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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂