Mount Sutro: An Electronic Periodical

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Moose Alaska 2017

The Passageway Underneath The Railroad

Facing south in the pedestrian tunnel (2000) built under Whittier Yard by the Alaska Railroad Corporation.

Near 1/4 West Camp Road, Whittier, Alaska: 21 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Whittier album


A small community of about 250 residents, the City of Whittier (incorporated 1969) was originally built by the United States Army as Camp Sullivan, an important deepwater port supporting operations during World War II. The railroad was extended to Whittier on Friday, 23 April 1943 upon completion of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel — 2.52 miles through Maynard Mountain and a journey I will later document — allowing Camp Sullivan to become "primary debarkation point for cargo, troops and dependents of the Alaska Command."

During the Whittier Access Project (1998–2000), the tunnel was upgraded to "transform the existing railroad tunnel into a one-lane, combination highway and railway tunnel that allows cars and trains to take turns traveling through." The Anton Anderson is likely what comes to mind when thinking about Whittier tunnels, but there is another, smaller-scale tunnel there that I also checked out during my visit.

Providing safe passage underneath the large Whittier Yard rail facility since June 2000, the Alaska Railroad Corporation pedestrian tunnel connects the northern waterfront area to the southern downtown area. Approximately 512 feet long, the pedestrian tunnel provides an alternative to walking to the Whittier Street grade crossing, which is blocked at times by trains, or dangerously crossing the expansive rail yard itself. As nearly all of Whittier's residents live in the Hodge Building (1957), now Begich Towers, the tunnel provides a safer and more direct route to the marina for those on foot.

Having learned about the pedestrian tunnel in our copy of The Milepost, I was eager to take a closer look as we explored the marina area. Each side of the tunnel is marked by a nice sign featuring a cool logo reminiscent of the tunnel's illuminated and ribbed interior. We approached from the northern side, passing the sign on a sidewalk that leads to an area covered by a metal roof. Once inside, the tunnel takes two sharp turns and then opens into a straight passageway underneath the railroad.

The Containers Down In Cargo Bay Three

Plastic industrial containers called overpack drums and metal barrels behind a chain link fence at North Slope Borough's Sanitation Services Shop III and thermal oxidation plant.

3490 Stevenson Street, Utqiaġvik, Alaska: 27 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Utqiaġvik album


"Wait, can we turn around for a second?"

Mom and I were exploring Utqiaġvik, stopping and checking things out along the way, so my request to double back was not unusual. I thought we had just past something that, while not unusual at industrial sites, was an object that I had only ever seen in the twenty-fourth century. Naturally, she asked why we were turning around. Not sure in the moment how to reply succinctly, I stalled on this question until I could confirm my suspicions.

As we pulled up and they came into view outside my open window, I chuckled to myself that it was in Utqiaġvik, at the top of the world of all places, where I would first run across industrial containers called overpack drums of the same type as those frequently seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994).

I took two photographs and then we continued exploring, while I explained why these containers — stacked in the yard of North Slope Borough's Sanitation Services Shop — were noteworthy. The yellow overpack drums, made of polyethylene and featuring a threaded lid, made their Starfleet debut in "Disaster", the fifth episode of The Next Generation's fifth season.

I am unable to establish what specific manufacturer's overpack drums appeared aboard the starship Enterprise, but several companies offer very similar products today. Of those present in Utqiaġvik, three appear to be of the same make, model and vintage as the props. Looking at the photograph atop this article and thinking of a spreadsheet, yellow drums A1, B2 and D2 match the subtle design features of those sourced for the show in 1991.

"Disaster" does a good job of showing off the then new props. In a cargo bay where Chief Engineer Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) and Chief Medical Officer Doctor Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) are trapped, the containers and their volatile contents are a plot point. Not just set dressing for the cargo bay, the two actors also get physical with the overpack drums.

La Forge and Crusher push an overpack drum across the cargo bay floor
Paramount Pictures

There are several shots of overpack drums clustered and stacked, one contemporary selling point of these containers.

La Forge watches as the cargo bay door opens with stacks of overpack drums behind
Paramount Pictures

As a bonus, the episode also shows versions of the overpack drums (plus other blue cargo drums) in miniature as they are jettisoned into space. Two of those miniatures went home with writer Ronald D. Moore; they were later auctioned.

Miniature overpack drums and other barrels are jettisonned from the cargo bay into space
Paramount Pictures

Yellow overpack drums with their red and white graphics continued to be used throughout the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, often appearing in the background but sometimes featured more prominently. One good example of the latter is the sixth episode of the sixth season — "True Q" — when the containers are given blue and white graphics to depict their use as medical cargo.

Medical-use overpack drums on the shuttlebay floor in front of shuttlecraft Fermi
Paramount Pictures

Following the end of the television show, the containers went on to reprise their roles, as it were, in the first motion picture featuring Picard and crew, Star Trek Generations (1994) seen at villain Tolian Soran's launcher on Veridian III and of course aboard Enterprise. The overpack drums were later repainted mostly black for use in Star Trek: Voyager (1995–2001).

Counselor Deanna Troi next to an overpack drum aboard USS Enterprise
Paramount Pictures

Okay, so maybe it is a little silly, but I find great enjoyment in appreciating the little things in life. Considering the dramatic flair of randomly encountering these overpack drums after twenty-five years, eight months and seven days in a place few people ever visit, it was obviously meant to be.

The Gateway To The Arctic

The Utqiaġvik bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) jaw bone arch along with other whale bones and the wooden frame of an umiak, an Iñupiat seal skin whaling boat, along the shore of the icy Chukchi Sea, Arctic Ocean.

3220 Brower Street, Utqiaġvik, Alaska: 28 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Utqiaġvik album


"Why are you going to Barrow," asked the oil field worker seated next to me.

We were on a flight from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay (Deadhorse), the second segment of my journey from Fairbanks to Utqiaġvik, the northernmost United States city and eleventh northernmost public community in the world. Previously called Barrow, a narrow election (381 yea to 375 nay) on Tuesday, 04 October 2016 resulted in the name change to Utqiaġvik, taking effect on Thursday, 01 December 2016.

"Because I have never been there," I replied. "I came all the way to Alaska, why not go to the top of the world?"

My visit to Utqiaġvik (pronounced oot–kay-ahg–vik) would be a brief one, clocking in at about twenty-four hours. During that time, I wanted to see and learn as much as possible about this remote community of 4,212 (2010). The Iñupiat, an indigenous Inuit people, have lived in this area since around 500 AD and Alaska Natives account for 61.2 percent of Utqiaġvik's population. While some modern advances have changed the society, the native traditions continue to be observed in many ways.

One of those traditions is the whale hunt. Part of the subsistence way of living that is common in the region, the Iñupiat have hunted whales in the waters just offshore for centuries, considering it necessary for survival and a significant spiritual experience. Beyond it being a source of food, the Iñupiat believe in using every part of the whale, the bones often fashioned into tools, personal items, art and jewelry. The whale, like all animals hunted by the Iñupiat, are respected and considered a gift to the village benefiting from their sacrifice. Today, a handful of native villages are still legally permitted a limited number of strikes each season.

Bowhead whale artifacts can be found throughout town, but the most well-known is probably the whale bone arch. Located on the shore of the icy Chukchi Sea, the whale bone arch consists of two jaw bones planted vertically in the ground, forming a wishbone-style monument and gateway to the Arctic Ocean. Sitting nearby are a number of other whale bones, a bowhead skull and the wooden frame of an umiak, an Iñupiat seal skin whaling boat.

Although I could not find any historical details about the arch, an adjacent building has a documented past. The "oldest wood-framed building standing along Alaska's Arctic coast," the Point Barrow Refuge Station (1889) was built to serve as a manned sanctuary for shipwrecked whalers. Following the frequent loss of life and vessels in the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea, whalers from Massachusetts and California petitioned Congress in 1888 for a series of refuge stations. This was the only one built.

A thirty-foot by forty-eight-foot structure constructed to bunk fifty men, the Point Barrow Refuge Station was underutilized for the next seven years due to the lack of shipwrecks. It closed in 1896, due in part to the low demand as well as the station's corrupt superintendent engaging in "shady business dealings." The station was subsequently purchased by the Pacific Steam Whaling Company, which in turn rented it to naturalist Edward Avery McIlhenny. While he was in residence for the winter of 1897, McIlhenny found himself helping one-hundred men, victims of an incident involving eight ships, shelter there for eleven months.

The building was next sold in 1898 to the Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading Company. Its manager, Charles Brower, performed a number of modifications to the building including raising the roof and adding a cross gable at the front. Brower was also responsible for enlarging three windows on the northwest side and building additions to the rear and southwest front of the structure. More recently, the space was home to Brower's Cafe, operated by relatives of Charles, but that restaurant has since gone out of business. The building seemed vacant during my visit to the whale bone arch.

Even though I had already waded into the Arctic Ocean in Prudhoe Bay — an occasion that will no doubt be memorialized here at some point — the temptation to again feel those icy waters was too great. I just touched it with my hands this time, having previously had the experience of stepping barefoot into the frigid shallows, and again concluded that the water was indeed cold.

Standing on the dark, gravelly shoreline, there was a crisp breeze coming off the Chukchi Sea. It was fresh and invigorating but damn cold. Still, I took a few minutes to stand there and enjoy this unique beach before returning to the car to continue our exploration of Utqiaġvik.

The State Mammal Of Alaska

A moose (Alces alces) cow and calf stop to look across the road while foraging on the shoulder of Denali Park Road near C-Camp in Denali National Park and Preserve.

MP 3 Denali Park Road, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska: 16 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Denali National Park and Preserve album


In the second floor area of Fairbanks International Airport where you queue for security screening, Alaska Airlines has a large display inviting travelers to take a selfie with its poster, a closeup of two moose standing and looking toward the camera with curiosity. I wish that I would have taken a picture of that display, because looking back it was an excellent symbol for the incredible journey that was then coming to a close.

My Alaska voyage was filled with amazing wildlife, some of it rather close, but it was the moose that kept making appearances throughout the state. I will even admit to regularly saying "moose moose moose" in a quiet, monotone chant as a way of calling forth those and other wild and native creatures. My first moose encounter in Alaska was a cow and her calf grazing along the road in Denali National Park and Preserve, spotted just after entering the park. I was very excited for this opportunity, little did I know that I would see moose much closer the following day.

Thirty-one-and-a-half hours later, driving back to the Savage River Campground after having enjoyed dinner in the small commercial area on George Parks Highway just outside the park, we were on the lookout for animals as always. Approaching C-Camp, the National Park Service seasonal housing compound and maintenance yard, we pulled off to the side of Denali Park Road and came to a stop on the shoulder. There was not much room here, so the trees and plants of the forest were just outside my open window.

Looking into the thicket, we could tell that some animal was lurking nearby. It was likely to be a moose but I was not sure until the moose cow decided to approach, emerging from the dense woods into a small clear patch to munch on the leaves growing on plants alongside the road. She softly foraged, seemingly oblivious to the four-door pickup truck sitting a few feet away, its passengers rapidly snapping photographs at a clip modern technology makes all too easy. As she ate, you could see that she was not alone; her calf, lurking behind in the brush, came to stand next to its mother.

I assumed that after a short time, the moose would decide to withdraw into the forest with her calf, away from our truck and the humans inside. Instead, she approached onto the shoulder and walked forward away from us slowly, inspecting the brush for edibles along the way. The calf followed soon after and walked along closely with the cow, stopping as her mother did to look across the road, possibly at a passing vehicle. With multiple directions available, the moose's next move was a surprising one.

Instead of continuing forward, retreating into the woods or crossing the road to the wilderness beyond, the moose turned around and walked back toward us. As they passed by the truck, the calf first in front and then with its mother, I nearly could have touched them had I reached out the window. Clearly unafraid and not concerned about our presence, the cow even stopped to feed while still right next to us. The calf wandered back into the woods while the cow ate, but soon after reemerged and looked around.

After about three minutes, the two moose resumed their previous course forward and away from us, occasionally stopping as before to enjoy the local herbivorous delicacies. The young calf, seemingly more interested in exploring its environment than feeding, approached the surface of Denali Park Road a few times and finally did eventually run across. The cow signaled for the calf to return and it trotted back across the road. Fortunately, there were few vehicles driving past at this hour.

Our moose encounter of about thirteen minutes looked to end once the moose did return into the dense forest. Based on where they entered the woods however, it appeared as if we might get another chance to see them on the road to C-Camp itself. We moved the truck to that road and pulled over to wait. Within five minutes, the moose reappeared and walked down C-Camp Road toward us and Denali Park Road. With a pace quicker than we had seen thus far, the cow walked along and then past us. The calf was not far behind, taking a more leisurely pace and stopping for a moment on the Roadside Trail to inspect something.

Now behind us and only visible at certain angles through the truck's side mirrors, we turned around and pulled forward to the intersection to watch the moose meandering down Denali Park Road. As we sat there watching the two moose walk away, the cow stopped in the road with the calf at her side. She turned her head left and looked back at us, which her calf cutely mimicked. The cow finally crossed the road and wandered back into the woods, leaving the calf alone on the pavement for a moment before it tagged along and disappeared into the woodland.