ON TO ALASKA: As we follow the highway toward Alaska, the scenery continues to be breathtaking—green scrub pines (we later learn the old spruce don’t grow very tall due to the cold) and birch giving way to awesome snow-capped peaks that seem to be about the same height as the highway. The frost heaves and curves encourage us to be among the slow-moving traffic. We learn to watch the center and side lines (when they look curvy—here comes a frost heave!) The weather turns drizzly and overcast so we lose the more distant views as we approach Alaska. We are pleased that Matt has put our music on the IPOD and enjoy our favorites; we get a little NPR now and then but very little radio service at all. We have no problems at the border crossing.
DELTA JUNCTION farmer’s market has just opened we notice, so we stop. We are delighted to meet the mayor, hear about the strong winds and how natives indicated “only the white man would be stupid enough to build a town there.” The small group of vendors seems to be doing fine in any case and we have a wonderful tour of a roadhouse that the community has moved (with help from the military) from a military practice range. Volunteers staff it and provide fascinating guidance about Mrs. Sullivan’s famous cooking, garden (although the growing season is only 3 months, the very long days of sunlight create abundance for those who know what to grow), and along with the copies of the carpenter/handyman/photographer’s journal and pictures, we get a pretty good idea of life at the roadhouse—including breakfast about 6 and main meal about 10:30, with card playing at night. It’s fascinating to see how the people lived; the slim, stuffed mattress and few furnishings make us appreciate the RV mattress more. No local berries yet, but we buy a few local creations and enjoy them as we get back on the road.
TOK: The rain begins to get serious as we approach Tok, which seems a bit depressed, with some burned buildings and no salmon bake (we learn they lost their chef and would like to restart it—anyone interested, check in with “Fast Eddie” at his restaurant). We get lots of good information at the Tok visitors’ center about what to do in Fairbanks, and are encouraged to store the RV and take the ferry at some point—at least from Homer to Sitka so we begin to think about that. We decide to stop at a campground near the best available restaurant (Fast Eddies) and walk over for a late lunch. It’s cold and pouring, so we hunker down in the RV. Despite the campground’s advertising of WIFI, it doesn’t work, even though we are very close to the registration building. We have learned that many WIFI sites rely on satellite service, and bad weather seems to affect them. Jim works to have his blackberry internet work again (he had it stopped in Canada to avoid excessive charges) but learns we will need to wait until Fairbanks where Verizon has service. It’s so cold now that we turn on the furnace. The next morning, we finally get the scales to take a reading after leaving them in the bathroom with the doors shut and the furnace turned up so the electrodes will get warm enough.
FAIRBANKS: We are pleased to reach the “downtown” Rivers Edge RV Park Saturday June 27. The spaces are a bit tight so we are pleased that neighbor Mike (with wife Sharon) give us some advice and guide our other neighbors and their truck a bit so we have room to park Frosty in front of Rocky. We are very happy to be “settled in” and the WIFI works as advertised here. We look for a UCC or Disciples church but there seems to be none in the area—so we decide to postpone church until the following week when we’ve had a bit more time to look around. We realize our refrigerator has quit working, so we spend some time tossing things, cooking up what we can eat (including making a crock pot stew overnight for Sunday) and cleaning that out (the first available appointment is Tuesday). Nearby is a department/grocery store (Fred Meyer), where we find both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. By now, we are a bit news starved (having only heard some brief notes about the long-standing controversy on health care and more issues with Iran as well as a long segment on NPR about Michael Jackson’s unexpected death) so spend most of the day sitting inside devouring the newspapers. Monday brings a bit better weather so we start out with a tour of Fairbanks (we did the El Dorado gold mine 8 years ago with mom and dad Short so decide not to repeat that; and we are glad we went to “Dredge 8” then since that is shut down this year.
DRY CABINS AND PERMAFROST: The Fairbanks tour guide is half the fun, explaining how she lives in a “dry” cabin (many do not have water), brings in her water like many families and manages a make-shift shower on her porch in her fairly isolated 10 acres. We saw one truck carrying what looked like a 50-100 gallon tank of water. In addition to permafrost problems, well water often is not potable due to a variety of factors, most notably naturally-occurring arsenic. Downtown Fairbanks has treated city water; the pipes are kept from freezing in the winter by pushing constant steam across the system. The guide points out that people need to protect their homes’ stability in some way, either (if possible), drilling to ensure their footings reach below the permafrost to solid rock (a costly process), or by putting a few feet of gravel down to handle the shifting permafrost. The guide showed us the empty lot where a home built by someone who would not listen to the locals about the permafrost problem had been torn down once it was built and failed structurally. Fairbanks also has several still-occupied log homes. We watch a video about one man who wondered if he could survive a whole year on his own; he films his activities, including notching the logs for his cabin, and dealing with wild animals. He ends up staying 35 years—wow! (We are getting prepared, gradually, for our own “trek in the wilderness.”)
ALEUT EVACUATION TRAVESTY: The museum at the University of Fairbanks has a nice history discussion, displays of art, animals and native as well as natural history. Everyone enjoys the well-decorated outhouse and the special display about the polar bears’ plight was touching as well. However, the most shocking historical revelation to us was how in World War II the Aleuts were evacuated forcibly from their homes on the Aleutian Islands, moved to “camps” with little if any services (often without even doctors—worse than the prisoners of war camps), and after the war some were not even returned to their original homes. Those who were returned, some long after promised, found their homes looted and much destruction. Men sometimes were required to help catch sea animals (otters) even against their will, because the natives were the only ones allowed to “harvest” the animals and the government wanted the oil. Their suffering was not well known, and it was only when there were some reparations for the mistreatment of the Japanese that an apology and some small restitution were made for some of the Aleut suffering. We can only hope that more open government will keep us from such terrible acts in the future.
LARGE ANIMAL RESEARCH STUDY CENTER: Mike and Sharon comment about how wonderful the UAF LARS facility is, so we don’t want to miss that. The young tour guide explains how the Musk Ox is one of the few animals that have survived the time of the wooly mammoths and they hope to learn more about their survival methods. We learn also that the elk, moose, and reindeer are all part of the same deer family. However, reindeer were domesticated and bred for meat and antlers so their antlers have a somewhat more “intricate” look. The elk lose their horns every season; they grow a special part of their horns in the center of their face to protect their face as they lock antlers to fight for breeding rights. The Musk Ox bulls are particularly aggressive and are neutered after awhile. The bulls fight for the harem breeding rights too, but sometimes are so busy fighting that they don’t notice that another bull meanwhile takes the opportunity to mate. The undergrowth wool is extremely warm and valuable. We are fortunate to see some Musk Ox calves just born in April as well as a young male calf about a year old (his horns stick straight out). We decide the musk ox is so cute, we adopt a stuffed musk ox toy as our mascot and place it on Rocky’s dash.
FOUNTAINHEAD ANTIQUE AUTO MUSEUM: We need a break after going over our gear Saturday with Bob and Lisa, so head over to the auto museum, which we are delighted to find open July 4. Cars are no younger than from the 1930s and we find the only surviving “Combo,” which included a typical combustion engine first stage, with the exhaust going to a second compression ignition cycle, resulting in a more efficient and cleaner burning engine (you can tell that Jim dictated that part—how would I know?). We saw several cars where the back half of the bed could be converted to a pick up/ farm utility bed. I was impressed particularly with the wide-wagon type vehicle, whose wheels would run through the ruts made by wagons; the rear seat could be used to drive the family to church on Sunday, then removed to create a “truck bed” for farm use.
There was also an unusual snowmobile-type conversion used by doctors, where the front axel was replaced by skis and moved to the rear, fitted with treads like a bulldozer uses—very ingenious! All the vehicles were in running condition, and in fact several had been part of a regular weekly parade which included passing through our campground. Another part of the museum featured “original” vehicles—also working order—which many value as references so that restorations can be more accurate. Apparently, there are factions favoring one approach over the other but they work together. We are told that the Alaskans like to have indoor projects for the winter as a reason so many do restorations. The grounds of the Wedgewood Resort (part of the Fountainhead hotel chain) also feature a bird observatory, which is closed.
PIONEER PARK, SALMON BAKE, AND CHURCH OF THE REDEEMER:
Fairbank’s Pioneer Park is just down the road from us. It features pioneer-era buildings, shops, a great salmon-halibut-prime rib bake (which we decided we could only handle once), a truly exceptional wood carver whose work we wish we could afford, frequent live music, and among other historical items, the Harding Denali railroad car. We decided to attend the historical church Sunday, which we had understood was Presbyterian; however, we learn it is a much more conservative “Presbyterian Protestant” group, which uses 18th century materials (Prayer book and hymnal) and seems to be closer to the Church of England than the Episcopalians with which we are familiar. Reading their statements was interesting; only men are allowed to do anything it seems in their church. The small group (about 13-14 including the lay leader since they have been seeking a pastor for 7 years we learn, being served by a mixture of bishops or pastors “from the lower 48” or lay leaders in the interim) is very friendly and welcoming in any case. We mentioned our UCC affiliation as we signed their guest book and said our farewells; we are sure they realized that our theology is a bit different but we appreciated sharing the worship experience with them in this historical setting. I suggested that they might want to post the time of services as we had come searching inside, noticing the time on a bulletin that was posted, but nothing was posted outside the church building.
FINAL TREK PREP: Our guides, Bob and Lisa, graciously have agreed to meet us at the RV Park on Saturday to review our gear, so we will have time to make any needed corrections. By this time, we’ve managed to move to a terrific site right along the river, where we have two picnic tables and space to practice putting up the tent. Jim realizes we need to have a more specific, slightly larger ground cover and is able to find the exact one for our tent at one of the sports shops. We pick up a few additional items (including a terrific device my cousin DeAnn had recommended, to help with cold weather relief (passing water/urination) in the great outdoors; this great device eliminates the anatomical disadvantage we women experience and may make it possible to avoid exiting the tent in the middle of the night—we’ll see. We have to be sure that we do nothing of course to disturb the natural environment. We learn that our large Rick Steve’s back packs will be ideal for our “day packs” so are glad we brought them; sleeping bags and items for camp will go in the “dry bags” provided by the guides. Lisa helps me determine a few things I do not need, and I’m glad I bought the one pair of lounge-type pants that has no cotton or I would have needed to get something. I cannot locate my spare pair of glasses so decide I’ll need to bring some contact lenses “just in case.” We need only another water bottle and something versatile to carry it in and Jim decides to get a pair of nylon shorts. I also request a good hard cased to protect my glasses. So Jim goes off shopping after church while I catch up on the text of our posting. We are glad we do not have to worry about any food or cooking or eating utensils (we’ll work up to that for McNeil). We’ll meet Bob and Lisa at 5 today (Sunday July 5) for final instructions, and probably spend a bit more time “paring down” to make sure our gear all fits in the dry bag or day bag we are allowed to use. We’ll take notes and pictures and catch up after our return to “civilization” July 15.