Prince William Sound 1999

Prince William Sound and the adjacent Copper River Delta is without a doubt one of the most scenic and beautiful areas of Alaska and over the years it has attracted outdoor enthusiast from around the world to come and explore its remarkable attributes. We were especially intrigued by the biologically rich Copper River Delta and its astounding variety of birds and animals along with the sheltered coastal waterways of Prince William Sound that is home to a vast majority of the marine species of the North Pacific. Also as concerned citizens we were interested in making some direct observations as to the overall health of the sound because, despite assurances of its complete recovery by the oil industry, we wanted to see for ourselves if there was any permanent damage or lingering contamination that had been caused by the oil tanker Exxon Valdez when it ran aground on Bligh Reef a decade earlier. Our plan eventually evolved into three separate but continuous sea kayaking trips from the three major coastal communities that were located within the sound. Cordova, located on the southeastern corner had road access up into the Copper River basin. The town of Whittier on the northwestern corner had a myriad of enchanting islands and fjords surrounding it, and Valdez the sounds most northerly town was known for not only being the end of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline bit its high snowy mountains and large glaciers as well. Together we hoped that exploring from these three locations would give us an overall representative picture of Prince William Sound and the surrounding Chugach National forest.

The previous year had seen the construction of the M/V Kennicott by the Alaska Marine Highway System. This vessel had been designed and built as an ocean class ferry to serve the outer Alaskan coastal communities between Juneau and Kodiak, thus allowing us the option of taking our 17 foot hard shell kayaks directly to Prince William Sound. Thankfully, despite its reputation for heavy seas, our crossing of the Gulf was uneventful and we arrived in Valdez on the afternoon of June 24th.  From there we carried our kayaks aboard the much smaller M/V Bartlett (that has since been replaced by the M/V Aurora) for the five hour trip to the small fishing community of Cordova Alaska.

Cordova and the Copper River Delta

After arriving in Cordova we called for the only taxi cab in town, at first the driver outright refused to carry our kayaks but after some additional economic incentive agreed to take us and our kayaks to the end of the Copper River Highway. Also known as Alaska Route 10 the road runs about 50 miles through the delta from the town of Cordova, eventually coming to an abrupt end at the Million Dollar Bridge that was severely damaged in the 1964 earthquake. Along the way our eyes scanned the horizon in earnest, for it would be up to us to navigate that vast maze of river channels, islands and sandbars if we were ever to return to civilization.  

It was late in the afternoon when we arrived at the end of the road, our driver suggested we stay at the Childs Glacier Campground and we agreed. The tidy campground had tent sites, picnic tables and sturdy metal bear proof storage containers for our food. It had looked ideal but the following morning we realized our mistake. Because of the terrain we now had little choice but to launch in front of the Childs Glacier or spend another day, or more, portaging our kayaks and gear through a dense alder forest to an alternate site. The Childs Glacier flows down from the Chugach Mountains to meet the swiftly flowing and narrowed Copper River which undercuts the glacier and causes some of the most active calving of any glacier in Alaska. The face of the glacier was eight to ten stories tall and would send house sized blocks of ice crashing into the river with alarming regularity. The explosive force of these events would send a wave shooting across the quarter mile wide river to hit the other side sending rocks, ice and the occasional salmon well into the forest!  An observation platform had been built to keep visitors high enough above the river so as not to be swept away by the massive ricocheting waves.

We knew we were in a tight spot as we sat on the platform and watched the face of the glacier crumble and fall into the river then surge forward again and again. But from these observations certain patterns had emerged. We noted that after a large section of ice had fallen that the surrounding area would stabilize, if only briefly, and not calve again until the pressure from behind had built up and pushed the ice forward. This would leave us a short window of opportunity to dash down the bolder strewn river bank and attempt to load and launch our kayaks before the next calving. After a large section let loose across from camp and the wave subsided we scrambled to hall our kayaks and gear down to the river’s edge. Our hearts were in our throats as we pushed out into the river and paddled for our lives to get clear of the glacier’s face before more ice fell. Getting past the glacier was not the end of our danger however, because as the river widened it became shallow and as the large icebergs hit the bottom they began to tumble and cartwheel next to us as we dodged boulders and sandbars heading down river. I remember a moose standing on the far bank watched us pass with seemingly bemused indifference.

As the river became more and more braided we maneuvered to stay in the largest westerly channel to keep from getting lost in the miles and miles of braided sandbars. As the river slowed and became less dangerous we pulled into a quiet backwater to catch our breath and have a snack but the sandy bank was covered with bear tracks. Farther on a large bear was seen shadowing us along the hillside. It seemed to us that we would end up “having company” if we stayed anywhere on the heavily forested western side of the delta.

We decided to camp on one of the many sandbar islands a mile or more away from the western shore for “surely we wouldn’t be bothered all the way out there”. While setting up camp I suddenly heard Brenda shouting with alarm and although I could not make out her words the tone and pitch of her voice told the whole story. I wheeled around to see a large Brown Bear climbing up out of the gray silty water onto an adjacent sandbar. Bags of our food were lying on the ground and worst of all the shotgun was hanging on a small cottonwood tree yards away.  This was not good! I sprinted up the beach to retrieve the shotgun, chambered a round, and spun around to face the bear. The bruin was not here out of idle curiosity with head lowered he slowly approached us. I moved forward and let it be known in the strongest possible terms that it was not welcome in our camp. There was a brief nerve wracking standoff before the huge bear sprinted away at lightning speed leaving Brenda and I shaking in our boots and babbling in tongues. The bear had swam more than a mile across an iceberg filled river to get to us and had delivered a disturbing but valuable lesson, never let your guard down and always be ready for trouble. That night before climbing into the tent I set up a trip wire surrounding camp attached to a loud set of bells to warn us in the event of a return visit.

Farther down the river we passed under the Round Island Bridge, this was our last link with civilization for some time to come. After several more miles and we swung into Alaganik Slew, a long and narrow channel that headed towards the western half of the delta. From the overhanging tree canopy along the bank the songs of countless birds filled the air as we paddled deeper into the maze of the salt water estuary. Tidal effects soon became apparent as the water in the channel became so low that we were reduced to walking and pulling our kayaks in only a few inches of water. We decided to stop for the night and aptly named our camp “mud wallow” for the river muck that surrounded it. The trees had begun to disappear as we entered the realm of sedge grasses and tidal flats. As we gazed across the patchwork of sandbars and mud stretching towards the horizon we knew that careful consideration of the tides was going to be paramount to navigating this section of our journey. At our next campsite we arrived at the top of the tide at a location that had large cottonwood trees for shade and a broad view of the coastal wetland to observe birds. Strategically positioned along the Pacific Flyway the delta is a major stopover for millions of migratory birds, and although we were not there at the height of migration, which occurs typically in the first week of May and coincides with the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival, the number of birds we saw and the verity of species were still most impressive. We ended up camping at several other locations along the western half of the delta before rounding Point Whitshed and paddling up Orca Inlet to return to Cordova.

Whittier and Prince William Sound

Upon returning to Cordova we got a room at the Reluctant Fisherman Inn to explore the town and to get supplies for the next leg of our journey. A real gem, Cordova is a quant maritime village surrounded high snow capped mountains. It was great fun to walk its historic streets, get a bite to eat and visit the local museum. After spending several days ashore we caught the M/V Bartlett for a pleasant passage westward through the islands of Prince William Sound towards the town of Whittier. The high snowcapped mountains of the Chugach Range shone over the emerald fjord as we came into port and I have to say that after coming from charming Cordova it came as quite a jar to the senses to see the town of Whittier that looked more like a Soviet era gulag than anything else. The town featured two large soulless concrete high rise buildings, one abandoned and the other that housed the majority of the town. The rest of Whittier was comprised of a small boat harbor and a railroad yard containing a few small industrial looking out buildings that was the terminus of the Alaska Railroad. After several hours of poking around we concluded that there were no worthwhile attributes to be found. We therefore decided to load up our kayaks as quickly as possible and catch the outgoing tide on Passage Canal.

To avoid large vessel traffic we hugged the southern coastline of Passage Canal to Point Decision before entering the waters less traveled of Blackstone Bay. After setting up our camp on a gravel bar at the foot of the Lawrence Glacier we explore some interesting ice caves at the glaciers terminus and while circumnavigating the bay in our kayaks just simply enjoyed the stunning panorama of the Marquette, Beloit, Blackstone and Northland Glaciers as they flowed down from the surrounding mountains and into the sea.

Our next camp at Surprise Cove was well protected but had a pleasant view across to the mountains and valleys of Collage Fjord, so we stayed a few days, exploring upland before moving camp again to the south end of Applegate Island. The beach on Applegate was a bit more exposed but from it we could see most of the larger Islands of the western sound along with the Sargent Icefield shimmering in the midday sun. We lingered at that camp as well knowing that it would be the turnaround point for this leg of our journey. When the sea was clam we went around to the east side of Culross Island to see its rugged cliffs and rocks that had been sculpted by winter storms. In so doing we took the time to explore Hidden Bay, accessed through a narrow slot canyon that opened into spacious lagoon in the center of the island. Entering this hidden lagoon was a real wonder as it was home to a number of natural marvels including an enormous school of dime sized jellyfish. The weather was sunny and pleasant for our return to Whittier so Brenda and I stopped briefly to relax and take in the beauty of the Tebenkof Glacier.

Valdez and the Shoup Glacier

From the solarium on the rear deck of the ferry we watched Collage Fjord and Harriman Arm slip by under the snow covered mountains of the Chugach Range. From the heart of these giants the massive Columbia Glacier spilled down to the sea depositing house sized icebergs in our path, our speed slowed as we weaved in and around this chaotic boulevard of floating ice. Near the entrance to Valdez Arm our captain pointed out the notorious Bligh Reef, location of the infamous 1989 oil spill, and we watched with apprehension as yet another enormous tanker glided past us as we arrived at the Port of Valdez.

After disembarking we paddled along the northern shore of Valdez Arm, keeping a wide berth from the line of combat fisherman casting from the city dock. A storm was coming in off the sound so we ducked into the protected bay by the Shoup Glacier and made camp on a small island across from this large Kittiwake Gull colony. An isolated area that had avoided the direct impacts of the spill, Marbled Murrelets, Oystercatchers and Kingfishers also inhabited the rocks and waters surrounding our site. 

Continuing high winds prevented us from reaching the much larger Columbia Glacier so we continued to explore around the smaller but ever so beautiful Shoup Glacier. In doing so we came across an unusual discovery. Located along the glacier moraine were the discarded trunks of trees much larger than anything in the surrounding forest. How curious we thought, and then it dawned on us that these trees had been alive before the last ice age and were just now becoming unburied by the melting glacier. We enjoyed the quietude of the bay a little longer before returning to the City of Valdez. While waiting for the ferry to arrive we took in some of the local cuisine and walked its streets. We found Valdez to be a fairly diverse community with oil workers, fisherman and cannery workers and more recently young adults who work the summer tourism jobs to make enough cash to spend the winter extreme skiing on the crazy steep slopes of the surrounding mountains. When the ferry finally arrived we both admitted to each other that even after a month of camping we could have easily stayed out even longer on Prince William Sound.  

Reflections on Prince William Sound

Sadly, over the course of our travels we could not help but notice the lingering effects of the oil spill from a decade earlier. There was the obvious seepage and sheen on the beaches during our time in the sound’s western half, just our walking on the beach would bring the lingering oil to the surface. In comparison to other bays and inlets along the North Pacific Coast some of the wildlife was noticeably absence. The once robust marine and intertidal life of the inner sound was now intermittent and birds especially those that live at water’s edge were conspicuously missing. Also clear to us, in talking to the folks we met, was that the effects of the spill on the communities of the sound had in no way lessened over time. Many of the sound’s local residence had found their lives and livelihoods destroyed by the spill and to add insult to injury any sense of real justice or fair compensation from the companies responsible had been thwarted in the courts by their legion of corporate lawyers and the states corrupt political hacks. Currently it seems that the public conciseness and political will necessary to hold these huge multinational corporations accountable for their actions has yet to arrive, but perhaps soon that tide will begin to change.   

A book that truly inspired us was, Artists for Nature in Alaska's Copper River Delta by Riki Ott. Her collaborative book reveals the stunning beauty of the Delta through the works of 22 artists from 11 countries.