The waterfalls of Whittier, AK. Photo credit: By Renee Risk Strietelmeier.
The waterfalls of Whittier, AK. Photo credit: By Renee Risk Strietelmeier.

What to do when your friend divorces her husband of 50 years, marries her high school sweetheart, and moves to Whittier, Alaska? You go visit her, of course.

That is exactly what a mutual friend, Sherry, and I did on July 1st of this year. We departed Indianapolis International Airport via Alaskan Airlines. After the quick up and down to Chicago, we were on our way to Seattle. From Seattle we arrived at the Anchorage, Alaska Airport to find our host, Brian, and our hostess and friend, Barb, waiting for us at baggage claim. Hugs and smiles were exchanged. We loaded our stuff and proceeded on the 45-minute Southeast drive to Whittier, Alaska, a quaint gritty little town.

To get to Whittier by car, one must travel through the 2.5-mile-long tunnel.

We quickly learned the tunnel, the longest in North America, is the life-line into and out of Whittier. The one-way tunnel goes in on the half hour and out on the hour. After it closes at 11 p.m., its open only trains. The railroad is the economic life-line of Whittier.

Most people comment that after you get out of the tunnel, it’s worth it. My travel partner and I agreed with the worth it part; however, we had no issues with the closer phobia of the narrow tunnel nor the three-mile an hour speed limit. We thought it to be an amazing feat of human ingenuity.

As we waited for our turn into the tunnel, like everyone, we got out of our car and talked to other travelers. We took Jude, an Alaskan Huskie bought in Seymour, for a walk. When Barb sent us pictures of their Alaskan Huskie my comment to her was, “When in Alaska…”

The ‘worth it’ part as you exit the tunnel is an understatement. We found ourselves in another world. One which neither words nor pictures can do justice. You have to see it to believe it. Sherry declared, “This is God’s imagination at its best.” I thought it was like being on top of a fruit salad bowl with whipped cream around the rim of the bowl. Whittier is in fact a town protected on all sides by mountains. Perfectly and purposely situated as a U.S. military base during World War II.

Much has been written about Whittier because of its historical beginning and now it is home to 272 people who all live in one building. Our host, Brian has a photographic memory. He started telling us detailed everything while pointing out scenery. We tried to take notes. We gave up 15 minutes later. We had our heads pressed against our windows looking out astonished while casually listening and occasionally giving the “Oh!” head nod.

The landscape revealed what are called ‘Ghost Forests.’ The barren trees reminders of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, which caused a 104-foot tsunami and subsequent fire, which completely wiped out the area. Conjuring up thoughts of the forces of nature, the forests are mesmerizingly haunting.

Our road took us into Whittier, a quaint, gritty little town, which would be our home for the next eight days. On our first day, our hostess, Barb, took Sherry and I on a leisurely walk along a creek leading to a beach. We could clearly see where fresh water meets with salt water; the term brackish. Brackish creates a unique color where both fresh water and saltwater fish flourish. On our walk back, we stopped for lunch at the Swift Water Seafood Café. We ate halibut tacos while hanging out on the ocean front deck on a sunny day. Afterwards, we strolled home to take our mid-afternoon nap, stopping at the Whittier Harbor for a photo op.

We got ready for our $6.99 prime rib dinner at the Anchor Inn. Right before we left, I realized I had left my writing bag with all of my money, driver’s license, and bank card, somewhere in town.

I panicked to remember the last place I had it. Brian and Barb calmly reassured me. He drove me along the route taken until I remembered I had set it down when we stopped at Whittier Harbor. As we drove there, I was convinced someone picked it up and I would spend the rest of my vacation canceling my cards. When we pulled up in front of Whittier Harbor, I saw someone had indeed picked it up. The person had picked it up from the ground and placed it on the railing. I was happily dumbfounded. Brian simply said, “I told you. There is no real crime in Whittier because criminals have nowhere to go.”

A few days later, a woman came running towards our building saying she had left her purse and phone. I calmly said, “Don’t worry. They will still be there.” She came out with purse and phone in hand. I happened to look over at the bike rack. Not one bike was locked.

The next evening, we went to The Sportsman to talk to the locals and enjoy a refreshing adult beverage. The interesting tradition at The Sportsman is to write something on a dollar bill and put it on the bulkhead above the bar. The bulkhead all the way around the bar is filled with one-dollar bills with notes from both locals and travelers. Barb wrote, “Following in my dad’s footsteps” connecting the dots to why Barb ended up in Whittier.

We met Jamie and Kyle at the Sportsman. Jamie is the bartender and Kyle is her husband. They live in Whittier year-round with their dog, Jedi. Seemingly everyone in Whittier has at least one dog. We met dog breeds of which we had never heard, which amused us every day.

Kyle and Jedi were my guides on the one-mile hike straight up Portage Pass in the National Forrest. Clear to me from the start, Kyle and Jedi had taken this hike numerous times. Both Kyle and Jedi were patient with me, stopping when I needed a water break. Pure determination and adrenaline allowed me to make it to the top. Ever so proud of myself, I was rewarded with views overlooking Lake Portage and Whittier, as well as surrounded by sparkling snow-covered mountain peaks and spectacular glaciers.

We basted in the glory while watching hikers coming and going. I asked Kyle how far he and his wife had hiked. He humbly said, “We’ve taken a continuous seven-day hike.” Reminding me, once again, “energy is wasted on the youth.”

This was one of the photos I sent immediately to my Columbus North State Cross County Champion 17-year-old son. Proving Mama, who can no longer bike around Hope’s Shaffer Lake without a break, still has it in her.

After nap time, we took a gorgeous 30-minute drive along the Turnagain Arm to Hope, AK. If we think Hope, IN is small, Hope, Alaska boasts one café, Creek Bend Company’s Seaview Café & Bar, known for local flavor and live music. Groceries, lodging, liquor, and propane may all be purchased, and you order ice cream at the bar. Hope, AK does have a Post Office and the Hope Sunrise Mining Museum. The museum displays Hope’s history as one of the first gold rushes in Alaska, long before Anchorage was founded. With 70 residents, Hope, AK is an Alaskan’s Alaska. A mecca of trails for fat biking and back county skiers.

Our road home to Whittier took us through the Chugach National Forest, “known as the outdoor playground for half of Alaska’s residents” as well as attracting more than one million visitors a year. Not surprising given the Forest’s natural beauty shining and showcasing spectacularly varied geography filled with “jagged mountain, pristine lakes, fjords and coves, salmon-filled rivers, alpine tundra, glaciers, wetlands and temperate rainforests”. As we drove, we all imagined camping here together.

On the morning of July 4th, Whittier was a bustling town of people preparing for the Fourth of July Parade. The parade around the town reminded me of the parade in our surprising little town of Hope. Viewers watched the firetruck, ambulance, antique and not so antique cars and trucks and children on bikes pass through town throwing candies and Marti Graw type necklaces.

During the afternoon, we enjoyed a neighborhood block party pitch-in, complete with an intense game of volleyball between local Samoans. Samoans, not Simoleons from Africa, are from the Samoan Islands, one of the many Island nations in the Oceana Pacific.

While eating my reindeer hot dog, the competitive game abruptly ended. I thought it was finished. Later, I came to find out the volleyball had rolled out into the street and was runover and flattened. I guess Whittier only has one volleyball, which had become fodder for Jude puppy.

The Samoan people in Whittier are genuinely polite and welcoming. The children all go to one K-12 school. The Flying Eagle serves as the mascot. Absences are rare because of the tunnel connecting the building to the school. Upon observing the school, including the kayaks in the gym, as a teacher, I believe the children receive a lot of hands-on learning.

At 11 p.m., the fireworks began in the evening sunlight. We watched from our sixth-floor window. Although, not quite as bright, the fireworks over the water with the mountains as a backdrop, created a nostalgic atmosphere prompting us to sing the national anthem.

Every morning during our visit, when everyone was awake, we drank coffee and shared stories past and present with our friends. One morning we started talking about old songs, bands and singers we all knew. Among them: Cat Steven’s “Moon Shadow,” “One Toke Over the Line,” “The Night They Burned Old Dixie Down,” “Billy Jo McAlister,” “American Pie,” “Cats in the Cradle,” “Black Velvet,” The Traveling Wilbury’s “End of the Line,” “Islands in the Sea,” and “Under the Boardwalk.” At any point during the days ahead, one was free to break out in song no matter how off key.

Yes. We sang. We talked. We laughed. We indulged. We talked to complete strangers. We amused ourselves with no explanation. We poked fun of ourselves and each other. We were on ‘Alaskan time.’ Think of it as slow vacation time squared. We got to places whenever we arrived. We got home when we got home.

Our first morning, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. I took a little walk behind the building where I found a “Rock-o-Lounger” built by nature just for me. I comfortably situated myself horizontally on the bolder. Said my devotions while listening to the peaceful rush of the waterfalls. When I heard the beautiful sound of children’s laughter at the school playground, I knew it was the time of morning to go greet my friends.

Our last day, our road home from Whittier, started with a train ride to Anchorage including a planned day in Seattle. This journey is worthy of part two of our Alaskan Adventure: a compare and contrast of “The Big Blue Bouncy Bus” and “The Belly of the Beast.”

For now, I leave you with what we were told by a local, “Whittier is a quaint little drinking town with a fishing problem.”