Crashing through the snow

Posted: Friday, January 25, 2002

The Sunday driver may not always be looked upon as an outdoor enthusiast, but when you live in Alaska, even a leisurely roadway romp through the woods in your vehicle can offer adventure.

In particular, traveling through Turnagain Pass en route to, or returning from, an outdoors adventure can offer challenge enough for even the most experienced driver. If you're not careful, good times and beautiful scenery can give way to pain, frustration and a hefty gouge in one's pocket.

I was reminded of this several Sundays ago as I returned from Anchorage. I had enjoyed sunny weather for most of the weekend and was set to marvel at the pass's crisp views of pristine, powder-packed peaks peering back down upon passers-by like myself.

But, like much of this winter since Christmas, the weather there was able to make up its mind about as well as a 4-year-old can make up his own bed. And the resulting roadway was about the same as that little child's sheets after trying anyway, or his eyes after becoming frustrated with his lack of success: sloppy and wet.

Suffice it to say that my early morning commute southward down the Seward Highway was no stroll in the park. Shortly after passing the Summit Lake Lodge, however, I witnessed evidence of someone's apparent walk on the wild side.

To the right of the road, just beyond the shoulder and the accompanying 6-foot drop-off, I saw a car. But more than just any car. It was some sort of General Motors-made sedan, stuck standing rear-end-up in the snow like a DeVille displaced from the Cadillac Ranch on historic Route 66 near Amarillo, Texas. Evidently, some poor soul had made at least a healthy down payment on a farm they were attempting to buy.

The upturned auto has since been moved.

I later discovered an Alaska State Troopers report from Dec. 12, offering a description that could have matched the vehicular carcass I passed on the highway. Is it possible that they were one and the same? Who can say?

In that report, troopers responded to a rollover at Mile 64, in which a 1991 Pontiac lost control while passing other vehicles on the icy road surface. The car hit a snow berm and flipped twice, landing on the side of the highway. Neither driver nor passenger were seriously injured, but the car sustained an estimated $5,000 worth of damage.

Although the aforementioned police prose may not apply to the sidelined sedan I found face-down in the frost, it tells the tale too often told of travelers passing though the pass. From October to present troopers reported 20 such auto accidents along the stretch of the Seward Highway between Girdwood and the 'Y' at the Sterling Highway. In almost all cases, the phrase, "lost control on icy roads," or some semblance thereof was used to describe the cause of the accident. And trooper reports recorded 22 more motor vehicle mishaps twisting along the Sterling Highway's curves through Cooper Landing.

So, maybe 40 or so wrecks isn't a lot for a three-and-a-half month period, right? Maybe not. And, there were no fatalities. So does that make this an issue of high priority?

If you think not, that's fine. But a handful of serious injuries, three totaled vehicles, $317,500 in estimated damages to vehicles and more than 4,000 gallons of spilled fuel near fishing waters is still enough to sober up W.C. Fields and Jenna Bush combined.

When traveling through Turnagain Pass, I only suggest stopping by woods on a snowy evening if you're following Robert Frost's lead and have chosen to do so. Just remember that slippery, slushy and tricky roads await. The same weather that made you visit there happy could make your return home miserable.

So travel with care, or you could end up stopped by the woods unintentionally -- with miles to walk before you sleep.

Marcus K. Garner is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. Send comments to clarion@alaska.net.



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