Valdez Notes

Valdez is a small town of about 3500. It’s location is a stunning... soaring setting, surrounded closely and on nearly all sides by the dramatic Chugach Mountains. Due to the heavy winter snowfall, icefields and glaciers abound. It’s sits on the north shore of Valdez Bay (a deep fjord really -- 700 feet deep) an arm of Prince William Sound. The town seemed reasonably energetic and happy.

It originated as a stepping off point on the “All American route” to the Klondike during the goldrush days about 1897… little more than a tent-city and a makeshift dock. But as the northernmost ice-free port in Alaska, it soon found it’s niche serving the growing population, miners heading into the interior, and other interests of the last frontier.

In 1964, in March on Good Friday, a huge earthquake caused tragedy in old Valdez. The largest quake ever recorded in North America, at 9.2 on the Richter Scale. 32 people were killed in Valdez during the quake… all 32 of them on one of the city docks either helping or watching a supply ship unload it’s cargo. The dock and the poorly supported soils on which it was built slid down and into the bay as the soils liquefied during the almost 5 minute long ordeal. Not one of the victims was ever found. In the adjoining town itself no one was killed but buildings were damaged, some heavily, and it’s estimated that the ground on which the town sat sank 4 or 5 feet. After things settled down and authorities got a grip on the situation, the decision was made to move the entire town 4 miles further west where more stable soils made it a more safe and suitable townsite. It took almost 3 years, but they got it done.

Good friend Tim and me in our later years.
"What are you looking at?"
Valdez is on Valdez Bay, an arm of Prince William Sound. Really a glacier-formed fjord, it’s a very deep (700 ft.+ carved by heavy glaciation) body of water that doesn’t freeze during the long cold and brutal winters. As the furthest north ice-free deepwater port in Alaska, it was the obvious choice when deciding the route of the Trans Alaska Pipeline in the early 70s. The oil terminal sits across the bay from Valdez, the town, and it employs a sizeable number of local residents.

We were in Valdez for 5 nights. The first two, we had a campsite in the Valdez Glacier CG out just beyond the airport and just a mile or two away from shrinking Valdez Glacier. The third night, we camped on Allison Point out on Dayville Road, not far from the oil terminal. For the fourth night, we went into town and stayed at Bayside RVP in order to freshen up, give the battery a good soaking, do a little laundry, etc. The fifth night we parked overnight at the ferry terminal.

One of the first things we did was book a wildlife and glacier cruise. We heard good things about the Lu-Lu Belle and Captain Fred Rodolf. We booked it for Saturday July 11. The weather looked a little “iffy” but we decided to go anyway. It turned out to be a wonderful time and the boat was comfortably loaded with a less than capacity crowd. Departure time coincided nicely with our normal morning schedule: be to the dock and ready to load at 10:45am. Boat departs at 11am.

During the slow departure from the small boat harbor in Valdez, Captain Fred started talking… and he really didn’t stop for the next 8 hours. He’s a practiced and entertaining guide, knowledgeable on the area, it’s waters, it’s wildlife, and it’s glaciers. He and Lu-Lu Belle have been together since 1979. We learned history, geography, economics, meteorology, biology, climatology, and glaciology, with occasional commentary thrown in for color. It was a truly enjoyable afternoon. One reason we chose his cruise rather than the “other” offering in town is that he’s very flexible and will stay out chasing whales or watching a series of active calves breaking away from the glacier… well beyond the time the tour is slated to end. Our 6 hour cruise landed us on the dock more than 8 and a half hours after departure. We liked that.

During the cruise we saw dolphin playing in our bow wake, at least 5 different humpback whales, right next to the boat… including a mother and youngin’, several “rafts” of sea otters, Stellar sea lions, many coastal shore birds including a few puffin, and some others I can’t remember.

Of course, the highlight of the day was the Columbia Glacier. This is the one where the boat works its way slowly through a bay of calved ice… floating ice, some so deep it’s stuck on the bottom. Eventually we’re as close as we can go safely… about a quarter mile, maybe a tad closer, from the face of the glacier. We were there for more than an hour. The sounds a glacier makes as it prepares to shed more ice… as it’s moving down the mountain to it’s termination… is something I’ll never forget. At first it sounds like distant thunder, then a deep cracking and booming from within. Sometimes movement can be seen, other times not. But eventually you detect an area of the face that’s unstable… smaller pieces are shed, crack, and fall to the water… an area of instability is often the area to watch as it may take several cracks, booms, and smaller ice sheddings before the big one happens. Hundred foot high, or larger, chunks start to slide away accompanied by the boom of cracking ice releasing from it’s thousands of years resting spot. Falling into the bay, another boom, multiple booms… which sends out a tidal wave… a wall of water that will rock a 75 foot tour boat a quarter mile away. And the deep blue color of ice so dense for so long that the oxygen has dissipated... a color like no other. What a neat experience.

Of culinary and consumptive interest, here are some of the places we patronized while in town: The Totem Inn has good breakfast… and probably other meals as well. Off the Hook, the restaurant at the harbor Best Western Hotel was spendy but very good. The Fat Mermaid has craft beer, make a serious bloody mary, good pizza, and often live entertainment. There’s one grocery store… a Safeway that was reasonably well stocked and priced. The friendly checkout person took one look at me and gave me the senior citizen discount. How nice was that? Hmmm?

We also visited the two Valdez Museums. The first focusing on the earthquake, including a number of artifacts… items that survived the quake. The other focuses on the cultural and historic elements that formed the community, including key figures instrumental in it’s formation. We can wander around good museums for hours.

During our visit to the Fat Mermaid we ran into a couple guys, a father and son, who were up from Colorado. It turns out the father, Bill, and his young family, were living in Valdez during the earthquake. He was working for the Alaska Highway Department at the time. He recounted for us what he saw and how he felt during the almost 5 minute long event... how he remembers looking out the front door of his trailer and seeing trees, big trees, violently swaying from side to side... their tops touching the ground on either side as they swayed. When it was over there was chaos as people absorbed what had happened and evaluated the damage. Later, he was appointed to the city council and was one of the people who worked to complete the massive task of moving the town to it's new site. A chance meeting turned into a first-hand history lesson. It also proves that stopping at a pub for a beer can be educational.

Here’s a fact I found fascinating: The 1964 Alaska Earthquake occurred on Good Friday. In 1989, exactly 25 years later, on Good Friday (no less!!), the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound causing one of the largest oil spills in US history. As one resident told us, “We’re not big on Good Fridays”.

Another little factoid of local lore: In 1778, an island in Prince William Sound was named by Captain James Cook for one of his young officers during an early exploration of the North American Northwest Coast. That officer was William Bligh, later the historic villain Captain of the HMS Bounty (Mutiny on the Bounty). The reef that the Exxon Valdez hit is Bligh Reef which extends out from that same Bligh Island.

If a town “works” for me (neat, clean, uncongested, local pride, necessary services, happy residents, etc.) I feel it’s become part of me after a few days and nights. On our expedition to the north, it happened in little Inuvik, to some extent in Dawson City, and now here in Valdez. They’re all small places, and perhaps a little quirky, but there was a spirit that draws me in.

Both of us really liked Valdez.

Dar with Capt. Fred from the Lu-Lu Belle

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