Sunday, September 25, 2011

Prince William Sound

I’m not sure which Prince William it was but definitely not this one – apparently he was better known as “silly willy”. I’m sure Kate would never refer to this one as such.
Enough of that. We have spent the last few days sailing the Prince William Sound and exploring its inlets; seeing the glaciers and watching for wildlife and it provided a very appropriate finale to the Alaska portion of our cruise.

There were a couple of things that really stood out for me. The first is how fragile and potentially transient this beauty can be. It was in the Prince William Sound that the Exxon Valdez went aground spilling thousands of gallons of oil and despoiling all around it and beyond – when you are here you can see what a shame that was. Look at a glacier and you see soil and rock in its base – its hundreds of years old – and still impacts the valley it is on today. The locals talk about “Jesus Ice” – it’s the ice from a newly calved glacier – transparent from a lack of air; it melts differently than regular ice (more slowly) and came from snow that originally fell on these mountains a thousand plus years ago. Makes it a bit more clear to me what ‘paying for the sins of the fathers’ means – at least in this context. To the adventurous among you – a bucket list suggestion – a trip to Alaska but not necessarily as we have done it but maybe in stages with stops – like Sea Kayaking in this area.

As we sailed – both in the cruise ship in Friday and yesterday in a high speed catamaran – we heard about and saw the indigenous critters. The one I am / was most enamored with is the sea otter. It is part of the weasel family and grows to about 5 foot long weighing 90 pounds. The reason I loooove sea otters is that they are so cute. You see them lying on the surface of the ocean on their backs while they eat sea urchins and other morsels they find tasty. They have very little body fat (blubber) so to maintain body temperature they have to eat constantly for the calories they burn. Their fur is apparently the softest – more hairs per square inch. When this area was explored and the wildlife observed, the sea otter attracted attention because of this fur. Its impact was immediate. Sea otter fur became prized – especially by the Russian fur trade. So much so that they hunted them to virtual extinction. Which made it unprofitable for them to come here and hunt the little suckers. At the same time the Crimean War had bled their coffers dry. So the Russians looked at Alaska as a loss leader and offered it up for sale. The US (reluctantly apparently – it was known as Sewards Folly) bought it for some ridiculous sum of money ($7 million, I think). The cute sea otter was the beneficiary – a ban on its hunting (except by native Alaskans) was enacted and their population has rebounded in these waters. There’s a moral in there  somewhere.

We explored two Fjords – College Fjord from the cruise ship on Friday then Harriman Fjord on my catamaran excursion on Saturday. Edward Harriman – an American Railroad money man financed a scientific expedition that included experts in all the relevant scientific area – botanists, zoologists, geologists (and his entire family) were along for the trip. They did good work and clearly had fun. In College Fjord for example the team named each glacier – on the Northwest side after womens colleges – Holyoke, Barnard, Wellesley, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Smith; on the Southwest side after mens colleges of the time – Amherst, Williams, Dartmouth, Yale. Harvard is the biggest, at the end of the fjord (and the only one still expanding – the irony) and sadly there was none I had any allegiance to – no South African College! No Chicago. No Cincinnati. No Stony Brook. aaah well.

We did see the Harvard Glacier calving though – three times and the sound and waves created were very impressive.
Yesterday in the catamaran we navigated the entire sound ending up at the Harriman Glacier

but sadly our trip was cut short by a passenger experiencing a medical emergency and requiring our immediate return to the ship to Whittier.

We docked in Whittier yesterday at the end of the Alaska leg of our cruise – 700 passengers got off and were replaced by those going on to Beijing or beyond.
Whittier turns out to be a little place – population 180 (all of whom live in one building – a relic of the military accomodations here).
Most people from the cruise went on an excursion locally or took the ride (2 hours) to Anchorage. Whittier itself had little to offer. 

The Taxidermist apparently does unspeakable things to bears. 

A tunnel provides a way to get from point “a” to “b”.

The (few) dockhands to see us off gave us a fireworks display from the terminal as we sailed off towards Northern Japan; which was a wonderful, spontaneous, unexpected and joyous farewell – words that could well describe the Alaska experience


  1. Are you kidding me with these pix?!?! I'm loving them. Sadly, I have not caught up on your written tales but hope to do so. Been busy planning for my trip to Italia with your lovely daughter, in case you hadn't heard :) Sail on

  2. Can you give us hint what they do to the bears .. inquiring minds want to know