Visiting the strangest town in Alaska. By Mark Thornton
In Alaska you can go where you want and get closer to nature when you get there. That tourism catchline is a pretty accurate description of the US’ biggest state. It’s huge—three quarters the size of Western Australia —but with just 740,000 people it has only a third of the population of Perth. Yet it’s easy to travel around, even with a 10m trailer, and get right in nature’s face, literally. On our way from Valdez to Anchorage, for example, the Matanuska Glacier grinds to within 3km of the Glenn Highway, and on a side track you can park almost beneath its snout. At 43 km long and six km wide, it is the largest glacier accessible by car in the US.
We had driven Traily McTrailerface out of Valdez later than intended that morning, stopped to marvel at the bulk of Mt Blackburn (4996m), an ancient volcano 70 km to the east in the Wrangell St Elias Range, and 150km later turned west at the Glennallen junction onto the Glenn Highway to Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula.
Glennallen is a village with a disproportionate number of large churches, 12 for its 483 residents, including an Until That Day Church and an Old Paths Baptist Church, named after a biblical reference in which the Lord beseeches us to “stand at the crossroads and ask for the old paths”. They were the smartest buildings in the village.
The landscape for the whole 290km trip south west from Glennallen to Anchorage found me scrambling for new superlatives for beauty. With the Chugach Mountains to the south and the first giant peaks of the Denali Range revealing themselves in the north, my camera button finger was working overtime (note for shutter bugs, take at least a 32 gigabyte memory card for your camera).
We stopped in the late afternoon at the Matanuska Glacier Rec Site RV Park, 150km from Anchorage. We paid our $15 a night trailer camping fee (the average for all the parks we stayed in on our trip) and walked down to see the glacier snout glowing blue-white amidst the spruce, just three kilometres up the valley. Low clouds began to lift and sunbeams lanced under them to illuminate the rock and ice peaks of the Chugach.
Photographers call such beams ‘god light’ and I spent an hour snapping the changing moods of the glacier and its valley until failing light and the sound of large animals snuffling in the woods nearby forced me back to camp. There I sat by the fire with the others. Still profoundly moved by the sunset I put Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending on Traily’s stereo and stared at the trees as the violin insinuated its magic into the twilight. English pastoral music may seem incongruous with a trailer camp in the deep Alaskan forest but the family fell silent. Even after the last haunting violin note had faded no one spoke for several minutes, and then only in quiet appreciation.
Unfazed by the surrounding glaciers and a short summer growing season, the Matanuska Valley farmers are known for their world record-sized cabbages and other vegetables. It’s an unlikely place, but in 1935 the US Government chose the valley, originally inhabited by Athabaskan Indians, to relocate the worst sufferers of the mid-west’s Great Depression as part of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal. Only 10 per cent of the 203 resettled families coped with the climate and managed to provide dairy produce and crops. On the numbers the government did not regard the plan as a success but those who stayed did develop the Matanuska Valley into the state’s primary agriculturally productive region.
Traily’s timetable meant we could not linger in the mountains and we pressed on to Anchorage. It’s Alaska’s biggest city that 300,000 people call home. Anchorage is unlike any other Alaskan town in that there is no gold in them thar hills and no fishermen were impressed enough by the inlet to settle there, partly due to huge tidal variations and extensive, treacherous mud flats. It grew almost accidentally after the Alaska Engineering Commission chose it for a railway port and built a deep water port accessible in all tides. Now it’s Alaska’s principal cargo import terminal.
As a city it looks much like many other medium-sized US towns though a good proportion of it seems to be made up of giant shopping malls, huge parking lots and wide highways. However, located on the Cook Inlet among the Chugach, Kenai and Talkeetna mountains, it is a tourist’s paradise. Just don’t think too much about the several active volcanoes in the vicinity; the most recent eruption was seven years ago.
Our main reason for stopping there was to pick up Ellie’s partner Bill from the airport, taking our Fellowship of the Trailer to eight, but we also took the opportunity to restock Traily with food—pick a mall, any mall—and pay homage to the biggest outdoor supplies shop in the north, Cabala’s, a name known to every North American outdoors person and, thanks to its mail order business, many Australians. Then it was back to the highway south and an hour’s leisurely cruise to our first stop on the eastern side of Kenai Peninsula; Whittier, better known as the Strangest Town in Alaska.
Whittier was built by the US Army during World War Two as a strategic base, complete with port and single rail line running through a 4.1 km tunnel drilled through a mountain to link it with the Alaska Railroad and Anchorage. Named after the nearby Whittier Glacier, the base remained strategically important with the advent of the Cold War when its population grew to 800.
They all lived in one huge building, the Buckner Building, built in 1953 and known as the "city under one roof"—people worked and lived there; it included a school, shops and a hospital. Yet after only a few years it was abandoned and everyone in town moved into its replacement, Begich Towers, which looks more a giant hotel. Too expensive to pull down, the once white Buckner Building still stands—a giant, mouldering monolith, legacy of the Cold War.
The town’s population is now about 200 and it remains a significant freight port. But only since 2000, when the rail tunnel was opened for public use and partly resurfaced to allow road vehicles, have tourists begun visiting.
Today it is increasingly popular with cruise ships and a new wooden hotel, The Inn at Whittier, beautifully crafted in art nouveau style, adds much-need quality to the otherwise drab, functional buildings. That said, we met a number of locals and tourists, including students doing holiday work, who love the place. Luci met some young women who described Begich Towers as more like a fraternity building with parties most nights while other people, like Karen Cole from Seattle, told me she sought refuge there from drug addiction and homelessness four years ago. “There are many eagles here,” she said. “I seem to have found a spiritual bond with them.”
Base Manager Joe Shen left Taiwan in 1980 for a total life change and finds the beautiful wilderness setting of the town overcomes its dinginess. His three children were born there. “They all left town to go to college but all have come back again,” he said. “It may look strange on a dank dark day like today but it’s set in a beautiful location.”
Well, the locals are welcome to Whittier, aptly named as the Strangest Town, and we were happy to drive back out through the rail tunnel, emerging into what seemed like the real world. It was getting late and with the sun lowering ahead of us we decided to stop after just 8km at a campsite named Williwaw at the feet of the Byron and Portage glaciers.
Meteorologists describe a williwaw as a katabatic wind, one that carries high density air down a steep slope, in our campsite’s case freezing air travelling more than 200km/h down the glaciers. Fortunately there was no williwaw blowing at Williwaw, another well-planned site with a choice of 80 RV berths at just $13 a night. We woke up to perfect weather and our planned one day’s stay turned into three.
The first day began with a 4km walk to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre along Portage Creek, which is actually a sizeable river 100m wide in places but much wider in braids in others. We filled our heads and pockets with information and pamphlets about the region, like don’t venture onto the glacier ice unprepared and in the clear air distances are longer than you think, so plan walks carefully, and on the advice of a Centre guide, stopped off on the walk back to camp at a platform built over the creek to see the salmon spawning. The afternoon was spent gathering blueberries, cranberries and moss berries that grew prolifically under the mix of cottonwood and spruce trees. We filled a couple of buckets, mindful meanwhile that there were bears about and they also eat copious quantities of the very same berries before hibernating. Fortunately we saw no bears and harvested enough berries to freeze a bucketful for later.
More walking under a deep blue sky occupied day two with Tim, Jen and me climbing 4km up to the face of the Byron Glacier, while Elke took the others bike riding along the many trails around the camp. For day three the boys planned a fishing trip.
Bill is a very experienced fisherman and he took Tim and me to both the creek and several small lakes within a short walk from camp. By then the williwaw had sprung up, heavy clouds scudded a darkening sky and casting a fly became pretty tricky. Sad to say, while it was invigorating, we could not even get a bite. We packed up and over dinner planned to leave Traily at Williwaw and make a short unencumbered round trip of 200km the following day to the former gold mining village of Hope and the town of Seward.
Join Traily back on the road for tomorrow’s episode...
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