“Is there anything specific you want us to cover or focus on?” I ask Colleen, before we were about to board her families catamaran. Her smile widens, her kind eyes almost giggle at me, “Just go out there and enjoy yourselves.”
I knew there and then I was being taken somewhere special… and I was.
Tucked away in between the Chugach mountain range and the Gulf of Alaska is Prince William Sound a 2.6 million hectare nook of spectacular proportions, Valdez is spectacularly positioned within that nook and it is from here that we are taking the world class ‘Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises.’
Walking along Valdez’s little fishing harbour we cannot see any of its prize glaciers, nor the other end of town, which shouldn’t be very hard. The fog has lingered this morning and as we pull out from the dock and into the sound, the blanket of grey continues to resist any early morning light. Shadows loom above and beside us making it an eerie start to the day and captivating us to imagine what our surroundings truly look like.
We have barely settled into our seats on the top deck when we are introduced to Ian, the cheerful captain who is determined to wake anyone with a little sleep still in their system. He’s adamant that we are going to have the best day in Prince William Sound and he cannot wait to show us why he’s happy to trade Valdez for Hawaii every day of the year. Within half an hour, he’s pulling up nice and close to Anderson Falls, a 100m vertical cascade of water plummeting off the side of a verdant cliff and into the tepid blue water of the sound. “Oh and if you look to the right, we have a raft of sea otters, let me just try and get a little closer,” Ian’s voice beams from the speakers. He shifts our position, cuts the engine and sure enough, a curious trio of furry otters are paddling on their backs. They happily take a closer look with their beady eyes never shifting from our hulking vessel, a look that has reasonably earned them the nickname ‘the old man of the sea.’ A surge of excitement wafts amongst the guests and it seems everyone has left the comfort of their inside cabin to hang over the sides of the boat and gaze around them in awe, we are now all hanging onto every word Ian is saying.
Our westerly progress is slow thanks to many more similar interruptions: Horned and tufted puffins, stella sea lions, bald eagles, dall’s porpoise, humpback whales, the ruins of old mines with tales of gold riddled glory, historic explorers passages and panoramic scenery. One after the other we begin to immerse ourselves in this wonderland and although the progress was incredibly slow no one cared, we were too busy on the lookout for the next highlight, excitable for what appears around every corner. That’s Ian’s enthusiasm for you…
With lunch now behind us, we are all back out on the deck braving the bitter breeze for a closer look at our surroundings. The glassy teal water has recently become polluted by ice pieces, an indication we’re etching closer to the main attraction, Meares Glacier. As the ice chunks become bigger with each passing corner, harbour seals begin to appear lazing on top of any that can support their rather cumbersome body. Perfect little posers, I’m so wrapped up with my camera I nearly miss the limitless wall of ice looming in the distance. Icebergs the size of a modest home float beneath the glacier and warp the perspective to even greater proportions. Ian navigates the boat as close as he can, but a thunderous crack resinates from the wall followed by tumbling ice crashing into the water, this is called ‘carving’ and is the reason Ian doesn’t push any closer. A wake emanates though the moraine, knocking seals off their ice ‘lounges’ and gently rocking our boat. A new iceberg, rivalling the size our our vessels bobs and sways viciously before finding it’s equilibrium and placidly joining the other icy pieces.
Returning to Meares glacier it is almost hard to imagine that this is a 100 meter vertical wall of ice and its snaking body is visible for 13 kilometres. Its incredible summit over the surrounding mountains is distorted by the fact that everything in the Prince William Sound is enormous, vast and wholly alters your perspective. Luckily, a second boat approaches its vast face as we retreat, “this is the only vessel we ever see out here” Ian nods and we are enchanted to able to see just how high the face of ice actually is. We learn that Meares glacier is a particularly special one, it’s one of the very few glaciers which are advancing. Carving, the cracking and shaving-off of the glaciers wall is its way of regenerating rather than receding.
We spend a while, marvelling at the wall, waiting for the next monstrous crack to disturb the serenity. I notice everyone is whispering, not a shy whispering, an excited kind, like when you’re spying on a wild animal and don’t want to disturb it. I can’t help but see the humorous side to this because Meares is so violent, tumultuous, uncaring and… un-real but somehow whispering seems fitting, a sign of respect or commemoration for natures exquisite creation.
Slowly we start to make our way back, taking a new route which is equally as impressive. I chose to spend some time with Ian up in the helm and he opened up about his connection with the sound, Stan Stephens, his love-affair with Alaska and snuck in some recommendations for a few cheap eats in town to try crispy salmon and chips, a must in Valdez. His love of sharing is, by now, evident to all and the cabin is crowded with guests, questions and swapping stories. I must have adequately expressed my incessant love for puffins because somehow we detoured back into a well known puffin habitat – now that’s a captain!
Hands cupped around a warm bowl of clam chowder, distracted from the outside world for only a few minutes, a minke whale and her pup momentarily surface beside us, take a breath and dive back into the icy waters, a final exhilarating moment from a magnificent day.
When I think back to Colleens words from earlier “Just go out there and enjoy yourselves” it is hard to imagine that anyone could not.
A little more about Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises…
Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises is family owned and run business which has been operating in the area since 1971. The concept to take tourists to “experience a marine wonderland like nowhere else in the world” (excerpt from Stan Stephens’ brochure) originated from the late Stan Stephens himself and continues to live on through his wife and daughter, Colleen, who was our guide for this trip. Stan’s passion for Valdez and the Prince William Sound exceeded his desire to amuse tourists. Since the devastating Alaskan oil spill in 1989 he turned much of his attention and money towards conservation and protection of the area and has been well recognised for those efforts. It seems that everyone connected with the company has been infected with the same level of enthusiasm and love for this beautiful part of the world and likewise, infect any travellers who just so happen to pass through.
This tour was complimentary with agreement to reviewing and publicising the tour. However, in no way, shape or form does my review need to shine positively on the Stan Stephens Wildlife and Glacier Cruise. All opinions are my own and I would recommend this tour in an instant to my closest friends.