Cordova Chronicles: Some Things Never Change – Or Do They?

See what happens when basic principles of road construction are violated

“Be prepared to drive with a 10 degree list to starboard on recently modified Alaganik Landing Road. But it sure beats dodging potholes.” Photo by Dick Shellhorn

Lets face it.  It goes without saying that local, state, and federal agencies are prime targets of small town criticism.  Folks who entered their employ assuming they would perhaps be managing streets, fish, or forests find themselves dealing with a vastly more complex species called Home Sapiens.

Last weekend, Charlie Russell, young new ADF&G area seine management biologist, was spotted standing outside the Fish & Game building.  He was surrounded by six fishermen, and the topic undoubtedly was how to manage the mixed stock of wild and hatchery fish in Prince William Sound. The scene reminded me of an elk surrounded by over 100 camera-clicking tourists at Yellowstone Park a number of years ago.   Spotting wildlife was easy there – just look for a mob of people, and somewhere within would be a hapless “wild” animal.

Welcome to Cordova, Charlie.

“New Area Seine Management biologist Charlie Russell at his ADF&G office, cheerfully pondering the nature of salmon and Home Sapiens.” Photo by Dick Shellhorn

Those who attempt to maintain our streets and roads are also fair game.  Cordova’s mixed bag of rain and heavy traffic makes keeping them smooth impossible.

For years, the street right in front of the harbor boat ramp has been a quagmire enhanced with plentiful potholes.  A day after the city crew would fill them, the axle benders were back.

Guess what?  It appears that problem has been solved.  As part of the paving project last year (unfortunately right in the middle of the fishing season), the road was dug up, replaced with a truly solid subsurface, and covered with crowned asphalt. A year later, it’s still in great shape.  Proper preparation and drainage were the keys.

To see what happens if those basic principles of road construction are violated, just drive past the boat haul-out area on the road to Orca.  It’s a minefield of potholes.  Likewise, note the crumbling edges of asphalt slapped on the Whitshed road.

Further out the Copper River Highway, which is a wonderful illustration of the futility of grading gravel where there is improper drainage, lies the popular Alaganik Landing Road.

This scenic three-mile byway was built in less than two years immediately following the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.  Its purpose was to create boat access to Alaganik Slough.  The 9-foot uplift had left the old launch site at 22.5 mile high and dry.  Pause sometime at the big turnout that was included in the new culvert installation there this past winter, and imagine 22-foot plywood work skiffs going down what is left of the slough below the road.

“Thanks to proper preparation and drainage, the recently paved street by the City Boat Harbor Ramp and Pullout is holding up well.” Photo by Dick Shellhorn

Back then things were a lot simpler, and the USFS had go-getter Fred Pettingill and his Eyak Construction outfit blazing the gravel Alaganik road almost immediately after the Big Shaker.  Imagine how many permits, agencies, and landholders would have to be contacted today before beginning such a project.

While the road has been a huge success, its maintenance has not.  Often, due to massive potholes, it would take longer to drive the scenic byway than it did to reach its entrance 17 miles out the road.  For years, the noise of boat hulls banging on trailers once they exited the timberline a mile down the road could be heard two miles away at the landing.

Of course, motoring up and down Alaganik Slough itself can be rather bumpy.

Oldtimer Jim Webber always calls Alaganik  “the Copper”.  Prior to the earthquake  boats could run all the way to the main Copper at 27 Mile via Alaganik.  The legendary fisherman also mentioned  “the weather could get pretty snotty out there on the Copper.”

No kidding. More than a few exciting rides up Alaganik in a 14-foot flat-bottomed river boat have underscored his observation. But I also know that the road was probably harder on my boat than any trip up in a 30 mph southeaster.  Two years ago, I was so exasperated I took a slow drive and counted 352 massive potholes, and to qualify, they had to be at least 24 inches wide and four inches deep.  (For those of you that don’t know, I taught high school math at CHS for 28 years).

A few days later the USFS hired a contractor to grade the road.  Yet within two weeks, the potholes were already on their way back.  And due to cutbacks in federal funding, the road could only be graded twice a year.  So this year, engineers at the Anchorage USFS office proposed a different solution:  creating a crown on the road, with a 10-degree slope to each side.

So far so good.  Although driving it feels like running an improperly loaded boat that is leaning to the starboard, three weeks after the change, I counted only one major pothole.  Of course, we’ve had an unusually dry summer, so the true test will come when fall rains arrive, and also what happens with all the freeze and thaw throughout the winter

Dana Smyke, of the local USFS, also expressed concerns about driving the road when it’s icy during the winter, mentioning it may be necessary to drive right down the middle to not slide off.

Well, guess what?  At 22-foot width, road was never intended to be a two lane highway, and the many turnoffs along the way were intended for vehicles to pull over and wait for other rigs to pass.  It’s time to start using them that way again.

Nonetheless, it looks like a victory for the city and the USFS in at least a couple of places.  If only salmon management issues were as easy to deal with as water and roads.

Good luck, Charlie.

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