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Expedition Log: July 31, 2001

Julia O'Malley

Cordova; Valdez

Our ship pulled into Cordova in the morning just as the clouds lifted to reveal the lush, forested feet of the surrounding Chugach Mountains. I rode the bus from the dock to town, passing a fish processor, rows of refrigerated trucks and crab pot piles, like experimental sculptures, adorned in tangled nets and bulbous fluorescent orange buoys.

As the bus pulled to a stop in front of the museum, I thought not of historical artifacts, cannery tours or quilting exhibits. I fantasized instead of the one thing I'd longed for during my time at sea like a sailor dreams of women: a big, frothy latte.

Luckily I was able to satisfy my desire at the latte shop/hair salon nearby. I strolled the main drag that looked like many small-town Alaska main drags: older store fronts, bars with retro-looking signs, colorful cloth banners hanging from light posts, a book store, a gift shop, a bank and a harbor with the needles of boat masts poking up behind the buildings. I stopped by the grocery store to find the Anchorage paper but it was too early and they hadn't come in.


Oil tanker

Heading toward Cordova and Valdez, we passed tanker after tanker after tanker. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

Living in Cordova must be much like living in Juneau where I'm from. With all the natural splendor of the mountains and the sea comes nagging isolation. I can imagine that the clouds roll in low and stay for days, and that a person might traverse a familiar path between work, the coffee shop and the grocery store, wearing a well-traveled raincoat and, as the days get shorter, dreaming about a place where the breeze blows warm. The reality of light and weather can consume you in a small Alaska town where the paper comes a day late and the movie theater only plays one movie that you've already seen. It makes you understand why so many spend so much time at the bar.

Back on the ship, we headed for Valdez, by many accounts a tougher town than Cordova. Gone was a narrow main street lined with quaint bookstores and older buildings, instead the streets were wide and the buildings were newer. This was because the whole town had to move to a different location after a tidal wave that followed the 1964 quake took out the harbor. Standing at the pay phone by the Three Bears Market (across from the steak house/bar with tinted windows and mini golf), I saw 4 pickup trucks pull up in the span of 5 minutes. It reminded me of the neighborhood in Anchorage where I grew up called Muldoon.

I took the tour bus up to the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. The light was fading over the calm, slick-surfaced ocean and the quiet mountains were grand monuments to the color green. We wound our way around the inlet, stopping to look at sea lions and shivering streams of spawning salmon. I thought longingly about fishing, about filling my freezer with fish. Eagles swooped, birds pulled ripples across the water. The whole place seemed to hum with wildlife.

That's why I couldn't help but feel concerned when I got a whiff of the tankers being filled with crude oil.

My concern only grew when I heard about the ballast water, the salt water that they fill the tankers with after they have been filled with oil. We drove by swirling pools of it -- greenish and stinking of oil fumes. The bus driver said it was being "treated" and would be released back into the ocean.


Valdez marine terminal

An oil tanker takes on a full load at Valdez, on the shores of Prince William Sound. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

I may not be up on the most recent technology for oil clean up, but I've seen the beaches where rocks are still oiled 12 years after the Exxon Valdez spill and heard the stories about Exxon trying, unsuccessfully, to clean it up with hot water washes, dish washing detergent and floating booms. I found it really hard to believe that seawater, once laden with oil, could be perfectly cleaned and returned to the ocean with no impact.

After the ballast pools, the bus passed a smokestack pouring out steam that bent the air into waves. Then we saw lines of big tan storage tanks. The bus driver was careful to tell us that less than one tank spilled in 1989. When we got up to the top of the hill, there was a big photo opportunity sign for the end of the final mile of the pipeline. Standing near the sign on a well-landscaped overlook, I noticed a thin finger of smog stretched over the ocean. I asked the bus driver if the opacity came from the tankers.

"No," she said, "It might have come from the boat you all came in on."

Somehow, that too seemed unlikely.

On my way back to the ship I stood out on deck and thought about oil, the central pillar for our state economy, and how it would probably be impossible to develop it without some kind of environmental impact. What I couldn't reason was how large an environmental compromise we should make.

A looming yellow moon was rising over the mountains and I watched a salmon jump out of the water. It made me feel another pang about my empty freezer and passing of the season. Then my mind flashed on the picture of the ballast water, stinking and black, and I decided that it is probably a good idea to go easy on the fish from now on anyway.

(View the day's photos)

(Community Profile: Cordova)


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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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