Whittier: Gateway to western Prince William Sound

By Ken Smith
Turnagain Times

Ken Smith/Turnagain Times
Walking a reindeer down a street in Whittier is not unusual for Log Cabin Gift owner, Brenda Tolman. The reindeer greet visitors at Tolman’s gift shop located at the triangle in Whittier on the water.

Whittier is the gateway to western Prince William Sound. Whether fishing or boating, the closest port city on the Sound to Anchorage is the entry point to a wilderness waterway.
Whittier was built as the military’s secret port during World War II and crews blasted the tunnel through Maynard Mountain so trains could carry supplies to military bases in Anchorage.
Until June 2000, the only land route in and out of Whittier was by rail. A train shuttle ferried people and their vehicles on flatcars from Portage.
Life changed dramatically when the $80-million Whittier Access Project was completed in 2000, converting the Anton Anderson train tunnel into a unique one-lane vehicle and rail tunnel, the longest vehicle tunnel in North America.
A sophisticated control system monitored by crews at a bank of computers and video monitors in the Bear Valley Control Center prevents cars and trains from being in the tunnel at the same time. Forty-nine closed circuit cameras are in the tunnel and can detect stalled vehicles. Eight fire resistant safe houses have their own air and water supply in case of fire.
Summer hours for the tunnel are 5:30 a.m. to 11:15 p.m. daily. Openings from Bear Valley are generally on the half-hour and from Whittier at the top of the hour. Expect some delays when freight or passenger trains pass through the tunnel. The last tunnel opening from Whittier in the evening is at 11:00 p.m. and from Bear Valley at 10:30 p.m.
The round-trip toll is collected in Bear Valley. The toll is $12 for cars, motorcycles, pickups and motor homes less than 28 feet that are not pulling trailers. Recreational vehicles larger than 28 feet or smaller ones pulling trailers are $20, while larger RVs with trailers and small buses are $35. Large buses and trucks cost $125. Discount books of tickets for frequent tunnel travelers are available.
Whittier has a variety of restaurants, gift shops and accommodations, as well as fishing charters, kayaking services and day cruise tours. Most businesses are easy to find. They’re either in the harbor area, or on the other side of the railroad tracks. Some are located in the Begich Towers, the high rise building where most of Whittier’s residents live.
Brenda Tolman’s reindeers are probably the town’s most famous and visible attraction. They’re either outside Tolman’s gift shop by the harbor or in their pen across from the Begich Towers, the main residents for the approximately 165 year-round residents. Tourists often do a double-take when Tolman walks one of her reindeers down the road to her gift shop.
Whittier’s summer tradition is its old fashioned Fourth of July celebration that features a parade, picnic and a variety of activities for the kids, hosted by the Greater Whittier Chamber of Commerce.
Several day cruise operators call Whittier their homeport.
Prince William Sound Cruises and Tours has a six hour daily tour from Whittier – the Prince William Sound Wilderness Explorer. The cruise visits the tidewater glaciers of Barry Arm and the waterfalls and inlets of Esther Passage. The company also offers the four-hour Glacier Adventure Cruise. Passengers will cruise up to the face of two active tidewater glaciers and participate in marine experiments such as looking at plankton under a microscope and glacier ice up close.
Phillips Cruises and Tours takes passengers on a “26 Glacier Cruise” in an afternoon on Prince William Sound. The 26 glaciers are just the ones with names, as Phillips’ high speed catamaran, the Klondike Express, passes many more during its 135 mile trip into the Sound. The Klondike Express travels within 400 to 500 feet of the glaciers. The crew then turns off the engines so you can hear the glaciers move “as well as see the brilliant blues in the ice.” Glacier calving is usually seen during each cruise as is wildlife such as sea otters, seals, porpoises, sea lions and even whales.
If you want to cruise around Prince William Sound with “paddle power”, Whittier is the starting point for your sea kayaking adventure. Two companies that rent kayaks and offer guided tours are Alaska Sea Kayakers and Prince William Sound Kayak Center.
Alaska Sea Kayakers has four guided tours ranging from a three-hour, three-mile loop to see the kittiwake rookery and waterfalls across Passage Canal from Whittier, to a full-day Blackstone Bay trip where kayakers paddle in what the company’s owner Peter Denmark calls
Kayakers are ferried to and from Blackstone by water taxi. Other trips are a six-hour Passage Canal paddle, and a five-hour trip to Shotgun Cove, with one-way transit by water taxi.
Whether or not you’re an experienced sea kayaker, Alaska Sea Kayakers likely has a guided trip to fit your needs.
At Prince William Sound Kayak Center, husband and wife owners, Perry and Lois Solmonson, provide fiberglass kayaks and offer both half-day and full-day tours, and rents kayaks to individuals or groups. The tours include a half-day bird rookery tour or for a full-day Blackstone Glacier tour.
Once you’re out in Prince William Sound, the opportunity to view wildlife abounds. Sightings can include black bears, mountain goats, sea lions, dalls porpoises, orcas, and occasionally a humpback whale.
Prince William Sound also offers world class fishing with charters operating out the port of Whittier.
Honey Charters is a specialized charter outfit. They offer sightseeing, kayak drop-offs, and even offer weddings on their 30-passenger boat.
“Go to a glacier and get married,” said Marilynn Heddell, co-owner of Honey Charters. “Sometimes we do a wedding held at the Inn at Whittier. The wedding is held at a the beach and then go to the Inn for a reception or if they get married at the end then they usually go out on some kind of trip, like a glacier cruise.”
Sea Mist Charters and Bread N Butter Charters are the main booking agencies for Whittier.
Long time fishing charter operators Jay Jenkins and Jim Norris launched a new 18-passenger vessel this summer, the Offshore Hunter, the largest fishing charter out of Whittier offering day fishing trips.
Several charter operators also offer overnight fishing trips and there is also a boat rental service with Whittier Boat and Tackle if you are looking for the total experience of fishing and boating.
Many people launch their own boats to Whittier and enjoy the thrill of fishing. You can even fish from shore at the head of Passage Canal and have great fun. There is no snagging in the harbor.
The waters out of Whittier are teaming with different species of salmon, which make their way through the Sound to spawn at various times during the summer. Halibut, rockfish and ling cod are also plentiful.
Whittier is one of the deepest ports in Alaska and the depths in Prince William Sound can reach 2,000 feet. Your talents and knowledge of fishing will be challenged as the average depth for fishing is 650 feet and can go as deep as 1,200 feet. Some of Whittier’s charters offer electric reels to retrieve your catch.
Summer fishing really kicks off in mid June and runs to August. This is the time when halibut start to come into the Sound in larger numbers. As the salmon start to enter the Sound the fishing gets even better. The halibut feed on the salmon and other fish. At this time, larger fish are typically caught.
Bait, tackle and licenses can be bought in Whittier. Fee’s Custom Seafood offers fresh fish, fish processing and shipping. They also sell fresh fish.
For a unique wildlife viewing opportunity, Sound Eco Adventures and Captain Gerry Sanger takes small parties out (six passenger maximum) to view humpback whales, porpoise, sea lions, puffins, orcas and a variety of other marine wildlife that inhabit Prince William Sound. Lazy Otter Charters also offers wildlife viewing as well as sightseeing and water taxi service.
The Greater Whittier Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring fish derbies this summer. The Whittier Halibut Derby started on Memorial Day weekend and runs through Labor Day weekend.
The popular Silver Salmon Derby starts on Aug. 28 and runs through Sept. 13, and the Small Fry Derby for kids is on Saturday, Sept. 12.
Derby tickets and regulations are available at businesses around Whittier.
Even if you don’t leave port, Whittier offers a number of things to do. You can see wildlife, beach comb, pick berries while walking along the harbor or hiking Portage Pass, Salmon Run or Horse Tail Falls trails. Birds are in abundance. Watch bald eagles soar or see thousands of seabirds gather at their nesting grounds at the kittiwake rookery just across Passage Canal from Whittier.
Discover some of Whittier’s history with a visit to the Prince William Sound Gateway Museum located on the first floor of the Anchor Inn. You’ll learn how wartime crews blasted the Anton Anderson Tunnel through the mountain to connect Whittier with military bases in Anchorage, and the town’s early history as an Army post. There’s also a visual history of Alaska’s World War II battles, the only territory in the continental U.S. attacked during the war. New exhibits have been added including unique photos and historical narrative displays of Alaska U.S. Senator Ted Stevens World War II service in the U.S. Air Force.
For more information about Whittier, look for the 2009 Whittier map/brochure at businesses around the community.