Early morning over Prince William Sound
We were up before daybreak in order to board our ferry across Prince William Sound. This is a big
ferry, with the bottom deck made to accommodate cars and buses. After waiting in line behind several tour buses, it was our turn. Richard drove our vehicle over the ramp and down onto the bottom deck of the ferry, which was very similar to a parking garage. Leigh and I hopped out of the car, ready to explore. I had never been on such a large ferry and was very impressed. All the buses and cars were loaded, the gate was closed tight, and we were ready to set sail across the beautiful Prince William Sound.
The rising sun was hiding his face behind the mountains and the early morning mist was hovering over the calm water.
Sunrise on the Sound
The full moon was still visible in the eastern sky as we slowly pulled away from the pier to begin our three-hour journey across one of the few remaining unspoiled wilderness areas in our country. People from the tour buses were milling around on the open decks, inside the heated observation area, or enjoying breakfast in the ship's cafeteria. Cool temperatures kept me and Leigh inside where we waited for the sun to rise higher in the sky, pushing the thermometer into a more comfortable zone.
Leigh noticed a cute couple deep in conversation. They were standing on the back deck, enjoying the sunrise and the brisk ocean breeze. She struck up a conversation with them and learned they were a young married couple who taught school in Anchorage
Couple on back deck of ferry
Every summer they paddle their kayaks from Whittier to Valdez and camp on the islands, usually taking four to five days to make the crossing. With kayaks stored safely below, they were quietly pondering their latest adventure as the ferry churned westward across the Sound.
After an hour or so into our voyage, the early morning fog lifted and the sky turned from a depressing gray to a brilliant blue. There were benches all along the side decks, so I located one on the sunny side of the ship and took a seat. Leaning back against the wall, I shut my eyes and enjoyed the warmth of the bright sun. This was heaven on earth but I couldn't sit long; there were whales in these waters and I didn't want to let one of these guys swim by without seeing him.
Heaven on earth
Puffins are very similar to penguins except a puffin can fly. A puffin in flight looks very much like a flying football. Their fat little bodies and short, stubby wings make for an amusing sight. The cliffs along the shoreline looked like puffin paradise with hundreds of the fun-loving guys diving and swimming and flying low over the water, all in an effort to find food. The folks on our ferry were mostly Japanese and were chatting among themselves in their native tongue. We couldn't understand a word they were saying until we heard "puffin" and "glacier" in broken English. Cameras were clicking and fingers were pointing in excitement. It seems that I'm not the only one amused by these peculiar looking birds.
Tourist getting that "perfect" shot
Towards the front of the ship was an enclosed observation area with heat and comfortable theater-style chairs. There was also a young man in uniform who was some type of park ranger or marine biologist. He had maps of the sound and color illustrations of all the wildlife we might encounter. He told me that the humpback and the orca, or killer whale, were the only two whales in these waters and that the humpback was encountered more often than the orca. We were in luck today. The water was calm and the great creatures were easy to spot when they surfaced to take a breath. Exhaling a misty spout of air through a blowhole atop its head, the whale quickly filled its lungs and disappeared from sight. But there were two of them ~ surfacing and disappearing again and again in their whale-ballet.
Camera-bug reflection in my sunglasses
The humpback is endangered from years of over-hunting but today their numbers have rebounded to 20,000 worldwide ~ a mere 20 percent of their prior population. These mighty mammals exist in a world mixed with tenderness and aggression. The males sing haunting melodies while suspended in the ocean's depths but when challenged by a rival, show a fierceness in protecting their territory. Our ferry was traveling west while the whales were swimming east. Sadly, they disappeared out of our sight in a few short minutes. Out of sight but not out of mind.
Our ferry ride was quickly coming to an end. Our destination, the small village of Whittier, was coming into view. Situated at the base of Whittier Glacier, this is an isolated hamlet with a population of only 180 people.
Tourists on front deck of ferry
During World War II, the United States Army constructed a port and a railroad terminus near the glacier and named the port Whittier. A two-and-a-half-mile railway tunnel through Maynard Mountain was completed in 1943, opening up rail travel from Whittier to the rest of Alaska. With completion of the tunnel, Port Whittier became the entrance for United States soldiers into Alaska and remained an active army facility until 1960. Today the port is a popular destination for the Princess Cruise Line, where their passengers can embark on the nonstop Denali Express for the interior of Alaska and Denali National Park.
Richard, Leigh, and I climbed into our rental SUV to wait our turn in line. The ferry had docked at Whittier, where the three of us ate lunch at one of the small water-front sandwich shops.
Don't think I'll need this guy today
These eateries are only open during the cruise season, closing up tight at the end of September and not reopening until the following May. Hallelujah ~ no cruise ships and the associated crowds of people were in Whittier today. We were able to sit outside in the warm sunshine and enjoy our lunch while we waited until the right time to drive through the tunnel that linked this tiny town to the rest of Alaska.
When the railway tunnel through Maynard Mountain was completed in 1943, it was used exclusively for railroad traffic. By the mid-1960's, it became obvious that people needed a way to move their automobiles through the tunnel. The Alaska Railroad
offered a shuttle service where vehicles could be driven onto rail cars and transported through the tunnel.
Great day for a ferry ride
As traffic to Whittier increased, the shuttle became insufficient, leading to a project to convert the one-lane railway tunnel into a combination highway and railway tunnel. Construction on the tunnel began in September, 1998, and the combined tunnel was completed in June, 2000. Now eastbound traffic, westbound traffic, and the Alaska Railroad must all share the tunnel, creating waiting periods of twenty minutes or more. So when it was time for us to enter North America's longest railroad/highway tunnel, Richard paid the toll and took us through. In less than two hours, he would be depositing us at the airport in Anchorage, where we had our own rental car reserved. Our time with Richard would be over.
Lifeboat ~ just in case .....
He had provided an invaluable service over the past five days, showing us some very out-of-the-way places that we wouldn't have dared to find on our own. Now the next five days would be ours alone.