A large-scale map of Alaska might suggest there’s not a lot of adventuring to be done by car in our part of the state.
There’s a single highway from Anchorage to Fairbanks, another to Valdez, another pair to Seward and Homer. Although the almost-comically breathtaking views of Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Mountains down the Seward Highway, or the Matanuksa Valley on the Glenn, are well-known to locals and tourists alike, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of going “off the beaten path” in a car: You’re either on well-trafficked highways or you’re out on the trails or the deep vast wilderness where cars and trucks can’t go.
But zooming in on that map reveals there’s a lot more road out there than meets the eye, and reasonably-adventurous travelers can discover a lot of weird and interesting sights — a lot of history and scenery — without having to venture into the back-country. Get out much past Settler’s Bay on the Knik-Goose Bay Road, for example, and you enter an older, unfamiliar Alaska, one that modern history has seemed to have left behind, though not without leaving a lot of strange ruins in its wake.
The KGB, as it’s infelicitously called, starts in downtown Wasilla, amongst the strip-malls and sprawl between Lake Lucille and Lake Wasilla.
For the first eight miles or so, you’re in comfortable suburban country; a product of the tremendous population growth in the Mat-Su Valley region over the last couple decades. It’s scenic, since this is Alaska, but you could be just about anywhere in the western United States as you drive past well-manicured subdivisions and street names like “Lakewood Drive” and “West Commodore Lane” and “South Foothills Boulevard.” There’s a Subway, a local birch-syrup shop, a spectacular new South Central Fountain behavioral-health center, Benteh Nuutah.
At Mile 8.3 you reach Settler’s Bay, well-regarded by those who attend to such things as Alaska’s premiere golf course; it’s also Alaska’s only residential golf community, boasting two restaurants, a post office, nautically-themed street names, and a well-curated architectural style reminiscent of beachfront Maryland or Delaware.
But drive a few miles beyond, and things start to change.
It’s not altogether sudden: there are a few more subdivisions, and the Mat-Su Borough School District’s shiny new secondary school, Joe Redington Jr./Sr. High School (named for the creator of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and accessed via the too-good-to-be-true-but-it-is Knik Knack Mud Shack Drive) is close by.
Pretty soon, though, the lawn-grass starts fading away, and instead of tract housing you’re going past undeveloped land parcels — some clear-cut, some still in stands of birch and aspen — and smaller structures, log cabins and shacks that have been on this land a long while.
You are not going into wilderness, but you do get the sense that you’re not just travelling west but being borne back into Alaska’s past, into a time and place beyond the modern suburban frontier.
At Mile 12.5, at the bottom of a rocky road down a small hill on the inland (northern) side of KGB, you hit Old Knik, the remains of a town that was once the largest on Cook Inlet.
Originally an Alaska Commercial Company trading post, Knik flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — first as a port of entry for prospectors seeking gold in the Cook Inlet area, then as a major stop on the trail to the much larger gold strike at Iditarod (the Historic Iditarod Trail, which passes through Old Knik, is not the same as the modern mushing race route, which is substantially further to the north).
According to CIRI, the tribal-corporation landholder in this region, just before World War One Knik had “a post office, three hotels, a blacksmith and a small school.” Up the hill you can hear the barks of the sled dogs at a Redington kennel; at the old townsite, though, all that remains is an old log cabin with the remains of a bar inside; and an old pool hall, now in service as the “Knik Museum and Mushers’ Hall of Fame.”
It’s not the kind of museum that gets a lot of visitors, so if you go in, expect to have your ear talked off by the curators, who will be much grateful for the visit, as you walk through the collections of early-20th century frontier appurtenances on the first floor, and portraits of old-time mushers and their dogs on the second.
Not much farther down the road, on the south side facing the Arm, is an overlook standing over a mudflat, where a tugboat stands far inland, stranded in the mud and bleached by the sun, the last remnant of a great fleet that once tied up at the docks of Old Knik.
At about Mile 16, you reach the intersection with Point Mackenzie Road.
This is an interesting destination in its own right. It will take you on a 20-mile trip past two correctional facilities — the minimum-security Point Mackenzie Correctional Farm and the newer, expensive medium-security Goose Bay Correctional Center — to Point MacKenzie itself, site of one of the world’s silliest, least-used ports, and proposed head of the infamous Knik Arm Bridge (known less favorably as the other Bridge to Nowhere).
But there are weirder treasures to be gleaned from bearing left and staying on KGB.
The KGB has seen long service as a locus of homesteading activity in the 20th century — not just during Gold Rush days but long after, for example in the late 1940s and 1950s when veterans returning from World War II sought their own peace on free land abutting this road.
At Mile 16 stands The Tug Bar and Goose Bay Inn, presumably named for that lonesome boat on the mudflats, and it’s just exactly what you’d expect an old homesteaders’ bar to look like, outside and in.
When I ventured inside, a couple of old men were drinking heavily at two in the afternoon and making bitter half-jokes about how Obama wouldn’t be giving any reparations to the likes of them.
Finally, at Mile 20, the road comes to an end at a large airstrip, an incongruously barren strip of land scratched out of of what is by now pretty much pure birch wilderness.
Still in operation, servicing the extensive small-aircraft community of Southcentral, Goose Bay Airport is World War II’s contribution to the built landscape. After Pearl Harbor, the Army Air Forces dispersed their fighting aircraft to remote satellite airfields. In Southcentral Alaska, this meant carving airstrips out of the forest for Elmendorf Field’s planes: at Willow, at Birchwood, at what is now the BLM’s Campbell Tract in Anchorage, and here at Goose Bay.
Just before the road dead-ends at the airstrip, though, there’s a brown sign announcing a turn-off into Goose Bay State Game Refuge. Established in 1975, this 10,000 acre tract is mostly a coastal wetland, the place where Goose Creek flows into Knik Arm. The water is too brackish for trees, and the groundcover is grass and sedge.
The Denai’na natives of this region called the marsh Tus’lagh, and knew it as prime waterfowl hunting territory — the the flocks of geese and tundra swans that stop here on their way back and forth between northern Alaska and the world are the reason this refuge was created.
There are two main access points to the marshlands, both more or less accessible by road and also connected to each other via a short hiking trail that winds through a forested upland of birch and aspen, the southern reaches of the great world-circling boreal forest.
At the northeastern access point, where the upland ridge drops precipitously off into a mudflat, stands a more recent remnant of the nearly-vanished human presence here.
In 1915, just before Old Knik was forever left behind in history by the coming of Anchorage and the railroad, the Goose Creek mouth became the site of a salmon cannery. Shem Pete, an Alaska Native who recorded his recollections of his extensive travels through Dena’ina country, described a busy place “where a lot of Chinamen, a lot of people were.” Now, all that remains of a global industry are some creosoted dock pilings, stuck into the mud like a giant’s discarded toothpicks, beyond which the Port of Anchorage can be seen in the distance.
The rough, unpaved road through the refuge forks about a half-mile in; one branch winds through the woods and eventually links backs up with the Point Mackenzie Road. The other has been blocked off, a series of pits and ditches dug to discourage vehicle travel, but it’s easily accessible on foot.
A mile or so walk down the forested lane on the far side of the ditches and you come across a gigantic, empty bunker in the middle of the woods, and then another one.
A few hundred feet more and the road makes a left turn into a clearing, where all of a sudden you find yourself in a wonderland of concrete and metal ruins.
There is what appears to be a bunch of metal cages standing near the treeline. Behind a pair of earth berms, there are two vastly larger bunkers with large yellow metal fixtures on the concrete pads in front of them.
It’s a bizarre enough sight for me, intimately familiar with the history of this site (disclosure: I am the Deputy Director of Friends of Nike Site Summit, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving a closely-related site on Mount Gordon Lyon above Anchorage).
I can’t imagine what, for example, Valley teenagers ATVing down the road on an aimless summer night would make of it. It really seems as if some mysterious alien race had landed in the middle of the woods, built great concrete structures with no obvious purpose, and then pulled up stakes and left the whole apparatus to decay.
Based on the graffiti, piles of broken bottles, and occasional glass pipe found among the ruins, the principal response to the mystery seems to have been to get wasted and trash the place, occasionally with great artistry.
What I know is that this is in fact an abandoned missile launch site.
During the Cold War, Anchorage (along with Fairbanks and many other cities, military bases, and industrial centers in the Lower 48) was surrounded by “Rings of Supersonic Steel,” batteries of the Nike-Hercules air defense missile, designed to shoot Soviet aircraft out of the sky with nuclear airbursts.
I know that inside each of these graffitied bunkers, now overgrown with moss, there were once a dozen nuclear weapons. I know that the metal cages once housed military working dogs who guarded the missiles. I know that this place was not just a workplace but a home to a generation of American servicemembers defending the skies of our nation from nuclear attack.
As someone who is actively involved in historic preservation, I suppose I’m supposed to find the site’s decay sad and its vandalism enraging, and maybe I do.
On the other hand, there’s a school of thought that says: “Preserving something that’s no longer got a purpose is an act of futility, like sweeping leaves on a windy day. Once upon a time there was a Cold War, and now there isn’t, and it ended in the best possible way: without anyone firing their fleet of nuclear weapons at anyone else. Site Bay, like the others, did what it was designed to do and now it’s being slowly reclaimed by the forest, and there’s certainly a kind of majesty in it, the same weird splendor that draws people to a Hadrian’s Wall or a Roman Coliseum.”
I don’t know that I entirely agree, but Alaska’s big; big enough for preservation and decay both, and if there was ever a good place to let a place decay, it’s here in the deep woods.
Long before modern suburbia, before the Cold War, before the World Wars, before the gold rushers and the cannery workers, even before the Athabaskan goose-hunters, there was just forest and marsh, and in good time that’s all there will be again.