On the road again -- and again and again and again

Kenai Peninsula commuters go to great lengths in daily routines

Posted: Sunday, April 30, 2000

There's no free lunch. Remember someone saying that?

And when it comes to living on the Kenai, no one knows that better than the people who live here. Peninsula residents cover miles and invest hours just to get to work, church and school. And then they do it all over again just to get back to the warmth of hearth and family.

Joe Gallagher is a good example.

Gallagher and his wife and three kids -- ages 4, 8 and 11 -- live in Homer.

When he became the public outreach coordinator for Cook Inlet Region Citizens Advisory Council in Kenai a year ago, the plan was for the Gallaghers to move to the Kenai and Soldotna area.

They took a three-month lease on an apartment for Gallagher to stay at, as they made the transition. He left Homer Monday morning, worked all week, stayed at the apartment and drove home Friday night.

But plans changed.

"It just didn't work out for me personally," Gallagher said. "I wanted to be home."

And home in Homer is where you can find him every night.

Every morning and evening you'll find him making the 85-mile route each way from his doorstep to his office.

"One thing I did when I got the job was to purchase the most economical car as far as gas mileage goes," said Gallagher, who drives a Suzuki Swift. He says it gets 45 miles to the gallon.

"I never bought a brand new car in my life, and I bought this one over the phone."


Business people, students and government officials are opting more and more for the 25 minute flight to Anchorage rather than face another three-hour drive.

Photo by Jay Barrett

Within the first five minutes of proud ownership, Gallagher learned one of the reasons it was so economical. It had no radio. The prospect of driving 170 miles a day without anything but the sound of the engine was more than Gallagher could contemplate.

A small cassette player rides along with him. When he tired of the four tapes of music he had, he discovered another way to fill the time.

"I opted for literature," he said, referring to books on tape. "Right now I'm enjoying 'How the Irish Saved Civilization.'

"I also find there's a whole lot of time just to think," he said. "Probably too much time. No one needs to be in a car three hours a day."

He may not be paying an astronomical fuel bill for his vehicle, but Gallagher found his coffee consumption has increased.

"It's funny because I really am not a coffee drinker," he said, laughing.

But at 6 a.m., he's the first customer on the steps of his friendly neighborhood espresso distributor in Homer.

"They know exactly how I like my Americano," he said.

And if he's late, they worry about him. For the drive home, he grabs another 16-ouncer in Kenai.

Does being so far away from work cause problems?

"I don't want the fact that I live in Homer and work in Kenai to be an issue," Gallagher said. "Other than the unavoidable monster winter storms that slow everybody down, I don't think my boss would know if I lived two blocks or 85 miles away."

As well as looking down a long road, Gallagher also keeps his eye on the future.


Joe Gallagher drives to his job as public outreach coordinator at the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council office in Kenai every morning from his home in Homer. In the year he's had the job, he's put over 40,000 miles on his Suzuki Swift, which gets 45 miles to the gallon.

Photo by Jay Barrett

"Hopefully we'll be able to work something out where we would move up here," he said. "But right now we're still down in Homer. The kids are in school. Our home is there. I'll probably be a commuter for a little while longer."

Coming from the other end of the Kenai Peninsula is Father Richard Strass and Deacon Walter Corrigan of Seward's Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

Every Sunday, once services are completed in Seward, they drive 55 miles to Cooper Landing, where 25 parishioners await their arrival.

"The church has had this mission for 20 years," said Corrigan. "(The drive) isn't too bad. We only do it on Sunday unless something really unusual is going on."

And how do they fill the miles?

"It's a beautiful drive," Corrigan said. "And we have conversation. Or we listen to tapes if we're all talked out."

Getting them back and forth is a faithful GMC pickup.

"We've had no accidents, no close calls, no flat tires and no car trouble," Corrigan said. "Occasionally we're airborne on the frost heaves, but that's about it."

Extreme winter conditions are about all that slow them down.

"Two or three times a winter, conditions keep us from making it," he said. "But if the roads aren't clear, we shouldn't be going anyhow."

Keeping their drive in perspective, Corrigan compared it with Father Strass' previous assignment.

"It isn't as bad as what he used to do," Corrigan said. "He had Homer, Ninilchik and Seldovia -- the whole route on the southwest side of the peninsula."

Judy Erikson, station manager for Era's operations at Kenai Municipal Airport, said land travel isn't the only route of choice for peninsula residents.

"People working on the North Slope used to be the bulk of our travelers," Erikson said of Era's Kenai-Anchorage route. "Now a good share of our business comes from people traveling back and forth on business every day to Anchorage."

Era also serves as a school bus to and from Anchorage for those who need classes not offered at Kenai Peninsula College.

To help shave travel costs, Era offers coupon booklets good for four round trips or eight one-ways.

Air travel, in the form of a Kenai Air helicopter is what Phillips Petroleum crews rely on between Kenai and Phillips' Tyonek platform at the north end of Cook Inlet.

Steve Arbelovsky, plant superintendent, said the chopper can handle four people and their luggage. It also hauls groceries, parts and anything else it can carry to keep the platform operational. With crews ranging from six to 66, the helicopter keeps busy.

Landlubbers worry about plowed snow and icy roads, but Arbelovsky said Phillips has minimum flight standards.

"We need two miles visibility, a 500-foot ceiling and less than 35 knot winds," he said. "The pilot has to be able to see where they're going and not rely on instruments."

Safety is stressed and anyone traveling on the chopper goes through a safety briefing, which includes watching a video.

To dress for the occasion calls for full coveralls designed for cold water survival.

It isn't enough that you know how to put the coveralls on. Phillips also wants employees to know what to do if they ever find themselves in the water. Cold water survival training is conducted in the Nikiski pool by the neighboring fire department.

"I've never done anything like that before," said Steve Townsend, the offshore supervisor on Tyonek.

"They gave us a little class on hypothermia. And then they had us jump off the high board and put the suit on in the water," he said. "I learned that you want to have it on before you go in the water, that's for sure."

But the training doesn't stop there. Students are buckled into a mock-up of the chopper and flipped upside down in the pool. Their assignment: Get unbuckled and get out.

Townsend said the 30-minute flight to and from work is relatively smooth.

"Actually helicopters aren't affected by the wind like a fixed-wing aircraft," he said.

The flight takes a half-hour. With the noise from the engine, conversation is a challenge. Passengers can put in earplugs to cut the sound. Headsets also are available and permit passengers and the pilot to communicate with each other.

And then there's the country they fly over.

"It's nice to see the colors change," said Arbelovsky. "We go kind of northeast, over the Swanson River area and get to see the part of the peninsula not accessible from our roads."

Townsend said safety isn't only a concern on the helicopter.

"I stress (to the crew) that they're out here 30 minutes away from any help," he said. "So they need to think of their own protection and safety. I want them to be extremely safe."

When needed, a call to 911 connects the platform with the Nikiski Fire Department.

Being remote doesn't keep visitors away from the platform. In fact, it's just the opposite.

"This whole area is Phillips' showcase," said Townsend. "We've had dignitaries from all over the world."

Do Townsend's friends and family think it strange he commutes by helicopter?

"It usually doesn't even come up in conversations," he said. "And when it does people just say, 'Oh, that's interesting.' It's not a real exciting topic."

Townsend has been working on Tyonek since 1993. His schedule takes him to work on Monday mornings and back to his Soldotna home on Thursdays.

Back on the road, Snoshoe Shuttle in Soldotna runs a daily shuttle service between the central peninsula and Anchorage. It caters to a younger set of travelers.

"We have a lot of kids going back and forth between their parents' homes," said owner Jim Miller, referring to children who have one parent living on the peninsula and another living in Anchorage. "We also carry a lot of foster kids back and forth and elderly people who don't want to drive or fly.

"Then, of course, there are hunters, fishers, people that just want to get from Point A to Point B."

Morris has owned Snoshoe Shuttle for almost a year and has a fleet of several vans.

"It's been quite a learning experience," he said.

That experience has come from picking up stranded motorists, reporting reckless drivers, avoiding avalanches and meeting lots of people. Then there was the collision with a raven.

"About the third week we were in business, I had a van load of people and we were coming around Turnagain Arm," Morris said. "(The passengers) were sleeping. And a raven flew into the windshield. It was a real eye-opener. Kind of a memorable moment."

Morris covers 176 miles each way, and in the summertime his business occasionally operates two round trips a day. In 11 months, he put 60,000 miles on one of the vans.

Road construction in the summer slows him down. And in the winter he shuts the business down for a couple of weeks to avoid avalanches.

"We don't push our luck with our passengers," Morris said.

Other people's safety also is his concern.

"I just hauled a whole family off the pass a couple of days ago," Morris said. "They were broken down in a snowstorm and needed a lift into Anchorage.

"We do that free of charge. I tell the people that one's on them, but after that they have to pay."

With more than 300 miles a day, it's easy to see what Morris means about it being a learning experience.

"When you're going over the pass every day, there isn't much you miss," he said.

Running competition with him for miles covered is Cynthia Romig, her husband, Karl, and her 17-year-old daughter, Meghan Casqueira, of Cooper Landing.

"My kids were struggling in school," said Cynthia, a former Anchorage resident and mother of three -- ages 11, 13 and 17.

"I had this house in Cooper Landing, so we moved here. I figured I could find a job in Kenai, Soldotna or Seward."

Romig was right about her kids doing better in peninsula schools. However, she discovered her drafting experience with an environmental engineering firm in Anchorage didn't help her find employment.

"I applied for jobs I qualified for and for some I overqualified for," she said. "And I didn't even get an interview."

Then in January, Romig started work as the deputy city clerk in Whittier.

On Sunday nights, her husband drives her 50 miles to Portage, where she catches the train through the mountains to begin her workweek. He picks her up again Friday night.

After saying goodbye to his wife, Karl hurries home to get ready for his week. He travels 290 miles round trip every day to a construction site on Homer's East End Road.

Daughter Meghan is a junior at Soldotna's Skyview High School. She boards a bus at 6:15 a.m. with about eight other Cooper Landing teen-agers and returns home around 4 p.m.

Romig said she used to drive an Audi. It had 164,000 miles on it when it was totaled recently. She and her husband depend on his 1994 Chevrolet Caprice Classic, which gets 25 miles to the gallon.

And, like Gallagher, they put away a lot of coffee.

Thanks to friends in the Soldotna area, Meghan sometimes stays over so she can participate in school activities.

"My friends and my neighbors have helped me out a lot," Romig said. "And I've learned about time management. Living in Cooper Landing, it's 50 miles to the grocery store."

She hopes for a better economy and dreams about the time when she'll be able to spend more time with her family.

"My kids are doing really well in school," Romig said. "So for me it's worth it."

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