Road to Valdez: a hidden treasure

When you visit the land where mountains breathe and glaciers bleed, consider a drive along the Richardson Highway, from Glennallen to Valdez, in south central Alaska. The 119-mile route – officially named an Alaska Scenic Byway – offers breathtaking scenery, and the town at its end provides a unique slice of Alaskan life and history.

When my husband and I drove to Alaska in August several years ago, we were retracing the trip my parents had made in 1975. In the Valdez section of his journal, my father had written about rain, stacks of pipe for the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, and the pipeline construction camps along the Richardson Highway.

But we were unprepared for the four glacier-clad peaks that rise majestically from the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, towering above lesser mountains in a black spruce wilderness. One of them, Mt. Wrangell, is the only active volcano in the mountain range.

All along the route, which travels along the Copper River basin, the highway crisscrosses braided rivers and looks out over magnificent views of conifer forests and mountains. Elevated sections of the famous pipeline, which parallels the highway, streak through the forests.

Farther south, the road winds through the rugged Chugach (CHEW-gatch) Mountains, the range that borders Prince William Sound. Glaciers spill down the mountains' flanks, and one, the Worthington Glacier, nearly touches the road.

From Thompson Pass at 2,678 feet, it's all downhill for the 26 miles into Valdez.

Hawaii in the Alps

The view at the pass reminded us of Switzerland and Hawaii all at once. Jagged peaks cupping glaciers rose above us, while lush greenery and wildflowers carpeted the slopes below. All around, meltwater streams, like silver threads, bled from glaciers, falling down the rocky slopes into the Lowe River.

For Toni Anne Kwalick, a manager at the Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau, this view was the reason she moved to Valdez from California four years ago. At the summit of Thompson Pass, she remembers, she said to herself: "This is it; I have to live here."

From the pass the highway descends 7.5 miles to the valley that leads to Keystone Canyon, where it winds along the canyon floor and finally hits sea level at Valdez. More waterfalls, called Horsetail and Bridal Veil, pour over the canyon walls into the Lowe River, which rushes through the narrow canyon and unravels into a broad bed before emptying into Port Valdez.

The scenery doesn't end in Valdez, however. Humped, razor-backed mountains, like sleeping dragons with their heads in the harbor, circle the port and the city. Wreathed in vapor on that particular August day, the mountains seemed to breathe. Patches of pink fireweed flared on their velvet-green flanks. The streams coursing out of them churned with spawning pink and chum salmon.

A town with a scrappy history

Here in this almost tropical setting – in summer, at least – on the north shore of the northernmost ice-free harbor in North America, lies the city of Valdez, population about 4,400. The terminus for the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline, Valdez thrives on its oil, fishing, seafood-packing, shipping, and tourism industries, but its success has been hard-won and due in large part to the vitality of its citizens.

Named after a Spanish admiral, Valdez had its start in the late 1800s, when the town became a debarkation point for Klondike gold-seekers. Shops and businesses sprang up to service the miners, and in 1901 Valdez was incorporated as a city.

The Richardson Highway, Alaska's first, developed from the trail forged to the gold fields. It was the only viable link between Fairbanks and the coast until the completion in 1924 of the Alaska Railroad, from Seward to Fairbanks. Then shipping declined along with mining profits, and Valdez's population fell from 7,000 to below 500 during the 1920s.

Shaken by an earthquake

The quiet community was propelled briefly into public news in 1964, when a 9.2-magnitude earthquake struck Alaska on Good Friday.

Fred Christoffersen, just a boy when the quake hit, remembers waving to the crew on the supply-laden S.S. Chena when he heard an explosion like a bomb. As he and a friend ran, Mr. Christoffersen says, he saw waves lift the Chena and throw it onto the dock. Valdez lost 33 citizens during the earthquake, along with buildings and infrastructure.

The citizens were forced to evacuate, and some never came back. But the majority returned to Valdez, and the town rebuilt in 1967 on safer ground four miles east of the old site. "It's home," says Christoffersen.

A teamster, Christoffersen works at the Valdez Terminal – the southern end of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline – where tankers bound for the lower 48 are loaded with crude oil from the North Slope.

Opened in 1977, the terminal conducts tours for visitors. Signs on the grounds outline the challenges the pipeline builders faced. A monument to the workers includes a plaque that reads: "We didn't know it couldn't be done."

"The town was dying on its feet prior to the oil industry," says Christoffersen. "The main industry was king crab and salmon fishing, and it only does as good as mother nature lets it do."

While the pipeline was being built, the city's population boomed. Residents worried that Valdez would become just an oil town, Christoffersen says, but with renewed vitality, the town managed to attract other industries, and by the late '80s the population had stabilized at about 3,500.

The oil-spill disaster

Then, on March 24, 1989, another Good Friday, the community was catapulted into the public eye once again. The Exxon Valdez, full of oil from the Valdez Terminal, ran aground in Prince William Sound and spilled millions of gallons of oil. Valdez became the staging area for the massive cleanup, and workers poured in. Almost overnight the population tripled.

"There were blue tarp cities everywhere," says Christoffersen. He was working for the airport during the cleanup, putting in 16- and 18-hour days.

The operation created an economic boom for Valdez, but the effects of the spill lingered. "The herring fishing just came back [in 1999]," says Christoffersen.

During my morning run after our one-night stay in a comfortable bed and breakfast, I sensed the overflowing energy that helps Valdez weather its booms and busts. It was just before 8 o'clock, and Valdezans in cars and on bikes headed for work. The cool, sea-scented air invigorated me as I ran toward the sound, with the sun warming my back and glinting off the glaciers on the peaks ahead.

Street names like Avalanche, Iditarod, and Snowtree flashed by, and a sign on the Catholic church, "Lift up your eyes unto the heavens and watch for falling ice and snow," showed that this vital, prosperous community rebounds with a smile.

"The nice thing about Valdez is there's a road out," says Christoffersen. Along Alaska's more than 40,000 miles of coastline, there are only a handful of ports that can be reached by automobile.

Don't bypass the drive to Valdez.

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