To some they are trash, rusting in yards and crumbling in fields. To others they are heirlooms, treasures of a time past, reminders of what was.
Trash or treasures, though, removal of the thousands of junked vehicles scattered about Nikiski is a top priority for the area’s community council, according to its action plan. The ongoing endeavour is also part of the council’s effort to improve the community’s image.
“There’s people living in absolute filth with their yards cluttered the way they are,” Council President Fred Miller said. “Hopefully we can offer an opportunity for people to say, ‘Hey, can you help me? We don’t have the money to get rid of all this stuff.’”
The vehicles are also a potential threat to the environment, said Steve Russell, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation environmental program manager for prevention and emergency response. Russell said while the vehicles do not pose an immediate threat to Nikiski’s groundwater reserves, due to their broad distribution, they could damage plant and animal life with long-term leaking fluids.
On the state level, there is nothing profound about Nikiski’s junked car collections, said Lori Aldrich, DEC solid waste program regional coordinator. But, for areas with council ordinances addressing the matter, Nikiski ranks high.
In December the council ratified the community’s action plan, which sent $100,000 in a state grant and $27,756 in a community revenue sharing grant to its Junk Car Removal Project. Already the council has spent four years and $53,000 in state grants hauling roughly 300 abandoned vehicles from woods, fields and yards.
But there are still more, said Charlie Rediske, owner of Reddi Towing and Junk Car, the towing company that removes the cars.
“You get up in a small plane and fly over the area, and you’d be surprised, especially in the summer time. It’s like glitter,” he said. “There’s cars everywhere. It doesn’t seem like you’ve done much.”
From the Sleepers Trailer Court — once a retrofitted junk yard — Rediske said he has likely hauled about 2,000 cars. And that location, he said, probably held about 4,000.
But clearing the cars from Nikiski needs to be done delicately, Miller said.
“I just can’t walk onto someone’s property and say, ‘Hey, you got potential ground water contamination here for your neighbor.’ I mean, he’s going to shoot me off with a shotgun,” he said.
The owners of the cars, or those that inherited the vehicles with their property, do have to nominate them for removal, Miller said.
Often property owners are thrilled to see the junked cars go, Rediske said.
“In fact, I get wives who are waiting for their husbands to leave so they can call me,” he said. “You got to be pretty careful; you can get some pissed-off people.”
But there are also those who do not see the rusting wreckage as front-yard flotsam.
“You read about these guys,” Miller said. “I got to laugh, but they said they remember Gramp going over to Grandfather’s house and, anytime something of Grandfather’s broke down, he’d just go rummage around the yard until he found the part that he needed.
“So there’s this mindset that these things are these little treasure piles, and of course as people get older or they pass away or move on, you get all these legacy deposits.”
Those “legacy deposits,” he said, for many are vestiges of the homesteading era, when families in the 1950s and ‘60s would collect the family, pack the truck and drive north into a land unknown.
The McGahans are one of those families. Dale McGahan and his two parents and eight siblings left from Michigan when the government closed their farm. They drove to the end of the road.
When McGahan was 17, after his family had settled on their claim, he bought what was at the time the fastest car on the Peninsula, he said — a 1957 Chevy with a 283 V8 engine.
He drove it at high speeds down the Peninsula’s graveled and potholed roads for three years, he said, until the transmission blew out and he had to lay it to rest in the field behind the house.
In those days in Alaska, he said, automobiles were so cheap and money was so plentiful that replacing a car was a causal investment. And, a new car meant old parts from the leftovers.
With “the type of roads out here, the gravel roads, I was buying a new car every year,” he said. “A new car or a new pickup. It was rough on the equipment. I drove them like a madman because I was young.”
So his ’57 Chevy sat there, for 40 years, and he moved on. He bought other automobiles — a 1960 Plymouth Fury, Ford pickups, more cars — and the Chevy slowly crumbled into the ground and the grass grew tall.
In that same field four other vehicles still collect rust. And on his brother’s property are probably nearly 200 various vehicles, some with trees jutting through them.
Some of the vehicles collected by the McGahans — including that '57 Chevy — have been restored. Others have been sold for their parts.
“My five brothers, well, they had to park a rig or two up there, too,” Dale McGahan said.
When McGahan looks at the trucks, cars, graters, busses and tractors he recalls his homesteading days.
“It’s really sentimental value just where they are,” he said, “because they were there when we were young and kids. You go down there and look back. It brings back memories.”
Like the time he bought three cars off of Skip White's father for $25. Or how he and his brothers and sisters used to use the hoods from old cars to sled down hills. How he used to run into snow banks to get his brother’s nose out of books when they were driving together.
Or of the time he met his wife outside the movie theater in his ’57 Chevy. He said he rolled down his window to say hello, but she kept walking, he said. Then she turned around.
“Nice car,” she told him. He said that’s when he knew he had a chance.
“Those were good memories,” he said.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org