Alaska Part XII , trip day 9; July 10, 2018
When I originally started planning our Alaska trip, I intentionally left two days open with no reservations. We filled the first of these open days with our excursion to Homer. The second day I was loosely keeping open for a trip to Seward to see glaciers. While camping at Frozen Head State Park in June, we lucked out in setting up our camper next to a couple who were relocating from Alaska! While discussing our upcoming trip, they offered lots of advice that helped finalize some of our itinerary choices. When I mentioned a glacier tour to Seward, both husband and wife emphatically agreed that we should visit Whittier instead. They insisted that we would see more glaciers by cruising directly from the Prince William Sound. So a month later, when we were enjoying breakfast in Wasilla at Lake Lucille, we discussed our last unscheduled day, and made the decision to jump online and book a cruise out of Whittier.
A one-way tunnel through the mountain limits all access to and from Whittier and the Seward Highway. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel passes through Maynard Mountain for 13,300 feet, making it the second-longest highway tunnel in North America! Cars also share the tunnel with trains, so the Department of Transportation must stick to a rigid schedule of when each group is allowed passage through the tunnel. Cars traveling to Whittier are allowed through on the half hour, while cars leaving Whittier are allowed through on the hour. This meant that we had to plan our drive time from Soldotna so that we did not miss our window of opportunity to go through the tunnel during the right hour and risk missing our cruise departure!
We left our Kasilof cabin early to start our trek to Whittier, and stopped for a much needed bathroom break at Summit Lake Lodge Cafe. Their convenient location and road access drew us to stop, but once we entered their coffee shop, we fell in love! Brinn and I enjoyed the best chai lattes of our lives while Grandpoppa had a giant coffee and Ian enjoyed a hot cocoa. We also loaded up baked goods as well to fortify us for the rest of the drive.
Fortunately we made it to the tunnel in plenty of time, and had the luxury of sitting and waiting for our turn to pass. Ian lost interest in the tunnel about half way through, but the rest of us found it impressive, and at times even a little eerie. Fortunately we passed through and emerged unscathed into the small town of Whittier. This small city claims a population of 214, all living in the same building! As a former military town, Whittier provides a port on the west side of the Prince William Sound. This is the port we planned to leave out of for our cruise.
We chose to experience the Glacier Quest Cruise with Phillips Cruises and Tours. The 26 Glacier Cruise option would have allowed us to see considerably more glaciers, but the full five hours versus 3 and half hours seemed a bit daunting for Ian’s attention span, so we decided to save a few bucks and play it safe with the shorter cruise. Had we known Ian would sleep for half the trip, we would have booked the longer cruise! Our package allowed to see seven glaciers and quite a bit of wildlife along our way!
Once our ship departed, we were served lunch which we were able to pre-select when we made our reservations. Grandpoppa and I had a bowl of chili while Brinn enjoyed a salmon chowder. Ian snacked on fruit and chips. The cruises out of Seward included prime rib and salmon…but they also cost quite a bit more than our cruise! We ate while our ship slowly chugged into the Sound, and a park ranger narrated our trip. She explained that we were actually in the Chugach National Forest, which is a temperate rain forest. She gave us an overview of the glaciers we would visit as we eased through Blackstone Bay. These included Tebenokof, Blackstone, and Beloit glaciers.
After finishing lunch, Brinn and I left the warm, comfortable cabin to stand in the rain and spray on deck to marvel at waterfalls pummeling straight down the sides of the mountains into the fjord. Luckily we were prepared by our friends from Frozen Head and dressed for the experience so we were able to stay comfortably dry. Ian stood out with us part of the time, but ultimately he was happier to watch from his cushioned booth inside the ship while eating snacks and completing his junior ranger packet. Grandpoppa came out to join us on deck a few times, but he spent most of the time in the cabin so that someone stayed with Ian.
The ship had a secondary story (is that the correct term? It doesn’t sound very nautical) with benches so that we could sit up top and view the geology around us, but ultimately I enjoyed standing against the rails on the bow the most. I looked in the wrong direction at the wrong time, but Brinn’s better timing allowed him to watch part of a glacier calving off into the sea! At this point I gave up and returned to the cabin to thaw out and let my rain gear dry out a bit.
While sitting in the cabin with a sleeping Ian, I admired the bravery of sea kayakers to battle the elements. From my warm, comfortable position, I didn’t envy them too much. Some sea otters swam beside our ship for a good distance, and later we got to see quite a few birds making their home along the cliffs. At this point, the crew brought out fresh baked chocolate chip cookies.
You would think that by this point, glaciers would have lost some of their impact since we’d seen them for a week now, but I don’t think it’s possible to lose their impressiveness. To see Denali and experience a glacier were the main goals I had for our Alaska trip, but our cruise allowed me to check an item off my bucket list: visit a fjord.