Alaska: Day 4

Today’s Alaska update is brought to you as part of a mutual effort with all my new family, who just got off the fishing boat in Whittier. AK with me. Plus, you are getting lots of facts thanks to my new cousin Brett Roth, a science teacher who clearly LOVES Alaska. He’s also pictured below in the orange/black jacket.

We are all sitting in the parking lot in Whittier, because we just missed the tunnel opening by 2 minutes, so have to wait another 45 minutes before we can leave town.

A word about the tunnel. Until about 10 years ago Whittier, a tiny military-turned-fishing village, was not accessible by car. There was a single lane train tunnel running from Portage, south to Whittier. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is the longest in North America. Thanks to Senator Ted Stevens, the tunnel was opened to automobile traffic in both directions. You can now drive into Whittier every hour, on the half hour, and out every hour, on the hour.

While Whittier itself is tiny, the vehicle accessibility to it has done a lot for this area. When we arrived at 6:30 this morning to board the boat for our fishing charter, there was a large cruise ship docked nearby. Charter boats take daily trips out into Prince William Sound, made infamous by Joseph Hazelwood who, after a few drinks managed to captain his boat, the Exxon Valdez, as it collided into Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound and causing economic turmoil to many a local fisherman. It is today considered “one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters ever to occur at sea.”

We drove to Whittier from Anchorage, and along Turnagain Arm, part of Cook Inlet. Turnagain Arm is so named because when Captain Cook first sailed into it, he was looking for the Northwest Passage. He kept commanding his men to “turnagain” as he got caught in the changing tides, and the name stuck.

Speaking of changing tides, Turnagain Arm is home of the 2nd highest tidal fluctuations in the western hemisphere (the first is the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia). In fact, about once a month they have something called a Bore Tide – a phenomenon where the tide empties almost all the water out of the Arm and, as it returns later, it does so as one rolling wall of water that moves up with the tide. It’s a constantly breaking wave that, as it charges up the inlet, offers some recent crazy surfers and kayakers a unique opportunity to ride one, continuous wave for miles on end, as it refills the Arm. Here’s a great video clip of one charging up Turnagain Arm.

According to Brett (who I think was quoting Wikipedia), 182 people live in Whittier. And they all live in the same building here in town. It’s one large condo-style building. The building is called Begich Towers – named after the father of the senator who succeeded Ted Stevens.

So we arrived this morning, with enough folks to have two charter boats. Lots of folks are in town for (also new cousin) Monica’s wedding so family on both sides came out for fishing in Prince William Sound.

We went out on the “Offshore Hunter” with Jay, our captain from Whittier Alaska Fishing Charters. We set out around 7:30 a.m., amidst thick fog, though Brett had promised me: “This sh*t’ll burn off.” I think that’s Alaska speak for “It’s going to clear up.” Turns out he was right!

Brett is no stranger to this area. He lives in Girdwood, just north of Whittier, and spends a lot of time fishing this area. He’s a high school science teacher and has taken this summer off and done a lot of fishing, camping and exploring. He’s one unique character, and a wealth of knowledge about local facts. He educated me throughout the day and is sitting behind me in the car now (because we made it back through the tunnel finally), steadily providing me a barrage of facts to share with you (don’t worry, I’m omitting the boring ones like – Prince William Sound was first explored by the British, blah blah).

I was bundled up for the boat as if to take on the Arctic Circle, because Ryan and Gayle were both afraid of this southern gal freezing on the water. I literally had 6 layers on my upper body to start the day. Fortunately, the sun came out and I ended up peeling layers down to just my tank top for several hours. The day could not have been more perfect. It was just warm and sunny enough to make it completely pleasant. As we headed back to shore and the sun went behind clouds though, we bundled right back up!

We fished today for Halibut and Salmon. We didn’t catch a single Salmon but we caught lots of Halibut (24 of them, in fact). We also caught some Rock Fish and one giant Lingcod – about a 40 pounder. Together Ryan and I walked away with roughly 50 pounds of Halibut – do you KNOW what that would cost us in Knoxville?? Since Halibut is probably my favorite fish, I cannot wait to cook up and eat one that I managed to catch myself!

And ABOUT fishing for Halibut – that is HARD WORK! First, the weights on our lines were 2 or 3 pounds. That may not sound like much but, try dropping it straight down 300 feet. Just reeling a fishless line in was work, so imagine fighting a 20 pound Halibut, that you have to wrangle the length of a football field!

We’re staying in Girdwood tonight, hoping to hike Alyeska tomorrow and all I know is there’s a hot tub in our cabin and my arms are screaming for it. It’s almost 9 p.m. in Alaska and the sun is still shining brightly as we make our way to the cabin. My body is again reminding me it’s almost 1 a.m. my time and the family has mercifully opted for pizza in the cabin in lieu of dinner out.

The day has been absolutely amazing. Boating in between glaciers and mountains, seeing Orcas, porpoises, even a humpback whale, and all the while getting to know these awesome folks who are now my family – an amazing day, indeed.

(Side note: I’m finishing this post, which is being meticulously edited by Gayle and Brett, around 10:30 p.m. We just learned that the other boat lost an engine on the return trip and so, are still out on the Sound. The last tunnel opening is at 11 p.m. so we’ve yet to learn if they get stuck in the Whittier parking lot overnight, or make it through in time for the final ride through the tunnel. All I can say is… thank the powers that be it wasn’t our boat!)

Now – that hot tub is calling my name…