Gone Floatabout

Sailing, Photography, Wilderness

Critter encounters on our temporary release from Whittier



Whittier seen through a rare break in the rain…

We had arrived in Whittier, one of the strangest and wettest places I’ve ever been, on August 7 meaning to wait out a storm and do chores.  Among those chores was renewing our Swiss residency permits pending our return to work in the fall.  It’s not an involved process, but we had to mail some forms to our cantonal (state) office.  So we swung by the Whittier post office.  They don’t sell stamps.  But you’re a post office!  How can you not sell stamps!  The paid employee, who for no apparent expense to the US Government could have sold us postage if she’d had any, informed us that the Postal Service was cutting down on expenses by no longer selling stamps at marginal offices like Whittier. (?!?)  We could buy a stamp online.  Predictably, the US Postal Service website didn’t function—all 20 different times we tried.  So we had to rent a car and drive to Anchorage.

This wasn’t the worst fate because we’d been longing for an excuse to escape from Whittier.  (Remember those sweatshirts reading Prisoner of Whittier?)  Since it was a little expensive to rent a car, we decided to make a day of it.  We picked up the car early and headed for the railway tunnel.  Cars can use the tunnel to leave Whittier for fifteen minutes on the hour every hour.  Cars can go the other way on each half-hour.  The rest of the time it’s reserved for rail traffic.  We arrived at ten minutes to 7 and got in line under a big lighted sign reading “NEXT RELEASE: 07:00”.  Someone in the DOT has a sense of humor!

Whittier tunnel

Getting released – traversing the Whittier Tunnel

A green light came on!  Release!  We rumbled over the rail tracks (mounted in asphalt) and through the wet and roughly carved tunnel, emerging in Bear Valley after two and a half miles underground.  Already the landscape looked drier.  The torrential rain was only a drizzle!

We hit the “highway” (a two lane road) for Girdwood and Anchorage, and by the time we’d passed Alyeska ski resort the clouds were lifting and we could see the long and windy fjord of Turnagain Arm.  We’d heard that it houses a small population of belugas but we didn’t really believe it.  Still, we pulled over at Beluga Point and scanned the water for a sign of them.  Nothing.  But the sky was clearing, so we also stopped to walk along a boardwalk over a marsh and look for birds.

Road to Anchorage, Seward, and Whittier

Google Map of Anchorage, Seward, and Whittier

We arrived at the Anchorage post office right as it opened at 0900.  Our time was limited for everything we wanted to see, so after mailing our forms we got back on the highway in order to hike one of the trails that starts from its shoulder.  I had a brochure describing good spots for various wildlife, so we decided on a steep trail where we might see Dall Sheep, a white mountain goat.  By this time the sun was shining!

The trail yielded little besides a nice walk through a dry deciduous forest and up some red rock.  But when we returned to the roadside trailhead and glanced up, what did we see but a family of Dall sheep! Nothing like roadside wildlife viewing!

Dall Sheep seen from the pull-out/trailhead

Dall Sheep seen from the pull-out/trailhead

Still on our wildlife kick, we next visited the Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, just beyond the Whittier tunnel.  It started drizzling again as we approached the vicinity of our beguiling port, but the critter center was more than worth it.  The nonprofit organization takes in wounded or orphaned animals and gives a permanent home to those that cannot be released into the wild.  We met Adonis the bald eagle, whose wing required amputation after a gunshot wound; Nelson and Teddy the orphaned moose whose lack of maternal care meant they were unable to fend for themselves in the wild; Kuma the similarly orphaned black bear; Hugo the wounded but recovered grizzly; Joe and Patron, brown bears who were orphaned as cubs; two lynx found orphaned and wounded after a forest fire; and Mukluk, an orphaned musk ox who’d just joined the center’s herd.

Muskox looking a little sad in the rain - their normal habitat is desert Arctic tundra...

Muskox looking a little sad in the rain – their normal habitat is desert Arctic tundra…

There were also caribou, elk, and wood bison, which are related to the plains bison but bigger—in fact they’re the biggest land animal in North America!  The Conservation Center is well into its big project of reintroducing these animals to the wild in spring 2015.  Before leaving the center, we also got a glimpse of two adorable baby musk oxen, born just two months earlier in May.

Wood Bison at the conservation center

Wood Bison at the conservation center

The long summer days meant we didn’t yet have to return to Whittier, so we kept on south, through the beautiful Chugach range, until we reached the town of Seward.  We didn’t plan to go there with Celeste because it is a long way up a fjord, so we took this opportunity with the car to stock up at the amazingly plentiful Safeway grocery store.  We also visited the aquarium, where we took in sea lions, otters, king crab (of Deadliest Catch fame), the story of the Valdez oil spill, the problem of plastics in the Gulf of Alaska, and our favorite exhibit: a two-story tank where we could watch seabirds flying underwater.  We see puffins and murrelets and other birds a lot while sailing, but seeing their speed and grace underwater was new and wonderful.

Having spent too long at the aquarium, we missed the 7:30pm Whittier tunnel opening.  The sun was back, though, so we decided to pull over along Turnagain Arm and wait the hour out taking in the sun and the view.

Turnagain Arm is just beautiful in the summer sun!

Turnagain Arm is just beautiful in the summer sun!

All of a sudden I spotted a small cloud of spray, like a whale’s spout.  It was a whale’s spout!  The belugas were real!  A whole pod of the white arctic cetaceans was slowly approaching, swimming lazily along the shore.  Soon another person had seen the spouts too and pulled over to join us.  Within ten minutes the whole highway was blocked as everyone left their cars to watch the belugas.  Everyone was quiet but excited; the beluga population is dwindling in Cook Inlet and a sighting is rare.  Our stop in Whittier—despite the mildew and rain—had been more than worth it after all.

Click on any of the images above to start a mini slide-show. 🙂

16 thoughts on “Critter encounters on our temporary release from Whittier

  1. We drove up and down Turnagain Arm many times but didn’t see a single beluga, you were very lucky!
    And a post office that doesn’t sell stamps – that is just funny:)

  2. I cannot believe that a post office does not sell stamps. The Tee shirts may read prisoner but at least they get free stamps for there letters. There are times when things like this happen which lead us onto an amazing day we did not envisage and it certainly sounds like you had one. In 4 years we have seen one whale so for you to see them on that day must have been a dream come true.
    Thank you for putting this blog up.. I really enjoyed it.

    • You’re absolutely right about how something unexpected can put you onto an incredible experience. And it was such a series of coincidences that brought us to the right-place-right-time for seeing the whales—if we’d left Seward earlier and made the tunnel, we never would have been there along the fjord when they started spouting!
      Thanks for reading and glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  3. 312?! Wow!! That hurts my heart. Such beautiful creatures!! Thank you for the info. I will definitely look in to this. Thanks again for sharing and posting.

  4. I am enjoying reading about your adventure so far, especially in the areas with which I have some familiarity. Living, working and playing in Alaska, we tend to begin to take a lot of the unique things we experience regularly, for granted, and seeing them through your eyes is a reminder of how special they are.

    Not to be a fussbudget, but, the sheep you viewed on Turnagain Arm are Dall Sheep, named after William Healey Dall, an eminent naturalist, scientist, surveyor and explorer, who spent much of his life exploring and surveying the Territory of Alaska, from just before the US purchased the territory from Russia for $7M (Seward’s Folly) in 1857, into the early 20th century. He and his compatriots names are now attached to lots of places on the current map of Alaska, and the Dall’s porpoise is another species that carries his name. Dall was also one of the founders of the National Geographic Society.

    Looking forward to the rest of your adventure, as I’m sure you are too.

    • Thanks for the correction—I shouldn’t have made that mistake after having just finished reading James Michener’s Alaska. I’ve fixed it in the post now and gone back to check I got it right (I did!) in my post about the Dall’s porpoises that rode our bow wave into Ketchikan. The history of Alaska is endlessly interesting and full of so many intrepid and/or far-sighted people like Dall, Seward, Bering, Baranov, the early USCG captain Michael Healy, etc., etc. We both think that Alaska has a completely different feeling/character than the rest of the Union, maybe because it really is the ‘last frontier’!

      It’s funny how perceptions can change depending on experience. In the (non-Alaskan) sailors’ world, Prince William Sound is considered really remote and unfrequented (and it is remote and unfrequented by sailboats, and it presents a lot of challenges not to be taken lightly), but that reputation meant that I didn’t fully realize until we reached Whittier how accessible it is for Alaskans living in the vicinity of Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. What a wonderful playground you have!

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog, thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Oh!! James Michener!! Haven’t read Alaska yet, but I did finish Chesapeake a year ago. Now on my ALL TIME FAVORITES shelf. Going to add Alaska to my TBR. Thanks for the reminder.

        • It’s awesome! Highly recommended! The part about the Russian fur traders is pretty tough going if you’re a critter lover like me, but from the gold rush onwards you get really involved in the characters’ lives. I haven’t read Chesapeake yet (silly considering I’ve done a lot of sailing there), so that’s on my list for sure 🙂

  5. You are definitely not whetting our appetite for discovering Whittier, but the wildlife sightings, especially the beluga whales, would make you feel very lucky and privileged.

    • The wildlife all over Alaska was amazing and we were so lucky to get this chance to explore on land a bit! The Whittier stuff is a little tongue-in-cheek… Aside from the boat mildewing (which we hate!) the place itself wasn’t so bad, and the people were all super nice!

      • It’s funny, we associate mildew with tropical climates, not cold regions!

        • Stuff is amazing, isn’t it!
          Lots of people believe it only grows in the tropics, but I think really it just has to do with humidity levels. E.g. we had a bone-dry boat at Ascension Island in mid-Atlantic (8 degrees South) but a mold problem in Prince William Sound. Ascension’s a desert, but Whittier’s a rain catchment basin. For a lot of boats, cold regions also have the problem of condensation—the water is colder than the air in the hull so beads of water form on the inside of hull. Yuck. Fortunately we don’t have this problem often since Celeste’s cold-molding makes great insulation.

  6. Amazing adventures!! I guess I will live vicariously thru your blog posts. Lovely pics!! Question: Why ARE the beluga populations dwindling in Cook Inlet? Makes me sad. 😦

    • Thanks for following, MaryEve! From what I gathered at the Seward aquarium, no one knows the precise reason why the beluga population is in decline in Cook Inlet. According to the IUCN Red List, over-harvest was a big factor prior to 1998 but since harvesting ceased the belugas have failed to recover at the expected rate. Because there are now so few of them (estimated 312 in 2012 according to NOAA Fisheries), they also face the problem of lack of genetic diversity, which likely effects their reproductive success. There’s more info here: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/61442/0 if you’re interested! Thanks for the great question!