Re­vis­it­ing PrinceWil­liam Sound

Passage Maker - - Contents - Tony Flem­ing

Grip­ping the gun­wales as a vor­tex of spume whisks our in­flat­able away from the base of a thunderous wa­ter­fall. Pad­dling our kayaks through jade-green wa­ters so thick with salmon they ob­struct our pas­sage. Th­ese are just a few of the mem­o­ries that linger from a visit to Prince Wil­liam Sound—the jewel in the crown of Pa­cific North­west cruis­ing.

Lo­cated 50 miles south­east of An­chor­age, this gem of a cruis­ing ground is not easy for the av­er­age cruis­ing boat to reach. We un­tie Ven­ture’s lines—my “ex­pe­ri­enced” Flem­ing 65—from our base at Sid­ney on Van­cou­ver Is­land and fol­low the In­side Pas­sage to Cape Spencer, just west of the en­trance into Glacier Bay. The next 400 miles re­quire nav­i­gat­ing the open wa­ters of the Gulf of Alaska and, given its rep­u­ta­tion as a breed­ing ground for nasty con­di­tions, it is es­sen­tial to wait for a suit­able weather win­dow.

Our first stop, Li­tuya Bay, lies only 40 miles north of Cape Spencer. Its beauty be­lies a sin­is­ter rep­u­ta­tion. In 1788, two skiffs and 21 men were lost while at­tempt­ing to sur­vey the treach­er­ous en­trance. Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse—the French ad­mi­ral lead­ing the ex­pe­di­tion—named the is­land in the mid­dle of the bay Ceno­taph Is­land—meaning “empty tomb.” In 1958, 90 mil­lion tons of rock and ice broke loose from the head of the in­let, cre­at­ing a grav­ity wave that rose to a height of 1,720 feet and stripped veg­e­ta­tion along the length of the bay to bare rock.

Our next stop is Yaku­tat, where we await a break in the weather and take a day­long ex­cur­sion to the Hub­bard Glacier, some 30 miles up Yaku­tat Bay. One of the very few glaciers buck­ing the trend by ex­pand­ing in­stead of re­treat­ing, Hub­bard Glacier is six miles across, mak­ing it the largest glacier in North Amer­ica. The out­go­ing tide al­lows us to ap­proach within one-quar­ter mile of the glacier’s face. We re­verse course as the tide turns, but we’re al­most too late as the flood brings with it quan­ti­ties of float­ing ice that

Watch­ing in awe as jagged pin­na­cles of ice break free from their par­ent glacier and slide ma­jes­ti­cally into the wa­ter, the re­sult­ing mini-tsunami un­du­lat­ing to­ward us across ice-strewn wa­ter.

threaten to en­trap us.

From Yaku­tat we head di­rectly for Prince Wil­liam Sound. Along the way we pass the ma­jor land­mark, Kayak Is­land, which projects well into the Gulf of Alaska at dra­matic Cape Saint Elias. This is­land was the site of Vi­tus Ber­ing’s 1741 land­fall on what is now the Alaskan coast­line. After 10 years of prepa­ra­tion for his ex­pe­di­tion, Ber­ing spent only 10 hours here be­fore head­ing back to Siberia. His ship was wrecked on the re­turn jour­ney, and he is buried on the is­land that now bears his name. Quite by chance, Cap­tain James Cook also made land­fall on the same is­land 37 years later, dur­ing his search for the North­west Pas­sage aboard his ship, Res­o­lu­tion.

Into the Sound

With an area of 7,000 square miles and an 18-foot tidal range, Prince Wil­liam Sound has enor­mous quan­ti­ties of wa­ter flow­ing in and out—much of it through Hinch­in­brook En­trance. A southerly gale meet­ing an ebb tide at this spot can turn this chan­nel into a mael­strom, so tim­ing and con­di­tions are es­sen­tial con­sid­er­a­tions.

We de­cide to head di­rectly to Columbia Glacier on the north­ern side of the sound, and we spend the night in a mir­ror-calm an­chor­age where the sur­round­ing moun­tains and even the fly­ing gulls above are re­flected in the still wa­ters. Dur­ing a pre­vi­ous visit to the Columbia in 2013, ice in the chan­nel had pre­vented us from ap­proach­ing—or even catch­ing sight of—the glacier face. To­day is a dif­fer­ent story; un­der sunny skies we wend our way among myr­iad ice floes to within a safe dis­tance of the face. We pass up­ward of 30 sea ot­ters hauled out on one floe and a sim­i­lar num­ber on an­other. The an­i­mals war­ily watch our progress and we keep our dis­tance.

The Columbia be­gan its cat­a­strophic re­treat dur­ing the 1970s— re­ced­ing 10 miles in 25 years. The dis­as­trous ground­ing of the Exxon Valdez on Bligh Reef in the spring of 1989 was trig­gered by ice from this glacier block­ing the out­go­ing ship chan­nel, re­quir­ing the tanker to di­vert into the in­com­ing chan­nel. It was the fail­ure to re­vert to the out­go­ing route in a timely man­ner that caused the ground­ing. To see this for our­selves, we de­cide to fol­low the tanker’s ex­act route over the reef—which we safely ac­com­plish with 60 feet of wa­ter be­neath Ven­ture’s keel. The reef and nearby Bligh Is­land are named after Wil­liam Bligh, who would later be­come in­fa­mous as the cap­tain of HMS Bounty. He was mas­ter of Cook’s ship Res­o­lu­tion when he vis­ited Prince

Wil­liam Sound in 1778. We do a drive-by through Snug Cove where Cook ca­reened and re-caulked his ships. Re­ports state that some plank­ing seams had gaps 2½ inches wide and had to be caulked with rope.

Cor­dova and Valdez

We call at the town of Cor­dova, which we have vis­ited twice in the past. Fish­ing, an in­dus­try upon which the town de­pends, is rig­or­ously con­trolled in Alaska. Fish farms are il­le­gal and stocks of wild fish are bol­stered by ju­ve­nile fish re­leased into the wild from hatch­eries. Salmon re­turn­ing from their time in the ocean are eval­u­ated from air­craft, through sam­ple catches, and even by count­ing in­di­vid­ual fish as they make their way up the rivers. Based on the num­bers, open­ings are al­lo­cated to dif­fer­ent boats in dif­fer­ent ar­eas for spec­i­fied times. We are lucky to have be­come friends with Robert, a lo­cal fish­er­man, who gen­er­ously of­fers to take me and an­other Ven­ture crewmem­ber, David, out on his boat. Known as a bow­picker, this kind of boat can be trail­ered and op­er­ated by one per­son. Robert picks us up at 5 a.m. and runs us out through shallows, known as “the flats,” to the des­ig­nated area for an open­ing sched­uled two hours later. At ex­actly that time—and not one sec­ond ear­lier—Robert de­ploys his net. After an hour, most of which is spent try­ing to chase off a cou­ple of seals munch­ing on trapped salmon, the net is reeled in, the fish re­trieved and iced. Dur­ing this 36-hour open­ing, the catch is delivered at in­ter­vals to strate­gi­cally placed larger ves­sels, called ten­ders, that act as col­lec­tion points for the fish pro­ces­sors.

After five hours, a float plane re­trieves David and me, re­turn­ing us to Cor­dova by way of a 40-minute flight over the Cop­per River Es­tu­ary, sur­round­ing glaciers, and jagged moun­tains. Cor­dova is one of three sig­nif­i­cant towns on Prince Wil­liam Sound. It has a com­mer­cial air­port, but no road con­nects it to the out­side world. Valdez, one of the other main towns, is the ter­mi­nal of the Trans-Alaska Pipe­line and a load­ing point for tankers tak­ing crude oil to points south. In March 1964, 25 years be­fore the Valdez dis­as­ter, the old town was wiped out by a tsunami that re­sulted from a mag­ni­tude 9.2 earth­quake, which also nearly de­stroyed An­chor­age and many other Alaskan towns in its path. But the story of Valdez was es­pe­cially tragic. The town dock was crowded with res­i­dents and their chil­dren gath­ered to greet the first sup­ply ship after the long win­ter when a huge wave, mea­sured 67 feet high in nearby Shoup Bay, lifted the ship and dropped it on the dock. No one on the dock sur­vived. The town was moved to its present lo­ca­tion on more sta­ble ground.


The third town, Whit­tier, was built as a mil­i­tary out­post dur­ing World War II. It lies at the head of Pas­sage Canal, which is ac­tu­ally not a canal as we nor­mally un­der­stand it but a scenic nat­u­ral wa­ter­way. The town is sur­rounded by tall moun­tains and rests in the shadow of Whit­tier Glacier. The mil­i­tary bored a 2½-mile tun­nel through May­nard Moun­tain, and for many years the town was only ac­ces­si­ble by rail or by boat. In 2000, a sin­gle­track road was built and it put Whit­tier within a one-hour drive of An­chor­age. Whit­tier has two mari­nas and the wait­ing list for them is 14 years long. Be­ing un­able to wait so long, we are in­structed to side-tie along­side a ven­er­a­ble char­ter boat named Dis­cov­ery. We are able to re­fuel here—the first op­por­tu­nity to do so since leav­ing Juneau—with fuel delivered to the town by rail. There are no fa­cil­i­ties here for re-pro­vi­sion­ing.

Whit­tier has no com­mer­cial air­port, but its road and rail con­nec­tions make it a call­ing point for cruise ships and the gate­way to the scenic western side of the sound. Names for many of the nu­mer­ous glaciers and wa­ter­ways in this area were coined by the 1899 Har­ri­man Ex­pe­di­tion. One ma­jor wa­ter­way was named Col­lege Fjord with Har­vard and Yale Glaciers at its head. Side glaciers lead­ing into the fjord were named after women’s col­leges to the north­west and men’s col­leges to the south­east.

Hunt­ing Glaciers

Our first visit out­side Whit­tier is to Black­stone where melt­wa­ter from hang­ing glaciers cas­cades past black cliffs pa­trolled by

seabirds. Known lo­cally as “Death­trap,” this for­ma­tion fea­tures walls of hang­ing ice that lie out of sight of any­one at the base of the cliffs. Should they let go, the first—and last—you’d know about it would be when tons of ice hur­tle down from the sky.

We head up Col­lege Fjord to Har­vard Glacier and are sur­prised to see our Whit­tier dock com­pan­ion, Dis­cov­ery, sur­rounded by heavy pack ice and per­ilously close to the face of the glacier, or so it seems at first glance. Dis­tances are de­cep­tive, though, es­pe­cially when it comes to glaciers. They may ap­pear to be within half a mile when the radar ob­sti­nately in­sists they are six times that dis­tance. We slowly nudge our way through dense but loose floes with the oc­ca­sional thump and crunch. We pause to col­lect a piece of ice as clear as crys­tal that we plan to use to cool our drinks. Our slow progress is ac­com­pa­nied by cracks and booms from the glacier. I stand, with trig­ger fin­ger on the cam­era but­ton, ready to cap­ture a sig­nif­i­cant calv­ing.

Over the fol­low­ing days we visit other glaciers: Bain­bridge, Chenega, Cas­cade, Barry, Coxe, and Sur­prise. The last one pro­duces the most sat­is­fac­tory calv­ing but only after a four-hour wait. Along the way we en­counter hump­back whales feed­ing very close in­shore. They float just be­neath the sur­face and are the masters of heavy breath­ing; their blows cre­ate foun­tains of mist that hang like specters in the still air even after the an­i­mals have moved on.

We ren­dezvous with Bruce, an An­chor­age res­i­dent we met on a pre­vi­ous visit. Our ves­sels raft along­side in beau­ti­ful Barnes Cove on Knight Is­land. Bruce is an ar­dent fish­er­man and presents us with shrimp, hal­ibut, and salmon. We see three black bears for­ag­ing along the shore.

Along with the glaciers and plen­ti­ful wildlife, a pre­dom­i­nant fea­ture of Prince Wil­liam Sound is its wa­ter­falls. The largest by vol­ume is in aptly named Cas­cade Bay. We are able to an­chor and take kayaks and the ten­der close to the base of the falls. Each time we travel to th­ese north­ern lat­i­tudes there is less snow, and the falls, al­though still im­pres­sive, lack the vol­ume and splen­dor we re­mem­ber from past vis­its. Less snow means less wa­ter, and re­duced flow from the streams makes it a greater chal­lenge for re­turn­ing salmon to swim up­stream. They con­gre­gate in stag­ger­ing num­bers wait­ing for high tide to ease their pas­sage. Seals pa­trol the wa­ters while bald ea­gles perch on the trees await­ing their chance to seize a re­turn­ing fish.

The beauty of Prince Wil­liam Sound is breath­tak­ing, but past dis­as­ters have left their lega­cies. The 1964 earth­quake raised parts of the sound by as much as 35 feet and sank other ar­eas by 8 feet. Salt­wa­ter in­tru­sion cre­ated ceme­ter­ies of dead trees known as “ghost forests.” Lit­tle vis­i­ble ev­i­dence of the Valdez spill re­mains, but the linch­pin her­ring pop­u­la­tion has never re­cov­ered, and the or­cas are in trou­ble as well. The res­i­dent orca pod is down to just seven an­i­mals, with no breed­ing fe­male.

After ex­plor­ing Prince Wil­liam Sound, we set back across the Gulf of Alaska, stop­ping only to take pho­to­graphs at Cape Saint Elias on Kayak Is­land. And then, after sev­eral months ex­plor­ing Alaska, we point Ven­ture south and start the long jour­ney home to Cal­i­for­nia.


This Photo: After an­chor­ing, we pad­dle our kayaks past wa­ter­falls in Cas­cade Bay. Be­low: A hump­back whale feed­ing close to shore blows a foun­tain of mist.

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