go to content go to search box go to global site navigation

Introducing Whittier

You can see glaciers and brown bears, even mountains taller than Denali, without once visiting Alaska. But you will never, in a lifetime of searching, find another place like Whittier.

Shortly after the Japanese attack on the Aleutian Islands during WWII, the US began looking for a spot to build a secret military installation. The proposed base needed not to be only to be an ice-free port, but to be as inaccessible as possible, lost in visibility-reducing cloud cover and surrounded by impassable mountains. They found it all right here.

And so, in this place that would be considered uninhabitable by almost any standard, surrounded by 3500ft peaks and hung with sloppy gray clouds most of the year, Whittier was built. A supply tunnel was blasted out of solid granite, one of Alaska's true engineering marvels, and more than 1000 people were housed in a single tower, the Buckner Building. It wasn't picturesque, but it was efficient.

The army maintained Whittier until 1968, leaving behind not only the Buckner Building, now abandoned, but also the 14-story-tall Begich Towers, where, it seems, some 80% of Whittiots now reside. A labyrinth of underground tunnels connects the complex with schools and businesses, which certainly cuts down on snow-shoveling time. The structure has also given rise to a unique society, where 150-odd people, though virtually isolated from the outside world, live only a few cinder blocks away from one another. It's obviously a must-see attraction for cultural anthropologists.

The rest of us, however, come to Whittier for many of the reasons the military did. The impossibly remote location provides access to an almost unspoiled wilderness of water, ice and granite. Kayaking and scuba diving are superb, and the docks are packed with cruise ships and water-taxis waiting to take you out into the wildlife-rich waters. The town itself is rarely described as adorable, but then it's never really had the luxury of such pretensions.

But all this is changing. Until recently Whittier was accessible only by train or boat; though only 11 miles from the most traveled highway in Alaska, the hamlet was effectively isolated from the rest of the Kenai Peninsula. In 2000, however, the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel was overhauled for auto traffic, opening one of the most abnormal places imaginable to increased tourism and slow normalization.