Category Archives: life in Fairbanks

The long good-bye

Veeka on the Savage alpine trail

Veeka on the Savage River alpine trail

I’ve been so glued to my computer in recent weeks but on Friday the 3rd, I decided to go on a lengthy day jaunt to Denali National Park. I mean, how much longer will we live 2 hours (117 miles) away from one of the prettiest parks in the country? I’d scoped out some hiking trails during a previous visit, so informed Ollie/Veeka that we were going to do a “strenuous” walk up the Savage (River) Alpine Trail. Although forest fire smoke made Fairbanks hazy, it was better going south of us, so by 2:30 pm we were poised at the trailhead. Up 1,250 feet we climbed and at one point, Ollie wanted to quit. So of course we had an argument and she huffed her way ahead of me only to see lovely vista after vista unfold. Although the skies alternated between gloomy and sunny, eventually the clouds cleared and we were dancing through high meadows full of arctic ground squirrels that had burrows just like prairie dogs. They

Ollie making her way down the Savage trail

Ollie making her way down the Savage trail

were quite tame. A lot of folks were hiking along with us and near the end, we were climbing through Dall sheep country but sadly none of them were lounging about. The trail is only 2 years old and a National Park crew built the thing with steps and a boardwalk over 4 miles. The panoramas were spectacular with one thing missing: Denali itself was fogged in. But hey, I was glad to see much of the Alaska Range out for our enjoyment. I’ve seen Denali twice, so don’t feel all that deprived. Once we got to a decent height, Ollie clambered about and stopped complaining; a good thing. Near the end there were some really steep drops and terrifying pinnacles, but she hopped about like a goat while I was nearly down on all fours, praying I’d not fall. Then she zoomed down the final slope, which was almost straight down. Just in time we caught a bus that took has back to our car. We were only gone 3 hours. Dinner was at Black Bear Coffeehouse, a vegan place that was very yummy. Sometimes the scenery feels like we’re living in a fairytale land here.
The next day we were in the tiny town of Ester, 7 miles from Fairbanks; a village known for being kind of counter cultural. There was a Fourth of July parade, then a lovely picnic for basically anyone who cared to show up and pay a fee. I took Veeka and one of her friends and it was so pleasant to be there. And yes, I hadn’t seen hippies like that in years!
Then we went swimming in one of the local swimming holes, as it was quite hot here. The Tenana River makes its way through braided terrain south of us which makes for lots of little beaches. The city has set up a stand at one that offers free life jackets for people to use. Can you imagine that in the lower 48? They’d be stolen in a minute. That’s one thing I like about being here; sometimes I feel we’ve gone back 40 years to a far simpler lifestyle where you could leave things out or doors unlocked and nothing would ever get stolen. Will so miss that.

After lots of hard work, I deserved to luxuriate in the gorgeous views.

After lots of hard work, I deserved to luxuriate in the gorgeous views.

The real high light of this week has been the publication of an article on Alice Rogoff, the new publisher of the Alaska Dispatch that I slaved over from February-May for the Washington Post Sunday magazine. Her husband David Rubenstein is a billionaire and co-founder of the Carlyle Group. I had heard her speak last November and was impressed enough to pitch an idea for a profile to the Post. But I had no idea how difficult writing this piece would be. Alice changed her mind three times as to whether she’d work with me. Fortunately she was in a “yes” mode during the 2 months I did much of the prep for the piece and followed her to Nome for the Iditarod. Then I innocently called her husband just to get a sentence or two – and whoa, did that cause fireworks! When I was told he hit the ceiling, I kept on asking the PR guy at Carlyle: Why? To this day I’m not sure what the problem was. As for her, she was just about to pose for the cover shoot for the article when she heard I’d called him. She cancelled the photo at the last minute and whenever I’d try to interview her friends, she’d ask them not to talk.

What the magazine cover looks like for my Alice Rogoff piece

What the magazine cover looks like for my Alice Rogoff piece

I reminded Alice this was a profile and that, as a newspaper publisher, she’s a public figure. If she asks her reporters to investigate people all over Alaska, shouldn’t she get some scrutiny? She didn’t respond to me, but I heard she contacted the Post to complain. All this made the piece quite a challenge to do but I’ve not spent 30+ years in journalism for nothing. You learn to never give up. Fortunately I got through to some helpful people – including Alice’s 92-year-old mother – who filled me in on important details. And my immediate editor at WaPo was incredibly supportive as one challenge after another came up. Nearly every journalist in the state I contacted refused to talk about her on the record. They all claimed that their careers would be finished if she blackballed them. When there’s one major newspaper in Anchorage and she owns it, they have a point. But some of the people I chatted up weren’t in any danger and still they chickened out. Thus, I am grateful to the folks who did allow themselves to be quoted. Then, I was told Alice wasn’t allowing the Dispatch to release photos for my piece and they were the only folks with any pictures of her. Fortunately I got through to one of the editors there who went to bat for me and I’m very pleased with the photos we got. So far, the reaction has been good and the folks at UAF were glad to see it.

With Athabascan drummers in the center, there was a Native hoe-down at the anniversary gathering last Monday.

With Athabascan drummers in the center, there was a Native hoe-down at the      100th anniversary gathering of the Tenana chiefs last Monday.

 

 

Lastly, on Monday there was the coolest ceremony on campus to mark the 100th anniversary of UAF’s founding and the 100th anniversary of the meeting of the Tanana (Native) chiefs with government officials (specifically Judge James Wickersham) on July 5, 1915. It was the beginning of a formal relationship with the Athabascan tribes and the U.S. government. That is, instead of making – then breaking – treaties as had been done throughout the 19th century, the U.S. government actually tried working with the Natives. There is a cool stained-glass window about that meeting in St. Matthew Episcopal Church that I’ll try to post here. The gathering was on a hillside where a Native studies center will be built. Anyway, at one point, Trimble Gilbert, one of the present-day chiefs, was giving an invocation. He mentioned that he is an Episcopal priest and made the sign of the cross and recited the Lord’s Prayer in Gwich’in. Most folks probably think the Natives here are smoking peyote but

This stained-glass window in St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Fairbanks shows the Tenana chiefs as they were meeting with Judge Wickersham on July 5, 1915.

This stained-glass window in St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Fairbanks shows the Tenana chiefs as they  met with Judge Wickersham in 1915.

those Anglican missionaries more than a century ago did their jobs and the tribes are quite Christianized. After the prayer, a bunch of people got up with their birch wood and moose skin drums and had the coolest hoedown for about five minutes. It was lovely to watch and then we all processed across campus for lunch.
And so these recent weeks have been a long good-bye for us as we slowly tear ourselves from this city and state. There’s so many things I didn’t get to do, ie going anywhere near Valdez or Cordova or hiking in the hills over Anchorage. I have no contacts in Anchorage whom I know well enough to stay with and hotel rooms in the area are very expensive in the summer. And we lack camping equipment, so I guess the mountains around Anchorage will have to wait. After we leave Wednesday afternoon, we’re heading south for a few days on the Kenai Peninsula so we can at least glimpse that pretty part of the state. And yes, hotel rooms are more than $200/night. Until then, I’m giving away stuff to neighbors, sending out copies of my Post piece and becoming immersed in packing boxes and bubble wrap scattered around the apartment.

Solstice and forest fires

Before the race at about 9 pm

Before the race at about 9 pm.

After a week of forest fires – hundreds – all over the state, finally our skies have cleared to a lustrous blue. This past week was like living under a permanent fog bank. But it rained much of the weekend, then cleared up Sunday morning. Sunday evening, a friend invited us over for a dinner of fresh salmon caught in some obscure spot off the Copper River. It was a lovely time chatting with friends and helping ourselves to some of their rhubarb plants. People do grow vegetables up here; quite a lot, in fact.
Before the forest fires was the solstice. They sure party hardy here during Solstice and of course we were in the midst of it all. The first event was the Midnight Sun Run, which started on campus. I was not planning to do it, as it was a 10K (6.2 mile) race and I hadn’t done a 10K in more than 20 years. But Ollie wanted to try it, although she had no idea as to what was involved. So I plunked down $30 for each of us to get a bright orange T-shirt and bib number and so we showed up an hour early near the starting line on the lower campus at UAF. The place was a sea of orange shirts, which actually looked quite

After the race: wet from all the people spraying us with water and totally tuckered out.

After the race just after midnight: wet from all the people spraying us with water and totally tuckered out.

pretty in the late evening sun which didn’t set until 12:47 a.m. The costume contest was a riot, as there were runners dressed up as Gandalf, Frodo and Saruman; a guy in a globe dressed as “global warming;” Glenda the Good Witch, Dorothy (carrying Toto) and other characters. The person who got the most applause (and laughter) showed up in a box with a lampshade on her head posing as a “one night stand.” Cute. Then at 10 pm, we were off. Ollie sprinted ahead of me, but she was flagging soon thereafter with a stitch in her side because of a piece of pizza she’d gulped down a few minutes before the race. Had warned her against that but sometimes they have to experience stuff before they get it, right? Now the two of us had hiked up and down Wickersham Dome the weekend before (a gorgeous hike in the White Mountains where you rise until you come out on a ridge with a 360º view.) And that was 7 miles. But this was on concrete and my legs were aching before long. Then we came out on a main highway and the sun (now at 10:45 pm or so) was this amazing florescent orange. I tried to catch it on film, but my iPhone only got a pale shadow.
Fortunately there were a lot of other walkers besides us. I had not realized how the everyone in town who was not running was sitting on the streets enroute cheering us on. There were lots and lots of house parties along the course with folks in lawn chairs standing there with hoses all too happy to douse us with cold water. Ollie especially liked running through every sprinkler she could find. Others handed us drinks. We were pretty slow; there were runners pushing strollers who were faster than us but

Ollie/Veeka perched on one of the crags at Angel Rocks, a tough 3-hour hike with steep ascents and descents. She loved clambering up anything with sheer drops.

Ollie/Veeka perched on one of the crags at Angel Rocks, a tough 3-hour hike with steep ascents and descents. She loved clambering up anything with sheer drops.

hey, when you’re 59 and pulling a 10-year-old alongside you who’s never run before, one cannot expect miracles. We ended up making it just under two hours (1:54:35 to be exact), then ate some free food at the finish line, then caught a bus back to campus. Bedtime was1:30 pm or so; we didn’t get up until 10:30 the next morning. By which time the actual solstice had occurred (at 8:39 a.m. when the sun’s zenith was at its furthest point away from the equator) even though the sun had risen at 2:58 a.m. Later that day, we went to a street fair in downtown Fairbanks where the temps were in the high 80s, so everyone was in shorts. So odd to experience hot and humid weather here.

In the enchanted wood

In the enchanted wood

The capstone of the solstice weekend was the Midnight Sun Game, an Interior baseball tradition dating back more than 100 years. We didn’t attend but it featured the Alaska Goldpanners vs. the Seattle Studs. The tradition is that no artificial lighting can be used. The best tickets sold out in April, plus Ollie had summer school the next day. Which she’s enjoying as it keeps her occupied in the mornings and adds structure to her day, as there aren’t any little friends on campus for her to play with. One of her friends comes back next week but we’ll be pushing out of Fairbanks the 15th or 16th and heading down to the Kenai peninsula for a few days, then onto the ferry to return to the lower 48. We’re feeling a bit melancholy about leaving in that we will miss it here. We’ve been running around visiting overlooks and gold mining fields and a rocket launch site run by UAF that sends rockets to explore the northern lights in the winter. One time I spent part of a hike gathering a plant called Labrador tea that only grows at high altitudes or latitudes so I could make a shortbread that used toasted Labrador tea leaves. Another time we hiked through a birch forest that felt like a scene out of Prince Caspian. It was so magical and truly in the middle of nowhere. There’s so much more to this region than meets the eye but you have to wait until the snow melts to explore a lot of it.
Before we jump on the multi-day ferry that will take us back to the Lower 48, Meanwhile, there’s lots of packing to do and details like changing health insurances (what I’d bought for Alaska won’t work in Washington state) plus jobhunting and tutoring Ollie in basic multiplication and division so she has a prayer of making it through fourth grade. The days are so long here, so one packs in as much as possible.

The hike across Wickersham Dome about 28 miles north of Fairbanks. I'd come equipped with bear bells and bear spray but I needn't have bothered; half of Fairbanks was hiking about that knob that day.

The hike across Wickersham Dome about 28 miles north of town. I’d come equipped with bear bells and bear spray but I needn’t have bothered; half of Fairbanks was hiking about that knob that day. Veeka is in the distance.

 

In which Veeka turns 10

The Big Event of the past two weeks has been Veeka’s 10th birthday. It’s amazing to realize that 10

My blue Cinderella is about to blow out her candles.

My blue Cinderella is about to blow out her candles.

years ago on April 16, 2005, I was wandering about the island of Capri taking a rest from pope coverage. Three days later, Joseph Ratzinger would be elected Pope Benedict XVI and I’d be there in St. Peter’s Square watching it all. Meanwhile in Rudny, Kazakhstan, a little girl was born two months premature in a drab concrete bunker hospital. And 22 months later, she and I would meet.
The 16th was pretty quiet other than the obligatory cupcakes I supplied to her class. Then on the 18th, about 11 kids gathered at a local movie theater to watch the new “Cinderella” film and then march off to a birthday room where Veeka blew out 10 candles on a birthday cake with white coconut icing. She wore her blue Cinderella dress and crown she’d gotten at Disney World, so everything worked, thematically. Members of my family sent her gifts and in so doing, they got a whiff of what I’ve put up with all year in terms of slow mail delivery. Packages sent Fed Ex took DAYS to get here, partly because I have a PO Box number, as does everyone on campus. Meanwhile, the days here just keep on getting longer and longer as we gain 7 minutes of light per day. I snuck out this morning at 2 a.m. and darned if the western horizon wasn’t still light. And there’s two more months to go until summer solstice.

Veeka and her friends at her party

Veeka and her friends at her party

The rest of my stay in DC was lovely, by the way. Had brunch with Rob and Jan, then visiting with some of Veeka’s friends (and mine) plus a lovely evening prayer service outdoors in the cool spring evening air. Veeka and I always used to go to these things every Sunday evening and we loved seeing all the families and kids and Veeka would be running off and playing with them. I went back – it was Divine Mercy Sunday so there was a huge gathering of people I’ve known for the past 7 years; friends who’ve had new babies and old friends who like me are a bit older and heavier! It was so wonderful being in a place where the temps were over 50º! All the flowering trees were out. We don’t get those in Alaska.
The next few weeks are pretty crazy as I work on the second draft of a large article I’m doing for the Washington Post plus wrap up several classes. Finals week is the first week of May – and the time when my WaPo draft is due – so lots to do. The weather in Fairbanks lingers in the ‘40s but it’s sunny outside so who minds that?
As I write this, I’m in Anchorage for an Alaska Press Club gathering where I have to deliver a speech as the Snedden Fellow is expected to do. They’ve brought in speakers from around the country, so it’s a nice opportunity to hear journalists talk about our craft. My field is so endangered these days. The University of Alaska system is contracting quite fiercely and the journalism department where I’m resident has been put on notice to increase enrollment within the year – or else. UAF announced this week they’re cutting whole departments – including philosophy – because of the loss of oil revenues. Was talking with someone tonight about whether Alaska and other oil states have planned for a future where oil stays $40/barrel or under. “The oil industry counted on selling 150 million barrels/day; the top this year has been 90 million,” he said. All Greek to me but clearly Alaskans are used to a fantasy existence of not paying sales or income tax. So now they’re talking about laying off tenured teachers from my school district because of no money from the state and partly because of shrinking enrollments. Fairbanks is losing population, sadly. Including us. We have less than three months to go here.

The road to Nome

There are certain times here in Alaska where you feel you’re in the midst of a huge fairytale; when, for

Mitch Seavey coming in 2nd in the Iditarod

Mitch Seavey coming in 2nd in the Iditarod at about 8 a.m.

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.

View of Nome from 800+ feet up

View of Nome from 800+ feet up

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.

The plane (a Cessna 206 I think) that I flew on

The plane (a Cessna 206 I think) that I flew on

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.

Me at Skiland. The camera is looking east.

Me at Skiland. The camera is looking east.

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.

Mushers and the ides of March

Am not sure of the name of this musher, but I caught his entire ensemble (in orange) with Ollie and a friend in the foreground.

Am not sure of the name of this musher, but I caught his entire ensemble (in orange) with Ollie and a friend in the foreground.

Tomorrow I’ll get to watch the finish of the Iditarod in Nome on Alaska’s west coast. But it was fun to catch the start as well. I went with my daughter’s 3rd grade class to the front yard of a classmate. The musher’s trail ran right in front of their house, so we all stood there and shivered and drank hot chocolate and ate hot dogs. Lots of folks were standing around watching each dog-laden sled. Some of the mushers had on crazy hats and nearly all waved to us and we yelled out encouragement. We stuck around for the first 30 mushers but after an hour, the kiddos were freezing, so we had to return to the bus. Would have liked to be closer to the starting line but it was a mob scene there and I heard later that the buses charted by the city got people there more than an hour after the start. If you’re interested in learning more, check out iditarod.com. It’s a race of about 1,000 miles through some really rough terrain in central Alaska and on the coast. As it turns out, I’m working on a magazine piece for The Washington Post that requires me to fly to Nome tomorrow (March 17) for the end of the race, so hopefully I’ll get to see the finishers. The mushers are moving so fast, I might miss the front

Musher Nicholas Petit is racing by us here.

Musher Nicholas Petit is racing by us here. Mushing in sub-zero temps is a lot harder than it looks.

runner, but I’m hoping to stand along Front Street and see some of the others. Veeka, aka Ollie, isn’t going with me but is staying in Fairbanks with a sitter. This week is spring break, so I’m taking a break myself to work on the aforementioned article plus my taxes (!) The latter is the most hated thing I do every March, but since I always get quite a bit of money back, it’s a necessary evil.
One thing I have gotten to do is ski one of the few local downhill ski places there are. This place was called Moose Mountain and you haven’t lived until you’ve skied when it’s 0ºF out! There’s a whole different feel to the air than when it’s in 20s or 30s. Your face just burns, as does your nose. You have to wear some kind of sunglasses or goggles, as your eyes get cold as well. There aren’t real high hills in Fairbanks, but Moose “Mountain” had some really nice hills and a 1,300-foot vertical drop. There was not a lift, but there were school buses that picked you up at the bottom and brought you to the top. Sounds kind of dumb but it worked quite nicely and gave us a chance to warm up on our way to the top (which you don’t get to do on a chairlift). The place was not crowded at all and I had some lovely runs through the birch trees in the late afternoon sun.
One nice piece of news I got last week is that I won a contest for best magazine reporting. There’s a group called the Religion Communicators Council and they award prizes called the Wilburs each year.

Me at Moose Mountain in 0-degree weather despite the sunshine.

Me at Moose Mountain in 0-degree weather despite the sunshine.

I’d done a piece for More magazine on Nadia Bolz-Weber and without my knowing it, More submitted my piece to the contest. I was up against all other writers for major national magazines and I came in first. This link explains it all. The awards ceremony is April 11 in the Washington DC area, so….I decided to go! I have just enough frequent flier miles to get there on two different airlines. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough for Ollie to come along so alas, she must stay with a sitter again. And no, More magazine didn’t offer to help out. My brother Steve won a Wilbur last year for his work for the Oregonian. I had won in the newspaper category in 2002, so I’ve been to their banquets before. They are very dressy affairs. And it will be SO pleasant to be in DC during all the cherry blossoms being out.

Of dogsledding and ice carving

First you have to get positioned on the musher's tracks

First I had to get positioned on the musher’s tracks.

Although it is March here, it seems like we’ve had more snow than ever these past few days. Which is good for us in that tomorrow, the Iditarod (a famous 1,000-mile race from Fairbanks to Nome by dogsled) will take place and for that they need snow. Usually it starts near Anchorage, but this year’s warm temperatures up here has made Anchorage a no-snow zone. So the race start was switched to Fairbanks. I’ll be with my daughter’s class tomorrow helping to chaperone – and for selfish reasons – because I figured that school buses will be able to park closer to the starting line than the general public will. To get in the mood, I did some dog mushing myself a few weeks ago. Someone brought a team of dogs to UAF to let students have a run around a field next to the rec center, so that’s me in the

Then - off you go!

Then – off I went!

very back, in the white jacket. Once you get the hang of balancing yourself on the runners in the back, it’s a lot of fun.
I’ve been filling my days with several classes, one of them a Scandinavian history class I’m taking for fun. Hadn’t realized how many Danish kings were called Christian or Gustav or Carl; ditto for Sweden. Did not know a thing about the history of that part of the world, except I am sort of the class expert on Iceland, having been there twice. Now we’re reading The Emigrants to get a feel for 19th century life in Sweden, which was grim.
For the religion reporting class that I am teaching, I’ve been having a steady stream of guest speakers. So far there’s been a Catholic priest, Baptist minister, Jewish writer, a Muslim grad student and a UAF professor who practices Zen Buddhism. Because of the influx and outflux of military residents, the Baptist church has a turnover of 50% every five years, its minister told us. They average 80 visitors each Sunday, a surprise to me, as I have seen some real lacks in their outreach to visitors. The median age there is 28. Fairbanks has lots of independent churches, he said, and the incidence of sexual abuse among the general population is so high, they have to have extra-vigilant tests for childcare people. The Muslim speaker said there were 120-150 Muslims in Fairbanks (which I thought was a high estimate as there were only a handful at one of the services a student attended) and 3,000+ in Anchorage.

Miss Sunglasses Cool poses by an ice house sculpture

Miss Sunglasses Cool poses by an ice house sculpture

Last Sunday, we visited a real treat: the World Ice Carving Championships, which are here. There was a children’s park of ice houses and sculptures you could slide down or climb on, then a forest full of single-block sculptures done in the most beautiful fashion. I have no idea how some of these folks carved the mermaids, dolphins, horses and other shapes there were. When we visited, the folks carving the multi-block sculptures were just getting started with their chain saws and chisels plus a backhoe to haul in all the ice blocks. It was a sunny afternoon when we visited and it was so much fun.
One announcement: A few weeks ago, I was asked to be one of several contributors to getreligion.org, a 10-year-old blog that critiques religion writing from around the country. I started March 1. My introductory post was here and subsequent posts have been here and here. I’m concentrating on media from Denver and points west and my first piece was on how the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angles Times have treated Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. Thanks to low news budgets and massive layoffs, there are several states without one religion reporter and some of the major media have no one on staff covering the beat that I can figure out. I’m very happy to be joining a really good group of analysts and getting paid for reading religion news pieces.

Seen in the twilight, this lovely ice carving of a horse's head caught my attention. It was an entry in the World Ice Carving Championships in Fairbanks.

Seen in the twilight, this lovely ice carving of a horse with its foal caught my attention. It was an entry in the World Ice Carving Championships in Fairbanks.

Of the Yukon Quest and sled dogs

The finish line for the Yukon Quest minutes before Brent Sass arrived late on Feb. 16.

The finish line for the Yukon Quest minutes before Brent Sass arrived late on Feb. 16.

One of the more fun things we’ve been doing this past week is following the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, a race of mushers on dog sleds starting in Whitehorse this year and finishing in Fairbanks. The hardy souls who’ve raced this course had several days of -40 weather which is excruciating to be in for a short term, not to mention hours and hours racing in it. A number of racers scratched early on. School kids were told to pick a musher and follow him or her and Ollie chose on – Rob Cooke – who, as it’s turned out, is running last in the race! At least he is still IN the race as I’m guessing at least 10 people dropped out. It’s been fascinating to follow them in real time on yukonquest.com where you can see exactly which mountain slope they’re speeding up. Just yesterday (Feb. 16), word was that two of the mushers were racing each other to the finish, so Ollie and I went downtown (all of 5 miles), found a parking place and at 10 pm joined all the folks standing on the bridge spanning the Chena River to wait for the first musher to come through. When Brent Sass pulled up at 10:50 pm, everyone cheered and bells rang out in the town. Handlers were throwing steak pieces at the dogs, who looked none the worse for wear. The musher had tears pouring down his face, as he’d raced this course 8 times before and finally won it. Fortunately for us, it was a balmy 24 degrees out, so the temps were not bad at all.
We stuck around for the second musher, Allen Moore, who pulled in just after midnight. I got better photos of him; the winning musher was mobbed by camera people so I couldn’t get anything decent as we were in the stands or on the bridge. There was still a good crowd to welcome the second guy. Afterwards, Ollie and I went driving on some back roads to get a better look at the northern lights and sure enough, we finally found a good place only 4 miles from where we live, but over a ridge where no light pollution exists and – voilà – there were long sweepy bright green tendrils across the sky. We drove out there again tonight and got another show.

The arrival of the second musher, Allen Moore, after midnight.

The arrival of the second musher, Allen Moore, after midnight. You can see the dogs in the backgoround.

More dog mushing is coming our way, as the Iditarod will be starting here in a few weeks. Usually it starts near Anchorage, but the southern part of the state has almost no snow, thus the race has been relocated up here; only the second time in 42 or 43 years that has happened. Of course the locals are quite happy about this but city officials are trying to figure out how to squeeze 20,000 onlookers along the Chena River to watch it all on March 9. I’ve gotten more interested in what it takes to mush these impossible distances at great speeds (for a dogsled) and it costs a fortune to buy all the dog food, mail it to spots along the trail plus equip your own self which is why all these racers seek out sponsors.

Ollie and her kittycat cake.

Ollie and her kitty cat cake.

Ollie is hanging in there, doing fun things like taking a cake decorating class, as she really is quite the artist. We got an overnight trip to Anchorage so I could lecture at the University of Alaska/Anchorage campus. On Feb. 14, I sent in a book manuscript that I’ve been working on for close to three years, which is a big load off my mind. I’m now working on 2 academic papers plus I am taking an undergraduate course in Scandanavian history, which has been much fun. There’s a lot of smart people in the class and the professor did her doctoral thesis on the alcohol culture in far north latitude countries. Today we discussed how Iceland’s volcanic past has shaped the way its citizens look at life. We figured that Alaska and Iceland have a lot in common. They’re both at the same latitude; in fact Fairbanks is situated just a few degrees north of Reykjavik; and both are considered as exotic northern playgrounds for tourists. I was reading a book out of the UAF library on far north tourism and how for hundreds of years, people have flocked to warmer climes but in the past century, the north has been seen as a place to go and relax as well.

Halfway through our Alaska stay

One of Ollie's tasks is learning how to plug in the car, which she's doing in the Fred Meyer parking lot. Because if you do not plug in the car, it may.not.start.

One of Ollie’s tasks is learning how to plug in the car, which she’s doing in the Fred Meyer parking lot. Because if you do not plug in the car, it may.not.start.

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.

Although you cannot see it, Ollie is standing atop the oil pipeline with the Alaska range in back of her. The pipeline is buried at this point.

Although you cannot see it, Ollie is standing atop the oil pipeline with the Alaska range in back of her. The pipeline is buried at this point.

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 Inn at Black Rapids

The Inn at Black Rapids

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.

This is before we went on our snowshoe hike.

This is before we went on our snowshoe hike.

Dark nights and days and a new MA degree

A really pretty moonrise to the north of us. Am not sure how the moon can rise in the north - must be a latitude thing.

A really pretty moonrise to the north of my apartment. Am not sure how the moon can rise in the north – must be a latitude thing.

A few nights ago, I ate downtown with a friend at a Thai restaurant; the third such restaurant I’ve eaten at since arriving here. Fairbanks apparently has a sizeable Thai community that operates numerous establishments in the area; for what reason, I have no idea. The weather here is the polar opposite of Bangkok! And there were no Thai restaurants in Jackson, so things have improved for us. We’ve also found a Pho restaurant (none of those in Jackson, either). I haven’t eaten out that much, as nearly everyone I know is on a student budget plus the cost of living here is quite high. Fall semester is done here and I handed in my grades today. So we have a breather of nearly a month. I’ve not seen my evaluations yet, but I was reading a piece in Slate trashing anonymous student evaluations. They cited a study showing that when the professor is a woman, she loses an entire point in ratings. From the article: They (North Carolina researchers) found a way to blind students to the actual gender of instructors by focusing on online course studies. The researchers took two online course instructors, one male and one female, and gave them two classes to teach. Each professor presented as his or her own gender to one class and the opposite to the other. The results were astonishing. Students gave professors they thought were male much higher evaluations across the board than they did professors they thought were female, regardless of what gender the professors actually were. When they told students they were men, both the male and female professors got a bump in ratings. When they told the students they were women, they took a hit in ratings. Because everything else was the same about them, this difference has to be the result of gender bias.

Sign for the friendly pooches that were hanging out in the UAF library.

Sign for the friendly pooches that were hanging out in the UAF library.

Given that many universities demand copies of your student evaluations when you apply for jobs, this concerns me quite a bit. Let’s hope for the best. This week on campus has been one of Christmas receptions and “finals dogs,” which are dogs from a local shelter brought in for students to cuddle and apparently get less nervous about their tests. There were four dogs and a bunny on display in the campus library. Veeka got to make a gingerbread (actually graham cracker) house and meet Santa Claus at one party for campus residents. Today is “pajama day” at her school where she will arrive in her nightgown and run around in her bedroom slippers and bathrobe all day. That’s a new one but apparently it’s done right before Christmas break.

Santa and Veeka. All she wants is a new CD player.

Santa and Veeka. All she wants is a new CD player.

The big news for me this week is the master’s degree I got Sunday from the University of Memphis. Were I still living in Tennessee, I would have traipsed across the stage, but with no family or friends to speak of anywhere near Tennessee, it seemed a waste to fly back there but for a few seconds onstage. But I now have my second MA which will hopefully aid my job-hunting prospects. I am so glad I went and did it, as I learned so much getting that degree and it really added to the things I can use as a professor. It was 18 months of hard work and I’m happy to say my GPA was a 3.68, the highest I’ve ever had. Not bad for cramming in 4 graduate courses a semester. Which sounds a lot easier than it was.
The next two weeks will be busy. On Sunday, we take a 12-hour train ride through the snowy wastes from Fairbanks to Anchorage, then fly to Seattle to spend Christmas with my folks. We leave Seattle Dec. 30 to return to Anchorage, spend several days there, then fly back to Fairbanks just before Veeka’s school starts. Seattle will feel like the tropics compared to what we’ve lived through since

This is sunshine. Around 2-2:30 pm, a shaft from a sunset zips across the trees across the street, turning everything golden for a few minutes and providing us with the only Vitamin D we'll see all day.

This is sunshine. Around 2-2:30 pm, a shaft from a sunset zips across the trees across the street, turning everything golden for a few minutes and providing us with the only Vitamin D we’ll see all day.

early October. Today I splurged and got my hair done and the stylist – like everyone else here – was telling me how warm it’s been in Fairbanks, as they usually are in the -20ºF range at this time of year. And it was a balmy 17ºF instead. But January and February are yet to come. And, I’m getting used to walking Veeka to her bus in the dark, as dawn doesn’t come until 10:57 a.m. It’s not pitch black until then; it’s just kind of a foggy grey. It’s just that getting her dressed for the bus in boots, heavy mittens, snowsuit and cap takes several minutes. It’s become our morning ritual and she’s gotten pretty quick at it. This weekend is the darkest we’ll get all year. Officially, we’ll have 3 hours and 42 minutes of light, which is kind of a shame because much of our train ride will be in the dark. At least the pretty part around Denali will be during daylight.

Thanksgiving and falling snow

Our Mongolian guests and my ordered-from-Safeway dinner

Our Mongolian guests and my ordered-from-Safeway dinner

Thanksgiving in Alaska certainly was a departure from last year. It was a quiet day in which we slept late, then had a Mongolian family over for dinner. I figured they had nowhere else to go and I wanted to show them what an American Thanksgiving is like. The father is on some kind of government-funded scholarship for a mining degree, as there are a lot of metals in Mongolia. The effort fell flat. Some of the food they clearly didn’t like. The language barrier was likewise frustrating. One thing we did manage to communicate about was Mongolian cashmere, which they said is far superior to what is sold in China. Now China markets its cashmere as from “inner Mongolia” which of course is not the Mongolia the country at all and my guests said the Chinese mix their cashmere with 20% polyester. . Apparently, cashmere is the warmest thing you can wear in the winter.
Last Saturday, I was an exhibitor in one of five zillion local winter bazaars that start in early November and go every weekend. If you want good made-in-Alaska stuff, these are the places to visit. I splurged on some seal otter ear muffs at one as furry earmuffs are nearly impossible to find in the lower 48. Knit headbands, yes. Earmuffs? No. The woman selling them was called Umara and she was a Native seamstress living to the southwest of us in Slana (on the way to Valdez) and she promised they’d be warm. Well, they sure are! As for my books, I had shipped them up here for my Snedden lecture, then figured I might as well as try to sell them rather than ship them back. I made about $122 from it but…with what I had to spend for the vendor’s fee and babysitting, I netted about $27! But I had fun exhibiting, though. I’ve learned some tips. First you have to engage people. As people sidle by my booth, I point to Knights, Maidens and Dragons (my kid’s book) and say, “That’s for kids over 8!

Me hawking my books

Me hawking my books

Do your kids read??” Then I guide them to a newspaper article about my book. I had boxes of free CDs (from a college radio station that basically leaves them on the floor of one of the admin buildings) and a bunch of free candy. As people munch on the candy, I talk about my “Quitting Church” book (“It’s not Quilting Church?” a woman asked me) and I got into a bunch of theological discussions on why people quit church. You truly have to be nice to everybody because sometimes people dressed in the sloppiest clothes were the ones who purchased my books. Or people who didn’t look like they’d be interested in what I do ended up being really fun to talk with. Good bets are always grandparents who need to buy a bunch of gifts for grand kids (and Knights, Maidens and Dragons of course is super-light to mail). The one downer is that a few things I’d brought along to sell that would have brought in $30/each (and would have paid me back faster for my expenses) did not sell. Except for a couple who bought 2 books, I sold nothing over $20. So you really have to hustle to sell multiple small things to bring in any meaningful money. Believe it or not, I’m going to try one more bazaar this coming Saturday.

Our new winter-ready boots

Our new winter-ready boots

Sunday night, had for dinner a couple from Yellowknife which, if you dig out your Canada map, is in the Northwest Territories. Which is basically the whole northern part of Canada. He was a magazine editor; she researches bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea. The latter is that huge body of water on Canada’s northern coast aka (to those living much further south) as the Arctic Ocean. They’re both in Fairbanks camping out in housing similar to mine to finish master’s degrees. I asked them what they were doing for Thanksgiving and they said they would be cross-country skiing 7 miles into the wilderness to stay at a cabin. I just gaped. I can’t imagine skiing 7 miles, much less packing in food, etc. to stay in a cabin God-knows-where. After we talked, I went to the gorgeous map store that’s in the UAF geophysics building and bought a circumpolar map that has the North Pole in the middle and with which you can see the enormous parts of Canada, Greenland, Russia and Norway that are at 80 degrees N latitude. It’s on the wall of my living room now and we love to stare at it. Oddly, the map store does not have very good Internet links, making it tough to order from them online; a fact that the man who runs the store is aware of but apparently there is little he can do about it. I’ve run into several things like this at UAF that are beyond cool, but the university doesn’t publicize them well at all. I found some links here and here as well as an intriguing WaPo piece about mapping elsewhere in Alaska and how the lives of pilots depend on good maps. One of the state senators, Ted Stevens, saw his wife die in one small plane crash and he died in another.

My little ski bunny

My little ski bunny

After a dearth of snow for much of the fall, the white stuff is falling in earnest now. Which is why the little one and I have had to invest in better winter wear, such as the boots shown here. The boots we brought up from the south had no traction and we were both sliding everywhere. The winter wear here is truly the real thing: Furs, cashmere and wool neck warmers. The enhanced wardrobe has also helped Veeka with her cross-country ski lessons, which are doing better now that she’s actually warm. This morning, I walked her to the bus stop through swirling flakes in the dark (the sun doesn’t rise until almost 10) and it seemed like a scene out of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: A dark sky with falling snow and a street lantern lighting the way. We expected to see Mr. Tumnus come marching along with his packages any minute.