Winter weather can be isolating. The cold, the low sun and the occasional snowstorm can make anyone want to stay home and snuggle. But imagine if your whole town had to stay at home in the winter — and in the same building?
That’s how most of the 218 residents of Whittier, Alaska, get through the harshest days of the year: They live and work in Begich Towers, the tallest of the town’s very few structures.
The 14-story apartment block also houses the town’s police department, post office, medical clinic and the Kozy Korner convenience store. A group of condos owned by Whittier local June Miller function as a bed-and-breakfast; kids go to school at a building attached to Begich by a tunnel. (With average wind speeds reaching 60 mph and annual snow totals around 22 feet, the tunnel is perhaps the only way to get the kids to go to school.)
Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, is a mere 58 miles to the northwest, but Whittier’s remote location makes it tricky to visit the big city. Tucked into the Passage Canal, an inlet off the vast Prince William Sound, Whittier is bound on its other three sides by imposing mountains. Getting to Anchorage requires a trip in a one-lane tunnel through those mountains — the direction of traffic switches every 30 minutes, and the tunnel closes completely for the night at 10:30 p.m. Trains sometimes use the tunnel, as well, adding to the complexity.
As the town’s mayor notes, however, life in Whittier isn’t always so claustrophobic. Summer sunshine lasts for 22 hours a day at Whittier’s latitude, and cruise ships stop regularly in the warmer months with passengers eager to explore.
Plenty of folks who stop in Whittier are only in town for a short time — an excursion off a cruise ship, a seasonal job. But Whittier’s permanent residents have found a way to keep their community spirit year-round, and (mostly) under the same roof. Maybe they’re not so isolated after all.
In the video below, produced by Alaska Public Media and PBS, watch Erika Thompson, a teacher at Whittier’s school, explain a little bit about life in Begich Towers:
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