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

Peter Fish

You have choices when you're in Juneau, Alaska, and you want tohit the road. You can drive south 5 miles and turn around. You candrive a few blocks east up Mt. Roberts and turn around, or westacross the bridge to Douglas Island and turn around. For an epicjourney, you can take the Glacier Highway north past spruce forestsand the silver waters of Lynn Canal, until in 40 miles you see abig 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 capitalsand the answer is, "The only state capital not reachable by road,"you'll want to shout, "What is Juneau?!" You can get to Juneau byferry or airplane, by kayak or helicopter. But you cannot get toJuneau by RV or car ― at least not yet.

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

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

Yet road supporters in the nearby towns of Haines and Skagwayargue that they need better access to the hospitals and stores ofJuneau, while supporters in Juneau itself want more affordableaccess to the outside world than the current ferry system allows."It costs $180 for a family of four with an average-size car to goone way from Haines to Juneau," says Reuben Yost, special projectsmanager for the Juneau Access Improvements Project. Then there'sthe 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 thiscrime.

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

But the emotion is understandable. It turns out that theroad-or-no-road debate gets to the heart of what it means to be anAlaskan. As you understand the moment you get there, Juneau is,like the rest of Alaska, different. The difference comes in themountains and spruce forests and also in the possibilities thatseparation from the rest of the world provides. As Wayne Ward,assistant director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center northof town, says, "Up here, you realize you can be a museum curatorand then a salvage logger and a fisherman." (These are, in fact,stops on Ward's own career path.) "You can do that. The culture isso 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 changebecause of this? I have as many people tell me it's terrible astell me it's just what we need."

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

Info: Juneau Convention & VisitorsBureau (888/581-2201)

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