|We left Soldotna heading for the Portage Glacier area. We had visited Portage Glacier back in 1992 when we made our whirlwind, weeklong trip through Alaska with Bryan's parents. Paul and Carol, the couple we met back at the Fairbanks Elks, told us the Williwaw campground was a nice, forest service campground centrally located to Portage Glacier, Whittier, and Girdwood. But they also told us about a great boondocking (free campsite) that they had discovered and gave us instructions for how to find it.
We dropped the RV off at a trailhead parking lot and took the Jeep to find the free campspot. The site they told us about had two campers already set up and we didn't want to crowd or instrude on their space. So we took off exploring and found another site with no one there but a single car. We figured they were probably just hiking one of the nearby trails. So back we went to get the RV and then set up our campsite along a peaceful little pond. We fixed some lunch then headed for the visitor center at Portage Lake to watch the film, "Voices from the Ice." We're not sure, but think it may have been the same movie we saw with Bryan's parents back in 1992. Although when the film finished, they opened the curtains, as they did before when we were with Bryan's parents, but this time, there were no floating icebergs in the window behind the curtains as I had remembered before. There was just Portage Lake.
We looked at some of the exhibits before picking up the schedule for the Whittier tunnel.
The Anton Anderson (Whittier) Memorial Tunnel was built in the 1940's as part of the Whittier Cutoff, a 12.4 mile long railway line constructed to safeguard the flow of military supplies from the port of Whittier. The tunnel is the longest highway tunnel and longest combined highway/railroad tunnel in North America at 13,200 feet. The tunnel uses a computerized traffic-control system that regulates both rail and highway traffic. Traffic heading east to Whittier runs every hour on the 1/2 hour and traffic returning to Portage runs every hour at the top of the hour. The schedule is flexible to allow for trains to pass through when needed. The speed limit is 25 mph in the narrow tunnel and it takes about 6.5 minutes to drive through. We paid $12 for our roundtrip ticket and got in line for the tunnel. My camera didn't take very good pictures inside the tunnel due to the flash so I've only posted a couple of photos near the exit.
Whittier was created by the US Army during WWII as a port and petroleum delivery center for military bases further north. The Alaska Marine Highway has a terminal here with ferries to Valdez and Cordova. Princess and Holland America Cruise Lines also drop passengers off in Whittier. I believe the cruise ship tourists are probably the majority of the train passengers.
Once we arrived in Whittier, we walked through some of the shops along the boardwalk, then decided to check out the rest of the town. There are two large condomium towers that appear to house most of the town's population. We visited the museum and read that the area suffered major damage during the 1964 earthquake and tsunami with several people killed, mostly by the tsunami.
We drove to a park near the beach and found a couple of families fishing in the creek which flows to Prince William Sound. In the span of about 10 minutes, one of the wives caught three fish. She was great at catching them, and then her husband would come cut them loose and throw them up on the beach, where they would thrash about. We got her to pose with one of her prize catches.
We had been given rousing recommendations for a couple of good restaurants to try in Girdwood, about 10 miles from where we were camping, so decided to get in line to drive back through the tunnel and perhaps have an early dinner at the Double Musky Inn. The place was packed so we figured it must be good. We had about an hour's wait for a table but had a seat at the bar, near the kitchen, so we could watch as the food was being dished up and carried to the waiting diners. The wait staff would yell "IN" as they were heading into the kitchen, while those heading out with plates would yell "OUT." It was pretty amusing to watch and while they came close, no one collided with plates of food. Bryan had the Peppered Steak, a thick sirloin smothered in a bernaise sauce; I had the Seafood Pasta with shrimp, halibut, and salmon. It was our priciest meal of the trip but very delicious and we were glad we splurged.
Paul and Carol also told us about their adventure hiking to the top of the Alyeska ski resort. Alyeska is the largest ski resort in Alaska, with a 5 star hotel to go with it. In the summer, the ski trails are open for hiking and mountain biking. There is a $20 tram to take you to the top, where you can hike, sightsee, and have a meal. There are two restaurants - the informal Glacier Express, or the fancier 7 Glaciers Restaurant. If you hike to the top, you can take the tram down for free. After talking with Paul and Carol back in Fairbanks, we had made up our minds that we were going to hike to the top, just like they did. It's a 2.2 mile hike up, with an elevation gain of 2200 feet but a good trail with switchbacks. We surveyed the trail, then went inside to see about picking up a trail map for the next day.
The lady at the gift shop gave us a map but did everything in her power to discourage us from taking the hike. She recommended other trails instead. This area has been saturated for the better part of the past two weeks with heavy rains. She said the trails are quite slippery and washed away and in some cases we could encounter streams actually running across the trails. She also said that a bear has had a couple of cubs in the area and there had been recent sitings. Another concern was that the trail crosses near a wolf den with new pups. She was really putting doubts as to whether or not it was a good idea to hike it. We left with our map, and agreed to see how we felt in the morning.