Seward Highway spring water, Mile 109.5

For many years--driving the Seward Highway between Anchorage and the family cabin on the Kenai Pennisula--I've passed a spring. It seems like there are always people parked on the side of the road here, filling up with water. This is at the Mile 109.5 pull-out, not far outside Anchorage. If you are driving south, it's just past Beluga Point but before Rainbow Valley.

As a side interest to my blogging about saunas and bathing, I occasionally discuss mineral water and mineral springs. There are few hot springs in Alaska but the state does have some fantastic fresh mineral water. Maybe this spring water was worth a try?

I stopped and tried it and, it was really good! As I drove on, I kept reaching for that cold delicious water. Glug, glug, glug. It was quickly all gone. 

Good tasting water is a subtle thing, much of its quality is what it doesn't have more than what it does. Nevertheless, there are certain good characteristics. The spring water at Mile 109.5 is marked by it's purity but also a certain crispness and sweetness. 

Sure it's great water but what makes this water so good that it's developed such a cult following? I mean, sometimes there are lines of people here waiting to get some. Geologically, the water would be percolating through what is known as the McHugh Complex--mountain rock that is a little bit different than the historically-famous gold-bearing material just a little further east down the road. McHugh is known to tend to not contain quartz. This is the rock the gold miners were looking for because quartz was the rock that also included the gold. The McHugh deposition is a mixed up jumble of geological record, compressed here on the highway up into a majestic mountain. It includes igneous rock (cooled molten rock) and sedimentary sandstones and conglomerates. But one unique feature is the occasional inclusion of some limestone in the form of calcium carbonate. This may explain the water's higher alkalinity and "sweet" taste.

Not much is know much about the spring's history. It's been there and been used by travelers for a while now. Some of my earliest memories are of people gathering water along this stretch of the road. In the 1970s it was from potentially dubious sources such as the many little waterfalls along the hillside. I remember a turnout that had a little cave (four feet deep maybe) that always intrigued me as a kid. (In retrospect I wonder if the cave was an old lode mine prospect hole. Or maybe the highway department was having fun with some leftover dynamite?) But I seem to remember this also being a water gathering location for people. 

Our spot in question now was established 25 or so years ago when the road was straightened and widened. At Mile 109.5, along a newly-blasted cliff face, a pipe was inserted into the rock wall. The pipe was specifically placed to help divert the water coming out of the cliff so ice wouldn't build up next to the highway in winter. The pipe channels the water into a culvert running under the road. 

Does the pipe continue to be maintained by the highway department? I wrote the Alaska DOT. I got an earnest response but the answer was that they weren't completely sure. I would suspect that it is on an as-needed basis.

What about for water collection purposes? Realistically the answer probably is that whoever did it just can't admit it. The routing of the pipe is such that it's perfect for filling up water jugs. The pipe could have easily been positioned differently so the water was run more directly along the ground straight to the culvert. If the highway department fessed up it might create obligations to maintain it and liability for people crossing a busy highway to get the water. I think some benevolent and creative-minded worker tasted this water and thought that it should be shared with others.

Whatever the case, this water has slowly been discovered and developed a loyal following. It's a convenient stop on the way out of town for filling up water for camping or hiking. Others go out of their way to gather this water simply because it is so good. On my first visit, I encountered an older man filling up some big plastic jugs. He was serious about stocking up. He looked up at me, smiled and declared, "This is the best water!"

In 2012, Anchorage TV station KTUU (Channel 2) did a story about it. The story is no longer online but text from the piece can be found elsewhere. Their concern was that the water might be hillside surface runoff that is channeled through vertical fissures in the mountain. If it was, then it wouldn't be so safe to drink since it could be prone to bacterial contamination, sheep poop and such.

The station had a lab test the water to check for bacteria and harmful minerals. The tests came back stating the water was safe to drink. Nix to dangerous stuff like lead, arsenic and nitrate. There were also no harmful bacteria. 

Put this water in a glass bottle and pretend you are a Euro sophisticate. It may not be bubbly but the water qualifies as mineral water in that it is somewhat "hard" with calcium and magnesium, both traditionally considered desirable ingredients to good mineral water. Another web citation helps verify this is indeed a spring, again based on the higher mineral content and water alkalinity. I'm not a scientific expert but I doubt that the water could easily pick up these minerals if it only was taking a short trip through cracks in the cliff face.

To me the fact that this is more of a spring than runoff seemed rather intuitively obvious. Stand at the base of the cliff and look up. The water has to travel through a lot of mountain before coming out this pipe. It's certainly not trickling down the face, just below the surface, of 150 feet or so of near-vertical cliff. Plus, and perhaps more tellingly, the water appears to run year round, not something that would happen if it was runoff. Still, as a reassurance, it's good the water was tested.

It is now a certain stop for me when I travel this way. We used to stop for donuts in Girdwood. I'd much rather stop here for water. It's healthy, free and delicious. Plus the view is amazing. Take in the cold sea air and view Chickaloon Bay across Turnagain Arm. Maybe you can see some Dall sheep up above on the cliff? (I did on my last visit.) Or Beluga whales on the incoming tide?

On this basis alone you could say the water is spiritually rejuvenating. Others appear to agree. I appreciated the sticker graffiti on the ABS pipe of the spring. (Why not mark up an object that is already not particularly attractive?) But what made someone take the time to create this odd painting? And what's the message? Is a veil parted in the rock to reveal what's really inside? Are those apples (or cherries?) floating in a different sky-like dimension inside the mountain? The fruit's essence dripping as water outside the inter-dimensional window for us to savior? Someone clearly appreciates this spot and the water here enough to have taken the time to reverently paint this message. Like me, they want you to know that this place is special. 

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