Isolation is a Way of Life for Whittier Residents - Particularly in Winter
Locals paint picture of community at the mercy of the elements.
“Some people would say, ‘My wife got in a head-on collision on Friday the 13th,’ but I said, ‘My wife got in a head-on collision on Friday the 13th and walked away,’” Feller said.
Accidents like the one that hospitalized his wife are the reason the department doesn’t take chances when it comes to the season’s harshest storms. Blowing snow and high winds closed a stretch of highway between Potter Marsh and Portage in early January, and while rare, Feller said it’s a serious decision.
In the winter, he said more than 6,000 vehicles travel down the highway every day, and it represents the only terrestrial tie to dozens of communities along the Kenai Peninsula.
Whittier is one of those communities, and Arneson said it’s a tenuous link.
“You can only keep so much stuff,” he said, gesturing to the more than 25 cabinets lining his houseboat’s walls. “We keep about two-and-a-half to four months’ here.”
His supplies include everything from dried goods, canned food and coffee to soda, candy and a variety of snack foods. It all comes down the highway and through the tunnel, he said.
The town itself boasts three grocery stores: two small convenience shops and the Harbor Store.
“That’s just kind of a fill in,” Arneson said. “If you need a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, a pack of cigarettes or whatever.”
In fact, the Harbor Store is closed for the winter. After the adjoining liquor store burned to the ground late last year, the owner, known only as RC, said the town’s isolation and slow economy makes reopening it unlikely.
“I don’t have anything good to say about Whittier,” he said, adding he lives in Anchorage during the winter months and will not reopen the store until late spring. “There are three types of people there: the people that come in on the cruise ships; the people that come through the tunnel; and the people that live there.”
While he said the first two groups travel through the tunnel or out the harbor almost as quickly as they come, less than 300 people call Whittier home year-round.
According to Arneson, it’s a community that requires one thing: preparation.
“Being a male, I am a Scout,” he said.
Besides several months worth of food stores, Arneson’s houseboat includes a sewage disposal system and a water purifier capable of turning 150 gallons of seawater per day into clean drinking water.
A generator packed away under a trapdoor in the kitchen floor powered his home for three weeks earlier this winter when extreme weather knocked the town off the electrical grid.
He said it’s not just physical isolation. The tunnel and highway have only closed a handful of times since he first came to Whittier, but he said scattershot cell reception and frequent power outages bring another kind of separation.