Isolation is a way of life for Whittier residents - Particularly in winter

February 2012 News Kirsten Swann -

Arlen Arneson has a long driveway.

Ninety miles outside of Anchorage, at the end of Portage Valley Road, through a two-mile tunnel under the mountain, Arneson lives in a houseboat at the end of Float B in the Whittier small boat harbor.

In the winter, the narrow dock to his front door is coated with sheets of ice. The choppy harbor waters lap up over the sides of the float and 50 mph gusts make the crossing treacherous, but Arneson doesn't mind.

"It's inconvenient on one hand, but on the other hand it's kind of a blessing in its own right," he said, chuckling and pushing his thick coke-bottle glasses up his nose.

The sleeves of his blue button-down shirt were rolled up around his forearms, collar ruffled under his gray sweater vest. The fisherman's cap sitting at a jaunty angle on his head looked like it had survived more than a few Whittier winters, and the deep furrows on his brow belied the 48 harsh years he had spent in the town.

Spending most of the colder months inside, Arneson's hands are calloused from building the two-tone green boat into his ideal winter home. The single door in the back opens into a sheltered entryway to protect the boat from drifting snow, and the tiny kitchen turns into a sitting area with a couch and plenty of movies for the longest winter nights.

From there, two bedrooms and the bathroom are tucked away in the bow of the boat, and a wheelhouse above looks out over the churning harbor. There aren't many other boats this time of year.

A Whittier resident since 1964, Arneson said he knows just how isolated it can be.

When he first arrived on the Alaska Railroad, the train was the only land-tie to the outside world. It was an 8 to 12 hour, once-a-week trip into Anchorage, he said, and when the earthquake struck later that year, it became impassible.

"There were 38 miles of road destroyed between Milepost 38 and Seward, and also down to Homer," he said.

Even though the town became slightly more accessible when the tunnel opened to the public in 2000, he said getting there was still dependant on the single, narrow lane connected to the single, narrow highway outside.

When the roads are closed, he said the town is, too.

In Anchorage, Alaska Department of Transportation officials said there's only one reason to shut them down. "A decision made to close the highway is only done under the most extreme circumstances," said Rick Feller, the department's regional director. White-out conditions, black ice and gale force winds top the list, and severe weather is something the DOT official knows about firsthand.

Several weeks ago, a truck spun out of control on the Glenn Highway, crossing over into oncoming traffic and hitting Feller's wife's vehicle head-on. He said she was lucky to escape with only a few broken ribs and a punctured lung.

"Some people would say, `My wife got in a head-on collision on Friday the 13th,' but I said, `My wife got in a head-on collision on Friday the 13th and walked away,'" Feller said.

Accidents like the one that hospitalized his wife are the reason the department doesn't take chances when it comes to the season's harshest storms. Blowing snow and high winds closed a stretch of highway between Potter Marsh and Portage in early January, and while rare, Feller said it's a serious decision.

In the winter, he said more than 6,000 vehicles travel down the highway every day, and it represents the only terrestrial tie to dozens of communities along the Kenai Peninsula.

Whittier is one of those communities, and Arneson said it's a tenuous link.

"You can only keep so much stuff," he said, gesturing to the more than 25 cabinets lining his houseboat's walls. "We keep about two-and-a-half to four months' here."

His supplies include everything from dried goods, canned food and coffee to soda, candy and a variety of snack foods. It all comes down the highway and through the tunnel, he said.

The town itself boasts three grocery stores: two small convenience shops and the Harbor Store.

"That's just kind of a fill in," Arneson said. "If you need a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, a pack of cigarettes or whatever."

In fact, the Harbor Store is closed for the winter. After the adjoining liquor store burned to the ground late last year, the owner, known only as RC, said the town's isolation and slow economy makes reopening it unlikely.


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