Out of the wild

The debate over building a road from Juneau

Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Road Series

Skagway construction worker Buddy True is keenly aware of the physical divide between his little town and the state capital.

When you live in a frontier outpost, the absence of a road to the "big city" causes sensory deprivation. Finding a sweeter melon means either road-tripping into Canada or taking a ferry or plane to Juneau.

"When I go to Juneau, one of the first things I do is run to Safeway or Fred Meyer and just walk through the produce and meat sections to make sure they still have stuff like that in the world," True said.

In countless ways and degrees, it's a feeling that is shared by some 70,000 Southeast Alaskans. With few continentally connected exceptions - Skagway, Haines and Hyder - Alaska's Panhandle has always been a watery world apart. That would change instantly and forever if the state can build a 68.5-mile road along the rocky coast of eastern Lynn Canal for $281 million, as the Murkowski administration proposes. It would link Juneau's 31,000 residents to Skagway's Klondike Highway, and its motorists to the Americas.

That it's a revolutionary and provocative idea is evident in the sentiments displayed on bumpers all over Juneau's dead-end road system. "Want more roads? Move down south." "Build the road, Juneau to Skagway." One person's prized solitude is another's stifling isolation. And for good or ill, until now isolation has always been the way of life here.

Hilary Turner is one who knows about moving south to the land of roads. The 22-year-old Juneau-Douglas High School graduate moved to Bozeman, Mont., four years ago to compete on Montana State University's ski team and study for a psychology degree. Extracurricular trips that had meant leisurely ferry or plane rides during high school now meant hours cooped in a van.

"I hated the 18-hour van rides down to Mammoth Mountain (Calif.), or the 12 hours in the blizzard death trips to Colorado," said Turner, who will graduate with a bachelor's degree in May.

If not for Juneau's isolation, Turner believes she may never have taken such an interest in the outdoors. Her passion might have drifted from skiing.

"Growing up in Juneau, where I had to entertain myself by outdoor activities, allowed me to appreciate and enjoy this sort of lifestyle," she said. "If we had a road in and out of Juneau, we may have had big-city influences like huge shopping malls, and then I might just be a mall rat."

She acknowledges that during high school she sometimes resented long ferry rides. Now, though, she remembers that unique Alaska experience fondly.

"We had so much fun running around those boats, playing games, playing 'truth or dare,'" Turner said. "I wouldn't have changed it for the world."

Others would. Some parents say the ferry system no longer emphasizes efficient school or regional travel.

On a "road" trip this month, the Petersburg junior varsity boys basketball team spent five days away from home to play two games. The Vikings had a game in Haines on a Saturday, a day off Sunday and another game Monday. To return home, they had to ride the ferry from Haines through Juneau to Sitka, then east to Petersburg.

"The ferries used to be for us to get around in Southeast, and now it's more of a tourist thing," Sandy Meeks said while her son, Stuart, played cards with teammates in the cafeteria of the 408-foot Malaspina, a 500-passenger car ferry. "It's feasible for people who want to come see Alaska, but it obviously doesn't work for us."

Schedule

Today

• The psychology of isolation

• A recreational crossroads

• Skagway's medical dilemma

Friday

• Road economics

• Haines bypassed

• School travel

Sunday

• Keeping the capital

• Skagway's two futures

• Road feasibility

More info

For more information about the Juneau Access Supplemental

Draft Environmental impact Statement, contact the alaska department of transportation at:

• call (907) 465-1828

• e-mail deborah_holman@dot.state.ak.us

To submit a written comment online by the state's monday deadline, e-mail at

http://www.dot.state.ak.us/stwdplng/projectinfo/ ser/juneau_access/sdeiscomments.shtml

Or fax comments to (907) 465-2016

Web link

Empire series online at http://www.juneauempire.com/road

Twenty-year Juneau resident Eleanor Davenport, who moved to Skagway four years ago, said short-time and summer residents who oppose the road's construction don't know what it means to make a life in Southeast Alaska.

"Short-time residents say 'cut off, preserve, defend, hunker down, create this bulwark against the evils of Western culture,'" said Davenport, a White Pass & Yukon Railroad employee. "But you know what? Alaska has never been about cutting itself off. Alaska has always been about expanding and sharing and shouldering one another's issues. Alaskans want to share."

Retired engineer and globetrotting bicyclist Mike Blackwell of Juneau said he'd rather put transportation dollars into improving ferry access.

"I do some bicycling, and I think it would be nifty to be able to ride up to Skagway for the weekend," said Blackwell, whose cycling trips have spanned continents.

But he said he's not sure $281 million is a fair price to connect 31,000 people to the grid by paving through prime scenery and wildlife habitat.

"If I were interested in short-term benefit to the construction and tourism industries, I'd lust for a road. If I were interested in long-term benefit for all of us and our heirs, I'd help the ferries - so long as they take bikes," he said.

"The road is the single most important access project since the (Juneau) airport," said Juneau Chamber of Commerce President David Summers. He said building a route along the east side of Lynn Canal gives the community economic opportunity and expanded recreation through access to Berners Bay.

Last month the chamber passed a resolution calling the proposed road one of its top priorities. The resolution says the chamber supports road access for timely shipping to offset declines in the timber and fishing industries. The chamber called a road "critically important to (Juneau's) retention as the seat of government for the state, as identified by the Alaska Committee and many other sources of feedback from residents across the state."

Sitka mystery novelist John Straley said part of the Southeast Alaska mystique lies in the region's orientation to the sea and away from roads. The isolation lends to community togetherness and support of local endeavors, he said. It's part of the reason he and his wife, whale researcher Jan Straley, moved here 27 years ago.

"I really feel that my frame of reference as a writer and a thinker is in the bounds of my community," Straley said. "Of course I have the Internet and TV, but my actual world is limited to what I have here."

That world is a wild one that lilts along in isolation, conjuring wild animals not typical of the murder genre.

"One of my editors said, 'John, I love the books, but we need more crime and less ravens,'" he said. In Straley's Alaska, though, ravens are "emissaries from this wild world."

For Straley, a road from Juneau - and another proposed east from Sitka for a shorter ferry hop from Baranof Island - doesn't spell the end of actual isolation. It just changes the region's "imaginative world." He says his friends in Wyoming and Colorado feel the same romanticism for their rural highways that he has for a skiff in the water: They can take you just about anywhere.

Straley's next novel, set amid the Northwest's labor struggles of the 1930s, imagines a long haul by sea: Seattle to Juneau in a dory.

The same kind of dreaming that might lure future Juneau residents on New York road trips works in reverse and would bring more explorers to Juneau, Straley predicted.

"You build a road and people are going to want to drive to the end of it."

• Juneau Empire reporters Korry Keeker and Tony Carroll contributed to this story.



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