Rambling travelogs from a world traveler

Friday, January 8, 2010

Turnagain Walkabout

"When you're doing real research, you never know what it will cost, how much it'll take, or what you will find. You just know there's unexplored territory and a chance to discover what's out there."

Luis Alvarez,

The Cuckoo's Egg (Cliff Stoll)

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones,

This post is from an email I sent on Oct 11, 2007. I hope you enjoy it.

Howdy All,

I'm in still in Anchorage, but I leave tomorrow am for a quick Pacific trip to Korea, Beijing, Shanghai and back. I got here last Wednesday and I had two days off. So I rented a car and explored Alaska a little. Mostly I drove up the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet.

The Turnagain Arm experiences some truly amazing bore tides. I didn't see the bore tide since it wasn't the right part of the lunar cycle.

On the other hand, The Arm also has some truly awe inspiring views and I'm going to share some with you.

The weather looked like it was going to be bad: temps in the low 40’s or upper 30s and rainy and drizzly. But when I got out on the Arm, it cleared and I had some truly panoramic views of the mountains on either side of the arm with low hanging clouds blowing around them. The road runs up the northern coast of the arm and along the southern border of the Chugach Park. At its eastern end, the road forks. You can continue to the southwest down to the Kenai Peninsula; but, instead, I went southeast through the Portage Glacier Park then the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel over to Whittier. A railroad track closely parallels the road all the way to Whittier.

As I drove down the Arm, the first place I saw was the Chugach Park HQ. Outside the HQ is a static display of the engine / snow blower they used to keep the railroad clear of snow and in many cases, avalanches.

The red rotating circular blower fan of this train is about a foot taller than I am. You would not want to have gotten caught in that bad boy. There is a little covered board walk along the side of the snow blower and park HQ that looks out over the opening of the Arm. The clouds broke about the time I arrived here and the view was just awe inspiring.

These pictures are scenes I shot as I drove along the road to the east. It rained on and off, and I would either snap pix through the windshield or stop at turnouts, jump out, shoot the shot before the camera could get too wet and then jump back in the car and dry the camera off.

About half way up the arm is a turnout called "Bird Point". It is well named. Just as I drove past it, I caught movement from the right of the car and looked to see a white headed Bald Eagle fly over. It's an awful picture, but I thought I'd show you my laughable attempt to get a picture of it. Driving and fumbling with a camera is not a good idea, grasshopper. I saw lots more eagles as the day progressed, but I didn't get close enough to get a good picture. This one is as good as it gets.

Just past Bird Point, I passed a train on a siding waiting for another train. I thought it made a striking picture.

Just past that is another turn out that has signs explaining that the sound is full of Beluga Whales and how to search for them. So I did, but didn't see any then because the tide was almost at it lowest point and the water was too low for them.

That afternoon - as I drove westward back to Anchorage - I stopped again as the tide was flowing in furiously and sure enough, there were Belugas everywhere. You could see their wakes in the water, highlighted in the low sun and then they would sound and blow big jets of foggy breath. I really wished I had a pair of binoculars as they were way out in the arm. About all you could see of them was a white flash as they stuck their heads out of the water to sound. I did catch a quick flash of a fluke one time. I probably sat there watching for an hour. This picture was the best of the pictures I took and it is not so good. The white speck in the middle right is the whales head. They all looked to be pretty busy eating fish.

Over at the far east end of the arm, I took the road to Whittier. The low sun was really lighting up the mountains and water. These are two of the best pictures I've ever taken. This one is looking southeast into the sun.

This one looks back to the west. The sun really lights up the grass and the dark gray sand and mud that is the trademark of the Turnagain.

Several hours later when I passed this same point, the tide had turned and the water had covered up the sand almost all the way to the grass. There are signs all up and down the arm warning you not to go out on the mud. It is very soft and sticky and if you get stuck in it while the tide is roaring in, you will probably drown. Evidently this happens fairly frequently.

The road and railroad to Whittier follows Portage Creek to the southeast. There is a relatively low mountain range with a pass that separates Whittier from the Turnagain Arm Valley. In this pass is the Portage Glacier and Portage Lake. As I understand it, in the old days, Voyageurs traveling from Prince William Sound to Anchorage would have to cross the Portage Glacier and the pass. Now it is the site of the Portage Glacier Park. This is me in the parking lot.

The park HQ was closed but I could wander around a little. I'd never seen the glacier and I still haven't as it was covered in clouds. These are scenes of the Moraine Pool that is formed by melt water from the glacier.

This pool the source of the water that flows down Portage Creek to the Arm. The water itself is very interesting. Because of the over cast sky, the water was a very dull gray color and opalescent. This is because the glacier takes up a lot of dust from the rocks it flows over and when the water melts it carries this very fine dust with it. On a bright sunny day, the water turns a very striking milky blue color that is characteristic of glacier caused moraine pools.

It was very pretty. More on the Portage Glacier here.

Past Portage Glacier Park, there is a one lane tunnel carved out of the mountain for several miles that services the town of Whittier. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel carries both auto/truck and railroad traffic. When you pay the toll, you get a schedule and a firm briefing. The tunnel runs one way into Whittier for an hour and then back the other way the next hour so you have to plan your trip carefully.

I never realized this before, but train tracks are exactly the same width as an auto wheel base. Driving through the tunnel required some attention to keep from getting caught in the train track. There was a firm 25 mph speed limit and even a radar gun halfway through to make sure you obeyed. The bare rock sides of the tunnel were very close. Having a blowout at a high speed in this thing would be Princess Di stupid.

Whittier is a pretty little place. It is at the end of a long arm of Prince William Sound and striking mountains rise on either side. They are much closer and much tighter than on the Turnagain.

It looks like there is a busy harbor there in the summer; but this late in the season, many boats were out of the water. Whittier is also a ferry terminal to points south like Cordova, Valdez and Juneau and a busy tourist stop with tour ships doing glacier tours in the summer. None of these operations were on-going on my visit and there was only one restaurant open for business. All the kitschy tourist places were closed and boarded up.

I started writing this travelog in Anchorage but now I am writing at 34000' - 10600 meters to be precise - over Siberia and the Sea of Okhotsk as we cruise to Seoul. I finally found a way to plug my computer into the airplane's power system.

I enjoyed my two days off, I guess, as I saw a lot of new stuff, but it was kind of bittersweet. I hate giving up my time at home with my family and I really wish Ann could have been with on this trip as this is exactly the kind of trip she likes to take. One day, we'll do it together.

In any case, I remain,

Dad /Geoff

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