Landfall—Prince William Sound - SailNet Community
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Landfall—Prince William Sound

Not a common sight at a typical anchorage, one of 16 glaciers in the area makes its way to the sea.
The inhospitable gray seas and dauntingly, long, uninhabited stretches of Alaska's ocean coast make Prince William Sound an attractive alternative to an outside passage. The region rivals the Inside Passage farther south for spectacular vistas of lofty snow-clad mountains, steep-sided fjords, and abundant wildlife. Flanked by the Kenai Mountains to the west, and the Chugach Mountains to the east and north, Prince William Sound covers 15,000 square miles and has numerous inlets and islands, as well as Alaska's greatest concentration of tidewater glaciers, including 20 that are active.

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 amazement—this 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.

We were not disappointed. In this long inlet with continuous glaciers up the western shore, dawn was a spectacular sight. An iridescent glow from the new sun touched the mountain tops one by one. We stood mesmerized as the brilliant rays highlighted the peaks. Soon light was plunging down the vast masses of flowing ice, accenting the curved paths through the steep, dark terrain. Finally the new snow gleamed sparkling white while the fissured glacier faces became a vast, glistening, azure jewel.

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.

The Harriman expedition had cause for an additional celebration as they discovered a new fjord. The captain of their chartered steamship George W. Elder was using US Coastal Survey charts that showed that the navigable waters of Port Wells ended at Barry Glacier, in an inlet adjacent to College Fjord. To their surprise they discovered that a narrow passage had opened up when the ice wall retreated. Harriman took responsibility for all risk to the vessel and went on to discover the new Harriman Fjord.

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 Bay—a fjord with depths over 2,000 feet—the 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 watched—riveted—several 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.

Curious and playful, frolicking otters are a delight to watch.
The nutrient-rich water provides for abundant sea life including red snapper, salmon, halibut, clams, shrimp, and crab. Each summer, thousands of harbor seals and Dall porpoises frequent the area, along with humpback and killer whales. We were particularly pleased to be among sea otters. These animals are a delight to watch as they lie on their backs, with cheeky black eyes peering out of their whiskery faces, surveying the world, while human-like, they nibble clams or sea urchins from their paws. We saw pairs hugging each other as they rolled and somersaulted. Although once found between the Aleutian chain and California, sea otters were decimated by fur traders, until only 2,000 were left of the original 150,000. Since 1911 they have been protected, but are still only found in limited areas.

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 forests—an autumn glory of golden willows and aspen with just a few small conifers—are 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.

"On the docks fisherman and pleasure boaters alike were welcoming and helpful. Most were power boaters and there were few sailboats to be seen."
Although Captain Cook was met by Inuit when he arrived, there have never been many people in the area. Today there are three main communities—Cordova, Whittier and Valdez, all of which have small boat harbors. There are also several coves in which to anchor with docks convenient for stocking up. Dockage in Valdez costs 40 cents per foot daily, $5 per foot monthly).

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.

The small boat harbor at Valdez, the most northerly ice-free port in the western hemisphere.
Twenty five miles into the heart of Prince William Sound, east of the Columbia Glacier, lies Valdez—population under 4,000—the most northerly ice-free port in the western hemisphere. Named by a Spanish explorer in 1790, the town boomed at the end of the nineteenth century when thousands of gold seekers arrived in response to an advertised alternate route to the Klondike. Tragically, it was a suicidal path across two glaciers and hundreds perished. Eventually a better way was found and it was paved in the 1920s to become the Richardson Highway. In 1964, the Good Friday earthquake annihilated Valdez, but a new town was built on firmer ground four miles away, and in 1974 it was chosen to be the terminus for the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Oil has made Valdez rich, although fishing is still important. Tourism also helps with the economy—the 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.

While the scenery is stunning, warm clothing is a must.
On March 24, 1989, Prince William Sound became known to the world when the Exxon Valdez ran onto Bligh Reef. Currents quickly spread 11 million gallons of crude oil, causing the death of thousands of birds and mammals, particularly sea otters. Sea otters keep warm by having an insulating fur coat, rather than blubber. When covered with oil, they can no longer trap warm air next to the skin, and many otters died of hypothermia. Fortunately most of the shoreline of Prince William Sound was untouched, and although the pink salmon stocks may be affected for years to come, other wildlife is in abundance.

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 There—from Anchorage

Cordova can be reached by air or by the Alaska State Ferry (Alaska Marine Highway) See http// for routes, timetables, and prices.

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.

ClimateThe prevailing winds from May to September are southwesterly, October to April, northeasterly, although local winds may be totally different, such as northerly winds in summer in Columbia Bay. Although there is the occasional blow, summer winds tend to be 10 knots or less. In winter a high pressure in the interior and low pressure in the gulf can cause winds of up to 100 mph to flow out of the passes and river canyons.

Precipitation (about 150 inches per year) is abundant year round, but heaviest in September and October, with heavy snowfall in winter.

Sailboat Charters
Alaskan Wilderness Sailing from Growler Island Camp offers a 40-foot skippered sloop and daysailer as well as Windrider trimarans. Website

Raven Sailing Charters has a 50-foot crewed ketch for charter.Website

Anadyr Adventures has sailing vessel support boats for kayaking tours to remote parts of Prince William Sound.

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/ for comprehensive travel and boating information.


Liza Copeland is offline  
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