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Eagle River: A Unique Community of People and Memories

By Corey Allen-Young, Education Reporter, cyoung@ktuu.com
Published On: Nov 15 2013 01:49:31 PM AKST

Beyond its wide open spaces, hiking trails, and beautiful landscape, residents say Eagle River's most prized possession is its neighbors.

EAGLE RIVER -

It's what residents call one of the Alaska’s best kept secrets: Eagle River.

And while the town's personality is unknown to many, residents here are quick to roll out the welcome mat.

But beyond the open space, hiking trails, and beautiful landscape, they say Eagle River's most prized possession are the residents themselves.

From young to old, there's no mistaking what Eagle River means to those who call the community home, and they'll quickly reveal their most cherished spots in town. For Wendy Martin it’s the popular teen hangout Jitters; for Steve Grohol, it’s the Eagle River Lions Clubs large fields; for Lee Jordan it’s a place and people that is friendly, helpful and accepting.

The name of the town is homage to the river that runs through it and the eagles that perch on boughs above.

The area of Chugiak-Eagle River was settled by homesteaders in the 1920s and 1930s that lived off the land and the wildlife to feed their families.

Later it became part of the Municipality of Anchorage, and now the community has grown to over 30,000 residents who live on both sides of the Glenn Highway.

"We try to have old time values, old landmarks, sentimental reasons for the things we do," said Eagle River resident Jeff Bowers.

It's a community, which despite its growth, with small-town feel.

Just ask Merry Brahm who raised her two kids here.

She says people spend so much time catching up with one another while shopping; one store even redesigned its structure to accommodate the local culture.

"Because as you go you are always seeing people, and people were stopping so they had to make wider aisles, so the two carts can stop and the people can visit," Brahm said.

And when you ask Merry what town symbols best represent her community, she points to the clock tower and the Eagle River sign in Chief Alex Park as the gateways of the community.

"(It’s) that friendliness, that openness, that ability to connect with your neighbors," Brahm said. "I think that’s what is special about Alaska but I think it’s what's especially special about Eagle River, we got great people here."

Longtime resident Lee Jordan would agree, but it wasn't always that way for him.

"I call myself the reluctant Alaskan because I told the Army 12 different times, send me any place but Alaska and this is where I am today," Jordan said.

His reluctance quickly faded and he made the community his home in 1962.

When residents tried to secede from the municipality, he was even elected mayor of Eagle River for six months.

"We broke off from Anchorage for a short period until the Supreme Court decided we were unconstitutional," Jordan said.

His platform and passion has always been to embolden Eagle River residents’ voice. He founded the Alaska Star newspaper because he felt his community was being ignored.

"People had a lot of misconceptions about what we were and what we were doing," Jordan said, who also was instrumental in bringing in little league baseball and the Chinooks, one of the teams in the Alaska Baseball League.

"The Chinooks were looking for a place, the AIA Fire, they were looking for a new home and we had this new field, and it was a perfect fit," Jordan said.

“Perfect” is also how Steve Grohol would describe his hometown.

Now a member of the Eagle River Lions Club, he says his community always works together, no matter the challenges.

When his sister-in-law was diagnosed with leukemia, the town rallied to help save her life and she survived.

"We did a bone marrow drive through Eagle River, and Eagle River became number-one in the nation per capita on the bone marrow registry," Grohol said.

And with any successful tight knit community, communication and recognition are both important.

Bowers said Eagle River’s famed landmark Yellow Rock plays that role. Right now it’s being used as a memorial for Ravenwood Elementary student Caelan Rainey who passed away recently.

But it’s also a directional landmark.

"Boy there would be a lot of cold pizzas if we didn't have yellow rock," Bowers said. "People use Yellow Rock as a landmark; they say I’m two driveways up on the right past Yellow Rock."

Treasured childhood memories come easily here, especially for Martin.

The North Fork Trails, for the 18-year-old are where some of the most memorable moments took place along the river.

"I was hiking along this trail with my dad and my dog falls in the river, so that was so scary,” Martin said. “My dad went in and saved him and we turned around and my dog was actually running away from a moose."

Martin went on to become the 2012 Miss Bear Paw, representing her community at many functions. But it was her involvement in a JR ROTC summer camp at JBER that changed her life. More specifically, the ride she took on a Blackhawk helicopter.

"The Blackhawk really just took my heart and I decided from the moment I was up in the air in that bird that that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," Martin said.

And those moments are common for Eagle River residents, and they treasured them in their community.

"I can't imagine living anywhere else,” Braham. “I love to travel and I can't wait to get home.”

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