Dan Szczesny reaches Prince William Sound, and finds much more than oil at the end of the line in Valdez.
I stare up at the giant metal salmon sculpture. From this perspective near the visitor center, the fish looms over the massive mountains that surround Valdez.
Yes, that Valdez. The Valdez permanently seared into our memories by pictures of oil-slicked seals and rescue crews desperately trying to save thousands of creatures after the Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef in Prince William Sound and spilled millions of gallons of crude into the bay.
As an aside, here are two facts about that incident you might not know: (1) The captain of the vessel, the much-maligned Joseph Hazelwood, was drunk when the ship ran aground, but he was not at the controls. He was sleeping off his bender in his bunk. No matter, Exxon blamed him anyway. (2) The Exxon Valdez was put back into service under a different name, served under several different flags and currently awaits dismantling at the tide-flooded Alang ship recycling yard in India. The last name the vessel had? The Oriental Nicety. Weird, right?
Anyway, I’m not thinking at all about oil spills as we wander around Valdez. I’m thinking about what a strange and wonderful place this is. We have nearly a full 24 hours to wander the town’s streets, past the fishing vessels, across the pedestrian bridge that leads to the town’s main strip, along the docks where moms toss line with little kids in tow and older couples hold hands and look up at the mountain ridges.
There are hole-in-the-wall lobster shops, Chinese takeout dens and espresso trucks catering to everyone from Westerners whose boots smell like the fishing derby they just finished to young eastern twentysomethings in Madison Ave. styles and big round sunglasses.
We meet a bearded scraggly dude with a portfolio of his photography. He’s just wandering the streets. His stuff is good, actually.
“These visitor center phonies, they ain’t from here,” he says, spitting his cig into a gutter. “I been here all my life. Right now, up at the end of the oil line, there’s a grizzly and some cubs. I heard tourists are heading up there.”
We don’t even question the info, but run to our car and bee-line out of town. Valdez sits at the north side of Port Valdez, the bay. On the other side, the Alaskan pipeline terminates. In between the two are miles of bay shore, RV parks, glacier bays and wetlands.
The day is cold. Low mist and humid clouds slash across the surrounding mountains, giving the bay a surreal, quiet feel. The tide is out, and rolls of mud flats carve thousands of little islands and perches near the water. As it turns out, there are no bears, but we stop anyway, in awe of what is out there.
A dozen bald eagles swoop and play out on the water. As they bring little fish out of the water to their nests deep within the pines, they soar directly over our heads. In New Hampshire, a single eagle sighting is likely to be the first story on the evening news. Here, there are a dozen. Several bald eaglets hop around the mud, ugly, fuzzy little things squawking for food. They don’t have the white head plumes of their parents yet.
As if this display is not enough, a raft of sea otters splash suddenly appears, their big round eyes popping above the water long enough, seemingly, to stare down the incredulous humans on the shore before continuing their forage.
I have never seen anything like this.
It would be easy to sit here all day and stare at the eagles, but we need to book passage aboard a ferry that will take us through Prince Edward Sound and back toward Anchorage.
On the way back to Valdez, we pass the site of old Valdez. The entire town was moved in 1964 after what’s come to be known as the Good Friday Earthquake. An incredible 9.2 earthquake rocked southern Alaska that day. It didn’t immediately or directly harm Valdez, but it liquified the underlying glacier silt, creating an underwater landslide that eventually destroyed the port and a large portion of the town. So they moved the town six miles down bay.
We end our day camping out in the back of our car near the ferry terminal, accompanied by the sound of gulls and the low glare of the terminal port in the night.
The next morning, ours is one of the first cars loaded up onto the M/V Aurora. The ferry will take us on our final leg of the trip, through the sound and back to Whittier, a little port town just south of Anchorage. The voyage promises glacier views and soaring scenery. But in the gloom and under cast of the day, we get something much more. A half hour into the voyage, we put our rain gear on to protect against the icy sleet that sprinkles down from the mountains. The viewing deck is empty now, everyone else apparently content to see the misty mountains from behind glass. We walk aft, to the end of the vessel, careful to not slip on the slick deck, and watch Valdez recede.
We move through Prince William Sound like our presence here is a secret. Every little while, the sharp, icy flank of a nearby ridge pierces the mist and we fall quiet, not daring to alert the mountains to our intrusion. The waters around our little boat are filled with small glacier islands, bobbing by like deep blue mines.
From this distance, with the icy white mountains and the rocky inlets jabbing into the water, Valdez looks perilous. As our ferry leaves, I can’t help thinking that we, humans, are barely hanging on here — that with one careless shrug we’d be cast into the bay and the wilderness would not even notice.