Arctic Valley Revisited: Remembering teen life on Ft. Rich in the 60s and 70s
When military kids grow up and decide to return to their roots and childhood homes, there are multiple locations to claim. While a military retiree myself, I am also a former military brat. At 61-years-old I have felt compelled to return to every base I have ever lived. Although it took me 30 years to return to Fort Richardson; once I did, with my husband and children, I have either lived nearby in Anchorage or visited on a regular basis; however no trip is ever complete without returning to the familiar surroundings on Fort Richardson.
Well, sort of.
Fort Richardson looks completely different than when I lived here. The housing has been upgraded. The PX no longer exists, nor the commissary, no Arctic Valley Ski Bowl, not even my school – the latter two being most prominent in my memories.
There was a time, back in the 1960s and 70s, when Fort Richardson had a junior high school called Arcturus that served seventh, eighth and ninth graders. Everyone on post attended Arcturus for junior high. Private schools or charter schools were not an option then and it was decades before the internet, so there were definitely no online schools. If you lived on post and were in grades 7-9 you went to Arcturus. That was that and no one even considered another choice.
In keeping with the on-post theme of naming schools after constellations, students completed elementary school through sixth grade at Ursa Major and Ursa Minor and then went on to Arcturus. A third grade-school opened in the mid-60s following President Kennedy’s death and tradition was broken and it was called J.F. Kennedy Elementary School. All grade schools are at their original locations, the now-demolished Arcturus Junior High was located on Hoonah and Fifth Street.
Arcturus’ school colors were black and white and the mascot was the Spartans. It was a one-level school with portables on the east end for the Spanish and French classes. Some of us were transported to school in the Army-green buses straight out of the motor pool. I recall how in elementary school girls could wear pants at any time of year but once you entered the junior high we could only wear pants when it was below 15 degrees and we were not allowed to wear jeans. The boys could. During eighth grade the rules started changing, first girls could wear pants every day and by the end of the year we could also wear jeans, which was what everyone everywhere else in our country was wearing. As military brats we were accustomed to having to follow the rules.
So many personnel were assigned to Ft. Rich in those years at the height of the Vietnam War that all three elementary schools and Arcturus Junior High School were full. High schoolers were bused to Dimond High in those pre-Bartlett years. The first time I ever attended a school for more than one grade was at JFK where I went to fifth and sixth grades. And it got even better, I was able to attend Arcturus Junior High all three years, seventh, eighth and ninth grades! This explains why memories from these years were so significant to me. Once my dad got reassigned after Alaska, I ended up attending four high schools before graduating in 1975 in Spokane, Washington, where he retired.
High school reunions get tricky for us military brats. Many of us went to multiple high schools. Sometimes the school where we graduated from isn’t the high school where we spent the most time or had the most intense friendships or memories. This leaves us wondering how much impact each school made on our outcome and if we would have made different choices in life had we stayed at once school longer or transferred sooner to the next school.
Being transferred to a military installation overseas or to remote places like Alaska, where you are with other kids in the same situation, intensifies the relationships even more. Most military personnel at that time were assigned to Alaska for a minimum of three years with the possibility of extending two more years. For those of us in junior high or high school during those years it meant some stability in those highly socially aware years. And those of us who were lucky enough to stay connected to relationships from the past don’t take these friendships for granted, we cherish them.
For me and many others who lived on Fort Richardson during our junior high years at Arcturus we thrived in a very unique subculture. We had very active lives. Not busy, not rushed, not over-scheduled, just active in very healthy ways. Those were the days before cable or satellite television. We had the three main networks and all television shows were sent to Anchorage, where we watched them two weeks later. Yes, every sitcom or scheduled network show except the news or occasional local programming was two weeks late, even holiday specials. We rarely talked on the phone to grandparents in the lower 48 because long distance was considered expensive. No one ever flew “Outside,” it was too expensive. Occasionally, a grandparent or other relative from “back in the states” would visit. We had a sense of remoteness in our relationship with the world, like a lot of Alaskans, but that just gave us more common ground. We were in it together, just living life.
GROWING UP ON POST
I came to Fort Richardson in 1967 as a ten-year-old and left five years later. I had two younger brothers and like nearly all mothers on post at that time mine was a stay-at-home mom. My dad was in the Air Force but housing was full at Elmendorf so we lived on Ft. Rich. This was decades before the two military installations became known as a joint base. Staying put for five years and living in the same housing unit the entire time was a new and welcome experience. Our address was 404-G Richardson Drive, but if anyone wants to go looking for it you will discover it no longer exists. Building 404 is still in the same location but it used to have eight family-units with no garages when we were occupants. Now, the building consists of four units, all new and improved. This was in the enlisted housing, since my dad was a Master Sgt. A playground was once in the area at the end of the building and in the winter all of the kids in the neighborhood would build massive snow forts in the open areas.
We always had plenty to do on Fort Richardson. In the summer we would fish for trout in the boats at Otter Lake and our large Girl Scout troop rode our bikes out to the lake and back. We would swim at the fieldhouse, bowl, go the movies (at a cost of 35 cents) or walk to the post exchange, which was located where the library is today. The commissary and a cafeteria were adjoined to the PX. The cafeteria was called The Glacier Room and was a popular hangout for teens. The post also had a teen club not far from the Girl Scout and Boy Scout buildings, which were all log buildings. Off post, we all did a lot of camping and salmon and halibut fishing.
Summers in Alaska are always spectacular, but for us kids and teens it was winter that we probably remember most. Ice rinks were located in various locations around the post and the hill at Dyea was a favorite for sledding or learning to ski. Using the gym or swimming in the winter at the Buckner field house was a popular hangout. We didn’t have blow dryers in those days and I remember walking home after swimming on a dark, snowy winter night and having my long hair freeze solid by the time I reached my house.
ARCTIC VALLEY MEMORIES
Of all the activities available to us, by far the most popular was skiing at the Army-owned and operated ski hill in the mountains at Arctic Valley Ski Bowl. It was built by the Army Special Services. At the top of the mountainous Arctic Valley Road, a civilian ski area operated to the left of the military site and still operates today. On the military side, to the right, there were three rope tows and a Poma lift maintained by Army personnel. No trees existed on any of the runs. The lodge was an octagon-shaped log building with a fireplace in the center. The teens took over an area on the right side of the lodge and families and other adults sat on the left and center. A ski equipment rental operated by MWR was located at the bottom of the bunny hill. It cost 50 cents to rent skis and 50 cents for a lift ticket. Our family’s season pass was $25. No wonder it was such a popular activity!
When we transferred out of Alaska I stayed in contact with several friends for a while, eventually loosing contact with anyone else who lived here at the same time. Thanks to the internet and sites like Classmates.com I was able to reconnect with two former friends from Arcturus several years ago. Once we found each other again, we usually contact each other a few times each year. We each have different stories, but eventually all three of us have returned to Alaska several times after we left as teens.
One of my close friends from Arcturus and former ski buddy, Lyn Isaacson, who now lives in Arizona recalls, “It was my favorite place to live, probably because we were there (Ft. Rich) five and a half years. I went to a total of five high schools, including my sophomore year at Dimond and just began my junior year at Bartlett when we moved to Maryland.”
Isaacson says she thinks of having fun when she looks back to those years at Ft. Rich. “I loved to ski and do anything in the snow. We would ride the ski shuttle up to Arctic Valley. As long as our grades were kept up we skied every weekend and sometimes during the week.”
Lyn’s dad, Lt. Col. Roger Isaacson, was president of the Arctic Valley Ski Club. Meetings were held on Sunday evenings at the Moose Run Golf Course after skiing. We would see Warren Miller ski movies and awards would be given for races during that weekend. It seemed like everyone we knew belonged to the ski club. Sometimes the ski club would sponsor overnight trips for the teens to Alyeska.
Isaacson also fondly recalls the five-mile ski trail that started near the parking lot at Arctic Valley and snaked through the trees ending mid-way along the ski road where the shuttle buses passed and would make a stop to carry you back to the top.
“We tried to tuck the trail the entire way to see how fast we could get down, watching for moose and sometimes trying to shoo them off the trail.”
Our family took ski lessons at Arctic Valley during our first winter 1968, and spent every winter weekend skiing. After a couple winters my two younger brothers and I started racing. I still have a couple of the ski medals. A lot of times us kids would take the ski shuttle that would pick you up at the field house for the half-hour commute. The shuttle was an olive green two and a half-ton Army troop transport “deuce and a half” truck with noisy chains on the huge tires and a ski rack mounted at the back. Inside, you sat on one of the two long benches mounted on the sides. A heater kept the ride bearable and you could see very little out of the heavy-duty plastic windows along the canvas sides. But, it sure gave us our freedom! We didn’t have to wait for our parents to drive and we would often get out of school on Wednesday afternoons just to partake in such activities. We were encouraged to stay active in the winter to avoid getting cabin fever.
Another friend, whom I’ve kept in contact with over the years, is Max Stevens. He now lives in Meridian, Idaho.
“We could ski right on Fort Rich at Dyea, which was next to Ursa Major Elementary,” said Stevens. “The Army provided a rope tow. Mostly, we went to Arctic Valley, where I belonged to the Arctic Valley Ski Club when Col. Isaacson was president.”
Max actually began ski racing in Garmish, Germany, where his dad was previously stationed. He raced on Zugspite Mountain at age five competing in the kinder cup. Moving to Fort Rich was a perfect fit.
Pleasant memories surface instantly when Stevens starts thinking back to those days.
“Skiing and attending Arcturus went hand-in-hand over the winters on Fort Rich. A bunch of us would get out of school and drag our gear to the field house and ride the old army deuce and a half with chains up Arctic Valley road. It was cheap fun and a babysitter for our parents. Lift tickets were 50 cents, hot dogs and hamburgers 10 cents and it stayed open until 10 p.m. I was up there almost every day and night. I would run gates and perfect my technique. It was a place where almost everyone from school hung out and skied.”
“I don’t know if I long for the windy, minus 20-degree temperatures and skiing on boilerplate conditions, but I cherish all those sweet memories. Now that it’s no longer there (Arctic Valley) it does make me sad. I cut my teeth on that hill and will be forever grateful for all the experiences the military and Arctic Valley have given me.”
Max lived on Ft. Rich between 1968 to 1973 on Beluga and later on Dyea Streets. He attended Ursa Major in sixth grade, went on to Arcturus Junior High and was bused to Dimond High for his sophomore year. His father, CW4 Paul Stevens, retired and his family moved in town where he attended Service High school his junior year and graduated mid-year of his senior year at Bartlett in 1975, allowing him to pursue ski racing.
“I raced for six years on the national circuit. I skied a lot of awesome ski areas and met a lot of wonderful people. People who are still good friends of mine. I had some of the best race coaches and icons in the ski industry. I have watched ski racing technology change for the better over the years,” said Stevens.
Aside from skiing at Fort Rich, Stevens’ other memories are of having a lot of friends from both Fort Rich and Elmendorf AFB.
“There was the feeling of being really safe on base. The Army provided so many things to do for dependents such as the teen center, field house, the movie theater, bingo at both the officer and NCO clubs and of course, Arctic Valley for skiing. Being able to ride my bike all over the base. And the special memories of my first real girlfriend.”
Long after his racing years Stevens continues skiing regularly in his semi-retirement years. In fact, he has carried his passion over to his own business of designing and manufacturing custom-made skis, with his business Oosik Ski Company, along with working in the oil and electrical engineering field.
Now that we are in our early 60s Lyn, Max and myself feel lucky to have kept in touch. Like every generation, as we look back and note differences of “our time” compared to the teens of today. Teen life is no doubt quite a different experience on Fort Rich today. A major difference is the closing of Arctic Valley Ski area back in 2003.
Anyone wanting to know more about this era of the Army owned and operated Arctic Valley Ski Bowl can find information on a website called the Alaska Lost Ski Areas Project. Scroll down the list until you find Arctic Valley and you will find a comprehensive history with submissions from several people who skied there during their youth or adulthood.
We wonder if the teens of today share that same sense of “we are in this together” attitude? Do they still feel that special subculture bond created by sharing so many similarities living on a military base during those impressionable years of junior high? All these years later, we feel we had a privileged life growing up on Fort Richardson.
An Arcturus Junior High reunion for those who attended between 1969-1972 is being planned by Max Stevens and Kay (Porter) Steward on October 5 of this year. For information please contact Max Stevens at [email protected], (208) 841-0362 or Kay (Porter) Steward at [email protected], (907) 350-0533.