Friday, March 24, 2006

Flickr Photo Link

This is a link to my photos! flickr

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Alaskans are definitely a unique people. Folks who didn’t fit in down in the lower 48. People who like their hair long and as much personal freedom as the law will allow. Or perhaps more: something like 10 % of the state has a criminal record. As the saying goes: “People come to Alaska on vacation or probation”. Guns are a big part of life here. I live about a mile north of the intersection of NRA lane with Farmer’s Loop road. I’m not kidding. I’ll be happier once have a lock installed on my front door.

I made my first trip to the laundrymat a couple of nights ago. I’ve never seen so much hair. The laundry lady was a gorgeous tattooed punk with red-fro dredlocks down to her waist and only one front tooth. I was a little intimidated to buy laundry tokens from her, given the way she was man-handling the bear-like men who were waiting around for a shower. The laundrymat is a one-stop cleaning shop for cabin-dwellers. But, Pippy-the-Punk Longstocking explained how to use the machines and I plugged in my i-pod to make it clear to the wooly mammoths that I didn’t want to talk to them. It worked.

This weekend I’m cabin-bound, as my new car is in the shop getting a new head gasket, new airbags, and new brakes. I won’t speak of this again, for obvious reasons. Note to self: never buy a car from members of a Ukrainian religious cult who live out in the Bush. Yesterday, the temperature peaked at a balmy 20 F, so I decided to check out my neighborhood. It took me five minutes to make it to the end of my driveway, so I turned back and got my skis. There were 18 inches of snow on the ground yesterday and this morning we got another inch.

I decided to ski up to the Dog Mushers’ Hall at the top of the hill. The Hall is a regional headquarters for the mushing association. There is a big dog race here this weekend, but the start line was downtown and I had no way to get there. My guess is that today’s race is just finishing up because all of the neighborhood dogs are barking like crazy right now. I’m posting a few photos of the dog teams that were over in a field near the Hall. Today, I’ve been perfectly happy to stay home in my silk pajamas and drink coffee.

The cabin

Excuse me for a minute. Hmmm. I am writing this blog from my kitchen table and some kind of vermin has landed on my roof and proceeded to crawl into my stove vent. It sounds like it is about the size of a badger, but I don’t think there are badgers here. I actually have no idea what this animal might be. So far, I’ve only seen a moose and a giant bird that looks like a chickadee on steroids, which may or may not be a Canada Jay, according to my high school science teacher Ferris (phone diagnosis). Well, the flying badger has stopped tap-dancing in my stove vent and has apparently settled down for a nap.

Let me tell you about my cabin. First, it’s hard for people from the Outside to understand cabin-living. Most young and/or poor people in the Interior live in cabins. Permafrost conditions and extreme cold make plumbing very expensive to build and maintain. So people live in these cabins with no plumbing. I have an outhouse about 40 feet behind my cabin, connected to a shower room which is fed by raising a bucket of water up a tree on a pulley. I can get my water from one of two sources: one is at a pumphouse in Fairbanks that is polluted by mine tailings; the second is at a spring in the nearby settlement of Fox, which is more pristine. I haven’t yet found the time to go to Fox, so I’ve been using the polluted Fairbanks water for washing and purchased drinking water at Fred’s, which was shipped here from Cincinatti. (?)

I would be lying if I told you that running out to the outhouse at -30 F is fun. But apparently it increases my chances of seeing the aurora borealis. And nighttime wildlife. Last night, a midnight run let me hear a couple wolves howling in the spruce bog that is my backyard. The drinking/cooking/washing water is relatively easy to manage. I bought four of these 7 gallon jugs that have spouts on them and it costs only a quarter to fill these up at the pumphouse. This morning I washed my hair in a bucket in my kitchen, but during the week I can easily use the showers at my lab. In the summer, I think the tree-bucket shower will work just fine.

The cabin is brand new and quite nice. The heat is oil-burning and plenty warm enough. There are two bedrooms, so I use one for a study, and a large kitchen/dinning area. Pictures of the outside are posted on my Flicker site. I’ll post some of the inside when I get unpacked and settled. On the side of the cabin is a carport. But when my landlord built the place, he put the power outlet near the front of the house, so to plug in my engine block heater I can’t actually park under the car port until I get a long extension cord. My landlord is quite a character. His name is Greg. In addition to building and managing half a dozen cabins, he’s also a pilot, and a mountaineer. He’s a sweet guy, but I would describe him as having a few bats in the bellfry. And possibly a badger.


Up on a ridge in the northwestern part of town is the University. The UAF community is something of a science commune. I work at the International Arctic Research Center, which is half owned by the US NSF/NOAA and half owned by the Japanese national science agency and full of Russian and Chinese researchers. The National Weather Service (NOAA) occupies the second floor of our and connected to the building is the Geophysical Institute and offices of the USGS, the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center (which is sponsoring my post-doc), and a Natural Sciences building including a handful of oceanographers with whom I went to the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Other parts of campus relevant to me include several buildings dedicated to Arctic biological research, a cold-regions engineering facility, and a Northern water resources group. The Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab (CRREL) is at nearby Fort Wainwright and like the University, also operates facilities up on the North Slope for research and military operations. Eielson Airforce base is also just outside of town, near Ft. Wainwright, so there are a lot of Alaskans in the war right now. In addition to science, the university has a strong Native culture and languages program. But not much else. So it’s all Arctic all the time up here, which is probably how it should be.

Hello FBX

Well, so I think most of you know where Alaska is. I don’t know the geography like a native, but I can tell you that the area of the state is about 1/3 that of the lower 48. There are several major geographic regions. Anchorage is down in “South Central” which also includes Valdez (where Volodya taught me to fish 3 years ago), the Kenai Peninsula (where Miriam works), and Kodiak Island (where friend Jeff lived as a kid). “Southeast” is the panhandle that is stuck down in British Columbia and includes Juneau (where friend Ellen lives on a boat), Sitka (where more boat friends work), and Ketchikan (where sister-in-law’s sister Danielle will work this summer). The Aleutians are the long skinny strand of Volcanic islands that stretch toward Eurasia and include the fishing capital of Dutch Harbor where I started a research cruise a couple of years ago. North of Dutch, on the coast near the Bering Strait is Nome, where the same cruise ended. In the center of the state, just below the Arctic Circle, is Fairbanks. The Alaska mountain range lies between Anchorage and Fairbanks and contains Denali Park and North America’s tallest mountain. Between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay lies the Brooks Range. Single highways along the oil pipeline connect Anchorage and Fairbanks and Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay. The former is generally well-maintained, but winding roads mean the journey is 8 hours at 50 mph. The later is treacherous and prohibited by the rental car companies. The area north of the Brooks Range is known as the North Slope and includes the National Petroleum Reserve, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and native villages including Barrow.

So Fairbanks is the capital of the Interior, as it’s called. It has one of the most extreme climates on Earth. For the two weeks I’ve been here, nights have dropped to -10 to -35 F and days only creep up to 5 to 15 F. This summer, days can reach into the 90s F. When I was here a few years ago in August, it went from 90 F one day to 40 F the next morning.

Fairbanks isn’t much to look at. The city is in what is called the Tanana Valley. There is a tiny downtown, but nothing of interest is located in downtown, so there’s no reason to go there. Instead of throughfares, the town is crisscrossed by a few expressways that link the few places a person would want to go to (auto repair shops, Sears, Wal-mart, Fred Meyer grocery, local water pump, a couple of Thai restaurants). Along these expressways are a mix of rundown houses, abandonned-looking trailer homes, and random commercial properties (suntanning salons are popular). There are no zoning laws in Fairbanks. This is a poignant statement on the Alaska philosophy of life. Alaskans believe that people should be free to build what they want, where they want, and not be concerned with contributing to a collective welfare of any kind. Similarly, they believe there is no reason to keep your possessions in your house or garage if you can keep them on your front porch or lawn. Maintaining a lively “downtown” would require a value for public space and collective expression. Why bother, when you see everyone you know at the grocery store, anyway?

Goodbye New York

The mode of my departure from New York was the same as that of my arrival over ten years ago: a taxi ride across the Tri-borough Bridge. The days, on the other hand, were as different as the woman in the backseat. When I arrived in August of 1995, it was a warm summer night and the sun was setting spectacularly behind the Manhattan skyline. When I left in March 2006, it was a gray, slushy afternoon with Easterly winds blowing crisp marine air over the city. The streets were still holding the remnants of New York’s biggest snow storm in history, making it seem more like quiet New England than the mid-Atlantic megapolis. New York in August is an entirely different city; more ethnic, more flamboyant, reminiscent of a steamy Westside Story and the old E-street band.

My roommate, Miriam, helped me carry my suitcases down to the car. The taxi driver on this trip seemed inclined to chat. He told me that I had a beautiful daughter. I told him she was my roommate, only three years younger. That kept him quiet until we arrived at the terminal. A big smile and a Nebraska quasi-drawl at the ticket counter ensured that the airline wouldn’t charge me for my overweight suitcases. Then I got on my flight to Chicago. In Ohare I walked a couple miles to the “K” terminal where Alaska Airlines departs for Anchorage. In Anchorage, I boarded the last leg to Fairbanks at midnight. An hour later my new Russian boss, Volodya, was waiting for me at the baggage claim at Fairbanks International. Most flights arrive and depart in Fairbanks at 1 am, because it’s the either the very end or the very beginning of a person’s journey to what they call the “Outside”. There are a few daytime flights to Anchorage, but it’s common to share these seats with cargo.

The 11-hour trip went surprisingly quickly. I looked over the pictures from my going away party and tried not to cry. Too much. I read Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” and thought about my summer plans for hiking in Denali Park. I hope they don’t involve starving to death or being eaten by a bear. But I am definitely excited by the adventures ahead.