Hope and Whittier – The Kenai, Part 3. 5

I suppose that by definition all full-time RVers have chosen “the road less traveled” but among those full-timers you’ll find a full range of preference for the places they choose to explore. We have friends who enjoy exploring urban areas and stealth camping in cities, and others who want to camp in the wildest, most remote places they can get to. We tend toward the wild & remote end of the spectrum, but we do love small towns that are quirky and full of personality. Two of the quirkiest we found in Alaska were on the Kenai: Hope, and Whittier.

Whittier is an odd little spot, but one of the most beautiful places we visited. It’s a tiny little town, with only about 200 residents, a few restaurants, and a tiny little grocery store that seems to be stocked mostly with repackaged items from Costco. Nearly everyone in town lives in Begich Towers, built as a military barracks in 1956 and later converted to condominiums. Whittier gets about 20′ of snow every winter, so it was perhaps inevitable that Begich Towers also contains a convenience store, the post office, the mayor’s office, the police station, a laundromat, a church, and a tunnel to the school so that kids don’t even have snow days!

DSC_0641 Begich Towers with Horsetail Falls in the background.

In fact, Whittier owes its entire existence to the military. Fearing that it would be too easy for Alaska to be cut off from supplies and that they would not be able to evacuate Anchorage in the event of an attack, the military decided to build a secret base and chose Whittier because of its proximity to Anchorage and because all the mountains and glaciers keep it shrouded in clouds most of the year. The only things standing in their way were the 4,100 foot tall Maynard Mountain and the Portage Glacier – piece of cake! The easiest way to deal with these obstacles was to build a 2.5 mile-long tunnel through the solid granite of Maynard Mountain. Supplies were then brought by boat through protected Prince William Sound to Whittier and loaded onto trains for the trip through the tunnel. The tunnel eventually was converted to also allow automobiles to use it, making it the only dual-use rail/auto tunnel in the U.S. It is still only one lane (er, train?) wide though, so out-bound traffic from Whittier leaves at the top of the hour and in-bound traffic at the bottom of the hour. Trains (picking up cruise ship passengers or sightseeing trains) traverse the tunnel between groups of cars. And if you miss the last train of the evening, too bad – you’re spending the night! Whittier is well and truly shut down to vehicle traffic for much of the night. Driving through the tunnel to Whittier was tricky since the RV had to run along the recessed train tracks, the ultimate in “grooved pavement.” Eric thought it was neat, but I found the tunnel a bit creepy as the roof is low and is still unfinished granite. I was expecting orcs or a Gollum at any minute! Once you’re through the tunnel though, all that is forgotten. The scenery is just stunning. Snow-capped peaks with glaciers are everywhere and summer temps mean that water rushes down every hillside, pouring into the emerald green waters of Prince William Sound and helping to fuel the rich diversity of wildlife here. You don’t even have to take a boat out to whale watch – we saw a humpback whale from our car!

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There is a single campground on Whittier Creek (pictured above) but we chose to go for free camping on the beach at the head of the sound. The view of the sound were amazing, and the lights from Whittier and cruise ships at night were nice too.

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We also did an awesome hike in Whittier thanks to our buddies Banks and Patty. Banks’ father was in the Army and he lived in Whittier for several years as a kid, so buying a condo in Begich Towers & spending summers here was a no-brainer. They told us where the best berry picking was and we had a great hike and scored about a quart of blueberries! On a later walk, we also got to see a shy porcupine – cute!

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The town of Hope was also on our travel list, and Banks and Patty told us that we should look up their friend Gold Rush Peck and his wife Diane. Peck is one of those colorful Alaska characters, driving around town on an ATV plastered with stickers; a chain saw strapped to one side & a shotgun on the other. Peck has retired from active mining, but has a little stand in town where he teaches folks to pan for gold. After settling in at the Porcupine Campground, we headed to town for a lesson. Peck made it seem easy, so the next day we headed up to Resurrection Creek and spent a pleasant afternoon digging, panning, & watching the salmon head upstream. We did find a few flakes which we took by for Peck to inspect. He assured us we had the right technique but we must have just been looking in the wrong spot. After our experience, it’s easy to see how people get swept up in gold fever. You find just a few tiny flakes and immediately you start thinking that a bigger nugget will be in the next shovel-full. Well maybe the next. Well…

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We stayed in Hope a few days, chatting with the barkeep at the Seaview, reconnecting with the great crew of Mali Mish, and getting in some great walks. We have been hoping for bear sightings our whole time in Alaska, but on this walk out of the campground we were afraid we might actually meet a bear! Not 150′ from the paved road through the campground we stepped over a pile of scat, and the first part of the trail was through thick, tall grass. Yikes! We kept up our bear chatter and made it through unscathed, and the rest of the hike was through beautiful evergreen forest. Turned out to be a nice day.

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We took a Jeep expedition up Palmer Creek Road to check out the camping there. Only a couple of sites would have been suitable for the RV, but at the end of the road we got out to hike along Palmer Creek. Evidence of mining is everywhere, from abandoned bits of machinery to cables and other debris. We speculated that the odd hills scattered throughout the valley might be piles of tailings but, if so, we’ve never seen tailings covered over in regrowth like this. Regardless of the origin the terrain was beautiful and it was a nice end to our time in Hope. Signs of fall were beginning to appear and there’s a lot more of Alaska to see. Time to move on!

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