Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cooper Landing

A week ago I went up to Cooper Landing to do a story on the school there.
Recently the district school board revealed there weren't enough students, just six, in the building to receive state funding. Ten are needed.
The school won't close this year, and district officials are saying they'll find a way to keep it open.
While covering the issue however, I found myself not just trying to profile a one-room school house, but also scraping at the surface of an issue that faces rural villages in Alaska and Outside.
Cooper Landing, pop. 360 is located in a narrow mountain valley along the eastern reach of the Sterling Highway.
The Kenai River flows through the heart of this area, its teal aquamarine waters pouring out from its source, Kenai Lake. On all sides Cooper Landing is surrounded by federal land managed by the National Forest and the National Wildlife Service.
The state and borough also have landholdings in this area.
Between the government owned land and the mountainous geography of the region, private property is scarce.
The beautiful scenery and teeming runs of fish that make their way up each summer have helped to fuel an increase in property value over the last decade.
Year round 9-5 work is essentially non-existent.
Oh, did I mention that Cooper Landing is about a 45-60 minute drive from Soldotna or Seward?
Avalanches may cut it off from the latter this time of year, and the highway between Sterling and Cooper is often the iciest I encounter on my winter drives to Turnagain.
This is all to say that Cooper could be a tough place to live, especially for young families.
While Cooper attracts hordes of outdoor adventurers and anglers through the summer, in the winter it's a quiet place I often slip through with just enough recognition to observe the decreased speed limit and perhaps a hardy angler working the mouth of Kenai Lake but little more.
In reality, having spent some time there, it was easy to see how concerned the community, no matter how small it may have been, was for their school's future, and their own.
There's a not uncommon saying that if the town loses its school it loses its soul.
This is an issue that's come up on the peninsula before it other small communities like Hope, and it's an issue that rural villages across the state are faced with as well.
Cooper's plight hits a little bit of a chord with me though.
Cooper is on a main thoroughfare between two major population centers, Anchorage and the Central Pen.
Indeed, after Girdwood, it is the only year round habituated area until Sterling.
The withering of remote villages accessible only by plane or boat is disheartening, but to see a road system village fight to save its soul makes me ask deeper questions.
At this time in my life, I could never see myself living in a place like Cooper, at least for not more than for a year or two.
When I talked with the sole teacher at Cooper though, he spoke of how he always wanted to settle there.
One of his points was that he found that both he and his wife were waking each day asking why they lived in Kenai. He also said every weekend he found himself driving up to Cooper.
I don't know if Cooper Landing is where I'll end up one day, but a part of me worries that there might not be a Cooper Landing here, or wherever I end up when I find that place.

1 comment:

Andrew J. Bernstein said...

Don't you think you're remote enough as it is? Anyway, I think I saw an article in the Times about this school, it is a really interesting story, thanks for your take on it.