My visit to Valdez Alaska turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences I have had so far on my trip. On the Stan Stevens Glacier and Wildlife Cruise, we witnessed the greatest calving event that anyone on our boat had ever seen. Crew members on our boat who have been coming to the glacier for years said they have seen nothing like it. But let me back up a bit…
Valdez is one of those seaport towns that gets a lot of rain from clouds trapped by the coastal mountains. It would rain off and on for the two days I spent in town, but there were two museums to wander through when the drops would fall.
There is a lot of history that took place in Valdez. It started as Gold Rush town where thousands of Stampeders landed to start their trek to the goldfields. The miners had to hike over the treacherous Valdez Glacier before facing the pass through the mountains.
In March of 1964, Valdez was hit by a massive earthquake of 9.2 magnitude, turning the ground to liquid waves, that heaved and broke for a terrifing five minutes. The town was injured so badly that it was decided to move everyone to a new location where the ground was more stable. The old town of Valdez lasted two more years as a new town was built four miles away on bedrock.
In 1977, Valdez became an important seaport for the Alaskan Pipeline terminus. The natural deep water of the port allowed easy access to oil tankers to load millions of barrels of oil on ships bound for refineries in California. Perhaps the most famous event to occur off the Port of Valdez was the grounding of the Exxon Valdez in1989. The tanker leaked 10 million barrels of oil into the waters of Prince William Sound before they could contain the spill.
All these events and more were on display in great detail in the museums in town. I spent several hours looking through the memorabilia and then wandered through town looking for a cruise boat tour. I found a company that offered a cruise to Columbia Glacier and booked passage for the next morning. Then I headed a few miles north of town and found a secluded spot to camp for the night.
The weather the next morning was total fog until we motored out of the bay into Valdez Arm. Then the fog lifted and we had great views for the rest of the trip. Our boat was only one-third full so everyone had room to move about and see the sights. It was quite chilly outside the cabin area when the capitan would bring the boat up to cruise and everyone would scurry inside out of the wind. You were allowed to go anywhere on the boat and I enjoyed spending some time up in the wheelhouse talking with the capitan and asking questions.
We saw sea lions, sea otters, Dall Porpoise, Harbor Seals, Orcas, and several different birds. Even though we couldn’t get real close to some of the animals, it was great fun to watch them in their natural habitat. I didn’t get many good pictures of the wildlife but I will have the picture in my mind always.
As we came closer to Columbia Glacier, the capitan had to weave in and out through the icebergs. He would even push through some of the smaller pieces of ice until we were about a quarter mile from the massive face of the glacier. Everyone on board waited in hushed anticipation to see if we would be privileged to see the glacier calve. Some days the glacier is quiet and many tours never get to see any activity on the face of the glacier. We were about to witness a spectacular show.
It started with several small slides every minute or so, and then we could hear loud cracking and rumbling as huge sections of ice broke from the face and plunged into the sea. It seemed like the whole face of the glacier kept breaking and falling, pushing up large waves, and sending ice flying into the air. As the largest pieces broke into the water they would bob up in slow-motion, towering high above the face of the glacier and then turn over and crash into the water. When it was over it seemed the face of the glacier had retreated the length of a football field and house-sized icebergs floated towards us on rolling waves.
The crew were as awestruck as the passengers! In all their years of coming to Columbia Glacier they had not seen any calving like that. A couple of people got it on video and said they will post it to YouTube. It was a great time. I’m really glad I went.
After the tour I decided to drive up through Keystone Canyon and over Thompson Pass to look for better weather and maybe miss the road construction by Worthington Glacier. I made quick stops at the old Valdez townsite to read some plaques and stopped to marvel at Bridelvail Falls. The construction workers were gone and the traffic was light so I made a good choice to drive in the evening.
My next move will be towards Tok and then down the into Canada on the Alaskan Highway again.