Saturday, July 9, 2011

Whittier and Prince William Sound

We are now in the city of Kenai.  Had to go to Walmart to get prescriptions refilled so will stay here tonight.  Nice, new Walmart with two lanes of RV parking at the side of the store.  Thank you, Walmart.

So here’s the story of our Prince William Sound cruise.  It all started several weeks ago.

A cruise was not in our original plan.  For our one big treat on this trip we had planned to go to Katmai National Park.  I figured it’d be a simple matter of getting a ferry from Homer.  Not so, apparently.  We were going to have to fly there and that was gong to cost about $600 each.  Still, that little excursion stayed in the plan until a couple weeks ago when we finally decided we’d spent so much on gas that something had to be cut.  The Katmai trip was on the chopping block.

As a compromise, we decided to do a cruise.  Gene is very prone to motion sickness.  Since we wanted to do something we hadn’t done before, we looked very hard at our options and came up with Prince William Sound--the calmest water around.  That’s how this trip came about.

To get the cruise, we first had to get to Whittier.  Whittier is a small town of about 200 people.  It got its start during WWII when the US government was searching for an ice free port to ship supplies to troops inland and build a secret military instillation.  That ice free body of water turned out to be Prince William Sound. Supplies were shipped in by boat, but there was no way to get them out of town without walking across the mountain.  It didn’t take long for the rail tracks to be laid and a train pressed into service.  The mountain, of course, was still there so they dug a tunnel.

There was boat service and train service, but there was no road that went to Whittier until 2000 when the railroad tunnel was widened to accommodate cars and trucks.  There’s only one lane through the 2.6 mile tunnel and everybody must wait their turn--trains, trucks, and cars.

Is there a toll?  You betcha.  $12 per passenger car.  For everybody else, the longer you are the more you pay.  The toll is only to enter Whittier.  There is no toll to leave.

Since there’s only one chance to get through the tunnel each hour, we needed to be at the staging area by 9:30 in order to get to Whittier in time to be on our 11 AM cruise.  We decided to do the 8:30 tunnel so we would have some time to explore Whittier before our boarding at 10:30.

We discovered there’s really not much to explore in Whittier, especially when a raven flew into the transformer and all the power was out.  There are a few shops, but they were closed because their computers and cash registers wouldn’t work.  We couldn’t even check in at the cruse ship.

We walked down to the small boat harbor and made a few photos.  We found the pedestrian tunnel leading to downtown, but its lights were out too and you couldn’t get me to go in there in the dark.  Not sure what we would have found in downtown, anyway.  Most of the business of Whittier is fishing and all that’s along the waterfront anyway.

Begish Building now condos
During WWII the Army built a large complex for government housing.  Really it was a small, self-contained city with everything needed at that time.  To help residents get around town in winter, a maze of tunnels was built.  Many of the tunnels are still in use.  The Buckner building (the largest in Alaska at the time) has been abandon.  The Begich Building, also built by the government now houses about 80% of Whittier’s population.

Buckner Building

Of the two main cruise companies we selected Prince William Sound Glacier Cruises.  They are Alaskan owned and part of the same company that operates in Seward--Kenai Fjords Tours.  On our last trip, we had done a cruise from Seward with Kenai Fjords and liked their service.  The cost for the Prince William Sound cruise was about $150 each, lasted 6 hours, and included lunch.

There were three main stops along the route.  One was the fish hatchery where there are three kinds of salmon being raised.  There were plenty of eagles hanging around that spot.  They know a good deal when they see it.

Another stop was at a gull rookery.  We can add about 5000 kittiwakes to our critter count.

The grand finale was Surprise Glacier.  It seemed massive, but I guess not really as glaciers go.  There is about 300 feet of ice above water and about 300 more feet below water level.  We hung out there for about 30 minutes waiting for the glacier to calve, but it never did.

Of course, all along the way, the Captain was explaining the land and water use in the area and identified everything that passed us--vessel or wildlife.

The cruises from Whittier are billed as glacier cruises and not wildlife cruises.  We definitely passed a lot of glaciers and spent a long time at Surprise Glacier.  We did see some wildlife, and the humpback whale was a real treat since they don’t tend to hang out around here.  The cruise was good, the Captain was knowledgeable, and the crew were friendly and helpful.

However, if you want a better chance of big marine wildlife, I would recommend the Kenai Fjords cruise.  On our first trip to Alaska we did the long one which included dinner.  We saw a lot of whales that time including humpbacks and orcas.  Also sea lions and puffins which we did not see yesterday.  You also see glaciers in Kenai Fjords so you won’t be giving that up.

Our day was great despite the weather.  The whale really put on a show and Surprise Glacier was fantastic.

That was our day.  Gene stayed inside mostly just watching out the window.  I was outside dashing from one deck to another trying to get the best shot.  My hands got so cold I could hardly operate the camera.  Thank goodness for hot chocolate in the galley.

That’s all I know.  Thanks for tagging along.

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