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Traveling the Prince William Sound in Winter
Kenai Fjords in Spring
The Prince William Sound is located along the Southern Coast of Alaska and within the northernmost Gulf of Alaska.
We’re departing the Anchorage area over the Cook Inlet Mudflats at Low Tide. Our Destination is the fabulous and pristine Prince William Sound!
The route from Anchorage to Valdez (pronounced Valdeezz) is absolutely beautiful. If the weather was good, we’d fly up the Turnagain Arm, just south of Anchorage, through the Portage Pass, over the Seaport Town of Whittier, by Esther Island, Glacier Island and as winds and weather permitted, continue across the face of the mighty Columbia Glacier.
Looking into the Pass with a really low ceiling. Not wise to go on this day.
From over the Town of Whittier in Winter, is Portage Pass on a good day.
Our First Obstacle – Portage Pass (‘Red Pin’)…
There’s been others but my closest call was the one in Portage where I became trapped over Portage Lake. It was a very narrow escape.
Why ‘Red Pin’ you ask?
If in Anchorage, you might give Search and Rescue, Elmendorf AFB a call and possibly get permission to stop in for a visit.
Our company was involved in a coordinated search for an overdue aircraft and in conjunction we were invited to view their search map.
Their large wall map of Alaska was dotted with hundreds of red pins.
I immediately asked, “What is that!” looking at a small mountain of red pins.
“That’s Portage Pass area. We no longer mark the new ones because there’s so many.
As you can tell we could have a real problem locating a current crash site in that area.”
After that discussion I nicknamed Portage Pass ‘Red Pin’ Pass. Be Conservative if you’re planning to fly through. Enough said.
There’s one way you can Drive to Whittier even in Winter…
Through this Tunnel!
Located between Anchorage and the Seaside Town of Whittier, it’s one of the few passes You Can Drive Through in a manner of speaking. In your car you get to share a 2.5-mile Railroad Tunnel with the Alaska Railroad! It’s a ‘trip’ you should experience at least once.
Actually, that means twice because you have to come back through the tunnel as the road dead ends at the end of a concrete dock adjacent to the Prince Williams Sound!
Yes, you get to share a small tunnel with this!
Once there you can relax at 20 below in the great Winter Weather.
Now back to the Aviating Part…
Portage is one of the most beautiful Passes in the world especially when you break out of the pass over the town of Whittier, you’re looking at the bluest of blue water with scattered white capped mountains and glaciers.
Whittier, Alaska from over the Prince William Sound
How About the Whittier International Airport ‘Runway’
This is the view looking toward the Sound. Behind you is a Mountainside. It’s one of the many one-way airports in Alaska. Yes, it’s short! And, with the position of the windsock along with 10” of snow today, a Takeoff would be quite hazardous!
I’ll never forget flying over the airport almost daily for several weeks and seeing a Cessna 172 laying upside down in the middle of the airstrip. Yes, a wheeled aircraft will probably flip on soft snow. The two pilots walked away. Their aircraft didn’t.
Whittier Winters can be quite cold.
Beware of the deadly long-term Icicles!
Also be aware if you end up in this town in the middle of winter, there’s not much lodging or food available should the Train Tunnel Passage become disabled! Yes, that happened to us. It was 20 below and the Tunnel was down for several hours.
By the way, in winter most of the Seaport Docks are closed down, the Dockside Village created for the cruise ships is a virtual ghost town.
With some persistence and luck, we eventually found a warm and friendly refuge in a small upstairs restaurant. After dodging a 300-pound icicle at the entrance and negotiating a very icy staircase, we shared in some great Beer Battered Halibut with the local Fishermen!
A typical Winter’s day flying the sound.
Although Cloudy, the colors remain dramatic.
One late spring day, on a flight to Valdez, Alaska, a passenger came forward, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Captain Tony, you’ve got a job everybody wants but nobody has! This is just about the most beautiful place I have ever seen!”
We’d just broken out of the clouds at 6,000 feet descending next to the Columbia Glacier, “Yes, it is beautiful today.” I replied.
I definitely agreed with my passenger, but held my reserve about his first statement. I thanked the Gentleman for sharing his thoughts and experience but then advised that he return to his seat and that we would be landing shortly.
I reminded my passengers to make sure their belts were fastened, finished my descent and landing checklist, then took a moment in time, took a deep breath and let my magnificent surroundings absorb into my soul. ‘He’s right; it is the most beautiful place on Earth’.
I glanced at the sparkling white Columbia Glacier just off to my left, its vertical ice cliffs reflecting in the bluest blue water below. Off to the right were several islands with rocks interspersed with green grassy areas, generally covered with Bird Life. When they all take flight, the sky sometimes turns from blue to white.
The Columbia Glacier is both beautiful and majestic. The white, icy face rises dramatically from the blue water. Constantly calving, the glacier litters the adjacent bright blue ocean with brilliant white icebergs, sometimes very large ones. The contrasting colors are simply beautiful especially in summer!
This snow-covered Glacier, larger than the state of Rhode Island, is a river of ice and snow winding out of site up into towering snow-covered mountains. On occasion, when flying much lower, I’ve been lucky enough to catch site of calving along the face and watched large sections of the glacier break away and crash spectacularly into the water.
The wave action is tremendous, but doesn’t seem to bother the various Seals, Otters and Birds basking in the sun on their own little bobbing icebergs. (If you want to get up close to the Columbia and the wildlife, book a spot with Stan Thomas Tours out of Valdez.)
Ahead were the ‘Narrows’, with solid rock walls rising on both sides of the narrow water canyon, their peaks cutting into the deep blue sky, their bases diving into the crystal-clear deep waters.
When you pass through the Narrows, you break out into the beautiful green Valdez Valley surrounded by snow-capped pyramid-shaped mountains with bright white glaciers spilling into the water.
The ice-cold glaciated ocean water below you is now more green than blue and when calm it reflects the entire scene. The mountains tower above you both left and right, rising vertically out of the water and the valley.
One of the companies I worked with for some time.
Aeromed Lear on the Ramp in Valdez.
The high snowcapped mountains in the area rise over 14,000 feet and give the impression you’re in Switzerland. As you approach Valdez, one particularly ominous mountain of rock rises more than 7,000 feet right behind the city.
Valdez, often referred to as ‘Little Switzerland’, is almost completely surrounded by these majestic pyramid shaped mountains. However, I think it’s even more dramatic in that it’s located on this pristine and glaciated deep-water port.
To give you some perspective, the tallest peaks of the Rocky Mountains near Denver, Colorado have roughly a 9,000-foot vertical rise from the area elevation. In contrast, these mountains rise dramatically out of the sea to over 14,000 feet.
As you approach this busy seaport, you’ll occasionally pass over cruise ships, huge oil tankers and fishing boats coming in or leaving. You may ask, what are the Supertankers doing here? Well, Valdez happens to be the termination point of the Alaska Oil Pipeline.
The 800-mile pipeline connects Prudhoe Bay to the Valdez terminal and is capable of delivering 2,000,000 barrels of crude oil every day.
Valdez is the land of Tremors, Landslides and Tsunamis.
While preparing for boarding on a flight back to Anchorage, in the distance, Rocks began to move, sliding down toward the unsuspecting water. As the avalanche moved, it continued to gain speed until it was dropping with tremendous force.
Crashing into the water, it created a large wave moving toward the opposite shoreline. The incident was quickly over as the wave slowly settled into the surface. Only a few two-foot waves hit our side of the bay and didn’t affect the runway.
The Valdez of today is the ‘new’ town. Old Valdez, or the remains of it, lies just to the south. There’s not much there following the 1964 earthquake and Tsunami which followed. It seems this beautiful bay one day suddenly lost all of its water.
Shortly after this wonderment, a two-hundred-foot wall of water reentered the valley through the Narrows and destroyed everything in its path. Many were killed by this terrifying event. There’s some footage of the event at the Earthquake Museum in downtown Anchorage.
The new Valdez is a small but fairly modern town with all the amenities we’re used to. It also has a large fish hatchery where they release Salmon on occasion. It’s interesting to watch the salmon attempting to reenter the hatchery building during spawning season.
They’re literally jumping up and hitting the side of the building. Fishing is really great and wildlife is abundant around both towns and throughout the Sound.
SEAPORTS ON PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND
Valdez, Cordova and Whittier are the most populated towns on the coast of the Prince William Sound and are generally accessible by float plane or boat only. There is one road that connects Valdez to the mainland, the Richardson Highway. Pretty treacherous for Truckers I understand with Valdez about 7 – 8 hours from Fairbanks.
The Sound water is generally pretty cold with occasional trains of icebergs drifting with the currents. Other settlements are scattered and small. Some consist of only a few buildings. The Sound, although quite cold, is home to many types of sea life, from Seals to Killer Whales.
When flying over the crystal-clear waters you may observe a large Pod of Killer Whales, a privilege I’ve had a couple of times.
To get to Cordova after takeoff from Valdez, you head southwest back through the Narrows, then head south along the coast by the Village of Tatitlek. From there, you can fly over Hawkins Island, then over the town, through a gap in the mountains, over the marina and land at this great little airport.
Cordova is a picturesque seaport town and in general it appears a little more rustic than Valdez. There are absolutely no roads to Cordova. That’s one thing that makes it very unique and in effect it’s an island community. It too was affected by the 1964 earthquake. The floor of the sound in the area was lifted approximately 10 feet and created the mud flats adjacent to the town.
Cordova, Alaska – a Wonderfully Interesting Destination
Cordova is lush with vegetation in the summer and has a large population of Bears and other wildlife. I loved the people in both towns and enjoyed spending time there when I could. Some of the best Silver Salmon fishing in the world lies just around the corner from Cordova.
I’ve checked out most of the islands enroute from time to time and I actually had the opportunity to land on Hinchinbrook Island at Johnston Point and deliver some parts for the VOR there. (VOR stands for Very High Frequency Omni-Directional Range and is a navigational aid for airmen.)
The runway is 1,700 feet, sand, but not bad. The Cessna 206 had no trouble negotiating the strip. It is government owned and private, so don’t land there without permission unless you have a necessary get on the ground incident. Just know it is there!
Some other memorable sights along the way have been bears, bears doing what bears do and occasionally observing Brown Bears swimming from one island to the next. Yes, They can swim to your Island!
Pods of humpbacks and other types of whale are easily observed in the crystal-clear waters from above. It’s easy. You just catch a whale breaching and drift over in that direction. It’s best to stay at least 1,500 feet above to keep from harassing the animals.
The Killer Whales, are easily spotted from the air also. Sometimes Dall’s Porpoise are confused with Killer Whales because of the color. The quickest way to tell the difference is that the Killer Whale has a tall dorsal fin.
Dall’s Porpoise roam the crystal-clear waters of the Prince William Sound
Among the tremendous variety of birds is everything from the small Puffin to large Bald Eagles. Native American Legend has it that there are ‘Thunder Birds’ that roam the remote skies in some parts of Alaska. Actually, I’ve talked to people who swear they’ve observed these huge birds with 25-foot wingspan. Sea Otters and all kinds of other varmints are abundant as well.
Most of all, flying low across the sound has to take the first prize for all my flying in Alaska. To weave in and out of the fiords and around the islands at low level, is an unbelievable experience.
Being in a multi-engine aircraft or float plane gives you a little better feeling of comfort simply because there’s no landing spots should you lose your engine. The water is very cold and there’s lots of rocks and water with very few beaches.
Not many suitable beaches for landing around here!
The islands themselves are generally steep and rugged,
great for Birds and Seals.
On this route, Valdez to Cordova, we’d pass just north of the soon to be infamous Bligh Island. Bligh Island… Let’s get some perspective. Prior to the Exxon Valdez running aground on this magnificent island, we generally had to fly higher or increase our distance from the island due to the millions of beautiful birds.
When they flew, the entire horizon would become blanketed with white, appearing as a large white curtain shifting with the winds. A few days after the accident, only a scattered few were seen. A week later, there was not one bird in the sky.
ANOTHER SIDE – THE PEOPLE LIVING ON THE SHORES OF THE SOUND
The Seaside Village of Tatitlek
Well, I believe it’s one of the most attractive Native American villages I’ve had the privilege to serve. Located just south of the Valdez Arm and just east of Bligh Island, it’s primarily inhabited by Alaskan Natives (Alutiiq).
The people are simply great folks with a long history. Their Village has a natural harbor usually busy with fishing boats. The most prominent structure is a Russian Orthodox Church.
Tatitlek, like many villages in Alaska, is isolated. The only way in or out is by boat or plane. Their runway is gravel, short and sloped, really tricky when ice is about.
Here’s a short story that might give you an insight into life in this remote Seaside Village…
One very cold and drizzly day, I flew some folks from the Anchorage School Board to the Village. They’d left the airport with the person they were meeting and I remained with the aircraft. I’d just finished buttoning up when the rain increased and now I was getting really wet as well as cold.
I’d just crawled back into the airplane trying to dry off when I noticed a man walking toward my aircraft. As he walked up, I opened the window and said, “Hi, How’re you doing?”
In his guttural tone, he said, “I was thinkin’ you may be cold. Do you want to come up to the house and have some coffee?”
I’d not been invited to anyone’s home there before. I was cold. So, I said, “Sure, I’d like to. Tony Priest’s the name,” as I extended my hand.
“William,” as he extended his.
Other than a handshake, not much communication occurred as I followed him up the steep hill toward the village. I was glad his was one of the first homes on the road. As we entered his very rustic home, I felt immediate warmth and comfort.
It felt great getting out of the elements. I immediately drew near the old pot belly heater. I removed my coat and hung it on the hook by the door as he had. A single oil lantern burned on the mantle, casting soft light into the room.
“Coffee’s about ready,” he said.
“Sounds good,” I said. “You’ve got a nice home here William.”
The more I looked around, the more I felt memories of some of my folk’s homes in Georgia in my early years. He invited me to sit down at the kitchen table. Red checkered table cloth, large heavy coffee cups, old wood burning type stove, yes, I’ve been here before.
One of my Aunts had a stove just like that. On the stove was a large iron skillet and a large blue and gray speckled metal coffee pot. As we talked, I felt more and more like I was really living a part in an Alaska Wilderness olden day’s saga.
He gracefully offered and poured my coffee. I continued to look around, now noticing a clothesline with clothes drying in the next room. My thoughts were again drawn to a time with no electricity, no phones.
Sitting at the table, I noticed the view was spectacular from the large window. From this hillside, you could see the harbor, the Russian Orthodox Church, my airplane by the runway, as well as a good portion of the Prince William Sound. As he reached down by his chair, “Here, try these out.”
As he handed me his pair of binoculars, he began pointing out some of his favorite areas and points of interest. He said he loved to watch the large oil tankers coming out of the Valdez Arm and moving along, all weighted down with oil. He also enjoyed watching the birds, the otters and other animals and listening to the whale songs at night.
As we were finishing our coffee, suddenly his wife entered into the living room pushing a T.V. on a cart. I was somewhat surprised and stood up to introduce myself.
“This is Tony, pilot of the airplane that flew in,” he said.
“I was going to watch TV,” she said, giving me a quick glance and nod.
“OK, I’ll go start the generator,” he said as he shuffled his chair to get up.
I said, “Oh, William, I didn’t know you had a TV.”
He looked at me and said proudly, “Yeah, I’ve got a hundred channels with my new Satellite dish. Come on, I’ll show you.”
We went out the back door and sure enough, there was his generator and huge satellite dish. Now I was shocked back into the twentieth century and somewhat amazed that this technology was in such a remote location. I didn’t even think they had electricity.
The time spent with them was warm with friendship. I learned a lot about them and their way of life. They both graciously offered me to stay for dinner. However, it was getting close to takeoff time, so I thanked them greatly for their hospitality and headed down the small dirt road to the airstrip. Behind me I heard the generator fire up. I turned and waved goodbye.
As I walked down the icy muddy road to the airstrip, I reflected on the situation. These people are literally living two lives. This is much like a modern version of the plight of the Native Americans throughout North America.
There’s no wonder that drug and alcohol problems have been so prevalent within the Alaska Native population. They were and still are going through a culture shock. The Native Alaskans, recently living off the land and the sea, are suddenly plunged into the land of Hollywood.
I believe most of the Tatitlek people have handled things very well to this point, however, as in most villages, the tendency for their younger generation to be attracted to the outside world is very strong.
It wasn’t long after I arrived back at the aircraft that my guys showed up.
“Ready to go?” they said cheerfully as they walked toward the airplane.
“You bet. The weather’s about the same as this morning,” I said as I began loading their equipment. “Did you have a good day?”
“Very good day. Thanks for bringing us out,” they said as they climbed aboard.
Back to being a pilot now, I reflected briefly, ‘What a wonderful moment in time.’
Little did anyone know things were about to change for the gracious people of Tatitlek.
Later on, I flew in and out of Tatitlek transporting passengers and cargo and occasionally visiting with the folks. I’d become friends with several people and the tragic event that occurred really affected me.
The tragedy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill March 24, 1989 affected not only my Tatitlek friends, but the rest of the Prince William Sound. The media didn’t really cover Tatitlek’s plight, however this was the closest village to the accident.
I flew across the sound pretty much on a daily basis after the accident. I observed and reported the progress of the oil slick, which was creeping from island to island and steadily inching toward the village. I knew that fishing was their primary source of income and their way of life was dependent on the sea. I feared the worst was about to befall them.
As the crippled Tanker Exxon Valdez continued to dump oil onto the Bligh Island shoreline, I had a bird’s eye view of the oil spill from day one. The first aerial shots of the tragedy by ABC News were filmed from my aircraft. Thereafter, we were busy flying news crews, oil people, clean-up people and finally supplies for the people of Tatitlek.
On one of the flights, I had a few minutes and decided to stop in at Tatitlek and look up my friend Chief Gary Kompkoff. After asking around, I was told he was down by the harbor. I walked down, observing the multitude of fishing boats in port.
I finally caught up with him as he stood alone, gazing at the incoming oozing black flood, just now touching the first boats.
“Hey Gary,” I said as I approached.
He nodded and raised his hand and continued to gaze across the small bay.
“Gary, this doesn’t look real good for you guys,” I said as I viewed the sight.
He turned and as a tear welled up in his eye, “Tony, you’re looking at the end of our Village. It’s the end of our Life as we know it. All the fish are dead. All the birds are dead. You can see the black oil slick moving into our harbor.”
With a shaking hand, he pointed at the leading edge of what might as well have been the Black Plague.
The massive oil slick as it approached the Tatitlek Village harbor.
I watched as the outer boat hulls started taking on the black, oozing oil. Glancing right and left, I saw birds, fish and small animals floating and beginning to litter the shoreline.
What a horrible site, a horrible feeling. I can’t imagine the depth of feeling of loss for those people. It must have felt like the end of the world to them.
I could relate to the feeling if I imagined waking up one day, looking around my neighborhood, finding every lake and stream oozing black, sticky oil and seeing the fish, birds and animals suddenly dead and strewn all around my home. There wasn’t much consoling I could offer. What can a person say? Sorry your world died?
“I’m sorry man. You’ve got my number. Call if we can do more or help you in any way. Call for whatever you need,” I said as I shook his hand.
We headed back up toward the village. As we passed the Church, we again shook hands. I said, “Good Luck on all this.” He nodded and walked away. I continued walking back toward the airstrip, speaking to a few folks along the way.
As I passed William’s house, I remembered some of the things we’d talked about during my past visit. I looked out over the sound. There were no birds. I didn’t have the heart to stop in.
On takeoff, I banked around to take another look at their harbor. It was actually sickening to watch the blackness of death devouring their once vibrant and bird filled harbor.
Since that time, things have improved slowly for the people there. But, what I hear from time to time is that the oil is still present under the rocks and in the bottom of the harbors. We all hope and pray there will never be another tragedy such as this for those people or for anyone.
Bill Kelly, Tony Priest and Gary Kompkoff in Tatitlek
Roland Suter is taking the picture.
Both Bill and Roland assisted in working out Corporate donations for relief to the Village.
As of this writing, Tatitlek is close to being fully recovered and is going strong. The Native American Fishermen who live there are very well known for knowing the best fishing spots in the Prince William Sound. That includes some of the best Halibut fishing in Alaska. You might be lucky enough to connect with one of these guys in the future.
Be sure to call before heading down there. Your only choice of travel of course is by boat or airplane. That’s very typical for Alaska and generally how you find the very best Alaska has to offer. No matter how you get there, it will be an experience you will never forget. Be sure to call first.
A Tribute to my Friend and Chief of the Tatitlek Village – Gary Kompkoff.
“He lived his life in Tatitlek. He referred to his Village and the lands and waters around it as ‘God’s Country,’ and he was always happiest when home,” his family said. “He was an avid subsistence Fisher and Hunter, always providing food for his family.
Gary led his village through the ordeal of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill that fouled the waters of Prince William Sound in 1989. Gary was a tireless and eloquent spokesman for his people and fought to ensure that their voice was and continues to be heard in the restoration process. His philosophy for life can be summed up in his words:
“Our job isn’t done until we’ve taught our children not only what our parents and grandparents taught us, but also what we’ve managed to learn along the way. The world is always changing. Sometimes our culture even changes with it. But our values, our basic traditional values, will always remain the same. Always.”
Chief Gary Phillip Kompkoff
July 21, 1954 – February 20, 2007
IF YOU WANT TO GET EVEN CLOSER TO NATURE
You Might Head on Down to Seward and the Gulf of Alaska!
Let’s back up a bit as this will be a different journey for our Flying Club.
This wonderful trip happened during the summer and created more lifetime memories for some of our Aero Club Members. Seward, Alaska was the destination after exploring the magnificent passes enroute and then taking in the Kenai Fjords boat tour.
The route from Anchorage took us south, across the Turn-again Arm, over Hope, an old Gold Mining Town. A little further down the peninsula we entered Resurrection Pass which turned out to have some dramatic Scenery. One scene was that of a waterfall literally blowing out of a rock face at about 5,000 feet, then dropping to pools lower on the mountain.
Southbound now, we passed over the lower and upper Russian lakes, then followed the Resurrection River to Exit Glacier. At that point just around the bend to the right, Seward came into full view.
The city was almost totally surrounded by majestic snow-covered mountains reflecting in the sea green waters of Resurrection Bay.
After all landed safely, we headed for the docks. At the time, the Kenai Fjords Boat Tours was run by some wonderful friends of mine who gave us a great deal for the day. Could you imagine how we felt, having flown through pristine mountain valleys, landing at an unbelievably beautiful airport setting and then boarding a beautiful 60-foot touring boat for an all-day, spectacular Sea-life tour?
To top things off we were provided a tasty hot lunch while sitting in front of a calving glacier!
One of the many glaciers you will see on a Kenai Fjords tour.
Nature’s Beautiful Architectural Design!
ABA Club Members returning from the wild and beautiful Kenai Fjords.
Virginia Vale is taking the picture.
Our Captain was highly skilled and knew the area intimately. From Puffins to Killer Whales, she knew where they were to be found. I highly recommend this trip for everyone. If you’re not up to flying, there’s a very scenic road and a railroad that will get you there. Regardless of the way you get to Seward Alaska it’s all beautifully spectacular.
Although tired and not that talkative, our journey home was equally scenic and enjoyable. The primary goal, as always, was to have an educational, safe and incident free fly-away adventure.
We Certainly hope you enjoyed this insight into this vast pristine wilderness from another point of view.
Read More: Flying Alaska from Anchorage to Dawson City
If you’ve never been, then Prince William Sound is definitely a travel spot to add to your bucket list!
Captain Tony Boyd Priest
Pilot, Adventurer, Writer
“Too many stories to tell so I began writing books.”
For more great tales of Flying Adventures –
Take a look at these great books!
(Click on the Cover!)
Tony and Judy Priest
See her book about Moving to the South!
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Flying Alaska Traveling the Prince William Sound in WinterKenai Fjords in Spring . The Prince William Sound is located along
It can be hard work to turn your home into a vacation rental. You’ll want to consider safety issues and insurance