"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A cost too heavy to bear?

(NOTE: There is a gallery of Seward Highway photos at the end of this essay. I posted it there so as not to interfere with the message of this story.)

The two lane Seward Highway follows the curves of the Chugach Mountains along Turnagain Arm.

The Suicide Highway. It’s a 127mile long stretch of stupendously scenic highway that stitches its way though the Chugach and Kenai Mountains, but with its beauty comes a brutal penalty, a penalty that has become too heavy to bear. The Suicide Highway isn’t its real name, of course. But what else would you call a thirty-mile stretch of mostly two lane road where 98 people have died in the last thirty-two years? Just this summer, crashes have taken the lives of eight people, including an eleven year old boy, a special needs teacher, and two teenagers. All were killed by no fault of their own.

Its official name is the Seward Highway, named for the town of Seward where it begins, which was named for William Seward, President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State who in 1869 negotiated the purchase from Russia of a vast territory called Alaska. The buy wasn’t appreciated by many, and the land was soon ridiculed as “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Ice Box.”

Nevertheless, there were men who believed in the potential of this land, and at the small settlement on Resurrection Bay, construction of a railroad was begun that would link the ice free port of Seward with the interior of Alaska. By 1923, that railroad was able to transport much-needed freight to Anchorage and beyond. This was no easy project, no laying of rails and ties across rolling prairies.

This construction climbed mountains, required tall trestles built in a circle so a train could gain elevation, forded rivers, and dynamited the toes off huge bedrock mountains to scratch out enough room to lay rail along a fifty mile long fjord-like saltwater estuary with some of the highest tides in the world.

For many years, the railroad was the main method of reaching Anchorage. Somewhat paralleling it was a narrow trail used by dog teams during the winter months when the lakes and streams were frozen. This trail, also beginning in Seward, came to be known as the Iditarod Trail, though the dog team race bearing the same name begins in Anchorage and not in Seward.

Finally, in 1951, a road linked Anchorage with the Kenai Peninsula, and vehicles could drive to Seward on the east coast or Kenai on the west coast. Soon the Peninsula became the favorite playground for Alaskans.

My mother is the one who dubbed that highway the “Suicide Highway.” I never heard her refer to it by its proper name. By the late 1950s she all but refused to travel the road, even though she always rode as a passenger.

Captain James Cook, searching for the elusive Northwest Passage in 1778, wriggled his ship up a shallow body of water hemmed on both sides with mountains, and named it Turnagain. Today it bears witness to scenes of terrible carnage. On the front page of Sunday's Anchorage Daily News, the headline story is about the Seward Highway, and specifically that section that runs along Turnagain Arm. Inside the front section is a double truck (two pages, side by side) continuation of that story. A large graphic shows a map of the thirty miles beginning at Mile 117 at Potter Marsh on the outskirts of Anchorage proper at Turnagain Arm, and Portage at Mile 87. An almost continuous line of circles designates the sites of fatal accidents since 1977. It does not include circles for a few miles beyond Portage, where many other accidents have taken lives.

After the eleven year old was killed, Chief William Chadwick of the Girdwood Fire department called a meeting. His crews were sick, he said, of putting people in body bags. The meeting was held in Girdwood last Friday. The day before, two teenagers died in a crash involving five vehicles, and the highway was closed for almost six hours while EMTs tended to the injured, and State Troopers documented what had happened.

The highway is scabbed with orange spray paint on the black asphalt, paint that outlines skid marks, paint applied by police investigating accidents.

Everyone agrees something needs to be done to reduce the carnage. Everyone thinks a four lane, divided highway is the optimum solution, but the price tag and the years of construction required to reach that solution seem like a pipe dream. So if the cost is estimate at $600 million, how many children have to die to make it worth the price?

Some think placing concrete dividers called Jersey barriers would stop the head-on crashes, but those same dividers would interfere with police and rescue vehicles. And besides, the highway is narrow enough as it is, considering the volume of hulking recreational vehicles. The barriers themselves could contribute to accidents.

The stretch from Girdwood to Potter Marsh is designated a “safety corridor,” and double fines apply to traffic violations. ( After this implementation in 2006, fatal and major injury accidents were reduced by 77 per cent that year.) Many people at the meeting called for more police presence on the road, and were told that is already in the works, yet I drove that stretch of highway four times in eight days and didn’t see a single trooper. I did notice, however, that on Friday—the day after the two teenagers were killed—traffic held steady at 55 mph or slower and no one attempted to pass.

What will come of the suggestions made at this standing room only meeting, only time will reveal. The fire chief has asked for people to e-mail suggestions to him.

A quick tally of the accidents where a cause was listed reveals 23 deaths involved drugs and/or alcohol, 13 were attributed to unsafe speed, and five to inattention. For many, no cause was listed, though there were a number involving improper lane usage and passing unsafely, which was the cause announced in Thursday’s accident that killed two teenaged boys who were struck head-on by a pickup whose driver was attempting to pass several vehicles. He received minor injuries.

That seems to be an over-riding cause. Drivers are anxious to reach the fishing grounds, drivers gawk at the jaw-dropping scenery, tired drivers fall asleep, motor homes drive slower than the speed limit, and impatient drivers attempt to pass.

So, the question is what to do to reduce the carnage on a stretch of road designated one of the top ten scenic drives in the U.S.? It’s a stretch of road where you can see beluga whales and bore tides on one side, and Dall sheep prancing about on steep rock walls on the other. The rivers and streams that pour into the arm and supply it with the crushed rock called glacial flour also support large runs of salmon and hooligan, which in turn lure fishermen to try their luck. Eagles draw a driver’s attention from the road, and moose are occasionally a problem. Thousands of recreational vehicles, bicycles and motorcycles travel this road.

From an estimated 6000 vehicles a day in the winter to more than 22,000 a day in summer, it bears more traffic than it was designed for.

My own idea, which I will e-mail to the chief in Girdwood, is to reduce the speed limit in the safety corridor from 55 mph to 45 mph. And, in those sections of the highway now designated at 65 mph, it should be reduced to 55 mph. It won't stop the carnage, but it can be implemented immediately and might give motorists a precious split second to avoid head on collisions. Yes, it will take a little longer to reach your destination, but it might also improve your chances to reaching it at all.

My hope is that a return to 55 mph all the way to the Seward Highway’s junction with the Sterling Highway at Mile 37 will make people realize that after they clear the junction, the speed limit is 55 mph no matter which road they take. These days it seems people think the limit returns to 65 mph once they are clear of the triangular-shaped junction, and vehicles traveling far in excess of that whiz past my driveway.

In the meantime, for the first time since the early 1960s when I began traveling the highway frequently and then subsequently moved to two different communities along that road, I hesitate to drive it. Instead of the mini-van that gets 26 mpg, I use my mid-sized pickup that gets 16 mpg, because I feel safer in it, safer from other drivers and the moose that cross the pavement in the mountainous areas.

And I think back to the mid Fifties when my mother dubbed it the Suicide Highway, little knowing then how tragically correct she was.

(Click on photos to enlarge to full screen.)

The beginning of both the Seward Highway and the historic Iditarod Trail, in Seward on Resurrection Bay.

Trail Lake, Mile 31, near Moose Pass.

Mile 58, near Summit Lake.

Near Johnson Pass trail head, Mile 63.

Autumn colors near Jerome Lake, Mile 39.

Dipnetting for hooligan (smelt), near Twenty Mile River, Mile 81.

Rainbow in Bird Valley, Mile 101.5

Wildflower-covered tundra in Turnagain Pass, Mile 67.

Near Mile 93.The Alaska Railroad parallels the Seward Highway, hauling freight and passengers.

Para-sailing at Twenty Mile River, Mile 80.

Tern Lake, Mile 37

Dall sheep near Mile 106.

Mt. Alyeska resort (skiing and tourism) from Mile 90 at Girdwood.

Near Mile 98.

Bird Creek, Mile 101.5, fishing for pink salmon.

Eagle nesting alongside the highway at Mile 17.

Turnagain Arm from the Hope Highway.

Near Mile 58, Silvertip, a calm section of Six Mile Creek.

Mile 14.
Mile 34.
Mile 51.5.
Six Mile Creek Class V rapids near Mile 58, popular for rafting and kayaking.

Near Mile 76.

Bore tide near Mile 81.

Migrating swans taking a break at Tern Lake, Mile 37.

Near Mile 36.

Jerome Lake, Mile 38.

Beluga whale near Mile 85.

Tern Lake Mile 37.5.

Bison at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Park, Mile 79,dedicated to the rescue of orphaned and injured animals.


  1. Your photographs look like award-winners to me. Lon will go bananas over these.

    It certainly is unfortunate that such the highway along this gorgeous route has been the site of so many deaths.

    I think your idea would be a good fix at least temporarily.

    "The highway is scabbed with orange spray paint..." I appreciate this choice of verb; it works well.

  2. Such beautiful pictures with such a sad story. Quite a contrast.