Photographing Alaska--Haines, Valdez and Hyder
After nearly two months in Alaska, it was time to start thinking about working our way home. Haines was
always on my radar because of the annual Bald Eagle Festival. I realized that this was a seasonal event, but wanted to see the area for myself. It’s a bit out of the way even for Alaska, seven hundred and fifty-six miles from Anchorage in the Alaska panhandle. Located on a narrow peninsula separating the Chilkat and Chilkoot Inlets, it certainly appears to be prime Bald Eagle territory. Alaska Highway 7 is the more famous for the Bald Eagle Festival on the Chilkat River leading into Chilkat Inlet. But it was surprisingly non-productive for bald eagle views at this time of year. However, the much smaller, mile-long Chilkoot River was more productive. And it had a very nice state campground to boot. The eagles tended to hang out in the trees around the small bridge crossing the river near its mouth. One foggy morning I had four eagles surrounding me like guardians in some fantasy game. Apparently, they ate breakfast before I did as they just sat in the trees eyeing their domains. They silently disappeared one by one over the course of an hour leaving me cold, hungry and with only a few high ISO photos for my efforts.
I’d really come for the bear family that supposedly hung out there, but they were a no-show. Imagine my surprise to find them crossing the road right in front of me on my drive back to the campground—momma bear and two cubs—wandering back and forth between the weir and the road with their salmon.
Haines is a small town with two gas stations, three museums and a reputation as an arts community. The Sheldon Museum, in particular, is a fine small museum featuring local history, art and culture. The Alaska Indian Arts museum located in old Fort Seward in one of the historic buildings is an eclectic collection of Indian art informally organized and badly in need of funding from all appearances, but well worth a visit in any case. Finally, the Bald Eagle Festival has its own Bald Eagle Museum in Haines proper. Excuse me, but I forgot to mention a fourth museum, The Hammer Museum. Haines also has a very nice, very popular library with decent free wifi (donation suggested). A great place to escape on a rainy day in Alaska.
Outside of Haines on the Chilkat River is the Tlingit village of Klukwan and its recently opened eight-million dollar Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center, both a museum and a gathering place. The exhibit space was still being filled at the time of our visit in August 2016, but the existing exhibits are magnificent including the Whale House. https://www.adn.com/culture/we-alaskans/2016/05/29/priceless-klukwan-treasures-unveiled-at-opening-of-heritage-center/
Valdez is another small Alaskan coastal town probably still best known for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William sound. It’s also the site of a massive Alaskan earthquake in 1964 that pretty much leveled the town. The town was then relocated a few miles west to its current location. Valdez has rebuilt itself and you have to know where to look for evidence of the earthquake. Aside from tourism, commercial activity includes oil refining and shipping as well as fishing. Photo ops are mainly found along the Richardson Highway on the mudflats lining the bay and on Dayville Road where you will find a private salmon hatchery and the salmon run meaning this is where the eagles and bears hang out. As you drive out Dayville Road look for a Bald eagle nest on your right across from a marsh on your left where the eagles like to hang out if they’re not around the nest.
In the same marshy area, locally called Swan Lake, lives a family of Trumpeter swans with up to five cygnets. Both the swans and the eagles appear to tolerate cars and humans well, probably because they live on a busy road.
As you drive up Dayville Road, there are numerous pull-outs on both sides of the highway that offer frequent views of Bald eagles and occasional bear sightings. On the right past the fish hatchery are multiple pull-outs for access to Port Valdez and salmon fishing at high tide. When the tide is out you’ll find eagles fishing on the mud flats and when it’s in you’ll find Steller sea lions and Harbor seals swimming, eating and hanging out. There is a campground on the right near the end of the road that usually seems full of fisherman and appears to be dry camping only.
On the occasional sunny day, a drive back up the Richardson Highway into the Chugach Mountains is well worthwhile with many photo ops at pull-outs to the right and left. Take the time to get out of your vehicle and explore and you will be well rewarded with beautiful mountain scenery including glaciers and snow-covered mountains. Keep driving east until you reach the Worthington Glacier. Drive in and hike down to the view point for a close-up look at the glacier or if you’re feeling energetic and adventurous, you can hike up to the toe of the glacier. For my money, some of the best views of the glacier are from the Richardson Highway either west of or east of the road to the visitor’s center.
On the way back to Valdez, take the turnoff to the right to Robe Lake, another picturesque spot.
You can also take another right turn closer to Valdez and drive out to the Valdez Glacier. It’s at the end of the road with the only real access by kayak or boat. Looking for viewpoints on foot did not prove very rewarding.
The last bit of Alaska civilization headed south is Hyder, home to bears and the Salmon Glacier. You must cross back into Canada and down the Cassiar Highway to get there. Take a right at Meziadin Junction onto Highway 37A and drive forty or so miles to Stewart, B.C. where you cross back into Alaska. Keep an eye out for pretty Bear Glacier on your left as you drive west. There are not many attractions in Hyder itself, but if you drive out Highway 88 you will come to Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Station on your left famous for its bear viewing platforms. The bears are typically there when the salmon are running from mid-July to September, but not necessarily on any given day. Check the clipboard at the Forest Service visitors center for the latest activity when you buy your day pass. Driving further up Highway 88, the asphalt quickly turns to gravel and a steep drive up the mountainside back into British Columbia leads you to the beautiful Salmon Glacier overlook.
Don’t be discouraged by the steep, windy road, the view is well worth it. A unique sighting of the fifth largest glacier in Canada. A striking panorama. No need for border crossing formalities coming or going until you reach Canadian customs at the Hyder-Stewart crossing.
There are few amenities in Hyder and a bit more in Stewart including a hotel with an ATM machine, a gas station/convenience store with reasonable prices for Canada and a couple of small grocery stores. There are campgrounds in Stewart also, but if you don’t mind the drive the prettiest and cheapest campground is at beautiful Meziadin Lake Provincial Park back on the Cassiar Highway. You might even spot some black bears along the way.
I hope you’ve enjoyed following my Alaska adventures. If you’d like to follow in my footsteps, check my website http://flanaganfotos.com for my e-book “A Nature Photographer’s Guide to Alaska” chock full of information, photos and resources. Safe travels! Next time, the Oregon coast.