Fairbanks!

I sent the following message to my best man Hunter Goosmann after our November trip to Fairbanks. It is of interest in the continuing Team Wilmachek Great Northern Adventure.


Hi Hunter:

I thought that you of all people would appreciate this. At this point I’m kicking myself that we didn’t take more pictures, but that just wasn’t the purpose of the weekend.

Cathy and I went to Fairbanks this weekend, leaving on Friday (we’d already had Thanksgiving dinner with cousin Keith Howard in Eagle River) and returning Sunday. We had three goals in mind: 1) pick up an ottoman that we had bought as part of a set but that would not in-store-ship down to Wasilla for us (long story), 2) visit Blueberry Baby, a baby place Cathy had found on the internet much earlier which featured lots of different cloth diaper options we’d wanted to investigate, and 3) well, get introduced to Fairbanks, duh!

Time from house door to Fairbanks proper (about 330 miles) was right around six and a half hours, including a lunch and refueling stop in Cantwell. We took the new Patriot, of course (different story) for the AWD and its cargo space. (I’d also say we did it for the heated seats, but you probably remember that Cathy installed those on her TJ as well) Driving conditions were mostly dry but distinctly shiny for many a mile as well–we were very happy to have an AWD vehicle to work with. We timed it almost perfectly viz light; it was just getting light when we left and it was just getting dark when we rolled in to Fairbanks. On the trip we saw moose and caribou, but no bears (I believe there truly is a hibernation season up here, but I should check before I say that), nor sheep, which may be a combination of unpracticed eyes and inhibited visibility. In general, visibility ranged from low (usually, reasonably clear within half a mile but with a cloud ceiling of < 500′) to pretty good (patches of blue sky, ceiling probably in the 8000′ range). It’s all low elevation, with Broad Pass right around the town of Cantwell (surprisingly, if you look at a map) being the high point at 2300′.

It was the most stunning drive I’ve ever taken.

Everyone has preferences in the type of countryside they deem the most scenic, of course. For me, I love open vistas and a sense of scale, which implies patchy rather than continuous forest cover, multiple ridges and ranges, and rock given perspective by incomplete snow cover. This territory, especially the 50 miles south and 20 miles north of Cantwell, simply has everything in it that I love about landscape. Add in to that the je ne sais quoi that is Alaska, and my jaw was permanently on the floor. And finally, as if I needed a coup de grace, there was the winter light, which sneaked in when we weren’t ready for it, and rearranged shadows, vistas, and shades of color that I did not know existed. I would never have guessed how many shades of pink and slate could intermix with what would otherwise be simply dull gray. Usually this was fleeting–you could blink and miss it–but absolutely mesmerising. Definitely not fair to someone trying to keep his eyes on an icy road!

This is big country. In Palmer, we are 5 hours and 250 miles from Homer at the southern end of the Kenai peninsula; the distance to Fairbanks is about 330 miles and 6.5 hours; and from Fairbanks you can drive all the way to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic coast, if you have 20 hours to drive the 500 miles nearly due north. (Imagine 500 miles of gravel road; apparently that estimate of 20 hours is not kidding.) And Prudhoe is not even the northernmost point in the state, nor is Homer even close to the southernmost (Homer is approximately the same latitude as Yakutat, which is on the little isthmus of land connecting the main body of Alaska with the southeast panhandle, entirely further south). It is also big country. The Talkeetna mountains loom off to the east, stretching from Palmer in the south to Cantwell in the north (they are separated from the Alaska Range by the Nenana river), and the Alaska Range picks up north of Talkeetna/Trappers Creek/Petersville, to the west. The peaks on both sides are unexpected monsters, jumping 4000 and 5000 feet straight up off the deck, so numerous that some of them don’t even have names…they are steep, rocky, and mostly above treeline which is very low at this latitude. (For the guy who loves the open vista, this is visual heaven.) I remember that this stunned me before, the first time I was in Alaska–I had never expected these mountains to be so visually impressive. Why?  Because they are the freakin’ foothills to the big boys. Get back into the core of the Talkeetnas (good luck with that!) and you are in the 8000′ range; in the Alaska range there are numerous points above 10,000′, and then of course there is that Big Thing. Just imagine being at Fort Garland, looking at how incredibly impressive the Sierra Blanca looks to the north, jumping not quite a fair 7000′ off the deck. Now, imagine it being steeper. Now, imagine that treeline only goes up the first 20% of the hillside, or less. Ya good there? Okay, now imagine something fully and literally three times bigger than that. In this case, imagine looking at a 5000′ monster peak just across the riverbed, from maybe 600′ actual altitude, and realizing that there is something lurking in the clouds behind it that is not quite four times its size. This will play with your head!

I was also enchanted with the forests, which are marvelously open, with cute little spruce trees. Apparently it can be called true taiga forest at this latitude, although I would expect the trees to be a little shorter for that name, and I usually think of spruce-looking confier evergreens exclusively rather than a mix including deciduous trees like birch and alder–I’m not exactly sure where those expectations came from, but I tend to think “boreal forest” rather than “taiga” when I see that intermixed configuration. One way or the other, it is the most appealing looking forest cover I have ever seen; on this route it stretches all across the lowlands, with nicely sculpted parks and breaks that provide contrast. Fantastic.

Even the sheer geography was fascinating, and sometimes unexpected. The approach to Cantwell was a classic valley-between-two-ranges; it was mostly distinguishing because of the unbelievable size of everything and the unusual look of the forest. What is weird about it is that the watershed divide between south (the Chulitna river which drains into the Susitna and Southcentral Alaska) and north (the Nenana river which drains into the Tanana and then the Yukon, in the Interior) is not at the crest of the Alaska Range, which is what I would have guessed. Not at all: Broad Pass is aptly named, a small plateau right around Cantwell, from where it certainly looks like you should continue to rise to go through the mighty Alaska Range still to your north. But, you may notice, right out of Cantwell to the north you seem to immediately pick up the Nenana river, and follow it through the Alaska range as it flows north, and down. This seems remarkable; I’ll have to look further into that.

The Alaska Range is definitely a barrier separating the Interior from points south. Going through the range is telling: from Cantwell to Healy is 43 miles, and that is definitely “sneaking through” from the look of it. What I found fascinating is that when you come down into Healy and thence to Nenana, at the confluence of the Nenana and Tanana rivers, you have been following the Nenana river bank north the whole time. To your west and east are vast, broad plains with several north-flowing rivers running parallel to you; to get to Fairbanks, which is somewhat to the east and north of you at this point, you’d have to ford these rivers and the presumably unstable river plains that they flow on. The Tanana river, flowing west at this point, picks up the Nenana at the town of Nenana, and north of this there is a small mountain range (1500′ or so) that rises to the north and then curls around east towards Fairbanks, like a little island in the giant riverbed valleys. The road, then, runs right along the crest of this range for a little more than 50 miles, neatly bypassing the problems of river crossings, to get you the final way into the big town–it’s a decently abrupt drop down into civilization at the end, and kinda cool.

Fairbanks itself is interesting. Strikes me as a workingclass town (about 35K people in the city, about 80K people in the borough) with the usual assortment of charms and rough edges. (In this, I thought it was not unlike Casper.) It is more cowtown in vibe than Anchorage, but still unmistakably Alaska. Naturally you can’t form that great an opinion over the course of one full day in a place, but at least initially, I rather like it. The day was of course pretty short (sun was up at about 10 and down a bit before 5, with marvelous twilight on both ends), and the weather plus our business schedule didn’t exactly permit a great deal of viewing, but it looks like there are some pretty nice vistas from various points in town. Not the jaw-dropping skyline of Palmer or Homer, perhaps, but then you may be able to see that Big Thing on a clearer day, so the jury’s still out. We enjoyed its considerable charms as they were, and will be happy to go back.

Business was good. Got the ottoman in good order, protectant applied, fitting nicely in the back of Blue (that’s the Patriot’s new name, after its quite-ridiculous electric blue color), and were on our way before we knew it. We then headed over to Blueberry Baby, which we had dropped in on the night before on our way into town. This had been a wise move, as the sheer quantity of useful information the shopkeeper had given us took a while to digest. We were able to have a very productive discussion on Saturday (same person) because of this, and consequently we are now most of the way set for diapering supplies and strategy. We’re plowing forward on the path of the classic cloth pre-fold diapers as our primary diapering solution, with a handful of fitted and all-in-one cloth diapers as “to try” items (and with which to make it easier to work with sitters and others who might be uncomfortable with cloth), and with a couple of very intriguing other ideas hanging in the wings–the most promising of which might be the “G diaper”, a system which features flushable/degradable liners under a fitted cover. In keeping with our overall strategy, we like the idea of a lower-waste and traditional solution, but we’re not going to make a jihad out of it. The way we’re thinking of it now, the pre-folds will be our primary approach, with a few fitted and all-in-ones available to help appeal to sitters, and the G diaper will be available for specialty applications like camping or travel, or sitters who need something even simpler than the fitted cloths. The gal at this place was extremely helpful in showing us techniques to get the folds right on squirmy babies, fitting for avoiding the umbilicus stump, different folds that can work better on boys or girls, folds for heavy wetters or for best containing blowouts (that one was impressive, I must say), the use of liners/inserts, and the like. What sold me was the “Snappi”, which is the modern update to the safety pin that our moms used on Cathy and I. We hadn’t really understood from the product pictures how it is used, but from the shopkeeper’s first demonstration both Cathy and I literally got wide-eyed and said, “OH”. With that thing, even my first attempt on the doll would have been effective. Whoever came up with that idea may well deserve to get rich.

Anyway, with that concluded, we tooled around Fairbanks for the rest of the day, having (good) Thai for lunch (apparently the Thai thing is not just Anchorage), and then inspecting much of the Museum of the North at the university, which was really cool.

Sunday morning, we unplugged the car (still a novel idea to me…probably not necessary when it’s “only” zero, but hey, the new sled has a battery heater and the hotel had plugs, so why not?) and made the trip back home. Once again we timed it just about right, leaving during the delicous morning twilight, running the crest of that little mountain range with a very light fresh snow falling onto the impossibly undisturbed trees, catching little glimpses east of the Alaska Range as we approached it up the Nenana, scooting through the range in flurries and occasional glimpses of way-up-there ridges, refueling in Cantwell again, seeing the sun try to poke through the clouds and thereby backlighting the jagged Talkeetna skyline to the south, looking the other way to see the 5000′ monsters briefly illuminated by some random tunnel in the sky, waving at more caribou on the way by, and rolling into town right around evening twilight.

The biggest surprise was probably waking up this morning and noticing the thermometer here at home reading -6. It had never dipped below zero up north (windchill notwithstanding) and it had been in the high 20s when we left. Interesting.

The one thing we wished we’d have been able to do on this trip was to see the aurora, but the activity has been really low and the clouds out. We’re hoping that over this next weekend the activity may rise enough that we can see it from here; according to the forecast, activity should be 3 (out of 9) and the band of direct-overhead visibility will be as far south as Talkeetna…in theory, we might be able to catch it lower in the northern sky, from here. Fingers crossed.

For me, this makes four state highways in Alaska that I have now traveled end to end. There are only a dozen or so in the whole state, and people refer to them by name more than by number. This was #3, the Parks Highway, and I’ve also travelled the length of the Seward Highway (Anchorage to Seward), the Sterling Highway (ending at Homer on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula), and the Glenn Highway (Tok to Anchorage). Technically, I’ve also travelled most of the Alaska highway, just not the final stretch from Tok to Delta Junction.

At any rate, what kills me is that people tell me that I haven’t seen anything yet. People look at me and say things like, “if you think the road to Fairbanks is nice, just wait until you drive the Denali Highway between Paxson and Cantwell.” (this is 135 miles of dirt road, by the way.) For Pete’s sake, I still can’t get over the view from downtown Palmer!

Anyway, more writing to come before too long. Laters!

– HB

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