaster in the Spring of 1989. The Columbia Glacier is the last of Alaska's tidewater glaciers to go into retreat.Scientists believe this is due to either a natural cycle or the massive earthquake that hit Alaska in1964 and is not down to global warning.
We then headed off to the Mears Glacier, avoiding incoming storm clouds bringing bad weather from behind. This is a totally different glacier.We headed up a long, long inlet which is rather like a huge sea loch, where we saw sea otters and harbour seals (and their pups) lying on ice floes, when suddenly we saw to our right the massive and impressive face of the Mears Glacier.This glacier is currently advancing and regularly calves massive blocks of ice.We were lucky to see a few major calvings and it reminded us very much of the Perito Moreno Glacier on Lago Argentina that we saw when we were in Argentina about 20 months ago.It was highly impressive.
Relaxing on the way back we were jolted out of oblivion by calls from the skipper of sightings of Dalls Porpoise on a few occasions.The last sighting was the most exciting as they swam around, under and in front of the boat. Finally we also had the great experience of a sighting of a young humpbacked whale feeding just outside the harbour at Valdez. What a wonderful day we've had!
The long way back to the RV site (all 50 yards of it) was broken by a stop for a few beers at a bar on the harbour with wonderful views beyond its beer taps to the harbour and the snow covered mountains beyond (see Valdez photo album).
E & M xx