May 31st, 2008

The Books, from Thompson Pass

It's pretty in AlaskaOur time in Valdez with our friends was really great, and that speaks a lot for our friends considering the circumstances we ended up arriving under. Tragically, the week before we got there, a close friend of theirs committed suicide. The reason we were joined by Luke a week early, who we are floating Birch Creek with later in the trip, was for the memorial service. So, it was nice to see Valdez not only with Elise but with her boyfriend Luke, but it was a little strained. Anyway, with that sad fact in mind, I’ll proceed to detail our adventures.

Elise's fishing boatWe had a real treat driving over Thompson Pass into Valdez with clear sunny skies and great visibility. This is a rare thing in the rainy coastal town of Valdez, known for the immense amount of precipitation it receives and the great heli skiing that permits. We saw the glacier at the top, marveled at the great access to sweet ski lines right off of the highway, and got good views of “the books” - cool mountains visible on the way in. We got to our friends house a little before they were to arrive, but her Dad showed us a good time. We had showers, picked up some booze (Alaskan Brewing’sSea otter in the Valdez harbor new Barleywine), and he showed us some of the great photos he takes as a hobby. He had great photos of swans, bears, etc, but my favorite was of the mountain “fata morgana”, where the light hits the peaks from behind and casts an amazing shadow into the clouds, creating the appearance of a peak within a peak. I wish I could share the photo, but he’s keeping secret and safe to sell, I think. Anyway we basically just hung out for two days. We were still recovering from McCarthy, and everyone else was emotionally tired. Tesoro Alaska in ValdezWe rode our bikes around town, checked out the fishing boat (a seiner) our friend would be working on in a few days, saw a sea otter sleeping in the harbor, watched a cool local ski movie featuring some big athletes before they were famous (Dean Cummings, Victoria Jealous, etc), talked to a falconer (who had great stories, like about the hippy who got him into it and feeding unwanted pets to his birds) and the highlight: amazing beer-battered halibut. Incredible. Even better than the tempura halibut we had in Homer, which was amazing. The secret, apparently, is to use fresh halibut, cheap beer, and actual rendered beef fat to fry it in.

Chillin on the sailboat.

Porpoises playing off the bowThe main attraction of Valdez was supposed to be the skiing and the sea kayaking, but no one else had their ski gear so we just went sea kayaking. It was great because they knew enough people with kayaks to outfit the four of us (Drew, Elise, Luke and myself) for free. Elise had formerly worked as a kayak guide and still knew people, so it was good. Better yet, a friend of theirs offered to Getting into the kayaks in Shoup Baytake us out to the bay we wanted to kayak in on her sailboat! This meant about half as much paddling, and a cool sailboat ride to boot. The winds were too calm to actually sail, but the ride was nice. We pulled up some of their shrimp pots (something I’d never thought about doing recreationally instead of commercially) and got a small batch of big delicious fresh prawns, and on our way to Shoup Bay we had porpoises play in our bow wake! It’s kind of a cliched thing I supposed, but I’m from Montana so porpoises and new and amazing. At any rate we eventually got dropped off in Shoup Bay and paddled up towards the glacier.

Not-so-shrimpy shrimpShrimp pot with a small catch

Approaching Shoup GlacierThe glacier is not one of the large impressive ones that calves into the ocean, but it comes down and touches the ocean and looks very pretty nonetheless. Even though I’ve dome some river kayaking, sea kayaking was a new and fun experience as well. The little rudder on the back of the kayak was fun to play with. We had to beat the high tide up to glacier, or the current runs too fast in the wrong direction and you can’t get up to it, but we made it in just in time. At the glacier we played around a bit, checked out the seagull rookery (and laughed a bit at a girl who sits in an Lunch time at the glacieranchored Zodiac and watches the birds all day… every day… all summer… and was back for her second year!) and Luke grabbed an iceberg to make drinks with later (his “Trix” as he called it, for reasons I will never fully understand). We rode the tide current out of the bay and back towards home. This is where it got a bit intense for a land-lubber like myself. The winds had kicked up a bit and we had small breakers on the water. Now, for a river kayaker waves are nothing new, but you get used to the security of being just a few yards from shore in case you roll over and you Gull rookerygenerally are facing the kayak into the waves. In the ocean (even a protected bay like Valdez) you can quickly become much farther from the shore, and unless you want to paddle directly into the wind which ever direction that might be, sooner or later you have to orient your kayak parallel with the waves which in 2-3 foot white caps is sketchy at best. It was terrifying. I am not a salty dawg. We survived, naturally, becuase if it had gotten too bad we would have pulled out on shore. Luke, with an iceberg on board for drinks laterAlso, I’ve kayaked before. But I was gripped. It was an exhausting paddle fighting wind and waves for 8 miles or however far it was back to Valdez. Really made me appreciate the free lift out there on the sail boat. We pulled out at a sweet cabin owned by a friend of Elise’s who gave us some hot water bottles and delicious snacks (brie and blueberry juice!) and it ended up being an awesome day, but there were moments when I wasn’t so sure about it. Trix made great cocktails later that night as well, following a delicious pasta dish with the shrimp we’d pulled out of the bay earlier in the day.

To end our time in Valdez we hung out a little more, checked out the Pipeline bar, finished off Trix and rolled out to meet Luke again in Fairbanks in a week. Going over Thompson Pass on the way out we regretted not making any turns since it was sunny when we arrived and now it was rainy. But, since it was the first of June (a June ski day!) and I didn’t want to have driven of Thompson Pass and NOT skiied, I did one short run. Drew didn’t want to mess with his ski gear and stayed in the car, and frankly it was a crappy day and I had to to soak my ski boots fording a small creek to get to the snow, but by God I skied Thompson Pass on my trip to Valdez. :)

Deadly glacial Main Street PeakSneaking in a June ski run on Thompson Pass

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