TURNAGAIN ARM – As if the danger of pedestrians being hit by speeding cars on the busy Seward Highway wasn’t enough, the Alaska Department of Transportation says that what has come to be a popular, roadside water stop is now threatened with rock falls from high above.
The manmade spring that geysers out of the base of a 100-foot wall of greywacke near Mile 109 on the Seward has long been an attractive danger. The water shoots out of the rock on the side of the busy highway opposite the parking lot.
Commuters who regularly make the 40-mile drive from the ski-community of Girdwood to work in Anchorage say it is a small miracle no one has been hit crossing the road to get water. On Friday, while this story was being reported, a car had to come to a complete stop in the middle of the highway when a couple of inattentive women walking back to the parking lot failed to look before crossing.
There is no pedestrian crossing.
Recognizing the risks of people on foot being hit by cars doing 55 mph, DOT made plans to install safety signs along the highway warning drivers of people scurrying across the road. Recent rockfall, however, has made the agency change its minds.
“Just recently, we had some rockfall right at the water spout, some pretty big rocks came down” DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy told KTUU.com.
Whether it was the rockfall or DOT that took out the white, plastic feeder pipe that used to direct water from above head height on the cliff to near ground level is unclear. But the 5-foot pipe that once made it easy to fill water jugs is now gone.
That left Brian Pleasanton struggling to fill two five-gallon jugs on Friday.
“This is a pain in the butt now,” he said.
With the long, white feeder pipe gone, someone had jury-rigged a new spout. A piece of metal pipe had been pushed into a hole in the cliff drilled years ago to relieve water pressure inside the cliff, and an Evian water bottle with its bottom cut off was then wedged in the pipe.
The water poured neatly out of the mouth of the bottle, but a brisk wind blowing down the Arm forced Pleasanton to hold his jug high against the cliff to catch the water before the wind scattered it.
Pleasanton said it was worth it.
“It’s good water,” he said.
“On a whim I recently stopped and tried it and now I understand the appeal. The spring water at Mile 109.5 is marked by its purity but also a certain crispness and sweetness,” Dave McCabe wrote in The Anchorage Press in 2014. “Sure it’s great water, but what makes it so great that it’s developed such a cult following? I mean, sometimes there is a line of people waiting to get some.”
“The routing of the pipe is such that it’s perfect for filling up water jugs,” he added. “If its sole purpose was to control runoff, the pipe could have easily been positioned differently so the water was run more directly along the ground straight to the culvert. My personal theory is that some benevolent and creative-minded highway worker tasted this water and thought that it should be shared with others, but that if the highway department ‘fessed up to this it might create obligations to maintain the pipe and liability for people crossing a busy highway to get the water.”
The roadside fountain has now attracted enough attention that it draws tourists. Mary Miller from Oklahoma and a friend were stopped to fill their cups at the spring on Friday evening.
They didn’t seem particularly worried about rock fall dangers. Neither did anyone else.
But the danger is real. Falling rock has several times forced closure of the highway in recent years.
DOT notes rockfalls occur most often in freeze-thaw conditions or in heavy rains. Heavy rain falling into cracks in the rocks, or driven into cracks by high wind increase pressure inside the rock and increase the odds it will come apart.
The agency says it’s a good idea to avoid the cliffs in this kind of weather, but it says it’s not going to try to ban people from collecting water. McCarthy told KTUU that DOT considers water collection a “recreational activity.”