Prince Willam Sound
Prime-time paddling among the glaciers
We glide into the morning stillness, our sea kayaks pointing toward the turquoise facade of Barry Glacier. Every few minutes, another chunk topples from its splintered wall into the cold waters of Harriman Fjord, the swells rolling outward to lift our boats. Nine thousand feet above, Chugach summits, shining with fresh snow, clash against an ink-blue sky. I’ve come to Prince William on a whim, and as I sit watching the struggle between sea, ice, and sky, I am awed that anyplace this magnificent could be so easy to reach.
Wrinkled into endless bays and fjords, Prince William encompasses 4,400 miles of shoreline. Its waters teem with seals and sea otters, hundreds of resident orcas and migrating humpback whales, and more than 20 tidewater glaciers. In July and August, five species of salmon return to the Sound’s 1,000-plus spawning streams, providing meals for eagles, otters, seals, and bears. Yet Prince William is only an hour drive or 2-hour train ride from Anchorage. Think about it: You could be on the water tomorrow.
This trip could be your best introduction to the water, ice, and wildlife of Prince William Sound. From Whittier, paddle 9 miles to a beach camp at Decision Point (boat shuttles available). From there, steer southward into the Bay. Paddle to the trio of glaciers at its head, or dry your butt on a hike to the toe of Tabenkoff Glacier, where the receding ice offers a chance to see the succession of returning vegetation. Midbay, Willard Island offers fine camping and a summit hike. If tides allow, paddle back to the mouth of Johnstone, then head southeast on the 3-mile crossing to Blackstone Point. From there, you can hug the shore around Point Cochrane into the inlet of Surprise Cove State Marine Park and the fjord of Cochrane Bay.
Drive time: 1 hour
Trip time: 4 days
Paddle And Hike
John Muir and the Harriman Expedition discovered these waters in 1911, when they sailed through a treacherous gap between the Barry Glacier tongue and Point Doran. Retreating ice has long since widened the gauntlet, opening one of the most staggeringly impressive spots in Prince William. Only 30 miles from Whittier, Harriman’s waters harbor five tidewater glaciers. You can take boat shuttles to Packenham Point or paddle from town (adding 4 days to your round-trip). Most paddlers stick to the eastern fjord near Barry and Surprise Glaciers, but the western arm offers more solitude and hiking.
Drive time: 1 hour
Trip time: 4 to 8 days
Columbia Glacier from Valdez
Thirty miles west of the pipeline town of Valdez, the largest of Prince William’s tidewater glaciers dumps nearly 100 feet of itself into the ocean every day, forming a wonderland of icebergs for kayakers to navigate. Campsites are few but fine on the 35-mile paddle from town to sheltered, tranquil Emerald Cove, just beyond Elf Point. Try those at mile 12 and 17, and consider staying awhile. You’ll find, besides the glacier, spectacular hiking and camping through the forests of Heather Island and near the mouth of Number One River. Valdez is easiest to reach driving from Anchorage, or take the Alaska Marine Highway ferry from Whittier.
Drive time: 6 hours
Trip time: 4 plus days
Nellie Juan Fjord
The granite domes surrounding Nellie Juan have earned it the local nickname “Little Yosemite.” The fjord’s mouth is a solid 2- to 3-day paddle from Whittier. Or you can shuttle to the northern end of Culross Passage for a more sheltered approach. Inside Nellie Juan, Deep Water Bay offers white sand beaches, while Kings Bay has amazing wildlife. For some of the Sound’s best hiking, try the short trek from Blue Fjord to Ultramarine Glacier, or from Derickson Spit to the face of Nellie Juan Glacier. In the late 1800s, the Derickson Glacier reached the spit; now you can see where vegetation has returned to the scoured landscape.
Drive time: 1 hour
Trip time: 2 to 6 days
ONE WEIRD TOWN
Alaskans are well acquainted with hardship–harsh winters, long months of darkness. But even the toughest want nothing to do with Whittier, a decrepit burg on the edge of Prince William Sound.
The town barely existed before World War II, when the Army decided the imposing mountains and truly atrocious weather (the town’s motto: “It’s always shittier in Whittier”) made the site immune to enemy bombing. So the Army built two huge barracks with tunnels that could withstand 20-foot snows and 60 mph gales. Today, 80 percent of Whittier’s 300 residents live in Begich Towers, which also houses a Baptist church, video store, post office, and tanning salon. The larger Buckner Building sits in tatters, occupied by only a few black bears on the ground floor.
Yet for all this, Whittier is a place worth visiting, because it lies in the middle of Earth’s finest country. Glacier-clad peaks rear just overhead. Orcas roll through the Passage Canal in front of town. A beat-up car, an old boat, and a good rainsuit would put a lifetime of adventure at your fingertips. If only black bears made better neighbors.