Cordova’s longest road, just 36 miles, provides a lifeline for rural Alaskans

Photos explore life on the Copper River Highway.

  • The longest road in Cordova, Alaska, is seen from Ski Hill.

  • Near Mile Marker 34, Tia Wade searches for moose as her mom drives slowly down the highway.

  • Quintin Muma practices shooting at Mile Marker 36.

  • Moss covers the floor of Chugach National Forest outside Cordova near the site of the old Eyak village of Alaganik.

  • James Reilly uses bullets as hearing protection while target shooting with friends at Mile Marker 36.

  • J.J. Stevenson holds the heart of a cow moose that he and his father harvested near Mile Marker 9.

  • Muddy water splashed up from a pothole drips down a windshield just after Mile Marker 27.

  • Jocelyn Layte waves to a passing car on the Copper River Highway.

  • Tony, Kara and Jase Rodrigues fly a kite near Mile Marker 7 of the Copper River Highway.

  • Leo Vargas and Jim Holley with their powered paragliders at the sand dunes at Mile Marker 27.

  • Josh and Skyla Hallquist on four-wheelers at Mile Marker 27 of the highway.

  • Minerals add color to the sandy banks of the Copper River north of the Mile Marker 27 bridge.

  • The intersection of the Copper River Highway and Chase Avenue in downtown Cordova, Alaska.

  • A sign at Mile Marker 36 marks the end of the highway.

  • Teal Barmore’s car on Main Street in Cordova, Alaska.

  • Wendy Ranney stands on the Copper River Highway, around Mile Marker 17.

  • Mile Marker 29 on the Copper River Highway.

  • The rays of the sun filter through branches as dust from the road settles near Mile Marker 18.


 

Cordova, a rural Alaska fishing community on the eastern edge of Prince William Sound, isn’t connected to any of the state’s main road systems. Leaving town requires a 40-minute flight northwest to Anchorage or a seven-hour ferry ride to neighboring communities along the sound. (That’s when the boats are operating: Recent state budget cuts have halted service for more than half the year.)

So Cordova’s residents — some 2,200 people live there year-round — make full use of the Copper River Highway, the town’s longest road. Just 36 miles of the route are accessible, and 24 of those are unpaved and unmaintained. Still, they provide an easy conduit to the outdoors for hiking, picking berries, racing around on four-wheelers, fishing and grilling on campfire grates. In summer, the strong smoky scent of salmon hovers over nearly every activity.

The highway was once part of a line on the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, used to transport copper ore from Kennecott, Alaska, to Cordova’s deep-water port in the early 1900s. After the railroad closed in 1938, the corridor was converted to a road. Though erosion and earthquakes have damaged or destroyed parts of it since then — it ends abruptly at a weatherworn sign marking a washed-out bridge — the three-dozen miles that remain are key to life in Cordova.

Every Cordovan has their own “out the road” story, their own definition of what the Copper River Highway means to them. Twenty-eight years ago, when Wendy Ranney was new in town, a stranger invited her on a drive. This stranger-turned-friend drove as far down the Copper River Highway as the weather allowed, coming to rest at a snow bank near Alaganik, an old Eyak village site. They stretched out on the warm hood of the car and listened to the desolate air, broken by the calls of a wolf.

“There was never any other place for me to live,” she says.

Emily Mesner is an Alaska-based photojournalist who specializes in environmental portraiture and wildlife photography. Follow her on InstagramEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.