Monday, August 5, 2013



It has been reported that millions of Americans are "lining up (and falling down) to take the extreme sports plunge". There are sport climbers who scale sheer cliffs using only ropes; bicycle stunt riders that break the laws of physics; skateboarders who ride off an obstacle and free-fall to the ground; and downhill skaters that blade at 50 mph.       

Then there are those fearless extreme skiers who feel that skiing on lifts is just practice for the real thing.  Once they've skied the Alps, and once they've skied the Rockies, the extreme skiers in Alaska pose the question : "Are you ready for the Chugach?"

Alaska's rugged 7000-foot Chugach Mountain Range is famous for it steep descents and its 500-plus inches of annual snowfall.  It is a challenging mountain adventure for competent, experienced alpine skiers and snowboarders who seek challenge and adventure and have health respect for real alpine environments and their hazards.


An extreme heli-ski day in the Chugach begins in the morning with helicopters filled with skiers who are dropped on the mountain.  Daylight lasts until 7 p.m. in March, 9 p.m. in April, and 11 p.m. in May.  Runs are long and adventurous with time taken to enjoy the scenery and learn about mountain safety.  Ski runs range from 2500 to 5000 vertical feet.  But who's counting? 

Being the non-skier that I am, my visit to Valdez, and the Tsaina Lodge atop Thompson Pass, took place in the summer.  The contemporary 24-room Tsaina Lodge offers cozy accommodations, gourmet dining, and pristine surroundings boasting heli-access to the most remote fishing spots from its on-property heli-pad.

The Tsaina Bar has a colorful history as the center of extreme and freeride innovation in the early 1990s. It continued to serve many an adventurous heli-skier and snowboarder until its closure several years ago. The Tsaina Bar has now returned.  Much of the original furnishings, including the bar, pool table, and wood stove have been restored and relocated in the modern lodge.

Anadyr Adventures allows tourists to experience remote, spectacular glacial fjords, tidewater glaciers, and marine bird and mammals in their natural habitat.  Anadyr Adventures offers four types of trips: day trips for those with limited time in Valdez, multi-day camping trips, Mothership trips for those desiring the amenities of a support vessel, and lodge based trips offering Prince William Sound day excursions from the comfort of a remote Alaskan wilderness lodge.


If you're not a skier, your visit to Valdez will more than likely be in the summer, as part of a cruise or land-tour vacation.  (During the winter, more than 300 inches of snow is measured annually in the city and the nearby Thompson Pass has recorded more than 900 inches in one year.)


Before you go, it is interesting to know a bit about the town's history.  The city of Valdez (pronounced Val-deez) lies at the head of Valdez Arm in a natural fjord that reaches inland 12 miles from Prince William Sound.  Captain Cook sailed through the area in 1778. 

In 1897-98, Klondike gold seekers came to Valdez and found no town and no trail.  A tent city sprang up at the head of the bay and Valdez was formed. There were 4000 stampeders traveling through Valdez that year.  Some enterprising men stayed to set up shops and other businesses.          

In June of 1906, Daniel Guggenheim (of the family of industrialists and philanthropists) joined the Morgan bank to form the Alaska Syndicate.  Their goal was to develop a copper mine and an access railroad.  Subsequent mergers led to the formation of the Kennecott Corporation and, ultimately, the development of mines.  By 1920, the population of Valdez began to slowly decline to 400-500 people. In 1923, the army closed its Valdez facility. 

On Good Friday, 1964, disaster struck Valdez.  A four-minute earthquake, measured at 8.6 and officially upgraded to 9.2, triggered large tsunami waves that washed away the dock drowning 32 people.  The whole townsite, which sat on unstable ground, was condemned.  Over the next four years the town was relocated to its present site.            

In the late 1960's Valdez was chosen to be the terminus of the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline.  The population zoomed to 10,000.  After the oil started flowing in the summer of 1977, the population began to decline.  By January of 1989, the town population had settled to 3500.  In 2010, the population was 3976. 

The Alyeska Marine Terminal, where crude oil is loaded into giant tankers for shipment to refineries in the Lower 48, is just across the bay from Valdez.  
On Good Friday, 1989, disaster struck Valdez again.  The oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, causing the largest oil spill in North American history and thrusting Valdez into the international media limelight.           

Today, in addition to the oil industry, tourism plays a vital role in the area's economy. Attractions and points of interest in "Alaska's Little Switzerland" include the following:     
VALDEZ MUSEUM, claiming to be the best small museum in the state, contains relics from Old Town Valdez, aviation heritage and the history of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

PETER TOTH INDIAN CARVINGS, on permanent display at the Prince William Sound Community College were carved by Hungarian-born Peter Toth who, in 1971, had undertaken a vow to carve an Indian sculpture in each of the 50 states.  Since beginning his mission in 1971, Peter has completed 67 Whispering Giants in all 50 states and Canada, as well as a sculpture in Hungary, completed in 2008.

RUTH POND is a wonderful mini-park surrounded by towering mountains. It is a perfect picnic spot, surrounded by a large grassy area, and available for swimming and boating. 

WORTHINGTON GLACIER is preserved as a State Recreation Site.  Visitors can drive almost to the face of this massive glacier and hike the one-mile trail alongside the moraine.  Caution: Do not walk onto the glacier or the moraine (accumulation of earth and stones left by the glacier).  Slight events can cause sudden collapse or crevasses to appear with no warning.

ALYESKA PIPELINE TERMINAL, the southern terminus of the 800-mile pipeline, is no longer offering tours due to increased security since 9/11/01.           

KEYSTONE CANYON is laced with glaciers and waterfalls such as the stunning Horsetail Falls and the cascading 800-foot  Bridal Veil Falls.


RAFTING AND KAYAKING on the Lowe River provides an exhilarating outing and a chance to see the beautiful Keystone Canyon up close.

SHOPPING for authentic Klondike gold nuggets in the few small gift shops can be advantageous if you do your homework beforehand.  Be advised that there are 20 pennyweights of gold in one troy ounce.

Whether your interested in shiny yellow gold, oily black goo, or magnificent blue ice, Valdez is a colorful spot to visit during the season of your choice.

JANET STEINBERG is an award-winning Travel Writer and a Travel Consultant affiliated with The Travel Authority, Mariemont/Cincinnati, Ohio office.

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