Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The frightful but terrific Bear Island

Island of hell, scenery of shipwrecks and drama.
Bjørnøya (Bear Island) is a small remote island in the Barents Sea, within the Arctic circle, 450 km north of Tromsø, about midway between the Norwegian mainland and Spitsbergen.

Location : 74.30° N, 19.01° E

Most of the island's 176 km2 are flat, with some mountainous areas in the south. The Miseryfjellet mountain is the tallest with 536 m.

Cliffs with the Miseryfjellet in background

Approximately 600 small lakes are scattered around the island. The interior of Bjørnøya is quite barren and vegetation is mostly lacking.

At the meeting point of the warm water of the Gulf Stream going north and the cold westerly Siberian Current, the climate is milder than expected. But the temperature difference between the warm and cold water produces dense fog which for the most of the summer engulfs the island.

The island is uninhabited, but there is a permanently staffed Norwegian weather station at the north coast, the most friendly area.

The south: a threatening profile

High cliffs and sea stacks rise up into the clouds that almost perpetually shroud Bear Island, under a windy, rough and foggy weather that helped to create it's reputation.

To land anywhere is a challenge and something you can do only in exceptionally good weather conditions. The lack of protected bays and the rough weather with strong winds and frequent fog make visiting Bjørnøya frequently impossible.

There are endless accounts telling horrific stories about sailors trying to get ashore after their ships had sunk.

The island was discovered by the Dutch polar explorer Willem Barents in 1596; his crew killed a bear and called the island after its bears, "Beeren Eyeland". It came under Norwegian sovereignty together with the rest of Svalbard islands in 1925.

Since 1918 a radio and weather station has been active on the island, and is still manned today. In 1947 a new radio meteorological station was built in Herwighamna. New instruments were installed in 1949.

Today it is run by a crew of nine people, which is changed twice a year. Transition to digital recording took place in 1986. The magnetometer is operated with the assistance of the Meteorological Institute of Norway and located at the new meteorological station.

Coordinates: 74°30'N 19°01'E

The station consists of about 20 buildings in total, in an area of approximately 150 000 m2 .

Herwighamna meteorological station

Weather observations have been carried out from the Meteorological Institute’s weather station since 1932.

Some old buldings of the first 1947 station are part of the new complex, as a small museum:

The northern coast has some quiet bays where small boats can land in good weather:

But there is only one usable harbour to drop anchor on the island, Sørhamna:

Although Bear Island is seldom visited, maybe one of the main attractions is the tunnel, made famous through a reference in Alistair Maclean's "Bear Island" novel (and the film based on it)

The amazing “Pearly gates” (Perleporten) tunnel, more than 180 meters long.

Through Cape Kolthoff, over thousands of years, the ocean carved a long tunnel, called the Pearly Gates.

After the entrance, an interior "pool" hidden from outside - a secret explored in Alistair Maclean's thriller.

A recent wreck increased the island's bad reputation: in May 2009, the "Petrozavodsk”, a Russian vessel, ran aground by the south coast of Bear Island, near the fearful cliffs that are breeding ground for sea bird colonies.

Later, the ship broke in two and was finally removed.
Some diesel and oil leaked into the ocean beneath the cliffs where thousands of guillemots usually nest.

Guillemot colony

Do arctic bears still visit the island? They do come sometimes, in March, when the sea ice reaches this far south.

In spring and early summertime, Bjørnøya gets new colours and becomes much more like a paradise:

Bjørnøya was officially made a protected nature reserve in 2002.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Cordova, tiny and fragile, in Prince William Sound, on the "Alaskan riviera":

Cordova, Alaska

Coordinates: 60°32' N, 145°45' W

On the east side of Prince William Sound, at the head of Orca Inlet, Cordova is a community of nearly 3000 residents.

The town's name derives from "Puerto Cordova", as Salvador Fidalgo named the Orca Inlet in 1790.

This community is shaped by its location near the mouth of the massive Copper River, surrounded by forest, mountains, glaciers and the sea.

Cordova really is a place apart.

The town is accessible only by boat or plane. The Alaska Highway is unreachable by road - the only road from Cordova is a dead end of 48 miles.

Cordova's main street - 1st Street

The same, after a heavy snowfall - snowy and blustery weather is frequent in winter.

Modern Cordova dates from the railroad construction to the interior copper mines at Kennecott, in 1911. Cordova shipped millions of tons of copper ore until 1938. Cordova then was a shipping port and railway terminus for copper ore from the Kennecott Mine.
After Kennecott Mine stopped producing in the 1930s, fishing became Cordova's economic base in the 1940s. Since then the local economy is based mainly on salmon fishing. One cannery is still active - Copper River Seafoods.

The Copper River Seafoods cannery is still working.

The fishing fleet of Cordova: a traditional trawler, preparing for deep water salmon fishing, or maybe for halibut.

Cordova's small boat harbour in spring.

The Reluctant Fisherman Inn, a restaurant with a view to the harbour.

In the summertime Cordova’s population increases, when fishermen and tourists arrive to fish the great Copper River salmon runs. An also to hike, kayak, mountain bike and explore the wilderness that surrounds the town.

But Cordova is also a picturesque small town.

Cordova main landmarks are the Museum, the PWS Science center, the old fish canneries, the Million Dollar bridge on the old railroad to Kennecott Mine, and more. Starting at 1st Street:

Signboards in main street: the "upside down" hotel

Most houses are in wood and surrounded by trees.

The Cordova Times

The Cordova Times is Prince William Sound's oldest newspaper, established in 1914.

The Orca Bookstore

The Cordova Historical Museum

Presents cultural artifacts of the native peoples reflecting Cordova's eventful past, a collection of classic Alaskan art, and some old and fascinating objects like a historic lighthouse lens, a Linotype machine, the interior of a fishing boat, a parka made of bear gut, basketry...

The building is also the location of Cordova public library.

The Ilanka Cultural Center

A Native Alaskans' Museum and Shop, also in the town center, it
exhibits a collection of prehistoric, historic and contemporary tribal artifacts from the Prince William Sound and Copper River Delta.
The Rose Lodge

Built in 1924, this lodge is the most unique accomodation in Cordova. It is an old converted barge with its very own lighthouse. It sits on the breakwater surrounded by inlet waters.

The barge served as a pile driver, fish trap setter, and a houseboat before being towed to its present location in 1964.
The lighthouse is a navigation aid for marine vessels using the channel.

The lighthouse is named "Odiak Pharos" which means light.

The Old Canneries

The first cannery was established in 1898

Perched on rows of forty-foot stilts, the iron walls all rusted.

The Prince William Sound Science Center (and museum)

The PWSSC conducts research and education programs to increase the understanding of the Prince William Sound and Copper River Delta ecosystems.

PWSSC site:

To the north, tha main road (Orca Road) takes to the Ferry Terminal and terminates at the Orca Adventure Lodge, a restored cannery for tourist fishing and flight-seeing trips.

Night falls at the PWSSC

Cordova at late evening

The Alaskan Hotel, at 1st street, by night.


There are only two ways to get to Cordova: you can fly or take the ferry. There is a regular ferry service to Whittier takink 3 to 7 hours to get across Prince Willians Sound.

The new fast ferry Chenega at Cordova's terminal.

The Aurora, serving the people of Cordova since 2005, takes 7 hours to cross the Prince Williams Sound's waters

Luckily there is also an airport with daily service to Anchorage.

The "Mudhole" airport , as it is known

Merle "Mudhole" Smith was a bush pilot , one of that special breed of hearty individualists who overcame all the obstacles to make air transportation a reality in the remote reaches of Alaska in the early days.

The Copper River Delta

The Copper River Delta is a large wetland territory of tidal and submerged lands in Orca Inlet near the mouth of the Copper River.

Its name comes for the abundant copper deposits along the course, but it also has prolific runs of wild salmon, which are among the most highly prized stocks in the world.

Miles glacier also feeds the Copper River Delta.

It includes islands and mainland areas with extensive marsh adjacent to tidal channels. Numerous stream drainages and ponds are distributed east and south of the Copper River Highway.

The wetlands on the delta provide a variety of shorebird nesting habitat.

Fabulous landscape along the Copper River Highway, through the Copper River Delta.

The Million Dollar bridge

The Miles Glacier Bridge, also known as the Million Dollar Bridge, was built in the early 1900s, across the Copper River, fifty miles northeast from Cordova. It was part of the Copper River railroad, built to transport copper from the old mining town up river (Kennecott Mine) to the port of Cordova.

It is now a classified Historic building.

The Bridge has been converted to motorcar traffic but it is unsafe.
This is also the end of the only road from Cordova, the Copper River Highway, that was never continued to reach the road to Whittier. The 48-mile highway terminates just after the Million Dollar Bridge, at Childs Glacier, and is in very bad shape - only the first 12 miles are paved. After heavy snowfall, it gets quite hard to drive on.

From the bridge you have a view of nearby Childs glacier:

The map shows the 48-mile Copper River Highway, through the river delta from Cordova to the Bridge:

The Childs Glacier, calving into Copper River:

7 miles wide, with a 300-foot-high face, Childs Glacier is certainly Alaska’s most spectacular roadside glacier – it’s the only one where you can see calving. And when the calving is active in high summer, you’ll see a major event every 15 minutes. Some of these collapsing icebergs are so large, they send a 10-foot wave rocketing across the river and crashing onto the opposite shore.


Ptarmigans enjoying the view to Prince Williams Sound

Read more: Frommer's destinations - Cordova