Thursday, August 23, 2012

Valdez - where the bears join the party!
Valdez - another beautiful coastal town where a declining fishing industry is being offset to some extent by an slowly expanding tourist sector, although this largely means that new people are making money and those that did in the past are now doing it tough. It’s hard to shift from being a fisherman to tour operator. 

Bears come to town for the annual festival
We happened to arrive in town in time for the annual Gold Rush Days festival. On our way to the festival route we passed the Convention Centre where a cardboard cut-out of a black bear stood on the carefully manicured lawn. As we wandered by, the cut-out suddenly came to life and retreated into the nearby bushes where it stood on its hind legs to observe us, quickly joined by two more little heads poking out of the bushes trying to see who was passing by. Mother bear and her two cubs then scampered off across the road into a larger patch of forest, less than a block from where the festival, with all of the town’s population in attendance, was commencing.

Scouts leading the annual Gold Rush Days Festival
We were then treated to an impressive array of floats that reflected the incredibly strong sense of community pride that seems to be essential for small towns living of the brink of viability. At the end of the parade route the whole town, and all of it’s visitors, were treated to a free fish-fry lunch followed by a collective town photo on the lawns that the bears had recently vacated. 

Back to the old days
The salmon run is at its peak now, although well below normal levels, and spawning is occurring in the creeks flowing into the fiord. We stopped to watch a black bear pulling fish after fish out of a stream but, too full to eat any more fish, it would simply press both front paws on the flapping salmon and, if it was a female, licking up the extruded eggs and, if a male, ignoring it and going back for another.

Yet again, kayaking was an opportunity not to be passed up, so we launched our craft onto the lake at the foot of the Valdez glacier and  paddled around among the icebergs and eerily blue ice caves. The sound of fully automatic gunfire from the nearby rifle range did take the edge off the experience somewhat. We can’t help but wonder why anyone would need to practice shooting with what sounded like a military assault weapon. Groucho Marx once said something like “I could never support an organisation that would accept me as a member”. Similarly, something tells me that anyone that wants to have a fully automatic rifle is probably not the sort of person that should have one!  

Paddling Valdez Lake

Ice bergs on Valdez Lake
Paddling into the emerald chamber

Wrangel-St Elias
From Valdez, we headed northwards (which is what you have to do in order to go south) and revisited the Wrangell-St Elias National Park, this time from its northern boundary, camping overnight and hiking the next day up the mountainsides to gain views of this incredibly vast landscape. The thing that is remarkable about Alaska is the small proportion of the state that is actually accessibly by roads. Consequently you have to keep getting up on the passes and ridges to truly appreciate how far it extends beyond the view from the windscreen. 

Wrangel International Airport

An other thing that is remarkable about Alaska is the fact that you can shoot the wildlife in the National Parks. I’m not sure if this is a general rule, but in Wrangell-St Elias which comprises both  National Park and Preserve you can shoot in one but not the other (can’t recall which) but unfortunately no-one told the bears and moose where the boundary is (or which one thwy can be shot in) so one moment they are protected and several steps later, are a legitimate target. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that we saw not a single animal in this park. Again, the sound of gunshots marred what would otherwise have been a very rewarding experience. Remember, this is the state where Sarah Palin offered a bounty of $150 for the gunning down of wolves from airplanes!

Kluane - on the edge of the inaccessible
As we make our way south into the panhandle of Alaska we pass alongside the massive ranges of Kluane National Park, an area with few trails or roads - an area which only the serious backpacker can access. By virtue of our van, we were able to briefly scratch its surface, venturing down one of the few rough back roads that access the park, crossing glacier fed creeks and rocky moraine fields left by glaciers in the not-to-distant past. At one point we were struck by tiers of rounded stones perched on the side of the valley walls suggestive of lake shores of the past. And sure enough, this is what they turned out to be, but of a not-to-distant past. Advancing glaciers which had flowed down from adjoining valleys had blocked the flow of water from the valleys they bisected creating massive perched lakes which shaped their rocky shorelines. Then, as the pressure exerted by the lake increased and the changing climate undermined the icy will of the glacial tongues they finally succumbed in a massive icy dam break which emptied several hundred feet of water in a matter of days, flooding the valleys below and leaving shorelines perched high on the valleys above - an event retold through the stories of the local Athabascans.

It was beneath these imprints of the massive forces at play that we spent the night, alone, except for the company of a whistling wind that surged down from the icefields above as stormy skies broiled over our heads, and the company of a family of falcons that seemed to view these winds as a source of amusement rather than threat. 

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