At the End of the Road: Valdez
by Troy Letherman
It’s not ironic by any exact definition, but for some reason it feels at least oddly coincidental that my last big trip of the summer begins on Alaska’s first road.
My family is in tow, andwe’re to spend Labor Day weekend exploring Valdez, just a four-and-a-half hour drive from our home in the Mat-Su Valley. For the first half of that trip, I think only of fish and how to catch them—bound to the roadside fisheries, we’re expecting pinks for sure, some Dollies and grayling, and hopefully, silvers. We’re loaded with spoons and spinners of the brightest colors under the sun—which incidentally, we wouldn’t see all weekend—and we’ve got flies: big, gaudy streamers, Clousers, some poppers and sliders; some buggers and dries for the grayling, and for the char, a plethora of both beads and Egg-sucking Leeches. I imagine any and all of these fooling fish hand over fist.
But then I hang a right at Glennallen, and as it never fails to do, the Richardson Highway takes over from there. The early autumn hues are gorgeous, making even the Pipeline appear more picturesque than usual, let alone the stunning peaks and valleys of the Chugach Range. We top the treeline, count colors in the alpine tundra, see more glaciers than cars. I stop thinking about fish, or at least solely about fish, and instead just recline in my seat and enjoy some of the best scenery in Alaska.
The highway was first known to gold stampeders at the tail-end of the nineteenth century as the Valdez trail, which led to the tent city that had sprung up at the head of the bay. The route had been hacked through Keystone Canyon and over Thompson Pass by the men of Lieutenant W.R. Abercrombie, and soon after, the Army set about building Fort Liscum, located at the site of the present Alyeska Pipeline terminal.
In 1910 the trail was upgraded to a wagon road under the direction of Gen. Wilds P. Richardson, first president of the Alaska Road Commission (ARC), even though, as it wound in and out of the mountains, it had washed out several times, including once in July 1919 when the road through the canyon was completely destroyed by excessive flooding. By 1921 it was rebuilt and its name was changed to the Goat Trail. The eventual Richardson Highway diverged somewhat and was built along a stable route following the bottom of Keystone Canyon. ARC updated the road to automobile standards in the 1920s; it was hard-surfaced in 1957.
After the Richardson Highway was completed, the Goat Trail became obsolete and was abandoned, although today it can be used for hiking. The trail begins at a wood sign just past Horsetail Falls in Keystone Canyon (Mile 13.5). The trail twists and winds following the Lowe River and is passable for the first 2.5 miles.
Our first stop comes about 70 miles before that, though, at Squirrel Creek Campground. There an old gravel pit has been converted into a clearwater pond that hosts a decent grayling fishery. It’s easy fishing, even without a float tube, and though we have only an hour or so before we have to be on our way, we land several fish up to 14 inches.
Continuing down the Richardson towards Valdez, there are several opportunities to cast in flowing water—nearly all of it postcard-worthy. First is the Tonsina River, which offers only scenic interest to us on this trip, and then the Little Tonsina, one of the better roadside Dolly fisheries in the region.
Between miles 43 and 50, the Richardson Highway parallels the Tiekel River. Here we stop to try for small, native Dollies, despite the fact that the Tiekel isn’t a very productive stream (it’s blocked from the Copper River by a waterfall, which adversely affects the stream’s potential biomass). It is, however, one of the most beautiful creeks in southcentral Alaska, presenting many runs and riffles that make the waters of A River Runs Through It look dull. My kids tire of it almost immediately, of course, because for them beauty primarily means a fish leaping at the end of a taut line, but I persist, finding a ten-inch Dolly here worthy of true celebration.
After passing up opportunities to fish a few more lakes—Worthington, Blueberry and Thompson in particular—it’s time totake a chance on the Lowe River before we get to Valdez. The combination of its normally silt-laden, raging current and the fall rains that have brought higher flows mean it’s even more difficult to find decent fly water than usual. Closed to salmon fishing, the Lowe does offer some seasonally strong fishing for Dollies, especially anywhere its several clearwater tributaries meet the mainstem. I don’t do any good until the next day, though, when I can fish the river’s mouth right across from Valdez.
Set deep into the surrounding mountains, pushed against Port Valdez—a natural fjord reaching inland about 11 miles from Prince William Sound—the town at first glance looks like something out of Switzerland. There’s the oil connection, of course, and it’s one of Alaska’s busiest winter destinations, with a burgeoning heli-skiing industry for the more extreme sort, but Valdez, to me at least, is a fish town at heart.
After dropping bags at the Totem Inn, we have time to take in the waterfront, checking out all the activity in the small-boat harbor, which at this time of day mainly consists of charter operators filleting salmon and halibut for their guests. There are also groups coming in from their tours to see the sights and life of Prince William Sound, including the Columbia Glacier, the second largest tidewater glacier in North America.
In the morning, there’s breakfast at the Totem, which tastes like it should be famous, and then a quick stop at the Crooked Creek Salmon Spawning Viewing Area, where the last of the season’s pink and chum salmon are completing their cycle. We’re only there long enough to wait out the opening of the Valdez Historical Museum, as I want to make sure my sons have a chance to check out the interpretive exhibits. For an Alaskan, there’s a lot of history on display, and they learn, or relearn, about the 9.2 earthquake that struck 45 miles west of Valdez on Good Friday, 1964. The quake triggered an underwater landslide, which in turn created several tremendous waves. The first waves washed away the Valdez waterfront and drowned the 30 people who had been standing on the dock. Three men on the steamer Chena, which had been tied to the dock, also died. Less than three years later the old Valdez townsite was condemned and nearly the whole thing picked up and moved the few miles to its present-day location.
We also take some time to look at the exhibit detailing the building of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline in the 1970s, and more minutes are spent on the second Good Friday disaster to hit near Valdez—when the tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in 1989, causing the largest oil spill in North American history. By then, though, everyone was ready to fish, despite this being our second day of steady rain.
Just a few miles from downtown Valdez, back up the Richardson Highway, one finds Dayville Road, a 5.8-mile paved side road (with bike trail) that leads to shoreside camping, picnicking, fishing and scenic views along Port Valdez at Allison Point. The road is named for the Day family, who obtained the old Fort Liscum after the army shut it down and who then ran a cannery, sawmill, school and store on the site. The salmon—millions of pinks and silvers—are drawn here by the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, and even during good tides there is plenty of room to move about and cast. With the bay, the mountains and the city of Valdez presenting such an impressive backdrop, it almost feels greedy to also catch salmon at a steady clip, but other than a brief respite to watch a young bear scrounge for his own meal, that’s exactly what we did.
That evening, with the boys tuckered from pulling on pinks and the occasional silver, I snuck away to work the mouth of the Lowe for Dollies and the lower Robe River for both Dollies and silvers (accessed either from a Richardson Highway pullout or from “Ball Field Road,” which runs behind some softball fields located just outside of town). The latter option presented the best fly fishing of the trip, so good in fact that it was after dark before I clambered back up to the truck and made for a meal at the Totem Inn.
Before leaving Valdez the next day, we again found ourselves strolling the promenade at the small-boat harbor, ogling the boats big and small, daydreaming that there was a zero or two less on a few for sale and generally trying to find one more excuse to stay an extra day. A few sets of early-hour salmon fishermen were already at the cleaning tables taking care of the morning’s catch. There were groups of kayakers loading for their paddling adventures, anglers boarding charter vessels, camera-toting sightseers making their way toward the bigger tour boats, all headed to view the glaciers and the whales, to battle salmon and halibut, lingcod and rockfish and maybe even a shark.
It’s not ironic, I guess, but merely coincidental, that our journey ends where the rest of Valdez begins. But not before I book the first charter of the year for next June.
Troy Letherman is editor of Fish Alaska magazine.
Map of Road System to Valdez
Map of Prince William Sound Area including Valdez