June 23rd: Lesley and I arose early, (what else is new) and after grabbing the box lunches I had ordered the night before, jumped into a waiting van that was to deliver us to Valdez where we would spend the day kayaking to Shoup glacier. Valdez is about 120 miles southwest of Copper River and initially Lesley and I had considered this trip the only logisitical mistake we had made since we would be traveling the exact same route the following day to meet a catamaran that would speed us across Prince William Sound to Whittier and the Sapphire Princess.
We were wrong! Our long drive was along the Richardson Highway that was without a doubt the most gorgeous stretch of road I have ever traveled. Superlatives would soon run dry, so suffice to say just imagine 100+ miles of wonderful mountains, valleys, green hills, ponds, lakes, rivers, waterfalls and glaciers. Just great! We made a couple of stops along the way. First were photo ops at the Worthington Glacier which cascaded down a mountain ending a short distance from a railed observation area and then a stop at Horse Tail Falls. Again, beautiful.
We were driven to a pier in New Valdez Harbor. I say new because the original Valdez was severely damaged during the earthquake of 1964 which sent a tsunami leveling much in its path. A cemetary on the outskirts of town holds some of the victims of that disaster. The few remnants of old Valdez include individual pilings in the harbor and scores of lifeless trees that could not survive the salt water they were immersed in after the killer wave.
We met our kayak guides and after being outfitted in our gear and given a brief tutorial on getting into and out of the craft as well as wielding the paddle we set to work in loading the boat. Not everyone on this excursion (about 20 people) was up to lifting the unwieldy kayaks but those of us who were pitched in with some gusto, the toil seeming to add to the adventure. With blue skies above us, (incredible luck with the weather again) we set out on the boat. Valdez harbor was beautiful, surrounded by mountains and lush forests and we cruised for about 40 minutes until arriving at a beach where we unloaded and then slipped into the kayaks. Lesley has kayaked a number of times but this was my first. Initially I felt that it might be easy to capsize but I steadied myself and after just a few moments with the paddle it became second nature.
We paddled for about 30 minutes and came into a bay where we caught our first glimpse of Shoup glacier. It was just beautiful. White, huge and formidable. Some of the ice had a pretty blue hue that indicates that it has a higher density than the sorrounding ice. For quite awhile we paddled towards the glacier without it getting discernibly bigger. Testament to its enormity. On route we came upon a huge colony of seabirds called kittywakes. These birds resemble seagulls although they are smaller and the tip of each wing looks like it has been dipped in black ink. The kittywakes were nesting in tiny spaces as little as two inches across on the face of an almost sheer cliff. Their numbers appeared to be in the thousands and our guide said there were 15,000 mating pairs currently residing, all mated for life and able to distinguish one another from just their call. Quite a feat when considering the cacophony these multitudes made. There are scientists who live in nearby cabins that are constantly studying these birds because their numbers and health are a barometer of the local bio-system.
Every couple of minutes the kittywakes would peel from the cliff. That is sweep off from the rock in huge numbers spooked by something. They do have predators, eagles from above and the occasional wolverine I believe that swim across from the mainland to the wakes island rock. It was neat and even a little chilling when these birds would fly about us in such numbers.
The glacier in the distance slowly got larger and about an hour or so later we beached our boats in front of it, about a third of a mile distant. We ate our box lunch, (slightly soggy even though it was stowed in a 'dry bag') with Shoup looming gigantic in front of us. Another group from a different outfit had beached before us and had walked to the left edge of the glacier. They seemed mere specks in comparison to this monolith and I asked Brian our guide if there was any chance we might hike for a closer look. He replied that were he alone he might but did not want to jeopardize our safety. Alluding to the group so close to the glacier he said that were it to calve a large enough piece at that moment the resulting wave could actually drown the travelers and their guide. I was still a little disappointed but understood the safety issues. After an awesome time of watching two bald eagles play right above are heads, swooping and diving and calling to one another we headed back.
On our return trip we hugged the shoreline because of numerous waterfalls and it was great to slowly kayak by each one. At one point we stopped at one so that I could taste the water. To my surprise rather than the water being icy it was actually quite warm. I soon figured out that as the water flowed down from such great heights it was in contact with the rock that was warmed by the sun thus increasing its temperture.
We returned to the cove where the boat was moored and quickly loaded the kayaks as the tide was just as quickly receding and headed back to Valdez harbor. When we reached the pier most of the clients quickly made an exit leaving Lesley and I and a few other intrepids the duty of assisting in the offloading the kayaks one last time. It was a long, exciting and somewhat exhausting day but we still had the prospect of seeing the Richardson Highway again on the way back to Copper River. Tomorrow afternoon we would see our ship for the first time.