When he joined the Army in December of 1947, Alaska was the last place in the world this writer wanted to be sent.
In fact, each of the 12 times he went through processing, he responded to the question of his preference of overseas assignments with, “Anyplace but Alaska.” You see, he was born and raised in Alabama. Just the thought of below-freezing weather was enough to make him shiver.
On Jan. 4, 1949, he found himself standing on the dock at Whittier. It was 20 degrees below zero and the wind was howling. He and the other passengers from the Army transport ship U.S.S. Sgt. Charles Mower stood there for two hours, waiting to board a train. Chilled to the bone, he found a seat on a wooden bench whose back could be moved in order to face either end of the car. The once-elegant conveyance was lined with what may have been green felt but now was stained black with soot from the oil-fired space heater in one corner.
That was his introduction to Alaska. His arrival and first night at “tent city” on Ft. Richardson were unnerving and confirmed his worst fears. Instead of a dog sled, though, a brand-new Chevrolet staff car arrived the next morning to take him and four others to the Signal Corps’ Alaska Communication System office in Anchorage’s Federal Building. The sight of real buildings on 4th Avenue was encouraging—even though the upside-down sign on the Alaska Cleaners log building was somewhat disconcerting.
The three preceding paragraphs are designed to let you know that disaster anticipated turned into surprised pleasure.
What Alaska was found to be is what kept him here ever since. Except for an occasional “sun break” he expects to remain for the rest of his days.
Alaska’s beauty is breath-taking. The vistas change hourly and are always spectacular. Whether it’s a hike in Eklutna Valley, a drive to Hope, the Chugach peaks bathed in alpenglow, the Christmas star shining below Site Summit, sunlight reflected from the windows in an Anchorage skyscraper or a glorious sunset over Cook Inlet, one can marvel at what is on display. No matter the season, Alaska is fascinating to see.
What I like most about Alaska, though, are the people who live here. While southern hospitality surrounded my upbringing, the Alaska spirit puts it to shame. Social standing that was so important to my classmates is absent at this latitude.
Perhaps it is the distance from Outside cities, or maybe the harsh climate, that makes Alaskans share the philosophy that “we’re all in this together.”
Nothing illustrates that “togetherness” feeling more than musher Scott Janssen giving up his Iditarod finish this year to help Chugiak-Eagle River racer Jim Lanier. Just 25 or so miles from the burled arch in Nome, Janssen stopped his team to comfort and get help for the older man whose sled had become stuck in driftwood. Stranded for hours in the cold, both suffered frostbite but now are safe.
Alaska, in 1949 and still now, is a land of opportunity. It is a land built by pioneers who did things themselves and where a do-it-yourself attitude continues to be appreciated. Yes, mistakes were made by the old-timers; they were preoccupied with surviving the moment far more than protecting the future. Pollution was not a major concern when neighbors were few and far between. They knew that time spent on non-essential things could lead to fatal consequences.
But we have learned and adapted. Enlightened planning and stronger regulations allow us to avoid some mistakes of the past.
The Great Land has always had a mystique that attracts adventurers. It now is a Mecca for tourists. Cruise ships bring in excess of two million passengers each summer. Hundreds of thousands more brave the Alaska Highway to visit this place. Countless more fly up to visit friends and relatives.
There is much for us to show off. Museums abound. National and state parks are plentiful and well-maintained. Commercial tours are offered, with informed and entertaining guides who expound on the sights being shown.
A big challenge is letting the average visitor understand just how big Alaska really is. One eager tourist, an acquaintance, a few years ago looked at a map and made plans for his family’s seven-day trip. They planned to check out Homer in the morning, then go look at Mt. Denali (it was still McKinley then) in the afternoon. They’d go on to Fairbanks the next day before heading to Seward where they’d do some fishing and then spend the rest of their time visiting relatives and sight-seeing in the Anchorage area. Their schedule had to be drastically adjusted once reality came to bear.
That’s the problem with national television news programs that show maps with Alaska and Hawaii stuck down below California. Wow, talk about “fake news!”
One could spend a full week just visiting points of interest in the Anchorage and Valley areas—-and still not see everything.
The Anchorage Museum is a great place to see Alaska past and present. Not so well known but of interest to people who have served in uniform is the Alaska Veterans Museum. Earthquake Park demonstrates the effect of huge chunks of land sliding off during a major tremor. The Botanical Gardens has flowers and plants that show off the beauty of our blossoms. Many stores have displays that go far beyond showing off the merchandise they offer.
Chugach State Park is one of the largest in the nation. It has accessible parking on both sides of the Chugach Mountain range. The Eagle River Visitor Center has a wealth of historical and geological information and displays. Trails from there and from the Eklutna Lake parking lot are well cared-for and popular with hikers. Other trails are located on the south side of the slopes, accessible from the Seward Highway.
Farther south, at Girdwood, is the nationally-ranked Alyeska Resort ski area where the tram in summer accesses a fine restaurant with a view of the surrounding glaciers. Not too far off the main road is an active gold mine that dates to Gold Rush times. People can try their hand at panning or rent equipment for a day of sluicing gravel from one of the richest streams in Upper Cook Inlet’s past.
To the north, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley has a rich history and wide vistas to show off. The Colony Museum has information and artifacts from the 1935 Colony project. Two hundred families from the economically ravaged mid-West were relocated to 40-acre tracts with houses and barns; there they were to grow crops the sale of which would repay the government. It was the most successful of several similar New Deal projects launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Valley was also the site of mining early in the Twentieth Century.
The Independence Mine was one of the longest-producing lode mines in Alaska. Its buildings have been refurbished and are on display as a historic site. A visitor center has information on the operations of yesteryear. Nearby is a planned ski area to be operated by the Mat-Su Borough. An active gold mine is also located at Hatcher’s Pass but is not open to the public.
Big Lake is popular for boating and swimming and has a number of dining facilities. A drive up the Glenn Highway can give visitors a good view of the glacier from which the Matanuska River flows.
For sports enthusiasts, the Dome has indoor facilities with a running track and soccer field. The MacDonald Center in Eagle River and the Dempsey Arena in Anchorage have indoor ice skating rinks, as does the Dimond Mall. Golfers can hone their skills at Moose Run and Russian Jack courses as well as indoor commercial facilities around town. Baseball abounds with fields throughout the Anchorage and Mat-Su areas. College-level baseball between five teams made up of players from around the country is available through the Alaska Baseball League; games are held at Mulcahy Stadium in Anchorage, Loretta French Park in Chugiak and Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer. The season starts in early June and ends the first week of August.
This is only a sampling of the good things Alaska had to offer. All in all, there is plenty of everything to do for visitors and residents alike.
We look forward to an exciting summer. Rain or shine, we’re ready.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.