Remembering way back when ...Part 1

Thursday, September 15, 2011 - 12:58

Editor's note: In this first of two parts, Frank E. Baker recalls the many dramatic changes he's witnessed in Alaska during his residency, which began in 1946.

"Wow, maybe I have been around awhile," I thought, as I explained to someone that as a kid I used to be able to see the face of Portage Glacier from where the visitor center is now located. At that moment it hit me. When you start talking about change in major landforms, you're relegating yourself to the age of dinosaurs and mastodons. I can remember when you could almost drive a car to the toe of Eklutna Glacier, and when Matanuska Glacier ice stretched way out into the valley.

In my lifetime glaciers have receded more dramatically than my hairline. I have witnessed bushes colonizing once rocky glacial moraine, and those bushes growing into trees.

But even bigger things have occurred. In my six-decade lifespan the geomagnetic pole has shifted a couple of degrees to change the difference between true north and magnetic poles—the declination constant — meaning maps that I had as a young man aren't entirely accurate.

In my lifetime the North Pacific tectonic plate has advanced northward several thousand feet, thrusting itself beneath the North American tectonic plate.

In my lifetime waters of the Gulf of Alaska have warmed by about a degree, providing tuna and other marine species new habitat.

In my lifetime I have seen mountains change. One of the prominent mountains across Resurrection Bay from Seward, Mt. Alice, had a massive slide near its summit back in the 1950s, forever changing the shape at the top. I remember what it looked like before. Today Mt. Marathon — which athletes from across the world race up and down every 4th of July — has deeply worn trails across its face that it didn't have in the 1950s.

In my lifetime rivers have changed course. Channels in the Susitna, Talkeetna, Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers have meandered from where they were when I as a younger man, when I navigated them with a riverboat. Natural forces, including ice jams and spring flooding, make the value of maps on these water systems dubious on a year-to-year basis.

In my lifetime Lake George near Knik Glacier has changed—not damming up and flooding along the Old Glenn like it did up to the 50s and 60s.

In my lifetime weather has changed. It used to be colder, without a doubt. In December, January or February, minus 30 degrees in Anchorage was not an uncommon occurrence.

Big 1964 earthquake: In my lifetime the massive 1964 earthquake radically changed topography around southcentral Alaska, notably near Portage along Turnagain Arm. Land subsidence caused Cook Inlet to flood the area, killing trees and vegetation and leaving a desolate landscape for decades to come.

I saw Alyeska transformed from a small ski tow into a wondrous, world-class Ski Resort, with the sleepy town of Girdwood growing to support it.

I started thinking about other things, like the total population of Alaska when I was a kid was something like 70,000—now it's about 700,000. On summer weekends in the 1950s there were very few fishermen at the Russian River, unlike today's elbow-to-elbow combat scene.

Anchorage's skyline has dramatically changed. In the 1950s it had two buildings that I refer to as high rises: the L Street Apartments, now called Turnagain Arms, and the McKay Building, which for about 50 years was an empty ghost catcher, a monument to economic indecision.

I remember when we thought McKay's Hardware on Fireweed Lane was a big store. Within the vast catacombs of Lowes or Home Depot, McKay's would occupy the space of a closet or storeroom.

When I was a kid Anchorage had three movie theaters located downtown — the 4th Avenue, Denali and Empress. We had a Ben Franklin five and dime store; and something the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce didn't put in its brochures: about 12 bars on 4th Avenue, Anchorage's main street. There was only one high school, called Anchorage High School, two TV stations, about four radio stations. Eagle River was only a gas station and grocery store interruption on the Glenn Highway en route to Palmer.

The list of major changes within our state since I was a child seems endless. The paving of the Seward Highway, the arrival of black and white television to Anchorage and then color, the completion of the Parks Highway from Anchorage to Fairbanks, the completion of the 800-mile trans Alaska pipeline, the sprawling marine terminal cut in against the mountain at Valdez, the establishment and growth of the Permanent Fund, the expanded University of Alaska system, with growing campuses at Fairbanks and in Anchorage; the expanded Anchorage International Airport—the sprawl of Anchorage, particularly south and east into areas that slowly yielded from wilderness to homesteads to the first roads, like O'Malley and Huffman.

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.


This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, July 20, 2011.

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