Alaska, an Introduction
We made our way to Anchorage. Situated ten hours from New York, ten hours from Tokyo and ten hours from Berlin, we wondered: is this what happens when the center of the world feels like it is in the middle of nowhere? Framed by the Chugach Mountains and embraced by the arms of the Cook Inlet watershed while Denali defines the northern horizon, Anchorage is the gateway to a world that borders on the impossible. But it’s not. It’s real. Scooped up by America from a cash-strapped Russia in the 1860s, Alaska has come to embody an almost eternal American ideal: the unknown, almost unknowable, frontier. Of course frontiers, even the ones we can never truly, completely know, are irresistible. We’re compelled to explore, to chart the rivers that run from the sea into the darkness and to uncover what riches lie above and below. In times of crisis, when easy answers are not readily at hand, we’re driven to strike out into the void to blaze new trails and imagine new realities.
That is exactly what we had to do a little more that forty years ago when Woolrich played a key role in a massive undertaking in the wilds of Alaska. We were there, but we certainly didn’t go alone. In 1973, seventy thousand workers headed north. America was in dire straits - unemployment was high and the nation was gripped by an energy crisis. The best option to provide relief involved constructing eight hundred miles of pipe across the entire length of Alaska, stretching from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez.
There were mountains to traverse, caribou and other wildlife to be protected, and of course there was the cold. Engineers were tasked with the challenge of designing a pipeline that crept over the Brooks Range, crossing the Continental Divide. They had to innovate new methods to build on top of permafrost, withstand sub-zero temperatures, transport materials, and house workers, hundreds of miles from the faintest glimmer of civilization. This project was a creation of necessity defined by ingenuity and perseverance. It was Herculean, it was the Hoover Dam in a blizzard, the Panama Canal enveloped in ice. When the first barrel was filled in Valdez in 1977, it was the golden spike for a new age. Present throughout these trials and eventual triumphs, there was the cold, and there was Woolrich. Just like when Woolrich diverted all of its operations to create blankets for Union Army soldiers during the Civil War and for the doughboys in World War I, Woolrich answered the call when it came time to construct the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. A generation before, when fascism and violence spread throughout Europe, Woolrich mills went into overdrive producing coats, stockings and blankets for the Allies. In 1973, called into action once again, Woolrich created the Kodiak Parka. Working eighty-hour weeks amid unforgiving surroundings and in conditions that would give no quarter, the workers who built the pipeline needed clothing that didn’t just help them survive; they needed equipment that empowered them to labor and create. Woolrich provided. When months stretched on under a sun that never set or that seemed to never appear, while the mercury sat immobile, locked below zero, workers donned their parkas and carried on.
The adversary was the Alaskan wilderness – the wind, the snow, the ice – but they had come prepared.