“Road trips are really hard on a car”

In Southeast, transportation takes a backseat to all other uses of a car. For panhandle Alaskans, their vehicles have other roles. Waterproof shopping carts. Dog kennels. Moveable offices. Giant toolboxes. Ad hoc shelters. Bumpersticker racks.

They certainly have enough cars. Someone in Sitka said there were over twenty thousand vehicles in that town of barely nine thousand souls!  And Alaska’s fourth largest city has a mere 23 miles of streets and roads. They go nowhere really. People in Hoonah brag that they have a road that can take them 14 miles out of the village to hunt and freshwater fish. But like the state capital, Juneau, most towns in Southeast are landlocked. You just can’t get there – or out of there – by car.  Cars come and go only by barge, or by the ferries that make up the Alaska Marine Highway.

(The exceptions are the Southeast towns of Haines and Skagway, which connect with the AlCan Highway. Ambitious folks from British Columbia and the lower 48 arrive via the outposts Whitehorse and Dawson Creek to join car totting ferry passengers and the busses that meet the cruise ships. The result is to turn these two otherwise charming, walkable towns into parking lots.)

Prince of Wales Island is where inhabitants are really proud of their roads.  Most of the communities of the third largest island in the US (after Big Island Hawaii and Kodiak) are connected to one another by road, the exceptions being Point Baker and Port Protection. This means a locksmith in Hydaburg can respond to a call in Whale Pass, a family from Hollis can buy groceries in Coffman Cove, and pet owners from most parts of the island can drive to Craig on the third Friday and Saturday of the month when the vet is in town.  Roads bind Prince of Wales communities into a common local economy.  “More than 2000 miles of roads reach into Prince of Wales Island.” boasts the 2012 Chamber of Commerce brochure.  Then it goes on to say that only 105 miles are paved!

By and large, however, Southeast Alaskans go places on boats and planes. Your car is a runabout, a utility vehicle. It is enough trouble to keep it registered, licensed and insured. Indeed, driver lapses fill the police blotter of every small town newspaper.

So it was not surprising to overhear a Wrangell bar patron say, “Oh. Road trips are really hard on a car”. The bartender had mentioned that her sister wanted to borrow her car, take it by ferry down to the lower 48 and then drive to Montana!   It just wasn’t feasible, was it?    Her customers were utterly sympathetic. Use a car for a road trip?  What would happen to the car?  Just not part of the culture.


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