The “oldest building in the Municipality of Anchorage” is either in Girdwood or Eklutna, depending upon interpretation.
Both are listed in the Register of National Historic Landmarks. St. Anthony Greek Orthodox Church was moved to Eklutna from Knik in 1900, but was built in 1870 or possibly even three decades earlier, according to village elders. The Crow Creek Mine mess hall was built in 1898, according to the mine’s Web site. Both claim to be the Municipality’s oldest.
These are but two of the places that remind visitors of Alaska’s early days. Many can easily be reached by our road system.
Drivers traveling from our area have only two directional choices—north or south. OK, so you can go east for a dozen miles into Eagle River Valley or kind of west into the Matanuska Valley before turning north to reach the highway that goes south to the Lower 48. But that’s getting more technical than we need to bother with here.
The 49th State, if laid atop all her 48 older sisters, would pretty well blanket them. But our cousins who live Outside have far more roads from which to choose for a weekend overnight trip, or even a short Sunday drive.
Alaska has only one main highway.
Technically, it reaches from the top of North America to the bottom tip of South America. Although there have been many discussions about adding roads, communities in western and southeast Alaska still do not have overland connections. There is a Marine Highway System, however, serving the Aleutians, Bering Coast and Southeast Alaska.
Seems strange, but Alaska and Hawaii both have Interstate Highways despite being separated from the other states. Alaska has four, A-1 through 4, while the 50th State has three: H-1, 2 and 3, all on the main island of Oahu.
The Alaska Dept. of Transportation and Public Facilities shows seventeen named highways. Alphabetically, they are the Copper River, Dalton, Denali, Edgerton, Elliott, Glenn, Haines, Hope, Kenai Spur, Klondike, Palmer-Wasilla, Parks, Portage Glacier, Richardson, Seward, Steese and Sterling highways.
If you want to connect with the ferry system, ports at Homer, Seward, Haines and Skagway are transfer points. Ferries run at scheduled times, with information at www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/schedules.shtml. Take the Haines Cutoff from the Alaska Highway; Skagway is reached from Whitehorse.
Let’s first head south on the Seward.
We travel along Turnagain Arm, keeping an eye out for Dall sheep on the mountainside to our left and beluga whales in the water on our right. At the end of the Arm is Girdwood, where we can visit Alyeska Resort and take the tram to view seven different glaciers. Off the road to the left on the way in is the Crow Creek Mine where we can pan for gold, eat and be entertained after visiting a museum.
A few miles farther is Portage, but just before we get there, turn off on the right to the wildlife center where a wide variety of big game animals can be seen. At Portage, go to the Begich-Boggs Center where a boat tour to Portage Glacier can be taken. (When this writer first saw the glacier, its face was right beside the road; it has since receded out of sight around a bend.) Continue on that road to the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, at 2.5 miles America’s longest tunnel, which takes us to the historic seaport of Whittier. Anton Anderson, by the way, was the engineer who laid out Anchorage, designed the tunnel and loved to recite Robert Service rhymes.
Continuing south at Mile 57 we come onto the Hope Highway which follows the east coast of Turnagain Arm. That area was made famous during the Gold Rush with both placer and lode mines. At Hope we find a museum depicting the glories of that period. It’s a great area for hiking and camping and there are creeks open to gold-panning.
Beyond the Hope turnoff rises Turnagain Pass, an area popular in winter for snowmachining.
Pullouts along the highway offer spectacular views. A nice restaurant and gift shop are located at Summit Lake. Keep an eye out for sheep on the mountains and swans on the lake.
At Mile 37 on the right is the Sterling Highway. It traverses the Kenai Peninsula. A beautiful drive with a roadside stream, lakes and popular fishing and camping areas, it is a favorite route for many residents. Soldotna marks the turnoff for Kenai, known as Kenay Redoubt under Russian ownership. Communities
along the way to Homer at the southern tip of the Peninsula offer goods and services. Be prepared to be astounded when we start to descend into Homer. The view of the Spit extending out into Kachemak Bay will take away our breath. If possible, take a trip on the Danny J to Halibut Cove or make it over to Seldovia. A sunny day on Kachemak Bay and its surroundings is a memorable experience—one to be pleasantly recalled for many years.
Just outside Seward is Exit Glacier where National Park Rangers proudly show off that wonder of nature. The glacier is part of the Kenai Ice Field—a continuous series of glaciers that cover much of the mountainous area between Turnagain Arm and Resurrection Bay. Dated markers along the road into the glacier parking lot show the regression of the ice face over the years. We may quickly realize that while climate change is a current topic of concern, the glaciers have been slowly melting for far more than a century.
As we approach the Seward city limits, majestic Mt. Marathon can be seen on the right.
Every Fourth of July, Seward is filled with people there to see the annual race up and down the slopes of that peak.
Hundreds of racers vie for the right to run from the starting line in downtown Seward, turning from the highway trail up a mountainside to swing around a rock marker 2,974 feet above sea level and a mile and a half away, then race back down toward the same line from whence they started.
Among features at Seward are the docks where cruise ships from several lines anchor throughout the summer months, the terminus of The Alaska Railroad, and the Seward SeaLife Center.
Week-long cruise voyages from Seattle or Vancouver, B.C. regularly stop at Seward as their northbound debarkation point. They are filled to the brim on both north- and south-bound trips. Many passengers spend a week at sea, stopping at Southeast ports and Glacier Bay before then touring Alaska for a week and then flying home.
The Alaska Railroad runs year-round from Seward to Fairbanks.
It began in the early days of the Twentieth Century as a private enterprise serving the goldfields of Cook Inlet. Its farthest reach was to a point near the shore of Turnagain Arm. Both funds and gold ran out before it could go farther. The private line was purchased by the U.S. government as part of a planned extension to Fairbanks, where gold was still being produced in large quantities. Main basis for the government’s interest, however, was the coal fields at Matanuska. Coal was in great demand as fuel for the Navy’s steamships.
The SeaLife Center was envisioned by people who wanted a facility to study sea creatures. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, it suddenly gained support in the form of grants from the city, state and federal governments, including a big chunk of the oil spill settlement fund. The facility has an aquarium and facilities for studying sea life. It is open to the public.
Seward also offers local tours for whale watching and exploration of Resurrection Bay. It is also known for its annual Seward Silver Salmon Derby in early August. Prizes are given for the largest fish as well as a special prize for the angler who brings in a salmon that bears a tag attached by the derby-sponsoring Chamber of Commerce.
A derby ticket is required and must be punched each day. Failure to do so several years ago cost a man the prize for the largest silver. The derby finish was being broadcast on KENI radio. As the closing hour ticked to a close, on-air reporter Bob Fleming excitedly told the audience that a boat was racing into the harbor, its horn blasting wildly. As it beached, the fisherman jumped out and rushed his huge salmon to the scales just in time to be weighed in. It would have been the winner, except he had camped out overnight on the beach across the way and failed to get the ticket punched. Denied the top prize money, he at least made the next edition of National Geographic, which had come north to cover the derby that year.
Good grief, we’ve overshot our limit and have only traveled a portion of Alaska’s roads. Next week, we’ll head north.
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.