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Know the West

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

Photos explore life on the Copper River Highway.

 

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.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.2/transportation-in-alaska-a-highway-of-ferries-is-under-threat]

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.