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Off The Beaten Track: Cordova, Gustavus, Eagle

By Charles P. Wohlforth

All Rights Reserved

 Originally published in Alaska Magazine

A town of steep mountainside streets and moss-roofed houses stands on the edge of a forest of towering, dark green hemlock and fir trees. At town center, acres of fishing boats float at docks on silvery fjord waters. It’s a classic Alaska small town, a unique pocket of hospitality and warmth perched on the edge of the wilderness.

How many such places are left in America? There are no chain stores and hardly any crime. On Main Street, the hardware store is still a place to drop in to talk over the advantages of Fords or Chevys over a cup of coffee. At the town’s small grocery store, the owner is stocking the shelves or bagging orders. To get to Walmart, you would have to spend a day or more on a boat.

But America is coming to call. More than a million visitors come to see Alaska each summer. In a state of 365 million acres, you would think there would be plenty of room for each of them. Indeed, there is--in Alaska, it’s always possible to find a place to be alone. But, for all that land, cute, historic small towns are in much shorter supply. That’s one reason why it can feel, when the cruise ships land, like all the million visitors are trying to fit into one quaint street of gift shops at once.

Towns still remain, however, that the crowds haven’t discovered. Towns where you find barely-used trails, rivers and beaches, friendly, eccentric people, and a pace of life based on the seasons and salmon runs, not the work day. Here are profiles of three of Alaska’s best unspoiled small towns.

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Cordova: Copper River Sidetrack

Cordova might have been as big as Anchorage, and Anchorage might never have been born. In 1911, a railroad connected this little town in eastern Prince William Sound to a rich copper mine 200 miles inland. Businessmen like Cap Lathrop invested here, thinking an extension of the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad would most likely open up Alaska and make Cordova Alaska’s hub city.

Then, in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson announced the new Alaska Railroad would instead trace the Susitna Valley to Fairbanks, starting in Seward and running past an anchorage at Ship Creek--the construction camp where Lathrop immediately moved his operations, and which ultimately became Alaska’s largest city. Cordova was left on a sidetrack of history, and when the Kennecott Copper Mine closed in 1938, it nearly died there.

But today, while the world goes its own way, Cordova is still exploring that sidetrack. People still debate, as they have since 1938, reopening the Copper River line’s right-of-way as a road or trail to connect the town to the rest of the world (the rails were removed soon after the railroad closed). They still live in the same houses and work in the same businesses that were built at the beginning of the century. They still leave doors unlocked.

Becky Chapek uses part of her 1906 house as a bed and breakfast. Her husband’s father cut ties for the railroad. Now they operate a family tour business, knowing they could make an easier living almost anywhere else, but choosing to stay in Cordova. "We’re still off the beaten path, and we’re still a fun place to be," she says.

Chapek drives visitors, who come in by ferry from Valdez or land at the Mudhole Smith Airport, out the Copper River Highway to the Childs Glacier and the Million Dollar Bridge--the last, sagging remnant of the railroad. The gravel highway follows the old rail line across the Copper River Delta, which is the western hemisphere’s largest contiguous wetlands and home to a prodigious abundance of wildlife, including the world’s entire nesting population of dusky Canada geese. There’s good salmon fishing along the way, too.

Fifty miles out, the road comes to Alaska’s most exciting glacier. The Copper River cuts the towering face of the Childs Glacier while, on the opposite bank, visitors listen to the ice crack and pop and watch from atop a platform as huge chunks fall in the river, creating ferocious waves. Signs warn visitors to run if they happen to be on the bank when the glacier calves, as waves have swept people into the river and have left salmon up in the trees.

The other side of Cordova--the ocean side--also offers great outdoor opportunities. The protected waters of the Sound welcome sea kayaking and fishing among the orca and humpback whales, and there are trails all through the mountains and forests around town. Visitors are few and far between, so those who go have the landscape to themselves.

But that may be changing. A major cruise line has expressed interest in regularly docking in Cordova. In the usual style of a community that makes an art of vigorous civic debate, many residents are fearful that Cordova will lose its uniqueness if it becomes just another stop on the summer tourist parade.

"I hope we’ll watch very carefully, and make sure they don’t take over the kind of community we want to live in," says Mike Anderson, chairman of the local Planning Commission, who welcomes the ships. "That’s something we’re going to be looking at. How do you preserve what you’ve got within a free market economy?"

It seems people have come to value Cordova’s own unique way, down the divergent track that history made of it.

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Gustavus: Classic Country Inns

The Lesh family invented how people visit Gustavus. On a field of wild grass that grows in sandy soil left by glaciers, they built a rambling country inn starting in 1965. To this day, you can stay in one of their a cozy rooms, eat their wonderful, family-style meals of local fish and garden produce, and borrow an old bicycle to explore the few country roads that radiate to the shore, through the fields and forest, and, just 10 miles off, to the headquarters of Glacier Bay National Park.

"We liked the quiet and peacefulness that was here," says Jack Lesh. "There was 50 people when we came. There’s more than 400 now."

Besides the 400 people, Gustavus now has some paved roads, and several other luxury inns operating on the same all-inclusive plan as the Lesh’s Gustavus Inn (each inn has its own personality, but all have quaint buildings, gourmet meals and free bicycles). Yet Gustavus is a long way from becoming a metropolis. There is no real town center, just widely scattered buildings among the fields and woods. To get there, you have to fly or take the Auk Nu passenger ferry from Juneau. In fact, Gustavus isn’t really a town at all: when residents voted on whether to incorporate a local government a few years ago, the measure failed by a few votes.

Visitors can only hope it never really does change. One evening, I sat at one of the Lesh’s tables and listened to the guests sharing the events of their day. An older couple had hooked into a huge halibut from a charter boat in Icy Strait. When they weren’t fishing, they’d watched feeding humpback whales--these waters are among Alaska’s most reliable for seeing whales. A newlywed couple had just finished a guided kayaking trip among the massive, blue glaciers of Glacier Bay and planned now to rest their sore muscles relaxing and eating at the inn. A father traveling in his own small plane with two teenage daughters had spent the day exploring the beaches and backroads by bicycle.

How far off the beaten path is Gustavus? It’s a safe bet most Alaskans don’t even know where the village is. Unlike other Southeast Alaska towns that developed around mining or fishing, Gustavus has no industry. It owes its existence largely to World War II, when the military built a large airfield here, near the head of the Inside Passage, to service lend-lease aircraft being delivered from American factories to Russia. Federal Aviation Administration workers made up most of the Lesh’s early guests.

Then, in the mid-1960s, the National Park Service started developing Glacier Bay National Park. The park is an emerging 65-mile-long fjord of receding glaciers, richly endowed with marine mammals and other wildlife. Readers of Consumer Reports named it America’s best park in 1996. Hundreds of thousands of visitors see the bay annually. Most are on cruise ships, but many fly or take the boat to Gustavus and then ride in a van to the park headquarters, where they travel deeper into the park on board a day boat or sea kayak.

Even for most of them, however, Gustavus doesn’t come into focus. After all, from the windows of the van, it doesn’t look like a town at all. Gustavus is a secret in plain sight: just a few lovely buildings standing alone in fields of wild grass.

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Eagle: Unvarnished History

The population of Eagle got down to nine residents after the gold rush, with seven of them serving on the city council. At one time Eagle was known as the town of living dead, as all the residents were old men, Klondike prospectors who had never gotten rich and never gone home. But unlike other gold rush towns that simply disappeared--the town of Iditarod, for example--the first incorporated town in Alaska’s Interior never completely dried up and blew away. Instead, Eagle became a living museum.

"Nothing has ever left here," says local historian Elva Scott in her home on the Yukon River. "It’s just the way it was. Nothing has even been rebuilt to look like it was, because it never changed."

In the 1950s, when people started to protect the town’s history, the courthouse Judge James Wickersham had built in 1900 was unchanged. His papers were still in his desk. Gold rush era cabins stood open, full of belongings the prospectors had left behind. An Army fort, a customs house, and many other buildings were full of furnishings. The Eagle Historical Society set to work, documenting the names and activities of everyone ever to lived in the town. Today, five museum buildings show off the wealth of history for visitors.

But no crowds come for the three-hour tour. Unlike Skagway and Dawson City, with their government-operated visitor centers, costumed melodramas, freshly painted buildings and hundreds of thousands of summer visitors, Eagle is too far off the normal tourist routes to receive more than a bus a day, a few river floaters and those drivers with the determination to spend a day bouncing over a narrow, dirt road.

To get to Eagle requires a slow, rough ride up the 162-mile Taylor Highway from a junction on the Alaska Highway a dozen miles east of Tok, which is open only in summer. Other visitors come by canoe, floating 104 miles and about three days down the Yukon River, across the U.S.-Canada border from Dawson City. Several companies offer one-way rentals, and you can even arrange a ride back over 134 gravel highway miles to the starting point. Or you can float on to the west, through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, to Circle, 160 miles further downstream.

This is the land John McPhee wrote about 20 years ago in his classic book, Coming Into The Country. (He lived in Scott’s A-frame cabin while he worked.) Eagle still stands at the end of the road, at the edge of the wilderness. For visitors, staying in the motel or one of the bed and breakfasts, or camping in the Bureau of Land Management campground, the town has the same sleepy atmosphere as a village in the Alaska bush. The river rolls silently on. There’s hardly any movement in town--just an occasional person walking or a pickup truck on the dusty streets. And the economy is next to nonexistent--the store, gas station, motel, laundry, showers and cafe are all one business.

But, each day, the town’s tour guides lead visitors through old buildings that stand as testament to one brief period, long past, but not forgotten, when Eagle was the center of activity in a new Alaska.