North By Northwest: A Solo Motorcycle Adventure from Georgia to Alaska (Day 20)

August 25, 2019

Day 20  7/17/19

Readers with an affinity for tie-dyed garments will appreciate my comment that the music never stopped overnight. And by music, I mean the nearly constant racket from trains coming and going and train cars connecting and disconnecting. Needless to say, I didn’t have a good night’s sleep. When I walked outside, though, the blustery wind shocked me into full consciousness.

I previously mentioned that there isn’t much to do in Whittier, but big cruise ships do pull into port for passengers to get on the Alaska Railroad to points north and south. In fact, one of the ships had arrived overnight, and there was a steady stream of passengers walking across the street to the train. Fortunately, the nice crossing guard let me go through after a brief delay.

Yesterday’s visit to the Buckner Building was the first of two historical points of interest for me in Whittier. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel would be the second, and getting to see it was inevitable if I wanted to leave Whittier by land. This 2.5-mile tunnel, the longest combined rail and vehicle tunnel in North America, is the only vehicular way into or out of Whittier that doesn’t involve a ship or aircraft. The US military constructed the tunnel during World War II for trains to carry supplies and troops from the port. It was later modified to allow vehicles as well, but its one-way only configuration means specified times for each direction of travel. And trains have priority all the time, which can cause disruptions to the posted schedule. The Alaska Department of Transportation has a whole section of their website focusing on motorcycle safety in the tunnel. Motorcycles go through after all the cars, trucks, and RVs and must ride between the train rails. It’s also wet and slippery in the tunnel, and powerful ventilation fans at either end can cause “turbulence” issues for riders. Sounded like fun.

I was the first one at the tunnel staging area for the 7am scheduled westbound departure. The wind had picked up even more, and it took me a few attempts to find a position where I could park the bike without fears of a tip over.

After a few minutes, a long line of vehicles, led by a DOT pilot truck, emerged from the tunnel heading into Whittier. The DOT driver came over and gave me an overview of what to expect in the tunnel, which was a rehash of what I’d read online. He said to wait for the green light for my lane and then proceed into the tunnel. Remember how trains have priority? One came through the tunnel into Whittier and delayed the 7am departure by several minutes. It was traveling in reverse, and I assumed it was linking up with the rest of the cruise ship passengers’ train.

A few vehicles had arrived at the staging area, and they got their green light to go in. Finally it was my turn, and I headed towards the entrance. The first literal hurdle was to get across the outer rail at the proper angle and avoid wiping out. With that accomplished, I pointed my bike in between the rails and went into the tunnel at the posted speed limit of 25mph. 

It felt more like riding in a long and narrow hallway. I didn’t have any problems with the big ventilation fans, although I imagine they could surprise a rider if not prepared.

Keeping the bike between both rails did require some concentration, but I emerged safely from the tunnel after about 10 minutes. The scenery on the other side looked like a painting.

At the end of the Portage Glacier Road, I turned left towards Seward. I didn’t have much of a plan other than riding down there for the sake of seeing another part of Alaska.

Heavy smoke from the wildfires was causing some disruptions on the other side of the peninsula, so I backtracked north with a detour for the Exit Glacier visitor center.

I would have liked hiking to the glacier, but I didn’t want to do it in riding gear and boots. Yet another item for the return trip to Alaska. I stopped for lunch at a scenic viewpoint and discovered that even Alaska has some rules.

I continued north to Portage, where I’d been earlier in the morning, and then proceeded west to Anchorage along the Turnagain Arm. The smoke was still noticeable up here and likely inspired many Deep Purple jokes from those in the area.

I’ve visited a lot of former Nike Missile sites across the country, but Alaska has some that were unique in design with missile launchers stored above ground in concrete bunkers; almost all of the Nike sites in the lower 48 states had underground storage. Three sites (Bay, Point, and Summit) were located in and around Anchorage. Site Summit has been mostly restored, but it’s only open for tours on a few dates, and none of them corresponded with my time in Alaska. Site Bay had some remaining structures, but looked like it was difficult to get to with unpaved roads and its location on the other side of the Knik Arm. That left Site Point, located near Anchorage International Airport, as the one for me to visit. It operated from 1959 to 1971 and like many former Nike sites, was redeveloped into a park. Kincaid Park is about 1,500 acres and has lots of outdoor activities, including jogging, hiking, cross-country skiing, soccer, and archery. All four of the original missile bunkers remain intact and have been repurposed.

The sign on one of the bunkers indicated that it should have been open for tours, but the doors were locked. After looking at the bunkers, I rode down the street to the archery area, where the radar control site used to stand. It was quite a complex in its heyday, judging from this historical photo.

Now, both main buildings were razed to the foundation, and I couldn’t see anything remaining from the radar towers.

As I walked around, I tried to imagine what it was like here when the site was operational during the height of the Cold War, and Alaska was a prime target for the Soviet Union. It must have been a busy and intense experience for those Soldiers. Veterans of the Alaska Nike sites have contributed stories and photos to a website, which I found helpful and informative.

I finished up at Site Point, got back on the bike, and rode to my final overnight lodging in Alaska. I’d shipped a duffel bag and backpack that I’d need for my flight to the hotel ahead of time, and the items were there when I checked in (albeit with a fresh coffee stain on the box).

Daily portrait challenge: Volunteer Ann prepares her group for their hike.

My flight home wasn’t until tomorrow evening, which left me with some time to kill in the morning. I planned to drop off my bike with the shipper shortly after they opened at 9am, and then I’d look for a museum to visit. Given the smoky conditions in Anchorage, I didn’t think I’d be running outside.

Total mileage: 242.9

Lodging: Staybridge Suites, Anchorage, Alaska