From a faraway town writes Kieran Finn...
‘NO ROAD!’ exclaims a bumper sticker on one of the new cars arriving off the ferry. Cordova has been disconnected from the road system since it was founded in 1906, and although the Alaskan department of transportation still nurture plans to reconnect it with the rest of the civilized world it’s obvious what the locals think of that idea. When I first arrived in Cordova three days ago I was a little disappointed: the mismatch of dilapidated buildings, many of them barely more than portakabins, held together by a loose, dirt road grid system didn’t seem worth the six hour ferry it took to get here. However, in the last few days the town (or ‘city’ as the Americans insist on calling it) had grown on me.
Consider this: you board a ferry at Whittier, AK, having driven for two miles through the longest one-lane tunnel in North America. The ferry sets off and you leave behind the old military base and proceed across the Prince William Sound. On your journey you pass thousands of tiny inlets, bays and islands, all cast against the background of the Chugach Mountains. Halfway through the journey you hear a cry of ‘Orcas!’ from the captain and you rush to your window to see a small pod of killer whales following your ship. You round the last bay to the port of Cordova and are greeted by hundreds of harbour seals lazing about in the sun. Once the ship is anchored you climb the hill to the town centre, pausing to admire the view over the harbour and the snow-capped mountains that engulf it, and you realise the residents of Cordova wake up to this view every morning. This is the real Cordova.
Having spent my first few days within the town centre I felt it was time to look further afield. Running nearly fifty miles off the back of second street in Cordova is Alaska’s highway 10, the Copper River Highway, featuring the Million Dollar Bridge, Childs Glacier and the Copper River Delta. To explore this road obviously required some form of transportation. I opted for a bicycle, but when I arrived at the bike shop the light was off and there was a big sign on the door saying ‘closed for the season’. As any Alaskan will tell you, there are only two seasons in the 49th state: winter and summer. I feel much better names are ‘tourist season’ and ‘closed season’. Unwittingly I decided to visit during the latter. However, there appeared to be a woman inside sorting out paperwork, and much like everyone I’ve met in Alaska, she was extremely helpful and friendly, and agreed to set me up with a bike.
I hit the road, and within minutes was racing along the Copper River Highway. Initially AK10 follows the edge of Eyak Lake, completely frozen at this time of year. But then it breaks out of the valley and begins its dead-straight path across the Copper River Delta. This new landscape was very different to the one I’d left behind: a wide-open, desolate wasteland interspersed with frozen rivers, bogs and marshes. This left me with very little protection from the wind. It buffeted me backwards and forwards and made every mile I cycled feel closer to ten. Twelve miles into the journey I passed Cordova’s airport; a small stretch of tarmac with passenger planes to Anchorage and Juneau once a day. This is the most common port of entry for tourists visiting the town despite how far it is from the centre. I find it ironic that in a town that prides itself on having ‘no road’ you still need a car to get from town to the main transportation hub. I guess that’s just another reminder that Alaska is still very much part of the USA, where cars are king and public transport woefully lacking.
I have been surprised during my trip how American Alaska really is. It is tagged on the side of Canada way up within the Arctic Circle and closer to Russia than it is to anywhere in the United States, yet I have never once been allowed to forget which country I’m in. Sure, the town may not be accessible by a road, but the flag in the centre is a big ol’ Star Spangled Banner, the drinking age is still one year too high for me and the thermometers still disguise how cold it is by telling me it’s 10°F outside. However there are more subtle indicators too such as the attitude of the people. Alaskans behave like a stereotypical American but more so. They’re ridiculously pleased to meet you, absurdly impressed by your funny accent and they’ll bend over backwards to help out a stranger.
There’s also the issue with transportation. Although it is commonplace throughout America for transport to mean only car or plane, this is taken to new extremes in Alaska. Buses have become almost non-existent at this time of year, ferries only work around the coast and trains have been reduced to little more than tourist attractions with only one railway line serving the entire state. The biggest issue with transport in Alaska is how spread out everything is. With seven times the area of the UK but a smaller population than Leeds, air is the only viable option.
Soon after the airport, the paved road ended and I was on a dirt track. This was when the challenges began. I was aiming, I hoped, for the Sheridan Glacier. But without road signs and only a hand drawn map to guide me I essentially had to guess which turnings to take. Onwards I rode across the frozen path. Travelling further and further from civilization and getting more and more lost, I was all the while wondering if I would ever reach the glacier and, if I did, would I ever make it back?
Eventually I reached a sign inscribed with the words ‘Sheridan Glacier’. I’d barely gone 500 metres when all my day’s efforts were rewarded. From the top of the ridge, stretching out in all directions lay the glacier in all its glory. Ice flowed out of the valley like some giant river frozen in time, twisting and turning across the floor below me. There were hills and valleys in the ice often looking like frozen waves, there were pools of meltwater and there were vertical walls of bare ice several metres high. These walls were a disturbingly bright blue colour. As I continued my exploration of the glacier I saw bridges of ice, mere centimetres thick spanning deep crevasses that could swallow me whole, and I realised if I didn’t stay on my toes this place could be the death of me.
With that in mind I began my seventeen mile journey back to Cordova: the sleepy Alaskan town with an ice monster in its back yard.
The glorious ice in full beauty.