Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The pinnacle and the pipeline

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

VALDEZ, ALASKA — Our site number at the Eagle’s Rest RV Campground is number 701, which may give you an idea of the size of this place. There are literally hundreds of RVs here, and in our little jaunt around town we saw two or three other RV parks with equally large numbers! I wouldn’t be surprised if this town of 4,500 was hosting a thousand RVs tonight.
What is drawing all these tourists? A glance outside will tell you: the town is surrounded by steep, snow-capped mountain peaks on three sides, and the beautiful Prince William Sound, where great ships glide in and out and whales frolic, on the south side. Valdez is called Alaska’s little Switzerland, but it’s also the delivery end of the Alaska pipeline, a haven for fishing of salmon and halibut and a mecca for extreme sports enthusiasts.
But getting here, as the expression goes, is half the fun. We had a wonderful drive south today from Glennallen on the scenic Richardson Highway, passing alongside sheer rock faces, over rushing streams and rivers turned milky grey by glacial melting, and through the Thompson Pass where the mighty Worthington Glacier thrusts its blue-green icy fingers down the mountainside. More than once we pulled over to snap pictures that were so perfect, you’d think you were standing in a post card.
Most of the journey was through territory where only the bears and moose live; there were very few habitations. I was thinking about those creatures when we stopped to have a look at the Alaska pipeline. Our Mileposts guide indicated where to do this; otherwise we would have missed it completely. There was a nice gravel turnout, and an opening in the fencing where people could go in to read the interpretive sign and walk right up to the huge structure. To our right and our left, this enormous metal tube snaked out of sight, about 20 feet off the ground, held up by huge H-shaped supports. The vertical bars of the H are thermally designed to prevent the permafrost from melting and causing unevenness. The cross bars give room for the pipes to move laterally in case of seismic movement. Built in 1973, the pipes are about four feet in diameter and half an inch thick, and millions of gallons of oil flow through them from far-off Prudhoe Bay every day! It was an impressive sight.
It was cloudy today, and sometimes rainy, so there are some mountain tops we hope to see more clearly on the way back (the road in to Valdez is also the road out). We actually were driving in the clouds as we came through the pass, watching wisps of them floating by and nestling into the clefts of the rocks. The sky cleared enough for us to get a good look at Mount Billy Mitchell, named after a U.S. lieutenant who worked on building the trans-Alaska telegraph line in 1903.
We stopped at the viewing site for the Worthington Glacier and were able to look at it closely through telescopes. We saw people on the glacier when we looked through — a man at the base of a huge blue-green crack in the glacier and, high above him wearing crampons and aided by ropes and a pick, a woman who had just about made it to the top! Seeing them on the glacier allowed us to take in its size; they were completely dwarfed by the huge tongue of ice and snow.
One of the interpretive signs described a life form we never really believed existed: there actually ARE such things as ice worms! Robert Service wasn’t weaving tall tales in his iceworm poem after all — or at least not about the creatures themselves. There were actual microscopic photos of the little critters.
The highway followed the Tiekel River down the mountain through the awesome Keystone Canyon, where rock faces soared up at steep angles from the roadbed on either side. The river flows on to the town of Valdez, and before we got to the official town we passed the site of the old town that was wiped out by the earthquake and tsunami of 1964. It measured 9.2 on the Richter scale, and the tremors were felt as far away as California and South America. The epicentre was 45 miles west of here. Valdez is also known for the huge oil spill of the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Strangely, both disasters took place on a Good Friday. The quake killed 131 in all; the oil spill, unnumbered birds and sea creatures along many coastlines, although the port of Valdez itself was not affected.
We actually got to see footage of the pipeline construction and the earthquake at the Sugar and Spice shop, where some enterprising merchants have set up chairs in front of a TV with free continuous screenings of both films amid the racks of T-shirts and trinkets! Our price of admission included a cosy sweatshirt and T-shirt emblazoned with "Alaska" that Val picked up!

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