North America

Valdez to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Friday, August 13, 2004 –

Friday morning we woke up and walked around Valdez. We visited the earthquake museum, which was really interesting. It told the story of how the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake changed the city. A huge underwater landslide caused a section of the city’s shoreline to break off and sink into the sea. The landslide created a 30-foot tall tsunami that traveled down Valdez Bay killing 32 women and children on a dock that collapsed. They were watching the unloading of the SS Chena supply ship and were swept away.

The harbor in Valdez

The harbor in Valdez

Nearby we watched salmon navigate a salmon ladder near a salmon farm. We were amazed at how agile they were!

Our visit was not complete without looking at the oil terminal, the terminus of the 800-mile Trans-Alaska pipeline, completed in 1977. Along the journey south from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope of Alaska, 11 pump stations pump crude oil through a 48-inches pipeline.

The pipeline has helped reduce America’s dependency on overseas oil, and became fast tracked after the oil shocks of the 1970s. It also has brought tremendous wealth to Alaska. In addition to revenue to the state, a Permanent Fund Dividend is paid to Alaska residents that have lived within the state for a full calendar year. In 2002, residents each received more than $1,500.

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Chitina Burger Bar

However, crude oil has also brought problems. In 1989, one of the most infamous oil spills occurred when the Exxon Valdez was leaving the terminal at Valdez. This ship hit Bligh Reef, about 25 south of Valdez. The spill was the worst in history and devastated much of the marine life in Prince William Sound. Today, they even sell souvenir oil from in small glass bottles to help pay for additional cleanup.

After leaving Valdez, we headed north on Highway 4 before later taking Highway 10 to Chitina. We stopped for lunch at the Chitina Burger Bar, a silver bus acting as a food truck. We had bison burgers. Then we went in the nearby Wrangell-St. Elias National Park visitor center to learn about the park and watch a film about it.

With more than 13 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the largest United States National Park and one many Americans have never heard of. It has no trails and the only way to arrive there diving is by the mostly gravel McCarthy Road from Chitina to McCarthy, and then taking a bus or walking 5 miles to Kennicott – an old copper mining town. Several peaks in Wrangel-St. Elias are volcanic including the massive shield volcano, Mount Wrangell, which is 12,000 feet tall. Mt. Saint Elias at 18,008 feet, is the second highest mountain in both Canada and the United States. It is only 25 miles from Mount Logan, the highest mountain in Canada, which is in Canada’s Kluane National Park.

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We decided to drive part of the gravel road toward McCarthy. The road used to be the rail bed of the old Copper River and Northwestern Railway. At mile 17, we crossed the 525 foot long Kuskulana Bridge, which rises 238 feet above the Kuskulana River at mile 17. Dad, Jeff and I decided to walk the catwalk underneath. Jeff is a little scared of heights, so I think it freaked him out a little. It was very neat experience, but not for the faint of heart. Below the Copper River roared through the Copper River Canyon – home of some of the best salmon in the world.

We decided not to drive all the way to McCarthy, so we turned around. The road eventually would eventually have taken us to Kennecott with its abandoned copper mines – once the wealthiest in the world. But we did see bears on the way back. They ran right out in front of our car!

Walking the catwalk

Walking the catwalk of the Kuskulana Bridge

When we made it back to Highway 10, we drove back to Highway 4 and headed north until we reached Highway 1. We took Highway 1 north to Tok, where we turned on to Highway 2. If you headed east, you would arrive in the Yukon Territory of Canada. We headed west towards Fairbanks. We passed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline several times on our journey and stopped once for photos besides it. We stopped at a diner for supper in Delta Junction, the midpoint between the turnoff and Fairbanks. Then we hit the road again, passing Eielson Air Force Base outside of North Pole, Alaska. I could help but think of Mission Impossible when the CIA head Kidrich tells an officer he wants the guy at Langley responsible for losing the NOC list to be sent to Alaska manning a radar base by the end of the day … ship him his clothes. Haha!

That evening we arrived late in Fairbanks and checked into our hotel downtown.

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