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Alaska Legislature

Gridlock in Juneau? Not if Alaska legislators and lobbyists can’t get their cars there

The road between the Yukon and the Southeast Alaska town of Haines is closed Monday, January 15, 2018 due to treacherous driving conditions. (Courtesy John Bitney.)

JUNEAU — The Alaska Legislature's annual session in Juneau usually brings plenty of brinksmanship and excitement. But participants have to get there first.

A handful of state legislators and lobbyists were reminded this week of just how treacherous it can be to get to Alaska's capital — surrounded by rainforest with boats and planes the only way in.

Icy roads on the final stretch of the 750 miles between Anchorage and Southeast Alaska prompted two legislators to drive in a bipartisan caravan over one mountain pass just before it closed.

And the subsequent closures of both highways into Southeast Alaska left a pair of lobbyists stranded in the Yukon.

One of them, John Bitney, said he spent Sunday night at a motel in Haines Junction, population 600 — the last stop in Canada before a final 150-mile stretch to Haines, Alaska, where he had been planning to catch his ferry to Juneau.

The road over the border to Alaska was closed because of what one U.S. Customs and Border Protection official described as "raining on ice" — which meant Bitney missed both Sunday's and Monday's ferries to Juneau.

The next one isn't until Friday, so he consoled himself in his motel room with television, which he doesn't have at home.

"I watched Hot Tub Time Machine, unedited," Bitney said. "It's my God-given Canadian vacation."

By Monday afternoon — the day before the Legislature gavels in — Bitney had been joined by John Harris, the former House speaker who's also a lobbyist now.

Harris spent six hours Sunday night marooned on the Glenn Highway outside of Glenallen, after his Kia Soul couldn't get him over one especially steep and slick hill. When a plow finally came by, he hustled to get to his ferry in Haines, only, like Bitney, to find the road closed in Haines Junction.

What did that feel like?

"You can't print what I thought," Harris quipped. "I'd made it here in time to make it all the way to Haines and catch the ferry. But now it doesn't make any difference."

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Geran Tarr poses for a photo Sunday with “Bob,” a Yukon highway worker she met while stranded at a maintenance station Sunday, January 14, 2018. Courtesy Geran Tarr.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Geran Tarr and North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill, meanwhile, were both settling into their Capitol offices Monday after a hair-raising drive.

Tarr left Anchorage on Friday. She was slowed by gusty winds Saturday and didn't leave Haines Junction until Sunday morning, when she tried to drive the 150 miles over the pass to Haines amid freezing rain.

She made it about halfway before her car started "hydroplaning," she said. A few minutes later, a Canadian sand truck came by going the other direction, which she followed for three miles — in reverse.

After four hours of tea and conversation at a maintenance station, Tarr drove back to Haines Junction, where she faced the unpalatable prospect of a 600-mile drive back to Anchorage and a flight to Juneau.

At the gas station, she found Coghill, the North Pole Republican senator, with a similar dilemma.

Instead of driving home, they decided to try to drive over a different pass that would take them to Skagway, another Southeast Alaska town with a ferry terminal.

Tarr, in her Ford Escape, led Coghill, his Chevrolet pickup, on the stressful drive. The Canadian government, Coghill said, shut down the highway right behind them.

"It was so warm the water was literally running across the ice on the road," Coghill said. "There were a few places where you could feel the car just slide, and so you just drove with enough momentum that you went over some of those patches. It was intense."

The two lawmakers spent Sunday night in Skagway before catching a flight to Juneau the next morning to make meetings. Their cars would arrive on the ferry early Tuesday morning.

Lobbyists Bitney and Harris, meanwhile, could be stranded for a full work week before catching Friday's ferry to Juneau.

Harris was philosophical, saying he'd get some quality time with Bitney, who worked for Harris when he was House speaker.

Over his career, Harris said, "I've had gorgeous trips and I've had trips from hell."

"We're just going to hang out, probably tell war stories, lie to each other a lot. What else can you do in Haines Junction?" he said. "I don't think it's a hotbed for entertainment."

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