We were anchored in College Fjord at the north end of the Gulf of Alaska aboard our Beneteau First 38 Bagheera. "Let's set the alarm early for tomorrow morning," I suggested to Andy. He gazed in amazementthis was not my usual call. "I just heard the weather forecast and it promises to be a beautiful day," I continued. "Wouldn't it be great to see the sun rise over the mountains and glaciers?" With a rainfall of over 150 inches annually, and a surfeit in the fall, a fine day was a treasure, especially with the promise of new snow on the mountain peaks.
As we cruised up College Fjord we gazed at 16 of the glaciers, some vast, some smaller, all of which poured down the rocky mountains, surrounded by the debris and scree that was picked up or ground away centuries before. Captain Cook named Prince William Sound in 1778. College Fjord was christened by the American railway magnate Edward H. Harriman in 1899 and the glaciers were given names of the various universities and colleges that his accompanying scientists attended, including the spectacular Harvard Fjord at its head.
It is Columbia Fjord that has the center stage in Prince William Sound. Named by Harriman after New York's Columbia University, it is one of the most spectacular glaciers on the coast and is the second largest tidewater glacier in North America. Situated at the head of Columbia Baya fjord with depths over 2,000 feetthe glacier covers an amazing 440 square miles, is 40 miles long with a face three miles wide and 260 feet high. Floating ice made it impossible to get very close with the boat, but even at a distance the translucent blue face is so brilliant it seems to be lit from within. As we watchedrivetedseveral huge chunks of ice dropped, or "calved", in thunderous explosions as they broke off and fell into the ocean, sending up huge, geyser-like jets of water.
Half a million birds from 90 seabird colonies also take up residence here, including 5,000 bald eagles. We could see their huge nests high in the trees ashore. The forestsan autumn glory of golden willows and aspen with just a few small conifersare also home to wolves, red fox, black and brown bears, river otters, Sitka blacktail deer, and mink. Mountain goats and Dall sheep, the rams with heavy curled horns, are seen on the windswept ridges and in alpine meadows.
Cordova is a pretty fishing village on the east coast. Its winter population of 3,000 becomes inflated with fishermen, cannery workers, and tourists in the summer. The town's heyday was when Heney, the builder of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad between Whitehorse and Skagway, arrived in 1906 to build a railway to the Kennecott copper mines. On completion, Cordova became a boomtown from the copper ore that passed across its docks, but in 1938 strikes and declining prices forced the mine's closing. Whittier lies on the west side of the bay and was originally developed as a secret port for the military in World War II. Today it has a population of under 300.
Oil has made Valdez rich, although fishing is still important. Tourism also helps with the economythe surrounding area is attractive and referred to as Alaska's Switzerland. We certainly found the people most friendly on our visit, and the facilities more than adequate. On the docks, fisherman and pleasure boaters alike were welcoming and helpful. Most were power boaters, and there were few sailboats to be seen.
As with so many places one visits as a cruiser, our time in Prince William Sound was all too brief. But for us, it was the crowning glory of Alaska with its pristine, stunning scenery, fascinating history, intimate visits with wildlife, and friendly people.
Getting Therefrom Anchorage
Whittier is serviced by ferry, train, and road (completed July, 2000).
Valdez can be reached by air, road (with bus service) and ferry service (several times weekly) to Whittier and Cordova, weekly runs to Seward, Homer, and Kodiak, and once a month to Juneau. Taking the Alaska State Ferry is by far the cheapest way to view the Columbia Glacier.
Precipitation (about 150 inches per year) is abundant year round, but heaviest in September and October, with heavy snowfall in winter.
Raven Sailing Charters has a 50-foot crewed ketch for charter.Website www.alaska.net/~ravenchr/
Anadyr Adventures has sailing vessel support boats for kayaking tours to remote parts of Prince William Sound. www.alaska.net/~anadyr/index.htm
Kayaking and fishing are the major focus in this area. Because winds are frequently light in summer, even the most avid sailboaters may have to resort to power!View http://home/Alaska.net for comprehensive travel and boating information.