Whittier, Alaska


August 2006


Getting to Whittier meant timing our arrival for a 15-minute window (each hour) of time to get through a 2.5 mile, one-lane tunnel that is shared with the railroad.   Whittier is a small, picturesque town and is the western gateway to Prince William Sound.  Prince William Sound is surrounded by the Chugach National Forest (the second largest in the U.S.) and by three of North America's major ice fields.  It is made up of many deep fjords and dotted with islands.  Although it was overcast and damp, we took a 4.5-hour, 135-mile cruise on a catamaran to see 26 glaciers.  We saw massive tidal glaciers that, pressured by their own weight, move toward the the water, ending at the ocean's edge, where they break off in giant slabs of ice that crash into the sea.  We actually saw several and captured part of it in a photo.  There were a number of Piedmont glaciers that are formed when glacial ice forms a fan-shaped mass at the base of a mountain.  We also got a closer look at alpine glaciers, formations that start high on the slopes of mountains and plateaus and literally hand from the sides of mountains. 

Although we had hoped to see whales on the cruise, we did see lots of sea otters and seals and hundreds of Black Legged Kittiwakes that nest in the surrounding sea cliffs.  We took a short drive to nearby Hope, another small, picturesque village and to the Beich, Boggs Visitor Center overlooking the Portage Glacier where we learned a lot about glaciers. 

Glaciers appear blue to the eye (and the camera) because the ice is so dense and compact.  There are no air bubbles to scatter the light, creating the white appearance.  When sunlight strikes glacier ice, the lower energy colors are absorbed by the ice and only the blue color, which has the most energy, is reflected back to the eye.  The unique milky blue color of glacial waters is due to the silt or rock flour that stays suspended in the water.  As glaciers move over the landscape, the rocks they pick up along the way grind against the mountainsides, creating the fine, dust-like particles.

Click on each thumbnail to see larger picture.