May 28, 2015.
We went searching for a ghosts.
Following some rumors and vague leads on the internet, we set out to search a couple of potential candidate areas for what once was known as Kern Creek Station. From what I’ve learned thus far, at one point in the early 1900s Kern Creek Station was the northern terminus of the central Alaska railroad system. Pictures found in online archives show an established community at this place, with a bridge crossing Kern Creek and surrounded on both sides by various structures. We were sure remnants of this place must still exist, so we set out in search of them.
Along the way, we pulled into the rest area near the Hope turn-off. Parked there was the most awesome camper trailer I had ever seen.
The camper was hand-built by a man named Bill Guernsey, who resides in Anchorage. He was kind enough to let me take a look inside. I was too struck by the intricate details of his work to think to take a picture. You can read all about his project, and what inspired it in the first place, here.
The camper wasn’t the only beautiful piece of engineering in the parking lot that day. I took a moment to gawk at what I believe is a 70s-era Volkswagen Thing.
The side-stop out of the way, we got back on the road to fulfill our objective. The first, and most seemingly-obvious candidate location, was Kern Creek itself. We parked at a pull-out along the Seward Highway and walked north until we reached the outflow of the creek where it spills into the Cook Inlet at Turnagain Arm. Two large culverts carry the creek underneath the highway and railroad tracks. Because the creek runs completely under the highway, there are no markers to indicate that you’re driving over the creek. In fact, I’d suggest that very few people even know Kern Creek exists. At the culverts, we considered traveling through them but the water was flowing quite swiftly and was undoubtedly very cold. Instead, we climbed back up to the highway and crossed. From there, we climbed a small embankment up to the railroad bed, and crossed it as well. There, we dropped down to the creek. Immediately, we could see a number of metal beams standing up in the mud. I suspect this to be part of the old rail bridge that crossed the creek. We didn’t see any signs of additional structures.
Where the creek enters the culverts, we noticed a number of US flags affixed to a large rocky cliff that’s adjacent to the creek. In the center of the flags was a small cadastral survey marker, bearing the name of Paul Owen Johnson, with the dates “3.10.1945 – 8.12.2010”.
We took in the current view from this location: The rock with the memorial, the forest of metal beams protruding out of the muddy ground, the rushing creek flowing into two large culverts. One side of the creek met steep walls of rock and soil. The other featured dense alders and other impassable flora. Perhaps with tall waterproof boots, we would have waded up the creek. Instead, we opted to cut into the trees on the north side of the creek and head upstream. A few dozen yards in, we met the creek where it bends around a corner. From this point, the creek appears to flow through a gorge, with steep rock walls on both sides. We found a small trail that led up above the northern wall of the gorge. We followed it up into luscious rainforest. The ground was coated in mosses and ferns. Sunlight trickled in and transformed everything into gold. Birds sang all overhead. We followed the path up and down the ridge above the creek until we heard the water below moving very swiftly. Through the trees we could see white water that matched the rushing sounds below. We picked our way down the bank, grasping at roots and rock and trees, until we reached a small rock outcrop that protruded over the creek. Here, the water was a torrent. For millennia, the water beat itself against the rocks, both carving them away and polishing them simultaneously. What was left was the smoothest, shiny gray rock I have ever seen. It could have been confused for metal.
We scrambled back up to the top of the gorge. We pushed forward a hundred or so more yards before writing off the chance of finding a historic civilization. We vowed to return someday to follow the path as far it would take us, up and into the mountains. We headed back to the road taking various detours to check out cool trees or interesting mushrooms. Once we made it back down to the culverts, we climbed back up onto the railbed. Instead of immediately dropping back down and across the highway, we chose to follow the railroad tracks south until we were directly across the highway from the car. We noticed various loose pieces of the railroad: spikes, bolts and nuts, various brackets. All were made of a very heavy and rusted metal. They were scattered everywhere. As we were walking alongside the tracks, a pick-up truck with some sort of rail attachment came down the rails in our direction. I thought to myself, ‘great, now we’re going to learn that walking this close to the tracks is some sort of federal offense and we’re going to be arrested.’ He looked down as he passed us, and nodded. Phew. We dipped back down to the highway and crossed it, and got into the car to head to our next presumed destination.
Just a few miles up the road, we pulled in to park for our next journey. There wasn’t a real parking area; only a few vehicles could fit there, but it worked for us. We got out of the car and started walking towards our destination.
From the parking lot, we almost immediately had to cross the railroad tracks; however, we had to wait for a few minutes. Some behemoth tree-trimming machine revealed itself on the tracks. On either side, it had long articulating arms with what appeared to be rapidly-rotating circular saw blades at the ends. The machine was slowly moving down the tracks, while reaching out and buzzing to oblivion any tree unfortunate to be within its reach.
It slowly made its way passed us. We paralleled the tracks for a few dozen yards before crossing, then continued onto what appeared to be an old road. Aside from a pile of dirt and the railroad tracks, the path we were on could have been driven in my little two-wheel-drive car. We thought for sure this road was going to take us somewhere, especially since this area looked promising in aerial photographs. We were excited to see the long-forgotten village of Kern. We were extremely let down. What we found, after traveling a hundred or so yards down the path, was a clearing filled with junk. This was apparently the place where, I’m assuming, the locals go to shoot their guns. All around were bullet cases and spent shotgun shells. There were fragments of clay pigeons all around, but there was just as much, if not more, discarded household items that had apparently made attractive targets. Destroyed appliances, toys, and other bits of metal and plastic were scattered everywhere. What looked like the home of a forgotten village from space was nothing more than a junkyard from down here.
We bushwhacked around in the surrounding brush and trees, hoping to find a clue leading to Kern but turned up nothing besides a bunch of scratches to the exposed skin on my arms and legs. We were deflated, yet hungry, so we headed into Girdwood for lunch.
Girdwood is a wonderful community. For those that aren’t aware, it’s the quintessential ski-resort town which brings with it a unique set of residents, visitors, businesses, and public displays. The highway into town is bordered by unique shops and businesses, offering everything from handmade clothing to adventure travel packages. It also has a fine selection of dining opportunities. For lunch, we chose the Chair 5 Restaurant. It’s a cozy, wooden building artfully decorated with various Alaskana. You have your typical animal mounts and antiques hanging from the walls, as well as some more unique items like this movie poster:
There are dozens of beers available, from local micro brews, to pub beers from around the country, to foreign imports. They also offer a brag-worthy selection of single-malt scotches. I chose the Pike’s Kilt Lifter ale, which tasted amazing after our day in the sun. For lunch, we each chose the Tundra Burger, which has a locally-produced patty that consists of bison and caribou. I kind of expected it to taste more gamey, but it tasted very similar to a quality beef. It was a wonderful meal that we enjoyed in an atrium section of the restaurant. After lunch, we headed back south–the direction of home–but still had one more stop to make.
Anyone that has lived in Alaska is very aware of the great Good Friday earthquake that occurred in 1964, and anyone that has spent much time in Southcentral Alaska has probably seen evidence of that massive quake that still remains to this day. Travelers passing through Portage, which is a few miles south of Girdwood on the Seward Highway, have surely noticed the dilapidated and half-submerged structures that are visible from the road.
I’ve been intrigued by those buildings for as long as I’ve been tall enough to look out a car window and see them. I have always known that they were the result of the Good Friday Earthquake, but I never really understood what exactly happened. As a kid, I imagined that the reason that they are slightly submerged was because the ground opened up and swallowed them. I believed that there was an entire city buried there, where the gaping maw of Earth consumed it and then closed back up forever. What I know today isn’t that dramatic, but it’s still amazing nonetheless. During the earthquake, the land that Portage (and other areas of the state) was built upon dropped significantly. Water from Cook Inlet rushed in to fill the area that was now below sea level. This flooding was ultimately what drove the town of Portage to extinction. Over the years, I’ve watched the buildings in that area decay away. They’re sagging and fading and becoming a part of the Earth again. Left alone, I can’t imagine it being more than a few more decades that they’ll even be visible. So, I wanted to explore them while I still had the chance. I wanted to satisfy the urge to explore them that I had ever since I was a young child. So why not now? We parked across the highway at the small tourist-trap rail depot. I’m not entirely sure what all goes on at that place, but it advertises various railroad excursions. There’s not a station or anything though, so I’m not really sure how it all works. I did see some portable staircases, so I’m assuming people actually board trains there. I’ve just never seen it happen.
We hopped across the highway and started backtracking to the visible buildings. We noticed a number of signs that indicated the area behind them was a reservation and trespassing was prohibited. Fortunately, those signs ended before we reached the Portage buildings. We walked up to the first building and examined it. The wood was gray and the structure was clearly deteriorating. I don’t know what I expected to see, but I was surprised at how little what was left resembled a building. The earth had eaten the floor and vegetation was wrapping its way around the building’s exterior. We had to duck our heads to get underneath any part of the structure. Where paint remained, it was chipping and faded. Graffiti was ubiquitous, and it wasn’t even anything creative or interesting. The second and subsequent buildings were about the same. One of the buildings was more recognizable as such than the others, I could make out what must have been a hall area and various rooms. The buildings all seemed to be no more bigger than mobile trailer homes. We continued to explore the site, expecting to see more of the extinct town. I had seen pictures of Portage pre-quake, so I knew at one time there was more than what I was seeing today. Unfortunately, there’s surprisingly little left to show for it. We walked in the direction of Cook Inlet. Something shiny caught our eye so we walked towards it. There, growing out of the earth was a gleaming chrome bumper, reflecting the bright summer light. We poked around near it and realized that an entire vehicle was connected to that bumper, mostly buried and with few removable parts remaining. We left it to continue its slow and steady decomposition.
We scrambled back to the car and got back onto the highway for the last time that day. I spent the two-hour drive home reflecting on the events of the day. Were we disappointed that we didn’t find what we were looking for? Sure, at least slightly. We didn’t find our ghosts. But this disappointment was made up for with the satisfaction of finding what we weren’t even looking for. A gorgeous day under the Alaskan sun can never go wrong.