Today we drove through a patchwork of Alaska history, down the Richardson Highway to Prince William Sound. Here and there along the road we could see the Copper Center Roadhouse signs of habitation -- cabin roof, workshop, collection of stuff -- clustered along this main travel route. Through one stretch we noticed paired mailboxes, one on each side of the road. It didn't make sense to us. Are they placed for mail carriers who sometimes travel one way, sometimes the other?
Leaving Juneau to the hard-rock miners, the desperate gold-seekers of 1898 had two choices: into the Yukon through Haines or Skagway, or into Alaska through Valdez. Before entering the Yukon, the Mounties required the prospector to purchase one year's worth of supplies -- a sizeable investment. The route through Valdez to the Copper River basin became the "all-American" route, because one didn't run the risk of being refused permission to cross the border by the Canadian Mounties. While most of the prospectors did in fact pack in a year's supplies, others hoped to live off the land and took their chances, sometimes dying along the route.
The prospectors formed a long line heading North from Valdez, up over the glacier and the mountains at a dreadfully slow rate, desperately grasping at a chance to find the pot of gold. They created a path by the sheer repetition of stomping booted feet. That trail grew to be what is now known as the Richardson Highway, Alaska's oldest road.
In 1903 the Signal Corps created Western Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS), a telegraph line connecting Army posts in Alaska Territory with the U.S. This was the first assignment for young Lieutenant Billy Mitchell, who went on to breathe life into military aviation. Trumpeter swans
Some of the early cabins and roadhouses along the Richardson Highway are still standing, duly designated by the National Register of Historic Places. The settlement of Copper Center is a bit of a journey into the past to see these log buildings. But even the copper mines have closed, and the towns rely on tourism and the stubbornness of families who remain on the land.
The trumpeter swans are finishing their migration, ending up in the nesting areas of central and northern Alaska. Today we saw flocks of swans on four or five different ponds. When they fly their necks seem to stretch out longer than the rest of their bodies!
As we neared the shore we ran into more eagles, perched in trees. But in Valdez, where we spent the night, there were crowds of birds behind the supermarket -- no doubt they were disposing of food that was past its date to sell. The eagles and gulls and ravens vied for brazenness and gluttony; it seemed like a dead heat. We did thrill at the sight of one eagle forcing another to drop its meat, and the second swooping down to catch the food in mid-air!
The highway department is taking advantage of the short spring season to do road work, and throughout the day we slowed for crews patching and clearing the banks with giant brush-eaters. At one point the shovel had dug out almost the entire road, leaving us a narrow ridge to drive over. A new culvert will be Alaska pipeline 'sleds' installed to try to prevent a future washout.
One pullout gave us a chance to study the Alaska Pipeline. Built by a joint venture, Alyeska, the pipeline spans 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay south to the oil docks at Valdez. Where there is permafrost the pipeline is aboveground, with elaborately finned heat sinks to dissipate the heat to the air and prevent the permafrost from thawing.
They pump 30 barrels a second through the pipeline, nearly four feet in diameter. While aboveground the pipe is anchored at 1600-foot intervals; in between it rests on support bars mounted at 60-foot intervals, sliding left or right to expand or contract and avoid breaking -- a nifty piece of engineering.
Valdez is nestled in the Chugach Mountains, which run right down to the coast. It's called the Switzerland of America, and with good reason. The Mountains are steep and rocky, with alpine summer vegetation (which we didn't see.) Instead we snaked through the mountains over Thompson Pass, past steep Richardson Highway mountain faces absolutely covered with snow.
Entire vistas shone blindingly white in the bright sun. Evidences of snowslides were everywhere, but nevertheless we saw some skiers, and even a sign for helicopter ski tours. As if to prove the point, there were two or three sets of ski tracks down one slope, curving back and forth in crossing S-curves. Since there was no lift in sight, and no herringbone marks of climbing skiers, we assumed the helicopter had been at work. There were even some "snow machines" which is what the Alaskans call snowmobiles. (The purists prefer dog sleds for cross-country travel in winter. They claim the machines upset the ecology, and the dogs don't. We feel that Alaska has so much wilderness and so few people that the wilderness surely is holding its own. You might make a case for returning the country to the native peoples and the bears, but you could equally well argue that the native peoples and the bears already own Alaska! We'll report further as we continue our travels and our reading.)
Besides being a port of entry for miners and the pipeline terminus, Valdez (pop. 5000) is a fishing port. This is not the season, so the boats were tied up in harbor, fitting out and making repairs. The boatyard was busy. Across the harbor we could see the supertanker terminal, while the ferry boats Lifeboat tie up on the town side. There is a small Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment. There are also plenty of pleasure boats in the marina, and one slip reserved exclusively for kayaks.
There's a fine municipal museum in Valdez, open year round. Its exhibits document the major events in Valdez history: the gold rush, WAMCATS, the building of the Richardson Highway, fishing, the 1964 9.2 Alaska earthquake, which killed 32 people in Valdez when the wharf collapsed, the rescue of all persons from the burning Prinzendam cruise shop, the building of the pipeline and oil terminal, and, most recently, the grounding of the Exxon Valdez followed by the despoiling of Prince William Sound. Twelve years after the oil spill most of the wildlife has recovered, but some species have virtually vanished from the region.
While we contemplated the marvelous feats of engineering in and around Valdez over the decades, often carried out by people with no formal training, all the lights in town went off. Fortunately it stays light late at night so we could read, and in an hour or so the lights came back on.