Red-eye flights suck. I don’t have much else to say about getting to Fairbanks last night, except that around 4 am, somewhere over Canada, I woke up from a neck-wrenching nap and saw the most AMAZING sunrise. This is why you always fight for a window seat! Usually it’s “meh,” but sometimes you get this:
I landed around 7 am and checked in to my favorite hotel ever, Sophie Station. It’s not that it’s mindblowing or anything, but I love it because every time I stay here it feels like a cheerful gateway to whatever adventure is in store. I just get really excited. The rooms are clean and spacious, the staff is friendly, and I get a little kitchen area to end up not cooking in. Also they have piles of smooth green pens that migrate to weird places all over the city, which I hoard in my luggage because they’re just really satisfying to write with, and also because it makes my boss Vicki happy when I bring them back for her.
Welcome to Fairbanks!
This place is so cute.
After sleeping for a couple hours I went to Fred Meyer (they have those in Fairbanks) to shop for food for the trip. We stocked up for the whole ten days we’re gone, because we’re heading to two remote villages, and since packaged food has to be flown or boated in, it’s super expensive. It looks like I’ll be eating a lot of chili, pasta, granola, and backpacking pouch food. We also picked up lots of fruit for the community events we’ll be hosting. In rural Alaska, oranges are a treat.
This is probably a good time to introduce the permafrost researchers I’m working with! I know Dr. Santosh Panda through my work on OMSI’s exhibit about permafrost, and he is the one who originally urged my to apply for PolarTREC. He is friendly, softspoken, and has the most adorable daughter. I like him a lot. Dr. Alexander Kholodov, or Sasha, hasn’t been involved with the permfrost exhibit, so I’ve only met him once before, but I’m excited to get to know him.
After picking up food and loading it into Sasha’s car, Santosh and I went to pick up gear at a warehouse that supplies the university’s field expeditions. It’s a fun place to explore: basically everything you would need to survive in the Arctic is there, and if you say you want it, they will bring you to a rack where you can just pick your size and style out and take it. I mentioned I wanted to bring a warmer coat for our boat rides, and they handed me a massive orange thing that floats like a life vest and has a little bib you clip between your legs so that if you fall into the river, it doesn’t pull over your head. I feel well prepared.
Look at all this gear!
With a car-full of supplies in tow, Santosh and I drove the airfield to drop it off. It’s pretty handy: when you’re chartering a small plane, you can come days ahead of time and dump all your stuff onto a palette. Then they stash it in the warehouse for the day you depart.
Santosh at the airfield we'll be leaving from.
Loading up our gear.
Later that night, I went to see some friends I was out on the Yukon with last summer. One of them, a fellow named Jon, holds a bonfire every Wednesday at his property, and it’s a social hub because he owns a machine shop in town and seems to know everybody who has passed through Fairbanks in the last 40 years. Going to one of Jon’s bonfires is—and I don’t know how else to say this—so Alaskan. It’s kind of a culture shock to come from Portland: I get here, and I’m standing around with a growler of beer, delirious from a lack of sleep, and everybody is talking about trading seven pounds of salmon for some engine work, or spooking bears away from a foundation they’re building for a new cabin, or how few hours a day you can get away with powering a freezer, because your neighbor is moving and now you have to store your fish and meat on your own property, where you run everything off of one generator. This place is great.
I talked for a while with a guy who had just moved from Birmingham, Alabama. His whole life he’s dreamed of visiting Alaska, and a few months ago he sold everything he owned, loaded up his car, and drove 5,000 miles to get here. Arrived with no job and no place to live, but someone pointed him to Jon, who has work in the shop and cabins for rent peppering his property. “So how do you like it?” I asked.
“I absolutely love it,” he told me. “It’s better than I imagined.” We were standing on a little bridge, staring down at a creek below. Jessica, who worked on the permafrost exhibit and who I also know from the Yukon trip last year, walked up.
“Oh wow, this is the real Goldstream Creek. I didn’t realize it was right here.”
“Yep,” Alabama replied. “This is the real deal. Fairbanks was founded on this right here. I’d bet if you spent a day down there rooting around for gold, you could still come up with $100. It’s not gone.”
I play roller derby, and I’ve noticed that one of the things that makes it so fun is no matter who you meet, you have something in common to talk about: skating, teams, strategy, whatever. In Fairbanks, people talk about Alaska. I see the people who live here having a base level of fascination with the place, because why the hell else would you suffer through the weather. Most everyone I’ve met has had been social and easy to get along with, but most of them also relish the idea of heading downriver alone for a while—a week, a season—to go fishing. They get really excited for moose season. As a person who, in general, has a hard time being alone, I'm fascinated by people who enjoy their own company this much. Their approach to life calms me.
I told myself to hold off on photographs last night because I was socializing and I try to make myself Enjoy The Moment sometimes, but I’m finding myself wishing I had, because Jon’s bonfires are a thing you should see. I did take a picture of his outhouse:
I'll post again tomorrow and then I'll probably be radio silent for 10 days!
Greetings from Alaska,