The 1st of June, the date that since 2020 we claimed was going to be our departure date, the car papers arrived! We could finally get the car plate, stock ourselves with food, sleeping bags and tents and get going. The feeling of finally be “rolling” was spectacular.
We left Girdwood with tons of experiences and new friends and started driving through the Glenn Highway, one of Alaska’s most dramatic drives towards a little sea town called Valdez. All this coastal area is called the “Prince William Sound”, and Valdez is its largest port. You might know Valdez as it unfortunately became famous in 1989 due to a manmade disaster. The Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker, spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. This shaped Valdez and the community in multiple ways. What we discovered is that it brought the small community together: fisherfolks, tourism, oil industry as well as the local authorities since then work together to recover the damaged area but also to ensure that this never happens again, as Valdez port is still where the oil from the Alaska’s pipeline is loaded and shipped.
When you as a visitor arrive to Valdez you never realize there was a spill. The sea looks wild and beautiful, with hundreds of islands beneath the Chugach Mountains. Glaciers all around, and diverse wildlife including whales that we were lucky to see. Human activities, like fishing and tourism have also rebounded. While resiliency is definitely a hopeful takeaway from the spill, and a word that describes Valdez as a town, it should not make us forget some ongoing impacts of the spill 30 years later.
You don’t have to dig too deep – into the soil or people’s memories – to find the spill’s long effects. We met with Steve “Valdez Paddleboarder”, who remembered perfectly when the spill happened. He flew to Alaska to help with the cleaning and never left. He introduced us to the Alaskan Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), they are the ones responsible for prevention of any future spill. Jenny who works there and lived in Valdez at the time of the spill, was quite young and “did not understand what was happening”, but remembers the chaos around her, terrible smell due to tons of dead animals washing into the coast and people arriving to town to help or find a job. Yet there was not enough housing or food for all. They told us while most wildlife recovered some such as herring, has never returned to its numbers, and you can still dig holes in some islands and find oil.
Nowadays, it is hard to distinguish if some of the damages are still from the oil spill or due new threats such as climate change. In our paddle exploration in Valdez Glacier Lake we learned that the glacier used to cover the whole lake, now you have to paddle into the lake to be able actually see the glacier. Crazy, right? This happens in many different areas. It still looks beautiful as a visitor, but locals see them retreat year by year.
All this feed our own thoughts on what are people doing today to keep Prince William Sound clean and wild? Is oil spill prevention the only thing being done? We discovered an NGO called “Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation”. The organization came together around a shared love of the Sound, they are dedicated to keeping it healthy, clean and wild, for all to enjoy. They coordinate and support projects such as beach clean-ups, invasive species control, site restoration, and much more. Most important, they are a community of individuals, businesses and organizations supporting public education and stewardship projects that serve Prince William Sound’s ecosystem, fish, wildlife, residents and visitors.
But what about our relation with fossil fuels? Even after disasters such as an oil spill and the effects of climate change? Most people in Valdez still work for the main oil company. If demand of oil was to dwindle, what are their opportunities? Fortunately, locals feel hopeful about the future particularly for adventure/sustainable tourism and fishing industry. Those two could lead the economy in Valdez, if oil demand was to dwindle.