I realized last week that we’re halfway through our Alaska sojourn. I’d planned to stay here 11 months – to the day, in fact – and we just passed our 5.5 month mark. The days are undeniably lighter as the sun hangs about longer in the afternoons. We’re up to 7 hours of sunshine now and I’ve been amazed to see the sun hanging around until past 4:30. We got hit with a bunch of -40ºF weather starting the third week of January and I understood quickly why Alaskans don’t like to do a whole lot of outdoor stuff with temps like that. I had to wear double layers of everything and one can’t expose bare skin for long. Walking from class to class is OK – but more than a half hour of that and your skin is in serious pain. Today I went cross-country skiing while it was -11 and I still wasn’t wearing enough layers. I’m still sporting my mother’s mouton coat until it gets in the +10s. Although one doesn’t ski in a mouton – way too warm.
Fairbanks, by the way, saw its warmest November and December in history in 2014. But January 2015 cold rushed in with a vengeance. It was lovely to see every conceivable shade of ice blue outside. I spent the two Friday afternoons taking cross-country ski lessons (lessons + skis cost all of $10) and the instructor said I had the classic method down and didn’t need more classes. Everyone says that in March, the temps are in the +20s and everyone is out gamboling in winter sports by then, because the snow hasn’t unfrozen yet but the bitter cold has left.
Not everyone here is in a good mood. The state has no income or sales tax and it’s now got a $3.5 billion budget shortfall as the oil revenues just aren’t what they were. Money is so low that in Sitka, they can’t afford to keep up some of the asphalt roads, so they are converting them back to gravel! UAF is talking massive budget cuts; faculty are unhappily wondering about involuntary furloughs in an effort to avoid layoffs and the situation is truly dire state-wide. Our public school district alone is facing $11 million in cuts. And every time the military hints it might decrease forces here, there are huge protests, as everyone depends on federal dollars from all the bases and those who live there. Alaskans hope the Russia remains a threat, as that gives good reason to keep Congress sending money our way. Which is why everyone was happy when Obama’s budget included $37 million an F-35 flight simulator facility at Eielson Air Force Base 20 miles to the east of us to prepare for the arrival of 4 dozen F-35s in 2020. Then again, lots of folks around here are screaming about Obama closing ANWR to future development. If there are any environmentalists in the state, they are keeping a low profile.
Meanwhile, Ollie and I (Veeka still wants to be named Ollie for the time being) are still in search of northern lights. She had school off Friday, so we drove to a beautiful lodge in the eastern Alaska range where we hoped we could see beautiful light displays as soon as it got to be dark. Alas, that was not to be – the aurora may have shown somewhere, but we hardly saw a thing – and the nights were clear! The lodge was one-quarter mile from the pipeline off the Richardson highway, so I rented snowshoes from UAF and put Ollie’s on, then mine. Problem is, the path to the pipeline through the woods had not been snow machined down and so we were flailing through knee-high snow, which is harder to do than it sounds. The snowshoes helped a bit but one of mine was loose, which meant my boots would slip and I’d fall forward on my knees and then it was impossible to get up.
The first night at dinner, I ran into a couple, the male half of whom is in the military. He told me he worked out of the Northern Warfare Training Center at Black Rapids, which was walking distance from the lodge. Sure enough, I drove by there and there was this military complex. It is where soldiers are taught out to survive in mountainous and arctic climates. This couple was going to bunk out in the barracks Friday night but on Saturday they were going to camp out in -22 degree weather. I just looked at them but the female half said she was game. Not me. We passed three military bases during the 150-mile drive to the lodge and believe me, they keep the local economy humming.
Although the cost of staying there set me back a bit, the Inn at Black Rapids was gorgeous and it was fun to get away. It is easy to cocoon oneself while here, so I work against that. The roads were very good. What people don’t know is that 95% of the time it is sunny on winter days and one drives on bare pavement instead of snow or ice. I took along two sleeping bags they say you must have in case we should get stuck or marooned and spend the night in the car but nothing went wrong. But it is dangerous living here; less than two months ago, the co-owner of the Black Rapids lodge got caught in an avalanche just down Richardson Highway with his dog and a friend. The owner managed to keep part of his body above the snow but it still took him two hours to dig himself out by which time the dog and the friend had died. Folks from the warfare training center helped recover the bodies and the owner is still having major issues with all the snow he aspirated.