There are certain times here in Alaska where you feel you’re in the midst of a huge fairytale; when, for
instance, you’re standing outside after midnight and the northern lights decides to put on a display of huge green sky designs for you. That was last night. The lights were supposed to be very active, so I dragged Veeka to a park 5 miles out of town and…no lights! We’d just returned and she was sleepy and grouchy and it was 12:30 a.m. when – poof – a bunch of green swirls shot through the heavens. The past two weeks have been busy in that I got a 2-day trip to Nome in the midst of spring break. It had to do with a magazine article I’m writing on someone and she was flying to Nome to see the close of the Iditarod. So I booked a flight and talked a B&B into putting me up (as all the lodgings in town were booked out) and so I flew there, leaving the little one with a sitter in Fairbanks. Nome is a totally different experience than Fairbanks or Anchorage. It’s a town of 3,000 perched on Norton Sound leading to the Bering Sea. When I flew in, the top mushers were about 12 hours from the finish line. Sirens are supposed to go off when they come into town but either they didn’t go off or I slept through the arrival of the first-place winner, Dallas Seavey. Of course he did come in at 4:15 a.m. and all the bars were full of St.
Patrick’s Day revelers, so they emptied to see the winner. (Bars in Nome do not close until 5 a.m. This town takes its drinking seriously). Now I did get to see the 2nd-place musher – Mitch Seavey – come in. They have quite the set-up downtown with a huge arch and ramp to the finish line.
Had quite a few adventures that day. The person I was interviewing was not feeling at all well, but I managed to talk her into wandering about a craft fair at a local church. During the Iditarod, the Natives show up with ivory products, tons of stuff made of fur and other things that one can only buy in bush Alaska. Then a pilot I’d run into offered to take me up for a 2-hour spin around the area. It was a gorgeous sunny day with almost no wind, so I jumped at the opportunity but really, I’m not a good one for small planes! Every bump makes me grip the seat in terror. We first flew east to try to spot some mushing teams on their way to Nome. Then flew over the Kigluaik mountains, then over Teller and Brevig Mission (both small towns) and Port Clarence, the one deep-water port on the entire west coast of Alaska. Other than an out-of-commission Loran station there (that my parents once visited when my dad was the USCG admiral in Alaska), Port Clarence has no roads, infrastructure – nothing.
Then I called up the local mayor (whom I’d previously told I’d like to drop in for an interview) and so I showed up at her house just at dinner time, so she served me meatloaf and white wine and we had a lovely time.
The next morning, I got up early and went to the beach to see one of the mushers come in. It was actually quite beautiful to see the dog team coming along the beach and into town. A bunch of us stood and clapped as the musher – Martin Buser – pulled onto a main drag – he asked us to help untangle his dogs who had their ropes in knots so I stepped forward. And then he pulled onto the main drag and a police car accompanied him into town to the finish line. I met one family from Minneapolis who had brought their boy – who looked about Veeka’s age and the kid had saved money for two years to be there – and once you start getting to know the mushers and some of their personal histories, I can see how this stuff would be quite addicting.
Then I dropped by the house of a couple with a home overlooking the finish line and they host mushers for huge meals after they finish their races. (The musher whom I’d watched come up from the beach was there chowing down with his friends). This couple had walls dripping with furs, whale baleen and tons of other art. It was a corner of Alaska that I didn’t think I’d get to visit, and it was beyond fortunate that the timing was during spring break.
The light keeps on getting brighter and the weather keeps on getting warmer. Went skiing yesterday at Skiland, a place 20 miles north of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway (leading to a town called Circle on the Yukon River) that has the northern-most ski lift in the country. Again, a gorgeous, sunny day. Veeka doesn’t downhill ski, so I’ll leave her in the lodge where she happily draws or reads for a few hours while I hit the slopes. It is getting near “break-up time” when the rivers start to flow again. Near us is something called the Nenana Ice Classic with a jackpot of $363,627. You buy tickets and guess exactly when the Tenana River coursing through the small town of Nenana will start cracking. There is a tripod on the river attached to a timer. In 1917, railroad engineers spent $800 guessing when the river would break up and now the Ice Classic is in its 98th year. And today I joined a writer’s critique group that meets once a month at the local library. I brought a portion of a young adult novel I’m working on and listened to works by four other writers. One had a science fiction story based in Alaska; another had an apocalyptic scenario that involves a man on a boat adrift in the Bering Sea; a third was a poet and the fourth had a story about bush Alaska. The second man was telling me about driving the Haul Road, a 500-mile gravel road that goes north from Fairbanks almost to Prudhoe Bay through some fantastic scenery. I hope to go up it this summer and this man has driven it a bunch of times, but always in a heavy-duty truck. We agreed that my Subaru wouldn’t make it 5 miles on that road before blowing out two tires and getting rocks through the windshield. Fortunately there’s tour groups that take people up although it’s not cheap.