Paddling the Prince
by Lin Alder
taken from the October 2005 issue
The roar of falling water is growing louder as our bright yellow and red sea kayaks dip and bob in the calmness of Alaska’s Blackstone Bay. Our five-person crew paddles toward a 400-foot sheer cliff face topped by an overhanging glacier that rises at least 200 more feet. Car-sized chunks of ice peel themselves from the glacier and whack the water with a cavernous thud. Echoes reply slowly and remind us of the vastness of this Alaskan seascape.
Where the cliff and glacier meet, a gushing torrent of meltwater hurtles itself into the air to form an amorphous curtain of mist and river. As we paddle, the roar culminates in a tooth-rattling rumble, and we laugh out loud at how tiny we feel compared to this overpowering and isolated seascape. It is such a perfect scene that one of our crew can’t help but ask, “Hey, are we in The Truman Show?”
It is a fitting welcome to Prince William Sound—a 12,000-square-mile constellation of glacier-carved fjords, bays, channels, and islands with more than 3,000 miles of rugged and rarely visited shoreline. The Chugach Mountains surround the sound to the north, east, and west; several islands protect it from the stormy Gulf of Alaska to the south.
Car-sized chunks of ice peel themselves from the glacier and whack the water with a cavernous thud.
The Chugach help shoo away year-round residents. Fewer than 10,000 people live in the two native villages (Chenega and Tatitlek) and three towns (Whittier, Valdez, and Cordova) on the shores of Prince William Sound. No roads connect these communities. The sound is the kind of place where people move to get away from such nuisances as rural mail delivery and neighbors.
We came to Blackstone Bay in the western sound via motorized water taxi from Whittier, a tiny port village that seems dropped from the sky for a James Bond movie. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, a one-lane warren with a toll and strict schedules for westbound cars, eastbound cars, and trains, provides the only vehicle access to and from town.
Whittier, an ice-free port, is a former strategic military post 65 miles southeast of Anchorage, a relic of Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Its drab military buildings are primarily abandoned now. A new pastel orange and blue high-rise condo complex now dominates the forested cul-de-sac of a fjord where the village rests. Instead of GIs, Whittier now hosts paddlers and merchant marine sailors.
One former military building still in use, however, is a dark and spacious four-story garage that houses the Prince William Sound Kayak Center. Our guide, Laura Reynolds, leads us there to pick up essential gear for the sound—full-length rubberized overalls, rubberized rain jackets, and black knee-high rubber boots.