Wrapping up Alaska

As I previously mentioned, my husband and I are in the middle of moving from Alaska to the mid-Atlantic Coastal region of the “Lower 48”.  After three years of living in the USA’s “Last Frontier”, it’s been a bit of a job to get everything together in preparation for this move.

This has been made more difficult by the fact that my husband is already in the Lower 48 as he had to start his new job before we could catch the ferry out of Alaska.  So I’ve been dealing with the packing & sorting & organizing & planning (*whew*) by myself.  But all of this is finally coming to a close.

This weekend was beautiful here in Whittier, Alaska so I got out to grab a few photos before we leave.  Often the weather here is very questionable (the locals have a saying that goes like “It’s always sh*ttier in Whittier” – which is unfair but has an element of truth to it – it rains here  – A LOT!)  So I wanted to take advantage of the good weather before the rains returned.

You may have come across some news articles about this remote, small town in Alaska.  It has been featured on some national news programs such as Welcome To Whittier, Alaska, A Community Under One Roof from NPR’s “All Things Considered” and CNN’sNorthern Enclosure, Alaska’s One-House Town, Home to Hundreds primarily because of the unique housing most of the residents here utilize.

The 14-story condominium building, Begich Towers (locally known as BTI), where most of the population lives.

Most, but by all means not “all”, of Whittier’s residents reside in the 14-story building named “Begich Towers”.  Locals refer to it simply as the “BTI”.  There is another condominium building in Whitter, simply called the Whittier Manor and if the residents don’t live in BTI they pretty much live in the Manor.  There really aren’t any other choices besides a handful of “dry cabins”.

Begich Towers is an old Army barracks built in the late 1950’s when the military developed a now non-existent base in this location.  In the early 1970’s, BTI was deeded over to the now-incorporated community of Whittier since the military had pulled out of the location.

Even those few residents who do not live in BTI have to come to the building to deal with daily life as the building is not only home to most of the residents, but many community services as well.  This includes a Medical Clinic, a small grocery store, City Offices, Police Department, etc.  There is even a pedestrian tunnel located under the building that connects to the school located directly behind BTI so most of the children don’t have to go out into the elements to get to school.

Exterior entrance to Whittier School, nestled at the base of a mountain and located directly behind BTI.
Whittier School, home of the “Eagles”.

Every school day morning the local children catch the elevator from their condo’s floor in the BTI and head down to the basement to walk the underground tunnel to school.

When the military built BTI they also built a huge building called “The Buckner Building”.  Unlike BTI the Buckner was never given another lease on life and now sits virtually abandoned in town.  While it looks like it would be “haunted”, most locals will tell you that this is nonsense – nothing really happens in this building other than the prosecution of trespassers, which is strictly enforced by the local police.

The “Buckner Building” built by the military in the 1950’s, now sits abandoned on the edge of town, dominating much of the landscape.
Although no trespassing is strictly enforced at the Buckner Building, a few people have sneaked by as graffiti left behind proves.

The Buckner Building is not the only thing in Whittier that gives the appearance of being “abandoned” but looks can be deceiving.  Many locals rarely throw away anything that might have a later use.  This may even include scavenging for parts or recycling (up-cycling ?) items to another use.

Boats that appear abandoned may be servicing other needs. Some have such a rich history, such as the “Bent Nail”, that anyone would be hesitant to trash.
Boats being salvaged or repaired sit in a marine parking lot with a dramatic view of mountains in the background.
It’s not just marine vehicles that are kept around for other purposes such as salvaging, but other vehicles & heavy equipment as well.

The real reason for Whittier to continue to exist and even thrive comes down to transportation.  This small community located on the Western side of Port William Sound is a major hub for railroad, ferries and cruise ships.

Whittier Marina, one of a few ice-free ports in the state of Alaska is always crowded.
Rail car sitting on the dominant train tracks in Whittier.
Rail cars sitting on the train tracks being overshadowed by the stunning landscape of Prince William Sound.

The Alaska Railroad offers passenger service to & from Whittier during the summer tourist season and the Alaska Marine Highway uses Whittier as a port and a jumping off point for those headed to or coming from the Lower 48 (known as the Contiguous United States to those not in Alaska).   Various Cruise Ships dock for a day or two in the summer and freight trains service the area pretty much year round.

If you are visiting Anchorage and choose to arrive by Ferry – Whittier is where you will begin your adventure.  However there is one more ordeal you will deal with as you leave this community – the infamous Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, commonly known as the Whittier Tunnel.

View of the drive up to the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel (known locally as the Whittier Tunnel) as seen leaving Whittier.

This narrow, one-lane tunnel shares it’s access with the Alaska Railroad and runs on a tight schedule.  Every resident of Whittier pretty much plans their lives outside of Whittier by the Tunnel Schedule.  The tunnel opens on the half-hour for entering Whittier and on the top of the hour for leaving Whittier. It is only open to the one-way traffic for 15 minutes.  If you arrive on the ferry at 8:15 am you will have to wait in the staging area for the 9:00 am tunnel before you can leave.  Check the schedule and any information regarding shut downs or planned repairs at the Dept. of Transportation’s website located here.

Please be aware that the trains take priority with the tunnel so if a train is approaching at your scheduled time you will be forced to wait.  The length of the wait is completely dependent upon how long it takes for the train to clear the tunnel.  Huge freight trains can cause you to have to wait until the next scheduled release.

Also important to know is that the tunnel does NOT operate 24 hours a day.  There is a set schedule for operation which may change depending on the season.  Again – check the above website for details before you arrive in Alaska.  Locals have been known to have to sleep in their cars in the staging area entering Whittier because they missed the last tunnel release.  This has led to the popular POW sweatshirts you’ll see around here.  Only POW in this case means “Prisoner of Whittier”.

Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel entrance from Whittier to Bear Valley on the other side of the mountain.

The tunnel is also a toll tunnel, but only when entering Whittier.  There is no toll to leave Whittier so you won’t need to have cash ready to pay the toll until you return to Whittier to catch your ferry to leave Alaska.  Currently the toll is $13 for passenger cars.  If you are in a RV or towing a boat your toll will be different.  Check the tunnel website for more and current information.

Portage Glacier Road / Camp Road leading up to the tunnel in Whittier, Alaska.

One more piece of advice about this tunnel – it is the longest rail/car shared tunnel in North America (2.5 miles long) and is quite narrow.  If you have claustrophobia issues or fear tunnels – you may want to find someone else to drive your vehicle for you or plan another route. Also – many will try to “ride the rails” as they drive through the tunnel.  DON’T do this!  It will ruin your tires.  There is just enough room on the left side of the tunnel (leaving Whittier) to scoot your car just off the rails – this is the safest way to drive the tunnel.  It’s fun to pretend you are a train – but seriously, I don’t recommend doing this.

One of the many glaciers surrounding Whittier, Alaska.

You may ask how on earth I ended up spending much of the last three years in this little town on the edge of Alaska?  My husband and I spent the last two summers managing a local Inn located in Whittier, but now the time has come to move on to other opportunities and we are saying our goodbyes.   While there will be much to miss about Alaska the two things I will miss the most are the hearty people that choose to live here and the landscape.   There is simply nowhere as beautiful as Alaska – and I find this to be especially true of this little bitty town called Whittier and the Seward Highway which is our route to do simple things such as visit a “real” grocery store in Anchorage.

Prince William Sound as seen from Whittier, Alaska.

Although I am excited to be returning to the Lower 48 and moving on with the next adventure life has in store for me, there will always be a piece of my heart and soul left in Alaska.  I hope I get the opportunity to return someday but if not, I at least consider myself lucky to have spent the last three years in such a stunning location.

More photos from my small tour around Whittier this weekend: