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Saturday, July 12, 2014

TRAVELLING THE ALASKA MARINE HIGHWAY


As I mentioned previously, we have a ferry to catch at  Whittier, & to get there we must drive through a one way rail/road tunnel built during WW2 (Just a narrow hole blasted out of the rock) We have checked online and it is open on every half hour, going into Whittier, so we are aiming for the 9.30am opening (if we miss it we will be cutting our ferry a bit fine – for some reason they want us to check in 2 hours before departure – crazy when we discover that the terminal only opens an hour before departure!) Anyway we make it to the tunnel in plenty of time, giving us a chance to take yet more photos of even more glaciers & have morning tea. Whittier is a one horse town, or should I say one building town – all the residents live in one huge high rise! There are a few more buildings – mainly tour operators, fishing charters & a scattering of tiny shops. But there are plenty of boats (business & pleasure) in the lovely marina. We are first onboard, so get our choice of seats right up the front, which is hardly necessary as the ferry is hardly full. The weather is great & so is the scenery….blah, blah, blah….

Three hours later we are in Cordova thanks to the great high speed ferry (John says it has 4 jet units, & that he could water ski behind it.) It is a very untouristy fishing town. There are no roads to Cordova, & the residents are more than happy to keep it that way. It was from Cordova that the railway was built to one of the richest copper mines in the USA – Kennecott Mines. (But more about that later). We visit the info office & book ourselves onto a trip to Million Dollar Bridge & Childs Glacier for Tuesday, then head off to explore one of the few roads & camp beside an inlet. We head off on a walk – but it is rather off putting to see a sign up warning that there is “A Bear in The Area!”

When we wake up it is raining & the tide has gone out so far we can hardly see the water. We wait for it to come in, but give up & head into town to explore the museum etc. We meet heaps of local friendly people, so spend a lot of the day chatting as not many tourists come here. We get tracked down by the local newspaper as they want to do a story on these crazy Australians then we are off  heading out to camp nearer our tour starting destination.

Yay, we wake to sunshine & another great trip. We are ferried across the raging Copper River in an airboat with 2 big V8 engines (where the road has been washed away) and then put into a van to be driven the last 10kms to The Million Dollar Bridge. The road was originally the railway. We spend the whole day exploring etc. The 2 glaciers- Childs & Miles are awesome- both are calving into the river. We end the day camped beside the river with lots of driftwood to burn. The next day is spent on a long hike & then yet another repair John for poor John. Yes I broke the camper door – what a klutz! It was very windy & when I opened the door the wind just yanked it out of my hands & as a result broke 2 hinges! Needless to say John was not impressed! Before we left John even went for his customary icey swim in the local lake (brrr)

We are due out on the 7.15am ferry, so simply overnight right on the wharf. No chance of missing it then, but although we are first in the queue we are last on the ferry – and what a squeeze! No front row seats today. Another 3 hours to Valdez & more magic scenery. Even a few whales. Valdez isn’t much bigger than Cordova, but is chock full of motorhomes. There must be 4 RV parks – and all of them look packed at $40 a night. First port of call - the Visitor Centre. From here out to yet another glacier (they are getting a bit ho hum!), but will be OK for free camping if we need it, then head along the waterfront to the Salmon Hatchery. There are lots of fishing trawlers out so we to stop to watch them pull in overflowing nets of salmon. Then as we are heading further along the coast we see a bear on the side of the road - & of course lots of cars stopped to take photos. John wants one of the bear & GR2. I don’t want to get out, so he does – but boy does he race back in when that o’l bear comes around to his side! The bear wanders off & we continue to the Hatchery. Here we watch for ages as the salmon have started “running,” It is feasting time. The eagles are swooping overhead & the Sea Otters are busy catching fish. Then I spy our bear prowling around the hatchery buildings & too our delight he comes down to the water to catch fish. And boy does he have a feast - lots of great photos. Eventually we head off. There is plenty of not free camping along the waterfront, so we decide to head back into town to camp on some vacant land where we can watch the boats coming in and out. Another eventful day.

Today is the 4th of July & to all you ignorant Aussies that means Independence Day & lots of parties. First up is the Parade at noon, there is canoe jousting later on in the lagoon (yes lots of fun – lucky it is such a hot lovely day – very rare in this neck of the woods) & a free picnic at 5pm for everyone! And lots more besides. The local helicopter tour people have decided to offer heavily reduced flights over a nearby glacier – so we decide to give it a whirl! Amazing!

We have had so many people look at GR2 today (we really should have been in the parade!) & we keep saying we should charge them for photos. So John makes a bag for tips & sticks it on the outside beside the map…..Guess what! Score $5 & a DVD from the band that is playing. Our new Kiwi friends, Graham & Sue, & ourselves nearly kill ourselves laughing. The grand finale is fireworks at 10pm, but of course it is still not dark. Very interesting watching fireworks in daylight!!

We overnight at the site of the old town (destroyed by an earthquake in 1964) because our last spot was where the fireworks were let off. After days of glorious sunshine we wake to drizzle… pity as we have another scenic drive today. Finally we head off up through the mountains. We head on through a rocky gorge, passing right beside a glacier, & then pull over at Worthington Glacier. It is only a short walk, but we can only see the glacier’s toe. As we head over the pass the weather clears & we head on to Chitina. Not much there except 2 restored buildings & a few scruffy homes. Time now to turn off our tarseal onto the dirt road to McCarthy/Kennicott. As we cross over the Copper River we see lots of fish wheels running & local’s dipnetting for salmon. This road has been made over the old railway & there are constant reminders of it. Especially the wooden trestle Gilahina Bridge.

By the time we reach McCarthy it is getting late, so we walk across the footbridge to the old township to explore. There is no vehicular bridge (for us tourists anyway. There is a locked bridge for the locals) to McCarthy & Kennecott. To get to Kennecott you either walk 10km or catch a shuttle van.  Anyway we explored the old McCarthy – the museum, a few old cottages, and assorted messy areas. Then back across the bridge to camp. An early start the next day as we have a mine tour booked. This proves to be pretty awesome as we get to see inside the mill & quite a few other buildings the general public can’t get into (mainly because they are ready to collapse & care must be taken). Then we explore the remainder of the site. It is a dull drizzly day & we opt for a delicious lunch in the lodge before we walk to the glacier. The weather gets worse, so we give the glacier a miss & head back to GR2 for the drive back out again.

Hopefully the weather will stay fine so we can finally drive the Denali Highway & then continue north to Prudhoe Bay.

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