The Prince William Sound triangle:
A journey to the land of wind & ghosts (1)
By Bob Burakoff, Jon Katcher, & Jim Kentch
(Footnotes designated in parentheses. Really good footnotes--actually more like pithy asides.)
The reader especially blessed by Mnemosyne(2) will remember an article in this periodical some two years ago chronicling The First Jay Rabinowitz Memorial Ferry Trip. This is the story of the second such venture.
There were three of us this time: Bob Burakoff (aka "Ootek,"); Jon Katcher (aka "El Tigre") (3); and Jim Kentch (aka "El hombre del fuego"). Bob is a cheechako from Boston who wanted to take a road trip to see glaciers, and we were happy to oblige. While a law student, Ootek once explained tort law by saying, "Torts are easy. It's just 'You break, you pay. Unless he had it coming'."
We drove to Portage, used the tunnel to cross the neck of the Kenai Peninsula to Whittier, took the M/V E.L. Bartlett Alaska Marine HIghway ferry to Cordova, and drove the 34 miles to the Million Dollar Bridge(4) We then retraced our steps.
We had 37 Susan B. Anthony dollar coins, of which even the most cursory examination would reveal them to be "specie." When we tried to use them to pay the $12 toll for the tunnel to Whittier, the following conversation occurred:
Toll collector, apparently not recognizing that we had handed him 12 rather than 48 coins: "Are you going to pay in quarters?"
We: "No, those are dollar coins."
"Don't you have any cash?"
"Yes, I just gave you some."
"My boss gets real mad at me if I have a lot of coins, and I don't want her to get mad at me."
So we reluctantly paid in Federal Reserve Notes. Fortunately, throughout the trip we were able to spend all of our dollar specie. People in Glennallen, McCarthy, and even the Anchorage REI store (known for its snootiness) accepted specie with no problem. The only flack we got was from the State of Alaska employee at the Whittier Tunnel.(6)
The Trotsky Tower (7)
This abandoned building in Whittier is redolent of failed socialist dreams. Upon entering we found ourselves in a postapocalyptic world; from that point on, we realized, as far as tort law was concerned, "We had it coming." Gypsum stalactites, dripping water, graffiti(8), broken windows ("They should have fixed the first one," said Mayor Guilliani), and rocks abounded. We played "Glass Skeet Shooting," a pastime made popular by the Mad Max genre.
The Whale Road (9)
Boarding the ferry involved procedures absent from our July 2001 Aleutian Chain voyage. All passengers were required to show government issued photo ID. Homeland security reaches even the idyllic backwaters of Alaska.
Once aboard, we set our thrones on the solarium. Appropriate coronation music blared forth. The M/V Bartlett (10) was built in Indiana in 1969 for $3.35 million. At 193 feet in length she is the smallest of the Alaska state ferry fleet. Her two engines, designed for WW II submarines, produce 3,468 horsepower. A sign in the bathroom read, "If you are seasick, PLEASE use the toilet and not the sink." (Emphasis in original). She ruled.(11)
The voyage non-stop from Whittier to Cordova took 7 hours. And the weather cooperated magnificently. We had a great view of Mt. Marcus Baker, the highest peak in the Chugach Range at 13,176 feet.(12) Other spectacular views included College Fjord, numerous glaciers and mountains, and glimpses of the Gulf of Alaska off in the distance beyond the islands to the south. The sirens called but we resisted.(13)
- By Federico García Lorca(15)
- Alone, in the distance.
- Black horse, Rising moon
- and olives in my saddlebag.
- Although I know the roads
- I'll never get to Cordoba
- Over the plains, through the wind,
- black horse, red moon,
- death is there watching me
- from the towers of Cordoba.
- O, what a long road!
- O, my brave little horse!
- O, that death waits for me
- Before I get to Cordoba!
- Alone, in the distance.
Don Luis de Cordova y Cordova
Salvador Fidalgo named Cordova on June 3, 1790, in honor of Don Luis de Cordova y Cordova, Captain General of his Catholic Majesty, Carlos IV of Spain. Don Luis was truly a dude! Born in 1706 (same year as Benjamin Franklin), he crossed the Atlantic nine times, twice by the age of 13. He captured 79(!) British ships during the American Revolution, as Spain declared war on Britain in 1779.(16) As Captain General of the Spanish Navy, he commanded The Armada. The British were terrified of 1588 redux.(17) Don Luis died a nonagenarian, after 65 years of uninterrupted service in the Spanish Navy.
After chatting with Ricardo Montalban(18) and purchasing some rich Corinthian leather(19), we wasted no time in setting up camp, having martinis,(20) and preparing for the drive to the Million Dollar Bridge. And beyond.
One More Radar-Lover Gone
Near the campground we saw a wrecked airplane in the woods, close to the road, which the rainforest had not yet totally digested. We discovered and scavenged for El Tigre's office credenza a part on which is engraved, "Do not fly airplane without this part properly installed." Res Ipse Loquitur.
The Road to Nowhere
The 35-mile drive from Cordova to The Bridge equaled East Africa: Vast distance in all directions, the spectacular "Ragged Mountains" in the background, teeming wildlife, huge glaciers, the open ocean on the horizon, raw, savage nature, red in tooth and claw.
The first vehicle we saw was an omen: a 1990 Ford Fairmont, whose owner informed us "It runs great!" Lacking a trunk lid, it reminded us of a do-it-yourself Ranchero.(21) Truly the Land of Wind and Ghosts. And we had music to match the scenery. Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Golden Earring, "Blood on the Tracks," and Anton Bruckner's "Ninth Symphony in D Minor."(22)
Even the name of the "Mudhole Smith Airport" fit. Mudhole, who taught himself to fly and once had his own flying circus in Kansas, earned his sobriquet from an accident involving a great deal of mud, a putty knife, a rag and a screwdriver. His career spotting German submarines during WW II was probably not as exciting.
A hike along the Haystack Mountain Trail (where the trees come to die) revealed copious bear sign and a squadron of immature bald eagles performing maneuvers worthy of The Lafayette Escadrille(23) over cliffs covered with down they had shed in their ongoing transformation to adulthood.
Stonehenge, or, The Monolith
We saw It as soon as we turned a corner. Frightful, sheer, no man fathomed: The Bridge. Huge, silent, brooding. Damaged by the 1964 earthquake but still passable in a Rube Goldberg kind of way. A relic of The Age of Great Mechanical Contraptions: the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower, the Suez Canal, the Titanic, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad, for which The Bridge was a critical link in the Herculean effort to reach the Kennecott Mine in the rugged Alaska Range. (24)
The railroad, The Bridge, the mine, the mill, and the town of McCarthy were all financed and owned by the Guggenheims and the Morgans through an enterprise known as "The Alaska Syndicate." Talk about vertically integrated capitalism. Michael J. Henry, aka "The Irish Prince," oversaw the construction of The Bridge and the railroad.(25) We drove across it, slowly, carefully. We were afraid. A lodge across the river is under construction perilously close to Childs Glacier. The hubris displayed in The Age of Great Mechanical Contraptions continues.
The Childs Glacier
But the setting of The Bridge is even more impressive than The Bridge itself. Less than a mile down the Copper River from The Bridge, the Childs Glacier juts out into the channel. A very nice viewing area affords a prospect of power and terror: 1,200 feet away stands a cliff of ice 300 feet tall (taller than the U.S. Capitol Dome) and several thousand feet wide; it creaks, groans, cracks, and moans constantly as it calves huge, shattered ice chunks into the river. It was the best glacial sight/site we had ever seen. One couple from Illinois sat there five hours, watching.
Excellently written and illustrated U.S. Forest Service interpretive signs enhance the glacier and Bridge viewing areas. In 1993 an ice chunk sent a wave 30 feet high into the glacier viewing area. One spectator broke her arm, and another broke her pelvis in two places. Fish, boulders, and icebergs joined the human flotsam/jetsam. Our vigilance was extreme. We saw a seal swimming upstream, miles from the ocean. We were very afraid.
Upstream from The Bridge we saw a cleared area reminiscent of the 18th green at Augusta. Closer examination revealed a crude golf green: half a Pepsi can for the hole, and a piece of trash fluttering from a stick poked in the ground. More ghosts. Grizzly tracks reinforced our prior decision not to wander off the Native corporation's 17(b) easements.
The Silkie is a mythological creature of Northern Scotland who appears as a seal and as a man.(26) We saw a female employee of Fish and Game counting migrating salmon using two sonar devices.(27) This woman told us that seals swam upriver as far as Chitina. The fact that we never saw the seal AND this woman at the same time is profound: could she be a silkie, perhaps the first female silkie ever encountered?
"Slow down, boys, your back door is open!" came the command from the rear seat as we left The Bridge for the campsite. Obviously the mischief of those pesky ghosts.
Some Economics From Your Treasurer
Folks, the Copper River Delta is one of Alaska's best and most affordable road accessible wilderness experiences. If you don't want to pay homage to Justice Rabinowitz by spending time on the ferry you can fly from Anchorage to Cordova for about $260 round trip and then rent a car and head out to this spectacular area just a few miles from town. Amazing scenery. Mountains, glaciers, birds, fish, bears. Excellent hiking. Easy car camping. Very few people. You could even bring your mountain bike and ride the well maintained low traffic road to the Bridge. Do it!
We saw no seals in Chitina, but we did see some women's clothes on a gravel bar in McCarthy. We also saw a candidate for their silkie: a Park Ranger with whom we spoke French.(28) She also told us that Gifford Pinchot wore 44-caliber revolvers openly in D.C.(29) The tort theme continued in McCarthy as we played on a railroad turntable, the device at issue in the first attractive nuisance case.(30)
1. A reference to the Simpsons episode in which the box of Japanese laundry detergent with Homer's picture on it is said to banish dirt to the land of wind and ghosts.
2. Ancient Greek Goddess of memory, mother of the Muses.
3. Bestowed by a former Spanish instructor.
4. This bridge cost more than one million dollars.
5. Black's Law Dictionary (4thed. 1968) defines "specie" as "Coin of the precious metals, of a certain weight and fineness, and bearing the stamp of the government, denoting its value as currency."
6. The gender and federal supremacy issues are profound. Was the specie rejected because it has a woman on it? Are we going back to the days when it was hard to spend Maine Pine Tree shillings in Massachusetts? How can it be that we stopped the Taliban from oppressing the burkha-clad Afghani women and we can't spend female money here? Inquiries to the Comptroller of the Currency and Senator Ted Stevens' office are underway. It is obvious that we are facing a gender based assault on the full faith and credit of the United States.
7. Also known as the Buckner Building, it was completed in 1953, with 1,000 apartments, a hospital, bowling alley, theater, gym and swimming pool.
8. One particularly vulgar, scurrilous and imaginative graffito referred to a person with the same first name as a sitting Alaska Supreme Court Justice. Prudent restraint precludes further disclosure.
9. See generally Beowulf.
10. Contrary to popular belief, this ship was NOT named after the politician, but rather, in accordance with AS 19.65.020(b), was named after the glacier.
11. Little did we know that this would be among the last voyages of the Bartlett upon the Alaska Marine Highway. Because she will soon be out of compliance with federal safety requirements the state auctioned her off on eBay for $389,500.
12. First climbed by Bradford Washburn in 1938, this peak was named after an early Alaskan explorer and geographer. More importantly, Baker was a graduate of the University of Michigan, as are all three authors. Go Blue!
13. "Tales of Brave Ulysses," Eric Clapton & Sharo, Cream, "Disraeli Gears."
14. Translated by Ootek.
15. This great poet and dramatist was born near Grenada, Spain in 1898 and was murdered during the Spanish Civil War by Fascist followers of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
16. Despite each having more than 20 years of schooling, which qualifies them for the day shift, the authors were not familiar with Spain's contribution to the Revolution. The authors object to the exclusion of this important information from the general American history curriculum.
17. 1588 is when the Armada set forth on the godly sea to attack Britain.
18. Only Montalban (in a 70's TV ad hawking the Chrysler Cordova, a car with mediocre styling and even worse performance), and the State of Alaska mispronounce "Cordova." The accent belongs on the first syllable, guys. Ootek heard Jorge Luis Borges speak in Kalamazoo (birthplace of Marcus Baker), so he knows. El Hombre del Fuego has also heard Cordova Street pronounced correctly in Santa Fe, New Mexico, so he knows, too.
19. Pronounced "reech Coreenthian lay-there."
20. We broke three martini glasses on the trip, proving far beyond a reasonable doubt that life is tough on The Last Frontier.
21. Multi-colored graffiti covered it: Million $ Car; Stop the Rust; Cordova to Tijuana; It's Not Something You Ate; Eyesore; M/V Bartlett; Cordova Rules; Salmon Car.
22. As performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan.
23. The Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of American pilots who volunteered to assist the French during World War I, was named after the Marquis de Lafayette, who served under General George Washington in the American Revolution.
24. The Kennecott Mine, one of the richest copper mining operations in history, is named but incorrectly spelled after the nearby Kennicott Glacier, named for Robert Kennicott (1835-66). Stay tuned for an upcoming article regarding a cruise on the M/V Kennicott from Seward to Juneau.
25. He once said, "Give me enough dynamite and snoose and I'll build a road to Hell." Whether he would pave it with good intentions is not in the historical record.
26. See also, "The Secret of Roan Inish," John Sayles' movie based upon a similar Irish legend.
27. One is vintage 1985, and displays only a spike on a graph for each fish that passes. The newer "Dodson 2002," run in conjunction with a laptop computer, shows the spectral images of salmon swimming. Even in the electronic world did we see ghosts. The inventor of the earlier device, Al Menin of Bendix Corporation, is reputed to have liked his cigars and martinis. There are dozens of fish counting stations operated by Fish and Game throughout the state. The stations range from towers where people peer into the river to the more electronic means found here. Whatever the means, a person must count the fish, record the data, and then pass it on for purposes of determining whether enough fish have escaped up the river to spawn to allow fishing to commence. Johnson v. Alaska State Dept. of Fish and Game, 836 P.2d 896, 900-901 (Alaska 1991). Speaking of escapement, the Copper River was the scene of one of the more notorious fish trap incidents that ultimately spawned statehood. In the early 1900s a Seattle-based cannery closed off the entire mouth of the river resulting in no escapement. To the upriver Ahtna people, such a thing had never been done. 28. We asked her, "Ou sont les nieges d'antan?" to which she had no answer. Apparently Chief Justice Bryner has a degree in French Literature, so might he know? Can you help us, Mr. Chief Justice? Hint: the author Francois Villon.
29. Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946) was a friend of the great conservationist John Muir. Pinchot was one of the first politicians to promote scientific management of the national forests. In 1898 President Roosevelt appointed Pinchot to be chief of the Division of Forestry, which became the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, and which he lead until 1910. He also served as governor of Pennsylvania from 1923-27 and 1931-35.
30. Sioux City & Pacific Railroad Company v. Stout, 17 Wall., U.S., 657 (1873).