Here we are, finally settled in Valdez. We cruised up the Inside Passage over the summer, knowing all along we had to cross the Gulf of Alaska. We wanted to do it by summer’s end. That didn’t happen, not even close. When Labor Day passed and we were still in British Columbia, Canada–not even to Alaska yet–we began doubting our ability to make it to Valdez before weather closed the door on the Gulf. We began kicking around other ideas. For a while, we considered going instead to Haines, a Southeast Alaska town at the top of the Inside Passage. Not the legendary skiing of the Chugach Mountains, but good skiing nevertheless. Haines remained our “Plan B” even as we waited for the right weather in Elfin Cove, at the edge of the Gulf. Then, after we leaped into the Gulf for an exciting day and a half to tiny Yakutat, we again had to consider our options if we couldn’t leave that remote place. Fortunately, after waiting there for nearly two weeks, the weather across the Gulf cleared enough for us to cross in safety. Mother Nature smiled on us with smooth sailing, clear days and starry nights for the crossing. At night, the Northern Lights crackled in great green vertical slashes above the horizon, changing shape with every blink of the eye–for a moment I thought I saw Babar the Elephant holding a large candelabra. Once across the Gulf, we passed through Hinchinbrook Entrance and into Prince William Sound, dropping anchor around the corner in Garden Cove, 50 relatively easy hours from Yakutat. We stayed two nights there, eating good hot meals and catching up on sleep in a quiet anchorage. Moving on, we sailed a long day through the Sound and across Orca Bay with porpoises dancing in our bow wake from time to time. Our destination: a cozy-sounding anchorage in what we now refer to as Not-So-Snug Harbor Cove. After one uncomfortable night there and absolutely no dawdling, we spent our last full day moving up Valdez Arm, directly over the reef that snagged the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in 1989, and into one of the most stunning places I’ve ever seen.
I audibly gasped as we rounded the corner and entered Sawmill Bay. Mountains shoot up 4,000 feet (1,220m) from the bay in every direction and a dozen waterfalls trickle down from the peaks. Eagles nest in the boreal forest that rings the bay. A sea otter came over to investigate, taking particular interest in Nisa on the foredeck. This perfectly protected anchorage provided welcome respite after our blustery night before. We rowed ashore and inspected shells on the beach at low tide. We investigated an inlet and wondered what it might be like to return on skis. This place is just 15 miles (24km) by boat from Valdez, easy for a short trip on some future clear, wintry day. So we’re planning on it.
Captain Cook sailed to what is now Valdez in 1778 and became the area’s first non-native visitor on record. It seems that aside from Vancouver’s subsequent explorations of the region, not much happened here during the hundred years that followed. Then came the Gold Rush, which brought hundreds of settlers who stayed. The Army built Fort Liscum here in 1900 and connected Valdez to the rest of the world via telegraph. Twenty years later, the Richardson Highway became the inland route with Valdez as the coastal port at its southern end. This was quite the bustling place back then, with at least one more bowling alley, brewery and movie theater than is here today (none on all counts). Over the years, however, the economy fell apart. Even the Army left. Then came 1964 and the largest earthquake in American history (measuring 9.2 and second in the world only after Chile in 1960, at 9.5). It destroyed the town. A few years later, the town was rebuilt, dooming Valdez to what some may consider a fate worse than death–the architecture of that era. In the years that followed, the construction during the 1970s of not just the new town but also the 800-mile (1,287km) Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline (with Valdez at its southern terminus) boosted the local economy and the population. Lest you start thinking flat-roofed, boxy buildings with brown shingles in weird places could be the worst thing to happen to the area, just recall the oil spill in 1989: This largest spill in North American history occurred when the Exxon Valdez tanker hit a reef about 20 miles (32km) from Valdez, spilling more than 11 million gallons. The damage reached more than 1,300 miles (2,100km) of shoreline and destroyed sea life well beyond the confines of Prince William Sound. According to Wikipedia, the best estimates are: 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 orcas, and billions of salmon and herring eggs. Obviously, things have calmed down since then. The oil industry continues to be a major employer in Valdez, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, commercial fishing and summer tourism.
Today, Valdez is home to about 4,200 people. It’s a friendly, quiet place (keep in mind that we arrived in October, so we missed the tourist season completely). Town proper covers a couple of square miles with occasional pockets of development flanking the highway out of town for about 10 miles (16km). Modified doublewides or manufactured homes dominate the residential areas, I’m guessing because the cost of new construction would be prohibitive in such a remote place [the closest town is 120 miles (193km) down the road. Anchorage is 300 miles (483km) by car, or about seven hours of driving]. Valdez itself is laid out for the practical purposes of snow removal to handle the annual 300 inches (7.6m) of the white stuff. Giant park strips serve as snow repositories. Town buildings sparsely dot big open lots across town that will be piled high with snow come spring. Truth be told, Valdez as a town is nothing close to pretty given the aforementioned architecture, the big expanses of dirt and asphalt and the complete lack of anything resembling a town center. But a visitor doesn’t much notice that because he’s too busy taking in the jaw-dropping scenery that surrounds the town in every direction.
Town has all the basics: a small Safeway market, a bar, about 10 restaurants, several hotels, an outdoor store, a handful of gift/craft shops, two banks, two liquor stores, two hardware stores, a gas station and about a half dozen churches. Favorites thus far are the thrift store, the library and a particularly nice natural food/book store. Surprisingly, Valdez is also home to an airport, a hospital, a community college and a civic center where they occasionally show a weekend movie (the last one we saw was “The Devil Wears Prada,” recorded off the Fox Channel).
People here go out of their way to be friendly. It’s got that hometown feel. The town siren goes off at 5pm on Fridays. The other night, a fire truck drove Santa through the neighborhoods to remind people to come to the lighting of a holiday tree. About 100 people showed up. Not bad for a cold night. We joined Netflix and are catching up on movies and seasons one and two of “Lost,” enjoying hot showers and cooking in a real kitchen. Bluewater is snug down at the harbor, though we’ll move her to a more protected slip next week. She looks naked now, without her sails and canvas. What a journey this has been, and it’s so nice to have made it to Valdez. Our present goals are much smaller: We’ll spend our next few days chopping firewood and tuning skis… and hoping for snow.
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