Anchorage getaway

Published 10:32 am Friday, July 18, 2014

by James D. Howell

Days are not the most cheerful on Adak; constant clouds, wind and rain create moods that need to be lightened periodically. The Military Airlift Command (MAC) operates scheduled services for certain supplies and personnel transfers. Local personnel are permitted to sign up for round-trip transportation for a weekend of rest and recreation in Anchorage.

At the appointed day, my wife, two kids and myself board the four engine transport for the 10 hour-plus trip to Anchorage. We land, check into the traveler’s lodge that the Air Force provides, find food, make plans for the following days sightseeing trip, and spend some time with the kids, running off pent-up steam from the plane ride. We observe our oldest walking around in a sort of daze on the manicured grass. It dawns on us that he is looking and feeling the grass. There are no grass lawns on Adak. Housing yards are crushed rock; there’s not enough sunshine to grow lawn grass. Our child has forgotten grass.

The following day, we rent a Volkswagen bug, put the kids in the back seat and set off to discover Portage Glacier. We’re told it’s a must-see for tourists.

A local map gets us out of town and onto an up-and-down, curvy two -ane road, into the hills, heading south on the Seward highway. The hills are full of fall color; although I don’t see the much talked about fireweed. Tall evergreens, deciduous trees and ground foliage sport vibrant coats, ranging from bright yellows to deep russet. It’s an overcast, semi foggy day in the area. That doesn’t diminish our joy at the freedom away from work.

About 45 miles out of town, we turn onto the Portage Valley highway. Mountain tops are obscured by low clouds and the wind picks up noticeably as we make our way along the nine miles leading up to whatever is a must see at the end of the valley. In fact, the wind buffets the VW considerably; I’m thankful that the wind is directly on our nose. Were it not, I question the ability to stay on the road. We record part of the trip on our movie camera.

It seems like an hour or more before we come to the end of the road. We can’t see much — just a railing atop a concrete curb, with the cold glacier blue of ice beyond. The wind is screaming down the unseen glacier, hell-bent on scouring the valley floor all the way to Turnagain Arm.

There’s no way to stand up to the force, and we record the end of the trail with our movie camera, turn the VW around and head back to Anchorage. It’s a little better traveling downwind and we are grateful to reach to the Seward Highway and turn toward Anchorage. The late evening news reports 100 mile an hour winds in Portage Valley that day.

We decide to stay in Anchorage the following day and shop at the world’s largest J.C. Penney’s store. It only been open a couple of years. A chance to shop and visit a large city cannot be resisted. We’ll also be able to see how downtown has recovered from the massive earthquake a couple of years ago.

Fortunately, the J.C. Penney store is located a block south of the major downtown rift. Little evidence remains of any damage. One block north, it’s a different story. Along the north side of 4th Avenue, a major shift downward occurred. The downward thrust varied from a few to about 14 feet. Major breakup of Fourth Avenue downtown moved buildings topsy-turvy like doll house furniture. Thrust is something of a misnomer; the long duration of the quake caused the earth to become like quicksand, and buildings or structures sank into it. The process is called liquefaction.

Here in Anchorage, properties adjacent to water suffered the most movement and, consequently, the most damage. A large housing area essentially disappeared; banks of creeks flattened, structures fell and sank beneath loose, watery dirt. People died. A tidal wave (tsunami) developed and damaged shorelines and harbors hundreds of miles to the south and west.

Yesterday, we noticed some strange buildings close by the turn off to Portage Valley. They looked as if they had sunk into the ground. Today, we understand that the entire villages of Portage and Girdwood were wiped out during the quake. The village ground level dropped eight feet, salt water ran up the valley and killed trees for a couple of miles.

The pleasures of shopping and civilization are indeed refreshing. We return to our quarters tired and happy. Tomorrow we’ll board the plane for the return trip to cold, damp, and gloomy.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at