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Road paving to boost Knik Glacier tourism gets chilly reception

Zaz Hollander
Knik Glacier, about 50 miles north of Anchorage, is getting more attention as Portage Glacier recedes.
Bill Roth
Motorists drive along East Knik River Road on Sunday, April 13, 2014. People are talking about extending the road all the way to the Knik Glacier (13 miles) for a new drivable ice-viewing destination.
Bill Roth

WASILLA -- Look out, Portage Glacier.

There's a new glacier near town.

With Portage Glacier receding every year, the Knik Glacier is becoming the river of ice nearest Anchorage that's easily visible from a car -- or a tour bus.

At least that's the mantra of a tourism-minded group from the Mat-Su drumming up support for more access to the Knik, the remote yet viewable glacier 50 miles north of the state's biggest city.

The "replace Portage with Knik" camp -- the borough mayor, the local convention and visitors bureau, and the only lodge owner in the area -- got a boost three years ago with a $2.1 million grant from the Alaska Legislature to pave the end of the winding road that stops 13 miles short of the glacier. Now much of that work is about to start.

The road goes to gravel about a mile and a half before reaching the Knik River Lodge.

Leading the charge for the road work was lodge owner Peter Schadee, the person who arguably stands to gain the most from plans to finish paving and possibly build a tour bus-sized roadside pullout that offers a rare glimpse to the glacier.

Schadee, who refers to the viewpoint as "my overlook," said he personally traveled to Juneau to lobby for the money and the lodge is spending $2 million to expand.

"This is an important first step is to get those tour companies to get their buses out here. Obviously it's going to benefit me but it's definitely going to benefit the whole Palmer area," Schadee said. "It's time we get away from Portage, because really there's nothing to see there."

'RIGHT ON THE FACE OF THE GLACIER'

Mat-Su Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss is also on the Knik Glacier bandwagon.

"In light of the death of the Portage Glacier, I would like to see an extension of Knik River Road right out on the bar," DeVilbiss said during an April 1 borough Assembly meeting, referring to the Knik River gravel bars. "You'd be right on the face of the glacier. It would be hard to beat anywhere."

The mayor reportedly showed up at the Greater Palmer Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday wielding renditions of a road leading to the face of the glacier, complete with tour-bus turnaround loop.

Right now, the road carves into the steep flanks of Pioneer Peak to one side and the silt-gray expanse of the Knik River with views to the high peaks of the Chugach Mountains to the other.

Residents of about 80 homes, plus more on side streets, savor the scenic but out-of-the-way neighborhood often in the shadow of Pioneer and other mountains. There are a few low-key tour businesses, too, including an airboat company.

Hunters, hikers, skiers and off-road enthusiasts flock to the gravel bars and rugged side creeks of the Knik for a quick trip into relative wilderness.

Locals say they've got no desire to beat out Portage quite yet.

"The community at large wants to keep it quiet and rural as possible," said South Knik River Community Council president Paul Houser. "Overall the community doesn't want this to turn into the second largest tourism spot in Alaska."

GAWK SPOT

The glacier itself is more than 28 miles long and five miles across, and located on the northern edge of the Chugach.

It's more than 13 miles from the end of the road.

But just short of Mile 7, the road swings out far enough that drivers get a fleeting glimpse of the ice, miles away.

Some tourist vans pull over to take a look but there's no wide spot and definitely not enough room for full-size tour buses.

The original bid for the road project included a $360,000 viewpoint at that spot, but borough officials say the viewpoint was not awarded in the road work contract and will cost more if the borough comes back to build it after this year's work is done.

Local tourism backers are urging the borough Assembly to help restore the funding.

Schadee contacted the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau about the project, said executive director Bonnie Quill. But, she added, the work has larger benefits than business for the lodge, given the possibility of making the Knik Glacier a destination up there with Hatcher Pass or Denali.

"We want to figure out a way the overlook won't be deleted from the project," Quill said last week. "The Knik Glacier has always been one of the Anchorage visitor opportunities for the borough and this additional access with paving the road and then also the overlook was going to help provide some of that infrastructure that has never been there."

NOT SAFER?

Several residents say the money flowing to the road, at least for the paving part, is bringing in tourists at the expense of safety. Most people who live at the end of the road don't want it paved.

Patty Rosnel, a borough government watchdog, lives on a side street off Knik River Road. She points out that there's only one way in or out.

"You tell me what's going to happen when this road is filled with tour buses and RVs going out to look at the glacier?" Rosnel said.

The gravel slows down what relatively little traffic there is now, several residents said. Paving will bring more cars, trucks and buses.

A 2010 survey circulated among families living on the unpaved part of the road east of Hunter Creek asked if they wanted it paved. Schadee was the only person out of 23 who checked the "Yes" box.

"From what I understand, the only real person that wants it paved is this guy Peter," said Marty Quaas, the former supervisor of the local road-service area. "Probably they're not going to widen it. I imagine if two tour buses had the pleasure of meeting there they'd get kind of squeaky."

If the borough really wants to make Knik River Road safer, Quaas said, it should reduce the steep grade on Bingham Hill and build a pullout at the viewpoint so people can "go gawk at the glacier."

Quaas said he suggested some kind of pullout in that spot 15 years ago back when he served as community council president and the whole road was gravel. People had a habit of pulling over to ogle the glacier at the top of a hill.

"All four doors are standing wide open and you come over the hill and ... surprise!" he said. "To me (the pullout) is something that should be done because it's a safety issue. Quite frankly, it's more important to me to do that than to pave the end of the road."

The South Knik River Community Council still backs a pullout, but not the one in the plans now, Houser said.

"They've got it set up on the north side of the road, 300-foot long for tour buses," he said. "The community council just wanted a place for four or five cars to pull off so people could get out of the road."

Two other pullouts the community wanted to allow firefighters to fill water tanks got cancelled "due to the enormity of money being spent to pave the end of the road," he said.

GLACIER GAWKING ON HOLD

Borough officials who are in charge of the road work said the viewpoint is not part of this summer's project plans.

They also say they're not even sure the paving will reach all the way to the lodge.

The glacier overlook was part of the original road project bid but ranked at a much lower priority than safety concerns like improving sight distance at Tempra Street and reconstructing the roadway at Bingham Hill where a steep grade combines with a curve, said Mike Brown, the borough's capital projects director.

Unless the road work comes in way under bid, which isn't likely, the viewpoint won't be built as part of this summer's construction, Brown said.

The $360,000 bid from last year only applies for if the work gets done within the scope of this project, he said. It will cost more to do it separately. A project description from engineering consultant Hattenburg Dilley & Linnell shows the pullout at Mile 6.8 but says it "needs additional funding" and estimates the cost at $550,000.

Paving should improve drainage and maintenance at the end of Knik River Road, Brown said, but it's possible the state grant could run out even before crews get to the lodge, leaving gravel for the last 500 or 1,000 feet.

"We'll see how things go this summer," he said. "We're optimistic but it's definitely not going to include the scenic overlook."

PORTAGE ... NOT DEAD YET

Explore Tours, an Anchorage-based operator, already sends small groups of travelers to the Knik River Lodge even though the road isn't paved.

Clients get off a plane at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, get on a van, and "get the true Alaska experience" at the lodge, general manager Theresa Bayer said. They can spend the night and then take a helicopter to the glacier for a dogsled ride with Iditarod musher Rick Casillo at 5,400 feet. Or they can take an airboat up the river, hike, or hop on a four-wheeler.

The appeal?

"How close it is to Anchorage," Bayer said. "We can get somebody flying all day off a plane and get them into the middle of nowhere in an hour and a half."

Portage Glacier, she said, has become unreliable. Her company takes clients there -- but only if they ask to go.

The glacier, retreating from the lake it formed, now extends deep into that water and has shrunk back around a bedrock corner from its position a century ago.

The glacier may be unreliable, but it's debatable whether there really is "nothing to see" at Portage as Schadee says.

Visitors can get glacier factoids or watch the film "Retreat and Renewal: Stories from Alaska's Chugach National Forest" at the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center, which opened in 1986. They can walk around Portage Lake in search of icebergs, use a series of trails, or drive down the road and buy a ticket for a cruise toward the glacier face. During colder months, local spring snow enthusiasts view the frozen lake as a crust-skiing mecca.

The National Forest operates the visitor center and surrounding facilities. The agency is still getting a handle on how visitor numbers have changed with the glacier's retreat, spokeswoman Sara Boario said. But there's no doubt plenty of people still come as visitors and through science and educational partnerships, Boario said.

"It's kind of this perfect place that's still wild but accessible," she said. "Any day in the summer out there, you'll see people paddle-boarding or biking on the Trail of Blue Ice. We have two campgrounds. It's still a really great recreational place and a great educational place."

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

 


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com