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Troops Create Lifeline to Alaskan Village

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

CAMP WY WUH, Alaska, Aug. 30, 2007 – Bumping down a dusty, narrow logging trail away from camp in an old red truck, Army Col. Frederick J. West talked about a project that, after 10 years, has literally left him at the end of the road.

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Missouri Army National Guard Col. Frederick J. West stops along the Walden Point Road to show some dried muskeg. Muskeg is made up of layers of decomposing dead plants and trees. While building the Walden Point Road through Annette Island in southeast Alaska, crews had to dig out muskeg sometimes as much as 30 feet deep, and refill the void with rock and soil. Photo by Fred W. Baker III

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It started with him walking more than 14 miles across Annette Island’s coastal wilderness, surveying its virgin land, intent on cutting a road into its rugged, rocky landscape. It will end next month with a gravel-coated lifeline that will connect a small Indian village to year-around access to jobs, education and health care.

“I think that most people, when they depart from this good Earth, want to leave something behind. This certainly does that for me,” West said.

What lay between the start and the finish is dubbed Joint Task Force Operation Alaskan Road, or the Walden Point Road project, as the local citizens call it. Designated as a Defense Department Innovative Readiness Training program, the road has provided training opportunities for engineers, medics, cooks, fuelers and a host of others from all service branches, both active duty and reserve component. In all, 12,000 troops from some 300 units have come here to train.

This month, the Metlakatla Indian Community, along with military and political dignitaries, celebrated the turnover of the road to the community. West and his crews are putting final touches on the road until Sept. 15, the official day the mission ends. After that, West will begin the process of turning the camp over to U.S. Pacific Command’s Alaskan Command.

West has served the longest of anyone on the project, joining at the start as the operations officer and later as the commander of Joint Force Engineer Component Command, tasked with running the project’s operations and the camp. For the Missouri Army National Guard engineer officer, it was the right project at the right time of his life, he said.

“I fell in love with the project,” West said. “If I didn’t think it was worthwhile, I certainly wouldn’t have spent 10 years of my life doing it.”

It truly had to be a labor of love, at least at the start, for those landing on the remote, southeast Alaska island. At first there was no running water, no septic system, no electricity and the servicemembers shared camp with a logging company. The crews would ferry to nearby Ketchikan for supplies and showers every few days.

Originally, officials estimated the project would take about seven years, but with design modifications and because crews were training as they were building, the project was extended. West’s job basically was to “clear, grub, burn, drill, blast and build” the road to a subgrade that is ready to be finished by the Metlakatla Indian Community, which will pave and stripe the road and install guard rails. The Alaska Department of Transportation plans to build a ferry terminal at the end of the new road.

The path for the road was surveyed in the late 1940s, and updated in the 1970s. But the majority of the initial survey was done by air. Once on foot on the proposed path, West and his counterparts at the Federal Highways Administration, along with surveyors and designers, knew that steep drop-offs and mountains of rock would require some route modifications. They also modified the plans to reduce the speed limit from 55 to 35 mph. This allowed for sharper turns and more dips, making the project more manageable, West explained.

Still, most of the route left crews between a rock and a soft place. Crews had to drill and blast through 300,000 more meters of solid rock than anticipated. Where they didn’t find mountains of rock, crews had to dig out of the boggy, indigenous muskeg -- layers of decomposing dead plants and trees. The muskeg, sometimes as much as 30 feet deep, had to be dug out and refilled with rock and soil. One strip, dubbed “Muskeg Flats” was 3,000 meters long, or nearly two miles. While muskeg sometimes can be solid enough to stand on, crews had to be especially careful not to sink their 100,000-pound excavators and loaders into the mossy mess.

Much of the road follows the island’s scenic coast, offering sweeping views of the ocean and village on a clear day. Because it follows the coast, though, in some spots crews had to fill nearly 100 feet up the side of the mountain, while blasting hundreds of feet down through rock to meet in the middle, where the road was supposed to run.

Some inclines were so steep that one crew used its excavator’s bucket to reach up, claw into the rock, and drag itself up the side of the mountain to get to where they needed to start drilling and blasting.

The rock added to the training value of the job, West said, as most military engineers are used to working primarily with dirt.

“Most of the engineers units are not used to working with rock. Building a road with rock is a totally different situation,” West said.

Crews pecked through the landscape, averaging a little more than mile’s progress each season. In 2002, crews progressed nearly three miles. In 2001, the crews made it only three-quarters of a mile.

Every winter except last, the camp would be winterized and abandoned. A handful of people would stay in Ketchikan and return to check on the camp intermittently during the winter months. West would return to Missouri to continue making arrangements for the next year’s portion of the project and to recruit staff and units. This past winter, though, to mark off another two-tenths of a mile and to ensure the project would be finished on time, West and a small crew braved the winter elements to continue the work.

West said he didn’t originally intend to stay on the project this long.

“When I first started this, I didn’t know I would be here 10 years. But after the first three or four, you just say ‘Heck, let’s finish it,’” he said.

A “duration” staff of about 100 active duty and reserve component servicemembers runs the camp, living on the island from March through September. Typically, the force was divided into thirds among active duty, reserve and Guard personnel. The rotating units started arriving in April. Troops from engineer, medical, water purification, bulk fuel, mess and even naval boat operations fell in on the camp for training. Some deployed to the camp as units, others as individual augmentees.

Support jobs often received training as valuable to them as that the engineers received, West said. For example, he said, bulk fuelers who often train with only water had the opportunity to offload bulk fuel from a barge.

Learning to work with other services was another valuable training experience for the road project participants, West said. But while the diversity is good for training, it can make managing a staff and building a road difficult at times, especially at the season’s start, the colonel said.

“Put yourself in a position of owning a company and every six months you get a whole new company, and that’s basically it,” West said. “Here, you get 100 people who have never met each other, and you’re trying to meld them and you’re trying to go into a high op tempo right off the bat. That is a training challenge.”

West said he tried to get duration troops to return, but most didn’t because the employment is seasonal and most of the positions were for only six months.

“Most people can’t afford to come back every season,” West said. “If I get somebody to repeat a second year, that’s great, but those are few.”

Usually, about 70 traditional National Guard members rotated in and out through the summer, helping to build the road or providing support.

Over time, West built his camp to include a small gym, a base exchange, an Internet cafe, and a dayroom with pool and pingpong tables. Troops lived in open-bay, 16- by 32-foot plywood “sea huts” that provided a bunk bed, mattress, and a dry place to sleep – dry being key in a temperate rainforest region that gets 165 inches of precipitation annually.

Local people measure the rain in feet, not inches. West said one summer he counted fewer than 10 sunny days. That summer, it rained every day for 35 days.

“I think I could write a paper on the effects of sunshine on personalities. It can be raining for two weeks and when that sun comes out you just see a change in people’s attitudes,” West said.

Other than the rain, the field time there offered some advantages over the “lower 48.” There are no chiggers, ticks, snakes or poison ivy on the island.

As West turns off of the logging trail and onto the wider, smoother, Walden Point Road, he can mark its progress, much like a parent describing key events in a child’s growth. He talks of making it to the top of a “cut,” where crews could begin drilling and blasting, to beating a specific deadline by only two days, to putting in culverts and bridges.

When the work is finished, military crews will have moved 3.2 million cubic yards of rock. That is the equivalent, West said, to filling a football field-size area 150 stories high with rock. Crews used more than 1.5 million pounds of explosives.

Engineers installed 145 culverts, which, if set end to end, would stretch more than 2.6 miles. One culvert was 25 feet wide, 180 feet long and was built with 210 1,000-pound panels. It took 3,000 bolts and two weeks to put it in place.

But the statistic West is most proud of, and grateful for, is that there have been no serious injuries or deaths during the project, he said.

“A bad day for me was when I heard on the radio that somebody got hurt and they were taking them to the hospital. Every time that happens, you just feel like you got kicked in the stomach. Fortunately, every time it turned out to be not serious,” West said.

West said he considers this a “remarkable feat,” given that for 10 years an inexperienced and transient work force operated in unfamiliar and dangerous territory with unfamiliar equipment.

In the end, though, West said what made this project special for him was that it matched invaluable training with a byproduct that could be the catalyst to a brighter future for the 1,500-plus Tsimshian Indian villagers on the island.

The local mayor, Victor C. Wellington Sr., said he thinks the road is essential. Unemployment in the village is as high as 80 percent seasonally. Two logging mills and a cannery, both huge employers offering good salaries, shut down more than a decade ago. Since then, most who are employed work for the local government, the medical clinic, or a cold-storage facility operating out of the former cannery, selling frozen salmon and other products. Most local residents hunt and fish during the summer for subsistence during the winter.

“What we’re trying to do right now is dig out. And we’re slowing coming out, and this road opens up a lot of possibilities for our people,” Wellington said.

Wellington said the road will shorten the ferry travel time to Ketchikan. It is only a 15-minute trip from the site where the Alaska Department of Transportation plans to put the new ferry. Once it’s open, Wellington said, he hopes residents will be able to drive on the road to the new ferry point in the morning, cross to go to work and return home by ferry in the evening. Currently, the Alaskan Marine Highway makes only two afternoon trips to the island, and it takes more than an hour each way from the current ferry point.

Also, officials hope to increase the frequency of the ferry once the new dock is opened to cash in on the tourism dollars that flood Ketchikan. Ketchikan is the first port of call for many cruise ships, and its restaurants and shops are visited by nearly a million tourists a year. Now, there is no convenient way for would-be visitors to tour the island during their stop in port.

The mayor also said the road will keep residents from risking poor weather and high seas to take private boats to Ketchikan. Even though most are experienced navigating the waters, their personal craft are no match for the winter’s fog, 30-foot seas and 135-mph winds. People have died trying to make the trip, the mayor said. Even the 61-year-old mayor, a 33-year career fisherman, admits to making the journey when he was younger when it wasn’t safe.

“I was nuts then,” he said.

Residents will also have access to the hospital in Ketchikan. In the winter, the island is isolated when winds are too high. If medical aircraft can’t land to evacuate those needing urgent care, that means a very long, rough ferry ride on ocean waters for critical patients. And even if patients can be flown from the island, that includes a rough drive, a flight, and another drive before they can receive care. The road and new ferry will allow an ambulance to transport the patient directly to the hospital.

A college education also is available in Ketchikan. The University of Alaska has a satellite campus in the town. Many in the village do not have the money to send their children away from the island for college, the mayor said. The road and ferry will allow them daily transport for classes.

The mayor said the road would not have been built except for the Alaskan Road Project. Without it, Wellington said he was not sure what the future would have held for his community.

West said he plans to return when the pavement is down and the finishing touches are complete, hopefully in the next two years. As he drives the road now, West calls it “pretty darn impressive” in an easy-going, small town manner. As he meets with the people along the route and in town, it is easy to see that friendships replaced partnerships somewhere along the way.

West said he isn’t sure where the road will lead for him at the project’s end. It is bittersweet, he said.

“I’m glad the road is done. I’d like to see people driving on it in 2009,” West said. “But the working relationships, the friendships, … I’m going to miss that.”

But, West said, he will take home with him “a lot of memories and photographs,” and the knowledge that he has, in part, changed forever the landscape of a small Alaskan community.

“Being part of someone else’s dream and helping it become a reality, that’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” West said.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe view from the Walden Point Road overlooking Metlakatla. Much of the road follows the island’s scenic coast, offering sweeping views of the ocean and village on a clear day. Photo by Fred W. Baker III  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA crew drills to blast a final section of the Walden Point Road on Annette Island in southeast Alaska. Crews had to drill and blast through 300,000 more meters of solid rock than anticipated during the 10-year project. Photo by Fred W. Baker III  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe Walden Point Road cuts through the landscape of Annette Island in southeast Alaska, providing a lifeline to education, jobs and health care for the Metlakatla Indian Community. Photo by Fred W. Baker III  
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