Following the Pipeline to Valdez


After my amazing experiences at Denali National Park, I had to decide where to go next. I checked the weather forecast for a few areas of the state and saw that they were calling for a rare sunny day in Valdez on Tuesday. It being Saturday, I knew there was a good chance that the forecast would change but figured it was as good a plan as any. Since I had a few days to get down there, I decided to go up to Fairbanks for a couple of nights and then drive down the Richardson Highway to Valdez.

The first thing that surprised me (I'm not sure why) was that the drive from Denali to Fairbanks was as hilly and pretty as it was. It's funny how we all get preconceptions about things - sometimes we have no idea how we even got them. I stopped at a pull out along the Parks Highway to take a picture of a vista that seemed to go on forever. When I was walking back to my van, an older couple in a pickup truck pulled along side of me and asked what part of Wisconsin I was from. Because of my hearing impairment, it makes it hard for me to hear/figure out what someone is saying when there is no context and, because I forget that I am driving a van with Wisconsin plates on it, it took me a couple of times of them repeating their question before I got it. They have lived in Fairbanks for 50 years but were born in Ladysmith, Wisconsin. Apparently, they visited Alaska when they were in their early 20's and never left. 

Fairbanks seems like a nice city from what little I saw of it - the campus of the University of Alaska is really impressive and I understand there is a great museum there. I hope to go back through the city in a week or so and plan to visit the museum then. I spent two nights at a Walmart parking lot using the time to work on the blog at a local Starbucks. The nickname of Fairbanks is The Golden Heart City and, from the few people I met, I can see why.

On Monday morning I set out on a long driving day. I left Fairbanks heading east and passed North Pole (I didn't feel particularly compelled to stop), Eielson Air Force Base and Salcha. The highway roughly follows the Tanana River at this point and my phone was giving me weather alerts that a lot of rain was predicted to fall that night, causing flooding of the river.

At Delta Junction, the highway either continues as Highway 2 and becomes the Alaska Highway or goes south as Highway 4 and stays the Richardson. Delta Junction is the official terminus of the Alaska Highway and many people who drive the highway take pictures of themselves under a big sign there that states it is mile 1422 and the end of the highway. You can take a picture by the start of the highway in Dawson Creek, BC which is mile 0.

South of Delta Junction the topography becomes decidedly more hilly as the Alaska Range looms in the distance. The road gains elevation and, at this time of year, you can see fall beginning to make an appearance. Also at this part of the road is where you can start to see evidence of the Alyeska or Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The pipeline stretches some 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez with 420 miles of the pipe elevated due to permafrost. Construction started in 1974 (6 years after oil was discovered in the North Slope) and it took over 3 years to complete. Even when the pipeline is not visible, its presence is still seen with oil tankers driving in both directions. It was and continues to be controversial but there is no denying that it has had a huge positive impact on Alaska's finances. 

After you cross the Alaska Range you descend into the Copper River Valley. There is much native history in this area - some of which I told about in my blog post about Wrangell-St. Elias. I had been driving a good part of the day so I decided to stop at a highway pull out for the night. I stopped about 20 miles north of Thompson Pass because I wanted to drive that beautiful stretch of road in the morning so I could really appreciate the views.

I had a rather restless night... I think it was because I was worried about being kind of exposed right alongside the road. I had boondocked at other times during this trip, and it is totally legal in Alaska to do it, but this was my first time doing it on a busy-ish highway. Of course, everything was fine but, since I was up early, I got on the road. Approaching the Chugach Mountains in the early morning light was awe-inspiring. As I ascended toward Worthington Glacier, I was weaving in and out of low clouds and the view was ever-changing. When the glacier came into view, it appeared as if it was going to reach right out to the highway. As I got closer, I could see that it really does almost come right to the road. It is one of the most accessible glaciers in Alaska and a favorite hiking area for locals.

Thompson Pass was stunning but was marred a bit by road construction. At least while following a pilot car, I was going slow and could appreciate the view a little more. Coming down from the pass leads you immediately into Keystone Canyon where the mountain walls drop right down on either side of the road and a rushing stream and waterfalls make it almost unbelievably scenic. I stopped several times and looked on in awe but was woefully inadequate in capturing it for others to see.

I got close to Valdez (pronounced Val-deez) and saw a road coming up on my GPS (Dayville Rd.) that reminded me that a woman I had talked with in Glennallen said to go down that road to see salmon and possibly bears. So I turned and followed it along the bay to see what she was talking about. I came across Solomon Gulch Hatchery - operated by Valdez Fisheries Development Association. When I saw all of the salmon (thousands!) I figured this is what she was talking about.

I discovered that this facility is the largest of its kind in Prince William Sound. The hatchery is permitted to incubate 230 million Pink Salmon eggs and 2 million Coho salmon eggs annually. Each year starting in mid-June, the Solomon Gulch Hatchery awaits the return of it’s Pink salmon. 

It was fascinating to watch the salmon frantically swimming upstream, through fish ladders and just bunching up at the mouth of the stream. With this many fish, other critters are not far behind. Hundreds of gulls patrol the area as do sea lions, eagles, sea otters and, of course, bears. I was so enthralled with this place that I came back later in the day, hoping to spot a bear. After those two visits, I was lucky to see eagles and sea lions in addition to all of the gulls and fish.

Further down Dayville Road is the end of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Oil from the pipeline is first stored, then loaded aboard tankers at the terminal in Valdez. Many will remember the infamous and tragic oil spill that occurred in these pristine waters. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker owned by Exxon Shipping Company, struck Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef and spilled almost 11 million gallons of crude oil over several days making it one of the most devastating human caused environmental disasters in history.

Before heading out of town, I drove through the area where the town of Valdez used to be - before the earthquake of 1964. The earthquake led to a massive underwater landslide, which caused a section of the city's shoreline to break off and sink into the sea. It was decided to rebuild on more stable ground about 4 miles away and 54 undamaged buildings were moved to the new site. The rest of the buildings were dismantled but signs indicate what was where so you can get a feel for what the old town was like.

I am going to boondock along the highway again in order to get a head start on my travels to McCarthy and Kennicott in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park tomorrow. I think I will sleep better tonight :)