Thursday, July 3, 2008

Alaskan Idyll, Days 14,15 Tok to Valdez

Yesterday was a “free” day on the caravan schedule in Tok. So what’s the first thing every RV owner wants to do on a free day in Alaska? Change their oil, of course! As seen below, the campground in Tok takes a very dim view if that activity.

No DIY Here!

In lieu of changing oil, we did more legitimate stuff like wash off 1500 miles of road grime in the campground RV wash. Keith then composed a couple of blogs, about the trip from Skagway, while Kathy cooked Shepard’s pie and did laundry. Altogether a chore-ish kind of day.

Today we drove 260 miles southwest, from Tok to Valdez. The day dawned bright and clear, like yesterday. The road, for the most part, was much better than the ride from Destruction Bay. It’s interesting how the road changes from year to year. We recollect the Glenn Highway (known locally as the Tok Cutoff) as one of the poorest roads in Alaska and the Yukon. There still are some bumpy stretches, but most of the former damage has been repaired, so our drive today was not unpleasant. For the most part, we were able to set the cruise control at 50 or 55 and just steer.

Not far out of Tok, the Wrangell Mountains come into view. We know, it begins to seem tiresome, one beautiful mountain scene after another, but we just can’t help but gush over each and every one.

More Boring Wrangell Mountains

A bit further down the Tok Cutoff the skyline is dominated by Mt. Sanford. At 16,237 feet, this peak is nowhere near as tall as Mt. McKinley, but it still dominates the south-central Alaska landscape. There seems to be much more snow on the mountain than we recall from our last trip, probably because it’s earlier in the season.

Mount Sanford

Near the Junction of the Tok Cutoff with the Richardson Highway, there is a beautiful overlook of the Copper River, with the Wrangell Mountains in the background. This is an excellent example of a braided river, in which multiple channels wander aimlessly back and forth across a broad gravel bed.

The Copper River Near Gakona
An Excellent Example of a Braided River Channel

Rolling south along the Richardson past Glennallen, the Alyeska Pipeline soon comes into view. This 800-mile pipeline carries crude oil from Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Ocean, south across the Brooks and Alaska Mountain Ranges, then through the Thompson Pass across the Chugach Mountains and down to the pipeline terminal in Valdez. Construction of this pipeline through the mountains and across the permafrost tundra was quite an engineering feat in the 1970’s. While parts of the pipe are buried, as are almost all pipelines in the lower 48, much of it is above ground, thermally isolated from the permafrost by very ingenious heat pipe supports that prevent the warm crude oil from melting the permafrost. These supports are visible in the photograph below.

Aleyska Pipeline, Supported Above the Permafrost on Heat Pipes

Along the pipeline are a 12 pumping stations. Each of these includes a small refinery, in which crude oil extracted from the pipe is refined into jet fuel, and a land based gas turbine powered pump, which uses this fuel to pump the crude further down the line. If this ain’t bootstrapping, I don’t know what is!

Alyeska Pipeline Pump Station Number 12

Rolling south from the pump station, the Chugach Mountains loom into view. Climbing up toward the pass, there is an excellent view of the Worthington Glacier.

Chugach Mountains Loom Into View, Together With the Rainclouds

Worthington Glacier

Also looming into to view as we roll south is a bank of clouds, presaging rain over the Gulf of Alaska. At the Thompson Pass, we bid a fond adieu to out fair blue skies, and say hello to the same gloomy weather we have experienced most of this trip. Fortunately, this weather does not dampen our spirits, or in any other way detract from the beautiful scenery. And in no way do we blame Winnebago Itasca Travelers (WIT) for this weather (LOL).

As we travel deeper into Alaska, we notice another phenomenon that is characteristic of this territory. This phenomenon is road signs which are pockmarked with bullet damage, such as is seen on this sign at the summit of Thompson Pass.

Bullet Damage Seen on Alaskan Road Signs

Fortunately, the local gun culture has not damaged the breathtaking natural beauty of the pass itself.

Thompson Pass, With It’s Head in the Clouds

Descending through the Keystone Canyon, the Bridal Veil and Horsetail falls come into view. We paused briefly to take a photograph at Bridal Veil.

Keystone Canyon

Bridal Veil Falls

We arrived at the campground promptly at the 2pm opening of the parking window, and were greeted by our ever faithful and cheerful parkers, Dave and Nancy, who parked us on the banks of the channel into the Valdez Small Boat Harbor.

After parking we ventured out for a bit of local cuisine. The Tesoro gas station we stopped at on the way into town recommended a little hole-in-the wall place called “Old Town Burgers”. It was no frills, but the food was excellent and plentiful. Kathy had halibut fish and chips while Keith had bratwurst (3.5COWS).

We are sitting at the dinette, watching the fishing boats pass in and out as we compose this message. We don’t know what season it is, but there is open season on some species of fish this weekend. Salmon season opened the day we were in Juno; we are guessing that is what they are catching today. In addition to the never-ending parade of boats in the channel, there are always 3 or 4 boast tied up to the Peter Pan fish plant dock. This kind of entertainment you can’t buy!

Valdez Small Boat Harbor, Seen from Our Windshield

An Endless Parade of Fishing Boats Passes By Our Campsite

Tomorrow, Friday, is a town tour, followed by a Glacier Cruise Saturday, and a free day Sunday. Stay Tuned.

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