By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter
When I was in my early teens, my father informed me, “When Soldotna gets stoplights, it’ll be time to move.” He failed to smile when he said this.
His proclamation worried me. I may have been an unruly and grumbly teenager, but I liked where I lived. I had no desire to move. And it seemed likely to me that if the traffic on the central peninsula continued to multiply and intensify the way it was in the 1970s, stoplights were coming, eventually.
It took awhile — until the late 1980s, when all three Fair children were adults — but Soldotna did get stoplights (at the junction of the Sterling Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road, and at the junction of the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways).
But my dad didn’t jerk up the tent stakes. He may have gritted his teeth as the stoplights kept coming, but he didn’t sell the homestead. He and Mom stayed put.
Chalk it up to inertia or entrenchment, to basic fatigue or some resigned recognition of the inevitable. The Fairs remained and the traffic signals continued to increase.
At least there were no stoplights out on our own little gravel lane. (Heck, there were barely any road signs.) As he drove back from work each weekday evening, Dad could take solace from the rooster-tail of dust behind his truck and the absence of artificial illumination he encountered down the homestretch.
It’s not that my father disparaged public safety. Quite the contrary, almost anyone who knew him well would say he was a meticulously safety-conscious man. But, having been raised in a rarely changing, blink-and-you’re-through-it Indiana town (which to this day still has no stoplights), he simply was no big fan of rapid progress. He liked his development at a glacial speed. And he preferred narrow country roads — trails were even better — and plenty of mountains, water and wildlife.
I think he would have enjoyed where I live now in Dillingham.
There are no stoplights here. There aren’t many stop signs, either. It must also be said, of course, that there aren’t that many roads.
The farthest that one can travel by road here without turning around is about 25 miles — from the hospital at the southern end of Kanakanak Road to the sprawling Lake Aleknagik at the northern end of the road named after the lake — so the opportunity for intersectional conflict is greatly diminished.
During that entire route from south to north, a driver must use his turn signal only once and will encounter no stop signs. Driving the same route in reverse requires halting at one stop sign and then turning right. Period.
In Dillingham it is possible to drive from one end of town to the other and stop at no more than three intersections — and at those only briefly.
Traffic here, frankly, is minimal overall and pales by comparison to the summer chaos on the Kenai.
I have been here since the beginning of September and have seen not a single motor home. That fact alone would mean almost traffic Nirvana to peninsula residents, if it weren’t for one little snag — limited access.
While the shortage of roads means a relative dearth of traffic snarls, it also means that it’s more difficult to drive to this area’s abundant mountains and fish-bearing lakes and streams.
Peninsula residents, by contrast, can drive along the length of the Kenai River and through broad valleys of the Kenai Mountains. There are well-maintained gravel roads leading to Skilak and Tustumena lakes. There are boat launches from Homer to Nikiski, from Kenai to Soldotna to Seward. There are old mining roads and state and federal trail systems that open up the backcountry.
Here, a single access point — the unmaintained Snake Lake Road — leads to four trails that venture uphill — to Warehouse Mountain, Snake Mountain, China Cap and Nunavaugaluk Overlook. The rest of the mountain trailheads, I’ve been told, lie across large lakes or streams or vast stretches of boggy tundra.
And this place, which includes the largest state park (Wood-Tikchik) in the United States, is nearly surrounded by gorgeous peaks and ridgelines, and some amazing fishing spots, which is why most people who live in Dillingham have remedied their vehicular-access ailments with the following cures — private airplanes, power boats, snowmachines and four-wheelers.
In the summer, the rivers, creeks and lakes in this place are liquid avenues to the great beyond. And in the winter, I’ve been told, the tundra and frozen lakes around here are transformed into veritable snowmachine highways.
Meanwhile, my own versions of the Dillingham modus transporti include a borrowed inflatable kayak, my mountain bike, cross-country skis, snowshoes and whatever else I can strap onto or slide over my feet to improve my human-powered progress.
Drivers on the Kenai Peninsula, on the other hand, are positively spoiled by access — as was I for many decades — no matter how many gates or regulations we may denounce.
Peninsula drivers also are spoiled by the very fuel prices that I was bitching about back in August. The price tag here on unleaded gasoline is pushing $7 per gallon.
On the plus side, having so few roads means that it takes longer to burn up a tank of gas.
And finally, peninsula drivers are spoiled by the number of options available to them via the highway system. In Dillingham, there are no car lots — and, of course, no car salesmen. All vehicles are delivered here either by cargo plane or by barge, mostly out of Anchorage. The little Toyota we drive cost nearly $3,000 to ship here — packed with clothing and household goods — on a multivillage sea voyage lasting approximately three weeks.
And since it is so difficult and expensive to get them here, vehicles rarely leave once they arrive. In fact, I think it is fair to say that Dillingham — like many remote Alaska communities, I suspect — is a place where cars and trucks come to die.
The cost of sending old junkers to a salvage yard on the road system is prohibitive. Consequently, many backyards here contain rusting, battered hulks, often tucked in behind or alongside the ubiquitous boats and solid-steel shipping containers.
It is nice, however, to have a reliable source of spare parts lying around. Consequently, even junk here has value.
In the end, it’s up to each individual to decide which is better — all that access and the excess that goes with it, or more limited access but less of the hustle and bustle that my father disliked.
In Dillingham, Dad would’ve found ways to get into the wilderness and to all the best fishing holes.
And he would still be waiting for the first stoplight to appear. Mom, on the other hand … .
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.