August 13 – 16, 2022.
After McCarthy and Wrangell-St Elias, we drove to Valdez. Like us, you may be most familiar with the name Valdez from the oil spill in Alaska. In 1989 a supertanker, the Exxon Valdez, left the port in the city of Valdez and hit a reef in Prince William Sound just outside of the Valdez Arm that leads to Port Valdez. The tanker ended up releasing 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the water causing a huge environmental disaster.
Although interesting, the oil spill wasn’t what brought us there. We were drawn to Valdez by the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery. I know a fish hatchery doesn’t seem like much of an attraction. We’ve seen fish hatcheries before and they can be interesting but not enough for a major detour. But this one sounded like it might be different – it came with the possibility of seeing bears!
The clouds had returned the morning we left McCarthy. We drove away from Base Camp back down the bumpy, perilous McCarthy Road we had just traversed the previous day. We were happy to hit pavement again once our route changed from The McCarthy Road to The Edgerton Highway. When we intersected with the Richardson Highway we hung a left and followed it all the way to its end. One hundred and eighty miles from McCarthy we landed in Valdez, Alaska.
We found a place to camp on the edge of what used to be the old town site. Valdez like so many places in coastal Alaska was hit hard by the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake. The quake which measured 8.4 – 8.6 on the Richter Scale damaged the town so badly and the ground it had sat on was so unstable it was decided to rebuild it in another location. We didn’t see any original buildings but there are signs that indicate where some of them used to stand.
The next morning we woke up to more gray skies and rain. We used this day to do laundry and to go into town to the marina and purchase a few showers.
The next day it was time to venture out to Solomon Gulch. Once again the sky was grey that morning and it rained off and on. But as we approached the hatchery the drizzle came to a stop. We passed the fish hatchery and crossed a bridge. On one side of the bridge a little ways back from the road we saw a steep waterfall pouring down. The water from the falls streamed under the bridge and flowed out over a manmade waterfall on the other side and out a small channel into the bay.
We were just in time! As we parked and looked out over the water there was a wildlife party going on. Glaucous-winged Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwake were everywhere. Flying in circles low over the water, sitting on the sideline, flying up to the bridge, landing in the water, and floating backward on the current until they reach the little man-made waterfall where they would jump into the air, fly forward and do it again. A throng of salmon, one on top of the other swam with all their might towards the waterfall against the current.
It was low tide so we walked as far as we could out to the water’s edge. On a spit of land out in the bay, Steller Sea Lions waited for all the chaos to die down while birds swirled overhead. The tide came in abruptly and we had to hurry back to higher ground. But by now I was transfixed with all the excitement, Greg had to keep reminding me how fast the water was rising.
As we were heading back to the parking lot we saw one lone sea lion making his way into the channel. He was heading to the waterfall along with the fish. Birds swirled around him but he kept his focus on going forward. He swam through mobs of salmon and it seemed that if he just stopped he could just reach out and grab one. Still, he continued forward. His spectacle caught everyone’s attention. Was he going to make it to the waterfall? He lumbered along slowly and persistently. And at the end sitting in the water in front of the small man-made falls, he scooped up a few unlucky salmon whose journey had come to an abrupt end and had his lunch.
While our sea lion friend was enjoying the fruits of his hard work we did a self-guided tour of the outside of the fish hatchery facility. We saw the fish ladder the salmon have to climb to get into the facility and the fish holding tanks where they rested once they got there. We watched videos about what happened to the luckless fish that make it to the facility. It is an assembly line process of removing the eggs and sperm (in which the fish die). I know that the salmon are swimming to their deaths anyway. But it seems quite a letdown that after all that hard work they don’t actually get the satisfaction of reaching their ultimate goal naturally. Videos told about how the eggs are fertilized, how the fish are taken care of, where they go once they are released, and their ultimate return to the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery every summer.
While we were on our tour, our sea lion had had his fill and swam back out into the bay. As we were leaving rain started spitting on us again. The tide had risen significantly and the artificial waterfall had been turned off. The birds were losing interest in the scene and dispersing as the current lessened and their free ride to the edge of the waterfall became less exciting. A few sea lions who had been waiting offshore started to swim in toward the hatchery. Unfortunately, no bears ever joined the party. We headed on trying to avoid getting too wet.
Our next stop was to check out the second reason I wanted to come to Valdez, Glacier Lake. Yes, I wanted to kayak to another glacier just like we did back on Portage Lake. But this lake seemed even more interesting with giant chunks of icebergs. It was still raining when we arrived. We shivered as we stood on the edge of the lake. It was way too cold for a kayak.
On our last day in Valdez it was still raining so we checked out a few museums. First stop was the free Maxine & Jesse Whitney Museum. Maxine Whitney was a collector. She and her husband came to Alaska in 1947. In 1969 she became the owner of the Eskimo Museum in Fairbanks, Alaska. She traveled to indigenous villages throughout Alaska buying native crafts to sell in her shop. She continued collecting until the mid-80s. In 1998n she donated her collection to the Prince William Sound Community College in Valdez. Besides native crafts and artwork, the museum includes wildlife and scenes from life in the Alaskan wilderness.
The next stop was the Valdez Museum. This museum focused more on Valdez history. I think one of my favorite exhibits was about Alaska bush pilots. The museum had displays on Native Americans, early explorers and the gold rush, the building of the Richardson Highway, the Good Friday Earth Quake, the building of the pipeline, and the Exxon Valdez disaster.
After the museums, we headed out. We took a more leisurely pace than our arrival and stopped at some of the natural and manmade attractions and along the highway.
Next destination, Denali National Park – just a 350-mile drive away!