Off the keyboard and camera of RE
Published on the Doomstead Diner on March 9, 2014
Discuss this article at the Kitchen Sink inside the Diner
A couple of weeks ago I had reason to rev up the SUV for the 4 hour or so drive down to the Kenai Peninsula here on the Last Great Frontier and burn a whole lot of ever more scarce Fossil Fuels as part of my Job. Nothing compared to some friends of mine who took a 26 minute flight in the Company Jet from Palmer Airport to Soldotna Airport for the same reason though. LOL. I intended on writing this article directly after that, but alas Vlad the Impaler took his own Fossil Fuel driven excursion into Crimea, burning Orders of Magintude more Fossil Fuel than me and my friends together here, so that took Priority here in my last Sunday Brunch article.
Profligate waste of Fossil Fuel energy notwithstanding, particularly on the drive back the weather was very pleasant and I was under no time pressure, so I made lots of stops to make Road Pics on the way back. “Normally” at this time of year a drive down to Kenai from the Mat Valley would be a fairly Nerve Wracking Adventure, since you travel through a very Mountainous area and the roads would be all snow and ice covered, with no EZ access to assistance either if you get in trouble since many portions of the road don’t feature Cell Phone coverage either. Not this year though, with the “unseasonably warm” temps we have had up here in Alaska over the Winter. The highway was completely free of Ice or Snow, and the drive in both directions was quite free and easy to negotiate.
It was so EZ in fact, that my driving was basically on Autopilot, as an experienced Over the Road Trucker with near a Million Miles under my belt Accident Free (well over that if you include all my 4-wheeler driving and 2-wheeler driving over the years) I could drive without really thinking about it and my mind was free to wander on other topics. What occurred to me as I drove was how clearly the Alaska Road system demonstrates how the Automotive culture expanded, and why it finally hit its Limits to Growth now.
The Pathway from the Matanuska-Susitna River Valley down to the Kenai Peninsula is around 200 Miles or so, and passes through the main population center of Alaska (such as it is), Anchorage. Anchorage is the main population center for exactly the reason it is named that, it is the best Harbor and landing spot for boats coming into and out of Alaska in Prince William Sound. There are some other decent ports as well, for instance Valdez, the terminus of the Alaska Pipeline. However, Anchorage has more available FLAT LAND upon which to build things, and so developed first as the main Entry/Exit port in Alaska for People and Resources and Manufactured Goods from the Age of Industrialization.
As with the rest of the Industrialized world, as the system expanded to extract ever more resources from the Earth from ever more places, first Railroads were built and then Roadways. Alaska has ONE such Main thoroughfare which started with the Alaska Railway during the Gold Rush era here in the late 1800s. The main Rail line goes from Anchorage up to Fairbanks, and it is along this rail line that the Coal still gets transported out of Alaska to be burned in Chinese Electric Plants, while the same Rail Line also brings Chinese Toys to Alaskans in Fairbanks. It also brings tourists to Denali National Park, a few of whom actually climb Denali (Mt. Mckinley) which is the Highest Point in North America topping out at just over 20,000 feet and getting quite close to the Death Zone. Not up there with Everest and K2 at 29,000 feet, but it is a Mountain where Aspiring Climbers cut their teeth on before trying those Death Traps. The Death Zone comes at more or less 23,000 feet, where even for well conditioned High Altitude residents and experienced Climbers, there simply is not enough Oxygen around for a Homo Sapiens to survive for any great length of time. The Biosphere such as it is for Homo Sapiens is a VERY thin layer around the Globe which in the best of times goes from Sea Level to this Altitude, 3-4 miles of worthwhile Biosphere for us here.
Anyhow, you can get withing Base Camp distance of Denali via the Alaska Railroad, you don’t need to hire Sherpas here to haul in your Tents and Bottled Oxygen to make the Adventure here, so it is a good deal cheaper overall to practice your Death Defying Climbing skills here. Not only can you get there via the Alaska Railroad these days though, but you ALSO can get there via your own SUV, driving along the Highway that follows precisely the same pathway as the Alaska Railroad. Along with the Al-Can (Alaska-Canada Highway), these are the two Main Roads that make Alaska accessible in the Age of Oil.
The Al-Can is an amazing tribute to modern Engineering, it crosses the Yukon Territory which is basically ALL Mountains, and didn;t even all get paved until around 1996. Long portions are still only 2 Lanes, and Fuel Stops are few and far between. Forget to Fill Up at one of these stops, unless you got a REALLY big tank you will be waiting around quite some time for an emergency fillup from Road Service.
The trip down to Kenai isn’t quite so outrageous, but nearly so. What struck me as I drove the route was first how few Crossroads there were along the way, and second how little Traffic there was in either direction along the route. I could pull off the road at any time during this drive, and have to wait 5-10 minutes before a single car passed me in either direction. All this asphalt laid down at great expense to begin with, and then with continuing expense each year to maintain all for a Traffic Flow of maybe a few hundred cars in either direction on any given day, often less that in real bad weather.
Going back to the days BEFORE the Industrial paradigm hit this portion of the world, there were individual Settlements of Homo Sapiens that lived in places like Anchorage and Soldotna, and down the Coast as well to places like Juneau and Ketchikan. How did these communities trade with each other, intermarry and so forth? All by WATER, via Kayak and it sure was not a Daily thing either. To make such communities viable as a part of the Age of Oil though, they had to be connected up by the roadways, whether they could pay for themselves or not.
And so a Railway & Road got cut from Anchorage to Kenai City, along with the Railway & Road to connect Anchorage to Palmer/Wasilla and another to connect that to Fairbanks. Finally, a Road got Cut from the main Continent of North America into Alaska through the Mountains, the Al-Can. That is as far as it went though, that is where it STOPPED.
You still cannot get from Anchorage to Juneau or Ketchikan via Road, and you never will. The whole terrain si simply not conducive to road building, neither is much of it conducive to Homo Sapiens settlements of anything but the smallest kind, just not enough Flat Land upon which to live. Building expensive roadways between such small settlements is pointless, not much traffic moves along them each day. In order to extract some of the resource base of Alaska these Railroads & Roads were built, but they never paid for themselves, they have to be subsidized by DEBT.
Alaska is a vast Territory, more than twice the size of Texas, but there is less roadway here than in Dallas-Fort Worth alone. That is nice flat land where roads are easily built. You wanna access most places in Alaska, the only way is by Float Plane if you wanna get there quick, Dog Sled to get there the slow and traditional way. Even that is getting less possible with Climate Change. The Origin of the Legendary Iditarod, the “Last Great Race on Earth” comes from an effort to bring Medical Supplies to Nome during a Diptheria Epidemic amongst mostly Natives who had no Immunity in 1925, the “Great Race of Mercy“. From Wiki:
The most famous event in the history of Alaskan mushing is the 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the “Great Race of Mercy.” A diphtheria epidemic threatened Nome, especially the Alaska Native children who had no immunity to the “white man’s disease”, and the nearest quantity of antitoxin was found to be in Anchorage. Since the two available planes were both dismantled and had never been flown in the winter, Governor Scott Bone approved a safer route. The 20-pound (9.1 kg) cylinder of serum was sent by train 298 miles (480 km) from the southern port of Seward to Nenana, where it was passed just before midnight on January 27 to the first of twenty mushers and more than 100 dogs who relayed the package 674 miles (1,085 km) from Nenana to Nome. The dogs ran in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles (160 km).
The Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto arrived on Front Street in Nome on February 2 at 5:30 a.m., just five and a half days later. The two became media celebrities, and a statue of Balto was erected in Central Park in New York City in 1925, where it has become one of the most popular tourist attractions. However, most mushers consider Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo to be the true heroes of the run. Together they covered the most hazardous stretch of the route, and carried the serum 91 miles, the single farthest of any team.
Who BROUGHT the Diptheria to the Natives to begin with here, eh? Water under the bridge though of course, and it was a Heroic effort by many to get that serum up to Nome.
What happenned THIS YEAR to the Iditarod? Because of the thaws we had in January and February, there was not enough Snow cover in Willow where the race begins, so what did they do? They SHIPPED IN SNOW to make a track for the race to begin out of Willow. How many truckloads of snow they had to move here and for how long a stretch I do not know, but if this is not the stupidest and most pointless waste of Fossil Fuels imaginable, I do not know what is. CFS says simply start the race North of Willow where there is still some snow! Except of course this is not financially good for Willow or the race itself to start in some even further backwater town where few people live and few will go cheer the mushers for the TV Cameras.
Take a look at these pics from the Iditarod and tell me what is WRONG with these pictures?
NO FUCKING SNOW! THAT IS WHAT IS WRONG!
It’s hard enough to get a Dog Team to pull a sled 1000 miles on top of snow, but dragging a sled over DIRT is a whole lot HARDER!
The lack of snow cover doesn’t mean we will ever see a whole lot more Roads up here though.The damn terrain here is so rough in terms of Mountains that pretty much no other spurs were built off the origianal Railroad Line, and very few roads got built off the main conduits of the Glenn Highway or the Al-Can. In fact, Alaska doesn’t even have an Interstate Highway funded by the Eisenhower system, Alaska 1 is a STATE highway.
Anyhow, whether you travel North from where I live up to Fairbanks, or South down to the Kenai Peninsula, you travel along a Highway that is basically linear, with any “development” or population centers such as they are sprinkled sparingly off of this road. The whole rest of the territory is BUSH, accessible for the most part only by Float Plane or by Snow Machine, 4 Wheeler, Horseback, Dog Sled or Hoofing it. In all the last 4 cases, the sheer size of the territory means most of these locations never see any people at all.
To get back to the original point of this article, because the road system is so small, it is easy to see why it is not economic to run it. The road traffic between Anchorage and Soldotna is so light you just don’t really need all those miles of Tarmac, and the huge maintenance costs they incur. All the freight between these places could easily be moved by barge, you don’t even really need the Railroad. Fairbanks does need a Railroad to access it, but the roadway that follows that right of way also is a huge money sink. Its only real utility is for Touristas to visit Denali National Park. The Oil Industry people don’t use it, they all Fly back and forth from Anchorage to Fairbanks and to the Slope. The product all gets moved either through the Pipeline or in the case of Coal by freight train. The number of cars rolling each day from Anchorage to Fairbanks is miniscule, and all there is between those two places are a bunch of tiny towns which are only economic as Tourist Traps.
The only reason the road system such as it is can be afforded at all is because it gets subsidized from the resource extraction bizness up here. Costs a fortune to maintain it but without it even FEWER people would live up here.
When the Energy Extraction bizness finally closes down up here, these roads will quickly fracture up and be unsuitable for Driving at Any Speed. They still will provide decent pathways for walkers and foks on Horseback for a while though. During this period, it may be possible to Colonize some of the places off these roads that in a New Climate scenario could be quite lovely places to live and do some Permaculture.