North to Alaska

It’s five a.m. and I’m in Valdez, a small fishing town and the southern terminus of the Alaska Pipeline. When I walked outside before disappearing into the stuffy one-room business center to complete my weekly column I could see three hanging glaciers around the head of the Valdez Arm. It took us a full day to get here– two hours by car from Seward, and six hours on a slow ferry from Whittier, a town at the end of a 2-mile tunnel through high ragged mountains. We worried we would hate Valdez. An oil terminal, though an important part of Alaska’s story, was not something we wanted to explore. We were looking for another part of the story: Alaska’s legendary wildness. Betsy wanted to see a wild moose. I wanted to feel, as the painter Rockwell Kent once did, at the top of the world and miles from nowhere.

I’m here to report that Valdez is beautiful and it’s wild. By road it takes eight hours to get back to civilization, but most people who end up here don’t care. They grill halibut steaks next to their RVs and look up at the mountains.

This morning commercial boats are heading out to fish for salmon. Even though the oil is pouring down the pipeline 800 miles from the North Slope, Valdez somehow still retains its hold on wildness. Everywhere I look there are ribbons of water pouring hundreds of feet off the melting glaciers. This is what the Ice Age must have felt like, an Ice Age with oil leaving on tankers. In Valdez you’re surrounded by 15,000 square miles of mountains and water. There are 50 million acres of national forest land.

Yesterday we took a cruise on a small boat to Columbia Glacier, a tide-water glacier one ridge over calving millions of pounds of ice, and two humpback whales surfaced ten feet from us, exhaled, and disappeared into the sound. The captain kept pushing the boat forward, working through a half-mile of icebergs all the way to the glacier’s terminal moraine. On one tall spire of blue glacial ice two bald eagles kept watch over the boat. The melting blue ice popped and hissed as trapped gasses released into the atmosphere for the first time in thousands of years.

On the way back to the harbor the captain took us past Bligh Reef where the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989 spilling millions of gallons of Alaska crude in pristine Prince William Sound. It was an important part of the story for me, an environmentalist with a weakness for apocalypse. It was good for me to see that now, almost 20 years later, the site of the worst oil spill in history is recovering.

I’ll have to admit this is not what I expected. Last spring every time Betsy would look at our itinerary for our Alaska trip she’d call it “Into the Holiday Inn.” Of course she was making a funny reference to “Into the Wild,” the best-selling story of Alaska adventure and tragedy soon to be made into a Sean Penn movie. In that story a young romantic leaves the lower 48 in search of wildness only to end up dead in an abandoned bus in the Alaska back country. It looked like our trip would be the opposite. We would instead take advantage of Alaska’s well-oiled tourist machine. We would hitch our adventure to the easy tug of industrial tourism. We would follow the tourist routes to Denali and the Kenai Peninsula, staying in motels along the way. It would be a vacation of planes, buses, and rental cars.

I did not factor in Valdez and the hanging waterfalls, the humpback whales, or the glacial ice chorus. Yesterday I realized I had underestimated Alaska’s potential for surprise as the boat pushed closer and closer to Columbia Glacier. I didn’t expect to be moved so deeply by this isolated landscape of mountains and glaciers.

In a few hours we’ll take a fast ferry back to Whittier. We’ll drive tonight to Homer to spend our last two nights. We’ll only be four hours from the airport there. Betsy might still see her moose. They say there’s a big bull moose hanging around the Fed Ex building back in Anchorage and we might need to swing by there before we catch our plane.

In the Carolinas the landscape we love is one of unraveled ends. The soil is shot. Species are gone. The water in our streams is impaired. The timber is second, third, even fourth-growth. The whole country was Alaska once, and we’re lucky the whole cloth is still out here. It took a trip to Valdez to realize it.

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