Valdez, Alaska: A mirror of Summits past
February 1, 2008
You could make a case that Valdez, Alaska, is the most beautiful town in America. Its on the ocean, first of all, even if the water is not warm. It is also surrounded by the magnificent Chugach Mountains, peaks that tower 5,000 feet above town in every direction. The Chugach are not your standard mountains; so steep, are they, that when you tilt your head back to look at their summits, it feels like youre sizing up a skyscraper from a city street. There are also massive, cavernous overhangs of rock near many of the summits gorges so vast they make couloir seem wimpy as a descriptor. In downtown Valdez, fishing and cruising boats are docked at the marina for the winter. The salmon fishermens mess halls and bunk houses, bustling and alive all summer long, are boarded up, evoking an abandoned feel.But while less populated in the winter compared to the summer, this town is hardly abandoned. A few blocks from the waterfront, youll find quaint A-frame houses in nice little neighborhoods within walking distance of the high school football field (and the bars). Theres also endless world-class skiing, ice climbing and snowmobiling either out your front door or, at worst, 15 minutes away. And youre pretty much guaranteed to see five or six bald eagles a day.With all that in mind, the strangest thing I learned during a recent trip to Valdez is that its struggling. The towns tourism is down and locals freely admit they need a jolt. Not to the extent they did in the years following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, but a jolt nonetheless.For instance, when I asked Ryan Britt, a born-and-bred 23-year-old from Valdez who wears overalls to work, if he was worried that his home might ever become the next chic mountain town, he surprised me. Id like to hope it would be, he said. Id love to see tourism boom off the ground, really. The downside is nothing. Dean Cummings, the legendary extreme skier and heli ski guide, says, It will become a big, badass resort town. When, who knows.Cummings has settled down in Valdez, making it his full-time home the last 12 years. Of other mountain communities, he adds: The beauty doesnt even compare. If only our town could figure out how to take advantage of that.Along the pipelineI spent four days in Valdez gathering information on a guy who grew up there. During that stretch I met a wide variety of people, most of whom had lived in town for a long, long time. About half had lived there all their lives.Its a blue-collar place. Thats the first thing I learned. The trans-Alaska oil pipeline terminates in Valdez, and about 400 of the towns 4,000 residents are employed by the Alyeska Pipeline Co. In all, one resident estimated 70 percent of the workforce holds jobs somehow related to oil. The supervisors for Alyeska, I was told, are the best-paid Valdez locals. Tugboat captains also take home a good salary, piloting barges through breathtaking Prince William Sound, which is 800 feet deep. At one point in my visit I enjoyed a candid talk with a young couple about living in a place that is an hour and a half from the nearest town and five hours from Anchorage, the nearest city. One of the drawbacks, they told me, is when the planes dont fly and Thompson Pass is closed, you can be stranded in Valdez for weeks. Another is bears. Except not like in Colorado, where a little black bear rustles through your garbage can. The couple told me they come into contact with about 10 a season. Grizzlies, that is. Huge brown bears. They see them on trails a lot, and the worst time, Scott said, is when I dont have my gun. For the record, he was being serious. Not because hes out to kill bears, but because the risk that a grizzly will harm him is such that carrying a gun isnt an outlandish precaution to take. His wife Jenny, again serious, said, Sometimes I think I might want to move to a place where I can just ride my bike down the path, where everything isnt a life-or-death experience.But thats the thing about Valdez. Nobodys trying to tame it especially not Old Man Winter. The town itself gets 300 inches of wet, maritime snow a season, and 2,678-foot Thompson Pass, 20 minutes out of town, where the backcountry ski lines abound, once got more than 900.Heli-skiing heavenAt its height, Cummings said, Valdez was home to six heli-ski companies; today there are four. The season runs from about mid-February through April, and brings a noticeable influx of tourists when the town might otherwise be empty. After I saw it, I wondered why a place with so much readily available, burly terrain doesnt have a ski resort. I asked around. Guess there used to be a little bunny hill, but the latest buzz has a local guy trying to put a lift on one of the peaks just northeast of downtown. If such a thing happened, you can bet you wouldnt be getting a sweet 2-bedroom in town for $875 a month, or buying a 3-bedroom ranch for $174K, as you can do now.Sitting in one of the more popular local bars at 8 oclock on a Saturday night, I took stock. It was a dimly lit place with Law & Order re-runs playing on TV and a couple of regulars telling stories at the far corner of the bar. I started talking with the bartender. She told me about the type of characters who dwell in this nook of the Final Frontier. Everyone in this town has a screw loose, she said. Nobody here is completely normal. She took a little pride when she said it, which was comforting to see. There was a time, probably, when all of Summit Countys old towns featured nightly scenes similar to this one. Now youve got wine bars and theaters where the colorful haunts once stood.Not that growth is always a bad thing; its easy to understand why a struggling mountain town might yearn for more bustle and business. Although from this vantage point, there are already quite a few of those. Meantime, as Valdez waits for its upswing and the hype that comes with it, gapers like me continue to drive into a place void of pretention, eyes wide, neck craned, gawking at an uncut diamond.Devon ONeil is a freelance writer living in Breckenridge.
For information on everything Valdez has to offer, check out http://www.valdezalaska.org.