One thing I won’t let get passed me from this past weekend is a little info about a town I have been Bear Feeding about for a while. Valdez. This jewel on Prince William Sound is in some ways the iconic Alaska Seaside town, some ways the extreme Alaskan Seaside town, and someways the most tragic Alaskan Seaside town. It is a piece of Alaskan Paradise whose tax is sometimes felt more grimly than financially.
Valdez’s ice-free port – the furthest north ice-free port in North America – pours into the Pacific Ocean on the American side of the Kenai. This makes it a perfect hub for cargo, and is a big reason the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline terminates there where tankers refill North Slope Crude Oil for refining in the Lower 48. During the summer, it is a fisherman’s wonderland. Commercial fishermen can pull massive amount of halibut, salmon, and cod from the waters only a day’s ride out from port; while sports fisherman can bag their limits while not even leaving the bay for open waters.
It’s surrounded by the Chugach Mountains, the same mountain range that butts up to East Anchorage. Much of the topography was carved during the last ice age as massive glaciers cut valleys to the peaks that still tower thousands of feet high above the city on either side. You are literally surrounded by these green and snow covered peaks that funnel cool ocean winds through the bay. Any gap in the mountains is filled by a glacial fed stream, a waterfall, or even if you go in deep enough large snow covered glaciers.
Valdez is also quite isolated, connected only by a single roadway through a narrow waterfall filled canyon and up over Thompson Pass at 3,000 feet in a route that can be many times blocked either by snow, fog, avalanche, or wandering moose.That being said, the drive up to, over, and down Thompson Pass is up there with the great drives in the world. You never get long enough to enjoy a glacier, a waterfall, a high mountain field, a cold water lake, or a sharp edged valley long enough until the next one comes into view to amaze you even further.
Yet with all the beauty and amazement that this town can offer, every bit of its history is filled with tragedy or hardship.
If you remember the Damalanche (see this link) from January, it blocked that section of road with over 50 feet of snow and dammed up a river so almost a half mile of road was under water. We could still see road damage, and what’s left of the damalanch from our drive through. As difficult it made the winter in Valdez, this is closer to the norm that the exception. Valdez is snowiest city in North America. The average snowfall is 500-600 inches a year. To put that in perspective, that is the annual snowfall for Vail, Jackson Hole, and Tahoe – combined. It is in first place in North America, and has 2nd Place beat half a season. We were there on May 24th and there was a two story snow pile in a parking lot — and this wasn’t new snow, this is what was still left from melting. This is what “Average” hardship is in Valdez.
What isn’t average is what happened on March 24, 1989. Leaving the pipeline terminal, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground just 25 miles from town. It left most of the Sound saturated with over 11 million barrels of crude and killing countless marine life. The city was the epicenter of the clean-up that lasted years and cost billions. The area is mostly recovered, but throughout the city you can see remnants of anger. hostility, and dissatisfaction over the disaster. While that was devastating, it wasn’t the worst that Valdez had to face.
The 1964 Great Alaskan Earthquake not only shook Anchorage and tore up a large swath of the city, it nearly wiped out all of Valdez. In fact, it did to some extent. Valdez was first built as the main jumping off point to an “all-American route to the Yukon”. At the time, the best way to get to gold fields was to cross over the Valdez glacier, and the closest place to put a dock & a city was where the glacier’s Valdez River empties out. These areas, however, are very unstable as the bedrock is covered by gravel and silt. Just before the Earthquake, the SS Chena supply ship docked and began unloading goods. Since the ship’s cook was known for throwing candy out to the kids who came dockside, it was filled with knowledgeable little ones as well as parents and young adults more than happy to get some free candy themselves. When the earthquake happened, the land under the docks slid out into the bay like a mudslide down a hill. The dock simply washed away and was chewed up in the sinking gravel. While there were over a thousand residents in town at the time of the earthquake, no one in town was killed – however, all 32 people who were on the dock was killed, most of which were never found. The devastation by the land liquification was so great the city was all but condemned. Rather than give up, Valdez moved. An area on hard bedrock six miles away, but still on the bay, became the new town site. The town lives on, but is in every way possible, not the same.
If there really is a paradise tax, then Valdez has payed it, many times over. Though the real beauty of this town is one that suggests hardship will come again. Though it’s pretty clear that a city like can almost be worth the hardship. Few places in Alaska can be as beautiful, as peaceful, or as stunning as Valdez is. That’s what makes being here worth it.