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A haunting road trip along the Alaska Highway

Mike Dunham
James Riordan found a bison grazing at the former Fireside Truck Stop on the Alaska Highway in 2010.
Image courtesy James Riordan
A former Texaco station near Tok now serves to shelter a scrap yard. Image courtesy James Riordan.
Image courtesy James Riordan

If all has gone as planned, I will be in Whitehorse today. I thought I'd make one last trip on the Alaska Highway before it's closed forever.

Not that anyone's saying it will be. But if the old Alaska Highway were to turn back into muskeg, I'm not sure we'd know about it or that many people in Anchorage would care. Earlier this month we learned that the highway had been closed north of Watson Lake for four days. It created a big disruption in Yukon territory and some concern in Fairbanks. But it seemed to be ignored in Anchorage until after the road reopened.

One might think that Anchorage and Whitehorse would have social and economic reasons to be connected, but apparently not.

In recent memory one could go between the biggest cities in Alaska and the Yukon by direct scheduled air and bus service. Before my time, one might catch the train to Nenana and take a paddle wheeler or a steamship from Seward to Skagway and catch the train over White Pass.

No more. If you want to take a commercial flight to Whitehorse, you must first fly to Seattle, then Vancouver, then back to the Yukon, essentially crossing the width of the second largest country in the world twice to get to a destination less than 500 air miles away.

A signal of the increasing distance between the two towns came this month when Canada announced it would close its consulate in Anchorage.

(It was one of five such closures affecting U.S. cities. The Associated Press reported, "A government spokeswoman said nearby hubs will provide services to areas where consulates close." The closest Canadian consulate to Alaska will now be in Seattle, which suggests the word "nearby" is interpreted differently by English speakers in the United States and Canada.)

Why? Perhaps jet service to the Lower 48 is just too easy -- not to mention faster than driving for a few thousand miles. A ramping up of rules for border crossings has deterred some travelers. And there's the price of gas making the cost of car travel more expensive and draining business, and eventually human residents, from filling stations along the route.

All of which brings me to James Riordan's exhibit at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art. The multi-media (sound and visual art) installation is a continuation of his sprawling ruminations emanating from his translation of "Le Roman du Lievre" ("The Novel of the Hare") by Francis Jammes. Other permutations have previously been presented in Anchorage galleries.

In this edition, the centerpiece is a series of black and white paper lithographs "documenting every abandoned gasoline station on the Alaska Highway." The photos, taken between 2008 and 2010, show more than two dozen derelict former dispensaries of fossil fuel between Dawson Creek and Tok Junction.

Boarded windows and broken pumps bear signs that tell the story. "No gas." "Closed." "Total sale: 00.00" One sign, blaming high gas prices, tells drivers that their next chance is either 13 miles south or 125 miles north.

The battered presentation of the prints contributes to the sense of loss and loneliness, former boom hot spots now burned out, ghost towns of the 20th century. A buffalo grazes next to the pumps at kilometer post 910, suggesting a post-apocalyptic world.

There are other aspects to the installation, but the highway lithographs are what got my attention -- along with one photo taken in France. Riordan went there on something of a sight-seeing pilgrimage to sites associated with the author, Jammes. The photo is of the house where Jammes wrote "Le Roman du Lievre."

There's an abandoned gas station in front of it.

Also at the International Gallery, 427 D St., are petroglyph-inspired paintings by Leslie Harrison, some rather frightening portraits by Lisa Ballard and photos and other art by Ryan Romer. Perhaps intentionally, one of Romer's works is a large acrylic painting that looks like a hare.

Romer also has work in the "True North" exhibit now on display at the Anchorage Museum. A book of his photographs taken along the western Kuskokwim is for sale at the International Gallery, where the present art will remain on view until July 4 or so.

Culture proves lucrative

A study by the McDowell Group has found the economic impact of the Celebration 2012 festival in Juneau was $2 million. The event, which was held June 6-9, spotlights Southeast Native dance and art and is organized by Sealaska Heritage Institute and held every two years.

"That's a lot of money coming into the community over a four-day period," said Bob Koenitzer, senior project manager for the McDowell Group. Koenitzer added that the figure was conservative because the study did not factor in transportation to and from Juneau.

This year's Celebration drew 5,500 people who purchased tickets. Of those people who bought tickets, 3,300 were visitors from other areas of the state and from outside Alaska. The visitors generated $1.1 million in new dollars to Juneau, spending on lodging, tourism activities, food and beverages and lots of shopping.

The study also found Sealaska Corporation, Sealaska Heritage Institute and Juneau residents spent an additional $300,000 on Celebration-related items and the event generated almost $100,000 in sales taxes and hotel bed taxes for the city and borough of Juneau.

The Native Artist Market grew as well. The 2012 sales at the market, which was relocated to downtown this year after outgrowing previous quarters, increased significantly; some artists sold out the first day, said Sealaska Heritage president Rosita Worl.

With construction of the planned Walter Soboleff Center in downtown Juneau, options will expand for programs that attract visitors, Worl said. Sealaska Heritage Institute's Celebration committee is assessing how to accommodate the expanding Celebration. Worl said it was possible that an additional day might be included in 2014.

First held in 1982, Celebration has become the one of the largest cultural events in the state.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

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