Road Trip – 21/06/16 Fairbanks Welcomes Me Back (yeah, right) after 40 Years Away

Prior post:

[NOTE: To enlarge any image, right click it and choose “Open image in New Tab” or similar.

I’ve kicked back for two nights at the Alaskan Stoves Hostel in Tok and I’m very rested. I took advantage of the bathtub to wash clothes, using my “trampling out the vintage” technique of walking back and forth over them in lieu of a washing machine agitator. The building is very small and would have been quite crowded with its full complement of 9 people but I’ve had it to myself since I arrived. At one point the owner appeared and chided me for spreading out from my single dorm bed into the rest of the building. I pointed out that there was no one else there, to which she responded, “But someone could arrive at any moment!” I reassured her I would retract everything into my bed within 5 minutes of such an event. She wasn’t satisfied but really had no choice. I’m sure the stress of having very little revenue coming in for two tourist seasons is a factor in her attitude.

Respite after the drive: hostel in Tok, Alaska
Respite after the drive: hostel in Tok, Alaska

With some rest, I’ve gotten over being miffed at Susan for backing out of the drive up with me — a day after we had set out. She didn’t want to participate in my bit of Canada border deception, even though I designed it so she could claim almost total ignorance of what I was presenting. In retrospect, I’m glad she stayed back because I couldn’t have imposed the same forced march conditions on her that I was willing to tolerate myself. Traveling together, it would have taken more than the 7 days in which I drove it and likely would have involved hotels, restaurants, and a sane travel schedule.

Having calmed down, we agree that she’ll fly to Fairbanks to join me. No one should miss experiencing Alaska. I had ten years of it and we’ll be here all summer this year instead of the typical visitor’s two week stay or, even worse, the 7-day cruise ship experience.

The process of getting her a flight becomes an ordeal for a number of reasons. I’ve been an ardent T-Mobile fan for over ten years but in Alaska their service is very constraining. They have no network in the state so it’s all domestic roaming, which has severe limits. Outside (ie in the “Lower 48”) their network is very good so if you do end up roaming, it’s only for a few hours. In Alaska, it’s going to be three months straight, which isn’t going to fly. I must add, though, that after complaining some days later they’re giving me a generous monthly credit to offset the cost of getting accounts with one of the local carriers during my stay — something they’re clearly not obligated to do. Now though, having already used up my high speed roaming allowance for the month, phone internet is at absurdly slow speeds which makes most most apps think they’re not connected at all. Thus my attempt to make a Delta Airlines reservation is frustrating. I’ve already tried parking outside of the buildings whose wi-fi passwords I’ve collected, but although I can connect to networks, the town of Tok’s connection to the internet is apparently down so wi-fi is of no benefit whatsoever. After some hours sitting in the car in midday sun, I finally get the flight confirmed and set off on the 200 mile drive to Fairbanks.

The highway from Tok to Fairbanks largely follows the Tanana (TAN-an-ah) River, Alaska’s 5th largest, 3rd longest, and a major tributary of the mighty Yukon River. The Tanana is fed by the meltwater streams of many glaciers in the Wrangell Mountains and Alaska Range and is thus very milky with glacial flour (silt particles so fine they never settle out of the water). Due to its glacial origins it’s also a braided river, with many ever shifting gravel bars and flowing channels. Crossing such a river on foot can be quite dangerous because some of the channels can be deep and swift. A standard ploy while hiking in Alaska is to make river crossings early in the day before the sun on the glaciers increases melting, resulting in heavier afternoon flow downstream.

Gerstle River with its braided channels
Gerstle River with its braided channels.

Traveling northwest, I reach Delta Junction where the Alaska Highway officially ends. The road continues to Fairbanks as the Richardson Highway, the earliest vehicle route in the state, used to transport goods from the port of Valdez (VAL-deez) to the interior since 1910.

Northern terminus of the Alaska Highway, Delta Junction
Northern terminus of the Alaska Highway, Delta Junction
Preserved pioneer cabin, Delta Junction, Alaska
Preserved pioneer cabin, Delta Junction, Alaska

Delta Junction has a large outdoor display of roadbuilding equipment used in the 1941 highway construction project.

Power shovel and 6x6 truck used in original Alaska Highway construction, Delta Junction
Power shovel and 6×6 truck used in original Alaska Highway construction, Delta Junction
Scraper used in original Alaska Highway construction, Delta Junction
Tractor-scraper used in original Alaska Highway construction, Delta Junction

I’m only a 100 miles from Fairbanks now and I’m getting excited to see the old place for the first time in over 40 years. As the road parallels the river downstream, I check out a variety of state campgrounds and parking areas. One difference I notice is economic. When the state was flush with oil cash, these areas were open without charge. Now, parking to hike, fish, or picnic costs $5 and camping is typically $20 per night. Boat launching, an almost sacred Alaskan activity, is charged at $25!

45 miles short of Fairbanks, the Tanana River and Richardson Highway turn due west for a while and almost ahead of me is the distant Alaska Range including Denali, at 20,310 feet the highest mountain in North America and the 3rd most prominent and isolated in the world (this is based on how much it towers over its surroundings). Many visitors to Alaska never get to see the mountain because it’s often obscured by clouds, and my view today is only partial but it’s still a thrill. Even living in Alaska, you never ho-hum a good view of Denali, no matter how many times you see it.

My first glimpse of the distant Alaska Range, seen across the Tanana River. The upper slopes of Denali are in the clouds.
My first glimpse of the distant Alaska Range, seen across the Tanana River. The upper slopes of Denali are in the clouds.

Rolling into Fairbanks, I drive directly to one of the two hostels, initially bypassing the main parts of town. Billie’s Backpacker Hostel, run by elderly Billie, whose husband built the original version in 1971 as a dormitory for pipeline workers, is a charming place, very social and homey.

Billie's Backpacker Hostel, Fairbanks, Alaska

Son, Art, manages the place during the summer season and he’s also very friendly and helpful. He quotes me a price for a dorm bed and I respond that I had seen a substantially cheaper price online. He answers, “Oh, for that you have to sleep in the gazebo outside and some people don’t want that.” My response, “I can sleep outside? Let me see!”

“Outside” turns out to be a 6-bed, glass-roofed, hexagonal, former greenhouse in the garden. Looking it over, I consider it the best bedroom in the house and quickly snap up one of the beds. I can imagine some people having problems sleeping there in the perpetual daylight of Fairbanks summer (we’re only 5 days from the solstice) but I can sleep under any conditions and I love it.

Gazebo of Billie's Backpacker Hostel, Fairbanks, Alaska
Gazebo of Billie’s Backpacker Hostel, Fairbanks, Alaska
My bed in the gazebo of Billie's Backpacker Hostel, Fairbanks, Alaska
My bed in the gazebo of Billie’s Backpacker Hostel, Fairbanks, Alaska

Moving my stuff in, I begin my search for people I knew in the old days. I never lived in Fairbanks but I was there a lot during the years I worked for the University of Alaska. From 1977-1980, I worked in Anchorage but at a statewide position that required travel to the many far flung rural campuses. My boss was in Fairbanks, so I flew and drove up there a lot and had many friends and contacts there.

Most of my Alaska friends have left the state as they aged, decamping to the Alaska-lite cities of the Pacific Northwest like 2Seattle, Washington and Portland Oregon, whimpering about, “Too much snow, too cold, too dark…” I’m not in a strong position to criticize their choices since I left the state at the tender age of 35, but at least I didn’t do it because of the climate, so I remain stubbornly sanctimonious toward those who beat feet southward in their dotage.

There are some holdouts, though, and I’ve lost contact with all of them over the decades. I put my internet skills to work and find an old university colleague on the second phone call! He seems pleased to hear from me — at least he doesn’t immediately hang up. His house is under renovation so we agree to meet up later in the summer. I locate a second ex-colleague in Virginia on my first call. Since his retirement, he drives his van there for the winter but returns to his permanent home in Fairbanks every summer. Due to the Canada border closing he hasn’t set out for here yet, so I inform him — with my recently acquired firsthand experience — that as an Alaska resident he should have no trouble transiting Canada. It’s a little late in the season for him to make the 8,500 mile round trip drive worthwhile but I may see him in a few weeks. My third target, Will Schendel, was always a very private person and, sure enough, he’s left a very light internet footprint. I can’t find any contact info for him and I’m almost at the point of walking into various law offices (he’s an attorney) and asking if anyone knows his whereabouts. Finally, I find one obscure reference to a street address, so I drive over there and knock on the door. It’s Will who answers and when I pull down my mask his jaw literally drops. Very satisfying. We agree to meet in a day or two.

I settle into the hostel’s social circle and will spend the next two days exploring the “new” (to me) Fairbanks until Susan flies in late Friday night.

Next post:

Leave a Reply