Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Aboard the Good Ship Aurora to Whittier

A day or so ago, as I contemplated the next leg of our trip, an idea struck me. There’s a ferry dock here in Valdez… and I’d heard already that there’s ferry service over to Whittier, the next port to the west and on the northern end of the Kenai Peninsula. Online I found that the ferry Aurora leaves Valdez at 7am and gets into Whittier a little after noon. The next step was to find out if there’s room for a little pickup and camper.

Since the local ferry office doesn’t open until noon, I called the 800 number and found there was one last spot available before we’d have to go on the standby list. It didn’t take long (about 2 seconds) to decide we’d take it. It’s not cheap, $369 for two people and the truck/camper, but there are some offsetting savings to be considered. This five hour trip eliminates somewhere around 350 miles of driving (up to $120 in fuel, and, at our pace, two days of travel) and an overnight ($$??). Then, if you really want to dig deep for a rationalization… just think of the wear and tear on the truck.

In any event, the plan came together nicely. The ferry folks even let us overnight at the terminal so we’d be right there for our 6am boarding time.

We fit perfectly in the fork truck section.
This morning our wake up call went off at 5am. And we were all set to roll by a hair after 6am. The boarding process is easy: picture id for each passenger, reservation number, propane tanks off and verified, declare any other flammables… that’s about it. Because the Aurora, our ferry, is plumb full during most summer trips, the process of loading vehicles is a little like putting a 100 piece picture puzzle together. A few vehicles at a time, they fit and nudge them together to get the maximum usage of space. A dock worker told us the Aurora has 600 linear vehicle feet that is “sold”, reserved… but they can usually fit closer to 700 feet if they pack ‘em in tightly. That means it’s often the case two, three, maybe four vehicles on a waiting list can also be loaded. Good information for future reference.

No one is allowed on the vehicle deck during passage so your scruffy little dogs will have to be by themselves for a while. And it’s best to take everything you’ll need for the passage… coats, reading material, electric confuser machines, snacks, etc. They really don’t appreciate someone whining about forgetting their seasickness pills because any access to the vehicle deck once underway must be accompanied by a crew member.

We’re aboard the Ferry Aurora. A few facts: she was built in Wisconsin by Peters Shipbuilders of Sturgeon Bay in 1977. She’s 235 feet long, 57 feet wide (beam), and has a draft of almost 14 feet. Cruise speed is a comfortable 16 mph. She can carry 250 passengers and 34 regular cars or small trucks. Large trucks or buses, of course, reduce the number of cars. At least during this summer, the Aurora is running between ports on Prince William Sound.

During the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the Aurora played a key role as a base station and supply hub during the cleanup.

You could consider the cost of taking the ferry kind of high (as I alluded to above), but this 5 hour cruise takes you through some of the most picturesque parts of Alaska, and unless you’re on a boat of some kind, you ain’t gonna see them. Good views of mountains and glaciers, wildlife (it’s not uncommon to see humpback or killer whales out here), and all of it from a comfortable reclining seat or a table in the cafeteria. If you’re the kind that enjoys these sorts of things, the price might be a bargain.

By the time we were docked and unloaded in Whittier, it was almost 1pm. Took a quick drive around Whittier and didn’t see a lot to interest us. Of note, there’s a huge 6 story high building built during the late 40s by the Army to be a combination barracks, office, hospital, general store, officers quarters, etc… It was, at the time, the largest building in Alaska. It was partially used during the 50s, during the cold war, but was never completely occupied or utilized. Alas, the Army abandoned it in 1960 when they closed the base here. It’s been sitting vacant and deteriorating ever since.

There’s one other large building on the Whittier skyline, this one also built by the military. But this one was converted to condominiums. And at this point, almost everyone who lives in Whittier (about 200 people) lives in that building. There really isn’t a typical residential neighborhood with houses and garages and parks, anywhere we looked. It’s a weird town from that perspective. But that’s OK, I like weird.

For the night we thought we’d drive a few miles out of town to a NFS campground. There are a few of them along the road… the Portage Valley Highway, which is a relatively new road that connects the Alaska road system with Whittier. The reason it’s a rather new road is that before 2000, there was no vehicle access to Whittier at all. The town’s only land connection to the rest of Alaska was by railroad.

In the 1940s, the Army (remember them from above?) used Whittier as a main supply and personnel depot. They blasted a 2-1/2 mile long tunnel through a mountain and ran the rails through it so they could service the other military bases in Alaska. After the war, and then after the Army closed its base here, The Alaska Railroad ran freight through it. But then an idea incubated. We have a tunnel… why not connect Whittier to the rest of Alaska by road through the same tunnel? And that’s what they did. A large multi-year project widened the tunnel somewhat, and built the Portage Valley Highway to connect it all to the rest of Alaska.

But, I’ve never been in a tunnel like this one before. It’s one lane. Not one lane each way, no way bunkie… it’s just one lane. And on top of that, the railroad must share that same single lane with vehicle traffic. Well, how’s that done? With great care. On both ends of the tunnel, there’s a large 6 or 7 lane wide vehicle waiting area. Cars and small trucks in the first three lanes, vehicles with trailers in this lane, large trucks in that lane, passenger busses over here, etc. Then you wait. There’s a large sign board that advises everyone as to the next “release of traffic” from your end. Think of a one way highway construction zone and a flagger. In the meantime, while you wait, traffic is flowing toward you from the other side. Or, perhaps, a train is coming through. Don’t know. You just wait until they tell you to go.

We waited about 20 or 25 minutes. That’s OK, there’s a lot of scenery to look at. At 2pm, we were released and started slowly moving through the tunnel. As I mentioned before, it’s almost 2-½ miles long, so at 30 mph you’ll be inside the bowels of the mountain for 5 minutes or so. Especially here, earthquakes do cross your mind from time to time. Not sure I’d like being a mile inside a mountain when one starts. Also not sure what would happen, but it probably wouldn’t be good.

Then, just a few miles up the road, we found a campsite in the Williwaw CG. For the day we moved the truck hundreds of miles from Valdez, but only added about 20 to the odometer. G’night all.

Some of these pictures are award winners. Check 'em out if you have the time. Here's a link to that album. 

The Aurora was built in Wisconsin. How cool is that?

Inside... the tunnel.

Our campsite along Portage Valley Highway