Monday, September 28, 2015

Portage Glacier and The Strange Little Town of Whittier

Peaceful Scene

Portage Glacier

We didn't take a glacier cruises in Kenai Fjords National Park but we did get to take one on an inland lake.  

Near the road to Whittier is what’s left of Portage Alaska. The community at the end of Turnagain Arm was home to almost 100 residents until the 1964 Good Friday earthquake caused the shoreline to drop between 6 - 12  flooding the town and surrounding area with salt water. All that remains of the original village are a few structures sinking into the nearby mud flats and scattered stands of dead trees.

Portage Glacier

The Begich-Boggs Visitor Center was built on the shore of Portage Lake.  It is a very nice place to stop with interesting programs and displays. What it doesn't have anymore is a view of Portage Glacier.  Portage Glacier is in retreat, and is no longer visible from the center’s observation decks and telescopes.  To get up close to the glacier, we took the hour-long sightseeing boat cruise on Portage Lake.

The skies were clear and the sun was very bright the day we boarded the MV Ptarmigan to tour across the lake to the glacier.  When we got close we saw that the sun was shining through the glacial ice highlighting the blue color of the ice.

Portage Glacier got it's name because it is on a portage route between Prince William Sound and Turnagain Arm. Hundreds of years ago the glacier filled the entire Portage Valley, a distance of 14 miles, and was connected to what are now five separate glaciers.  Walking across the glacier was the best way to cross.

Portage Glacier

While on the boat June noticed a few very fit young men on the boat.   She leaned over and whispered to me "those guys are packin!"   They also had Secret Service patches on their jackets.   It was the afternoon after President Obama had been in the area.  We decided they were taking some personal time and visiting the sites.   It was probably the safest place to be that day.

Waiting Our Turn

Whittier Alaska

After we left Portage Lake we headed toward the town of Whittier.   During World War II the United States Army constructed a military base, complete with port and railroad  near the Whittier glacier. The spur of the Alaska Railroad was completed in 1943 and the port became the entrance for United States soldiers into Alaska.  This base eventually became the town of Whittier.

Until 15 years ago the only way to get to Whittier in winter was by boat.   In 2000 Alaska converted the World War II rail tunnel to handle cars, as well as trains.  At 2.5 miles long the tunnel is the longest combined car - rail tunnel in North America.  I din't even know there was such a thing until we drove it.   It's still a rough tunnel with rock walls just wide enough for the railroad.  Driving the tunnel is an experience.

Cars can only cross once an hour in either direction and the tunnel has to be aired out after each trip.  The tunnel actually closes at 10:30 at night.  You don't want to come home late!

Perhaps the strangest thing about Whittier is most of the town,  including its hospital, school and city government, functions within one self-sufficient structure: a Cold War block structure that dominates the town.   The building seems so out of place at the edge of a small fishing village of 200 people.  It just doesn't belong.

Buckner Building
When it was built by the Army, the 14-story Hodge Building (now Begich Towers Condominiums) contained 150 two and three bedroom apartments plus bachelor efficiency units. The new Whittier School was connected by a tunnel at the base of the west tower so students could go to school in short sleeves on the very worst weather days.  That arrangement is still in place today.  Residents can stay within the warm confines of the buildings without having to go outside.

The other structure, the Buckner Building, was completed in 1953, and was called the "city under one roof". The mammoth, sturdy structure had  a movie theater, a bowling alley, and a jail. The military has long left and abandoned the building to the harsh Alaska weather.    

I would love to explore inside that old building.   Urban decay photography is something I'd love to try, but I'm just not much into breaking and entering government property.

We wandered around town for a while and soon realized that as a destination, Whittier is a bust. We were soon back in line to drive the 2.5 miles through the tunnel to the other side of the mountain.

In the next installment we make our way to the town of Girdwood before heading back to Anchorage.   Be sure to come back and read about bears, moose, elk, porcupines, and beluga whales.

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