An older couple stood at the guardrail, their car parked on a shoulder not wide enough to accommodate it. It was an act so reckless that a semi blared its horn at them as it passed.
I could see what they were risking their lives for–beluga whales, two of them, swimming in a protected cove near the road.
Deciding that it was not worth dying over but badly wanting to see the whales ourselves, we waited until we could pull into a parking lot and then got a closer look. One beluga was milky white and the other, gray: it was a mama and her baby, slowly circling around one another.
As we stood there, moved by this quiet scene, an immense bird flew overhead, its feathers a dark mottled color, the beak not yet yellow. It was a juvenile bald eagle, eyeing the water for food, but it seemed to us as if, wings spread, he was an Alaskan ambassador, calling our attention to the splendor of our surroundings. (As if we needed reminding!)
We were heading south on Seward Highway, going from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula for a hike near the town of Whittier, and this little family of belugas wasn’t the first group of whales we’d seen that day. Just a few minutes earlier we’d passed a turnout jammed with cars and people, and, curious as to what they were looking at, we stopped as well. It took us a moment to realize that dozens of beluga whales were in the water. Belugas are slow moving creatures, and they allowed us plenty of time to watch as they fed at a luxurious pace.
Seward Highway runs along the Turnagain Arm, a branch of the Cook Inlet, and belugas are so common in the Turnagain Arm that the overlook where we stopped is named Beluga Point. In fact, when it comes to U.S. beluga whales, Alaska holds all the cards; the entire population lives within Alaskan waters, and the group that we were seeing, the Cook Inlet stock, lives in this area full-time. These whales have been isolated from other Alaskan groups for so long that they are genetically distinct. They are also endangered.
We used to go to Sea World San Antonio years ago–not something I would do these days–but we loved seeing these whales. With their bulbous foreheads and expressive faces, they were especially lovable. Now, unexpectedly, we were seeing them in the wild, a fact that we were having difficulty processing.
What a way to start our day.
Our target for the day was a hike to Portage Glacier. In order to access the trailhead, we had to go to Whittier, a small town with a quirky twist–a couple of quirky twists, actually: first, there’s only one road into and out of town, and it passes through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, which, at 2.5 miles, cuts through an entire mountain and is North America’s longest tunnel. Both cars and trains use the tunnel, and, because it’s limited to one lane, traffic can only pass in one direction at a time. There’s a strict schedule that controls ingoing and outbound traffic, and the tunnel is closed each night.
The other interesting fact about Whittier is that most of its 218 residents live in a single 14-story building, the Begich Towers, formerly an Army barracks. Whittier as a town didn’t exist until World War II, when the U.S. Army used the area as a jumping-off point for troops and cargo. The Begich Towers was constructed after the war and actively used by the Army until 1960; when the military left, it was later repurposed to house an entire town within its walls.
The complex contains condominiums as well as everything that residents might need for daily life, including a convenience store, grocery, laundromat, health clinic, police department, post office, and church. The public school sits behind the towers, and an underground tunnel connects the two buildings so that children don’t have to go outside in the rain–Whittier’s the rainiest city in the U.S.–or on brutal winter days, when it’s not uncommon for winds to blow at 60 mph and temperatures to drop below freezing.
Whittier sits at the head of the Passage Canal and within the Chugach National Forest and is, like the rest of south-central Alaska, incredibly scenic. It’s also a popular tourist destination, and, according to the town’s website, it receives over 700,000 people a year by car, train, ferry, or cruise ship.
We explored the town, which wasn’t much more than the Begich Towers, the port, a large parking lot, and a few free-standing houses, apartment buildings, and businesses, as well as the Buckner Building, an eerie military complex long ago abandoned. The Buckner, completed in 1953 and once called a “city under one roof,” now sits near the edge of town looking cold and forlorn.
The hike was about four miles round trip to the lake and back (we added another mile or so by walking the lakeshore). With more than 1400 feet in total elevation gain, the hike was moderately challenging but absolutely worth it.
A steep ascent brought us to Portage Pass, which gave us our first view of Portage Glacier:
From the pass, we descended and soon had a full view of the glacier, which flowed down to the edge of the lake. Numerous chunks of ice floated in the slate-blue water, and the air blowing off of the lake was cold. We periodically heard cracking and crashing but never saw Portage glacier actually calving. Then again, the mountains surrounding us were full of glaciers, so the sounds could’ve been coming from anywhere.
Glaciers are blue because of the way the ice absorbs the different components of light. Long wavelengths (the color red), are absorbed by the ice, whereas short wavelengths (blue) are transmitted and dispersed, hence the blue hue.
Glaciers are also very old; Dale pointed out that the icebergs now melting in the lake were probably formed thousands of years ago. Whoa.
A tour boat allowed passengers to inspect the glacier and the icebergs up close:
We walked most of the shoreline with the intention of going right up to the glacier, which we easily could’ve touched, but our hike was stopped short when Dale almost stumbled over the carcass of a dead mountain goat. We saw no evidence that this poor goat belonged to a bear, but the rule is this:
when you come upon a dead animal in grizzly country, your hike is over.
Grizzlies like to let their meals decompose a bit before eating them, so if a bear did intend to snack on this rather ripe fellow, he could arrive at any moment for a late lunch, so we calmly pivoted and returned from whence we came. (Another bear safety rule: Don’t run. If you run, you look like prey, and if you look like prey, you might be appealing to a bear.)
After leaving the lake and heading back to Portage Pass, the return hike afforded us amazing views of Whittier and the Passage Canal:
This was a pretty epic day: we’d seen belugas in the wild and a glacier up close, we’d visited a truly unique Alaskan town, an eagle had officially welcomed us to the territory, and we put our theoretical bear safety knowledge into practice.
Not bad for Alaskan rookies, but it left us craving more!
We’d only been in Anchorage a few days at this point, but we were already 90% certain that we wanted to move to Alaska. By the end of the day, we’d hit 100% certainty–one way or another, this move was going to happen!
- Other reasons to love beluga whales: They are nicknamed “sea canary” because of their high-pitched chatter. And a beluga’s forehead contains the melon, an organ used for echolocation, and the shape of a beluga’s melon can actually be manipulated to produce different sounds. When the melon changes shape, it also gives the impression that the whale is changing its facial expression, a feature unique to belugas.
- NPR has a fascinating photo essay depicting life in the Begich Tower.
- The Begich, Boggs Visitors Center, just outside of Whittier, has information and exhibits about Chugach National Forest, the Portage Glacier, and other area sites, and several trails start near here.
- The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel operates on a toll system, so it cost us a $13.00, round-trip fee to enter the town. Keep in mind that the bigger the mode of transportation, the higher the fee.
- And just so ya know, the don’t run bear rule also applies to wolves and cougars.