The road not taken, maybe

Peter Fish

You have choices when you're in Juneau, Alaska, and you want to hit the road. You can drive south 5 miles and turn around. You can drive a few blocks east up Mt. Roberts and turn around, or west across the bridge to Douglas Island and turn around. For an epic journey, you can take the Glacier Highway north past spruce forests and the silver waters of Lynn Canal, until in 40 miles you see a big warning sign: TRAVEL BEYOND THIS POINT NOT RECOMMENDED. Then you can turn around.

A tip. If you're on Jeopardy and the category is state capitals and the answer is, "The only state capital not reachable by road," you'll want to shout, "What is Juneau?!" You can get to Juneau by ferry or airplane, by kayak or helicopter. But you cannot get to Juneau by RV or car―at least not yet.

Here's the news that has been rattling Juneau and the rest of Alaska: After a century of roadless semi-isolation, Juneau may get a road. The Alaska State Department of Transportation has proposed a $200 million highway that would run 50 miles north from the end of Glacier Highway to just past the Katrehin River. It's not exactly the San Diego Freeway―for one thing, it won't quite connect to the rest of Alaska, just come close. But opponents think it's a dangerous first step. And in a city that obsesses about its relationship to the outside world, it is a big deal.

"We don't need $200 million for asphalt," says the fortuitously named Emily Ferry. As the head of Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, Ferry's a leading opponent of the road. She notes that Juneau has fine connections to the outside via the ferries of the Alaskan Maritime Highway. She notes that Juneau is easily reached by air, by Internet, by cell phone.

Yet road supporters in the nearby towns of Haines and Skagway argue that they need better access to the hospitals and stores of Juneau, while supporters in Juneau itself want more affordable access to the outside world than the current ferry system allows. "It costs $180 for a family of four with an average-size car to go one way from Haines to Juneau," says Reuben Yost, special projects manager for the Juneau Access Improvements Project. Then there's the whole state capital business. Juneau always frets that bigger, more centrally located Anchorage will steal its capital position. Road supporters argue that the highway will help forestall this crime.

The debate has been loud and emotional. It has prompted op-eds in the New York Times. It has inspired one road opponent, Steve Vick, to make a protest swim from Skagway to Juneau: 9 days, 92 miles, in water that ranged from 42° to 59°. ("Pretty darn cold" is how Vick describes the experience.)

But the emotion is understandable. It turns out that the road-or-no-road debate gets to the heart of what it means to be an Alaskan. As you understand the moment you get there, Juneau is, like the rest of Alaska, different. The difference comes in the mountains and spruce forests and also in the possibilities that separation from the rest of the world provides. As Wayne Ward, assistant director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center north of town, says, "Up here, you realize you can be a museum curator and then a salvage logger and a fisherman." (These are, in fact, stops on Ward's own career path.) "You can do that. The culture is so forgiving."

So Juneau's debate about its road isn't about gaining access, it's about losing a kind of freedom. Even Reuben Yost admits, "That's one of the big issues―how much will Juneau change because of this? I have as many people tell me it's terrible as tell me it's just what we need."

Me? I got out of the car and stood at the north end of the Glacier Highway. I admired the view. Then I decided to drive all the way back to where the road ended on the south side of town. I was in Alaska, and I could do anything I pleased.

INFO: Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau ( www.traveljuneau.org or 888/581-2201)