Snow Balloons

On a Sunday afternoon after the first significant snowfall in Fairbanks, the landscape is blanketed smooth and white.  The sunlight slants sideways, casting the spruces into a golden glow, a pristine world.

I try to animate my family.  “Let’s go for a ski!”

They glance up at me from the couch and armchair where they recline, books in hand. Even though it is noon, they lounge, Helen in pajamas, Nick still unshaven.

“I don’t have any ski pants,” is Helen’s excuse.

“I want to finish the article I’m reading,” Nick comments.

I tell them I would assemble what we need for the excursion.  I would find appropriate clothing, apply wax to the cross-country skis, gather poles into the trunk of the car.  We are so lucky to live in Alaska, I tell them, where snowfall and skiing are always guaranteed.  Even the US National Ski Team takes advantage of this, traveling to Alaska early, where they can begin their training much earlier than anywhere in the lower 48 states.  They grunt back at me before they finally concede.

Of course, given the fact that we have not used the equipment since last winter, our preparations take some time.  Helen grumbles that the ski pants she borrows from me are too big.  Nick’s second pair, which I borrow, in turn, from him, are equally large on me.  After we pull tight the drawstrings at our waists, we both look like balloons.

“Never mind,” I tell my fashion-conscious teenager.  “There will only be moose out there to see us!”

Nick, when we arrive at the trails, realizes he has left his hat in the garage at home.  I produce a bright baby-blue headband from the compartment in the car, which I hand him with grin.  He looks at me in dismay but pulls it over his ears anyway.

Finally, even though not exactly trend setting in attire, we are off.  Helen chooses the wider trail to skate ski.  Nick and I follow each other along a narrower, parallel track which is perfect for classical skiing.  Just as I try to tell myself that skiing is like bike riding, once learned. forever engrained, I turn to see Helen, arms flailing, lose her balance.  She lands gracefully.  I, however, head turned, chuckling, run smack into Nick. He had been plowing ahead steadily, like a tractor in first gear, but had chosen that precise moment to slow down in front of me. I land in the deep snow, from which I try to extract myself, skis crossed, poles jutting.  I heave myself back up, dignity bruised, much less elegant in manner.

When we collectively find our ski legs again, the loop trail beckons. The skis hiss as they glide over the packed snow. We lengthen our stride on the gradual decline and feel as though we are flying.  We call to each other, laughing, soon drenched in sweat. The air is crisp and invigorating. Who would have thought that moving forward across snow covered terrain purely by the power of our own locomotion could be fun.


Afterwards, we joke about each other. My “clomping” whenever the skis slid out behind me.  Nick’s steadfast expression as though he were taking on the next 50 km freestyle race.  Helen’s exaggerated panting whenever the slightest uphill presented itself, complaining that, unlike her father and me, it was not her intention to lose ten pounds before the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

We may have been the Flintstone Family on their first ski excursion of the season, but later, rubbing our sore muscles, we all felt there is hope for us yet.



Ice Road Truck Stop

Not many miles north of Fairbanks, the edge of the Alaskan frontier town gives way to an open expanse of wilderness.  At its furthest reach, just beyond its fringes, one still comes across Fox, originally the site of a mining camp, a small settlement on the banks of Fox Creek.  It consists of a collection of homes, a general store/gas station, and a spring that provides potable water, claimed by locals to be the best water source in the interior.  It can be driven through in the blink of an eye.  Somewhat unexpectantly, it houses several well acclaimed eateries – the Howling Dog Saloon, the Silver Gulch Brewery, the Turtle Club – popular with Fairbanksans and locals alike.  Beyond these, however, the road twists off into a vast, mostly uninhabitated hinterland.

It is that emptiness of space that draws Nick and me to drive on.  The temperature has, for the first time this year, dropped below zero. It is a Sunday afternoon excursion, spurred on by a little time on our hands and a desire for deep vistas. The last snowfall has left the north facing hills frosted in white.  Spruces and birch trees line the road in different shades of grey.  The road has crusted over with ice and crunches beneath our snow tires.

We come to the Hilltop Truck Stop, famous, we heard, for its homemade pies.  We stop and park next to three trailer-tractors, enormous trucks, idling for now, until their drivers commence the fifteen-hour drive up the North Slope Haul Road, as they call it.  Inside, the truck stop resembles most in Alaska:  a counter selling chocolate covered raisins and beef jerky, Alaskan souvenirs, a flyer advertising laundry and shower facilities at Haystack Mountain. Wooden tables and chairs with red plastic seats accommodate a handful of customers, sandwiches and coffee mugs before them.  Behind a vitrine, the pies: Strawberry-Rhubarb, Coconut, Apple, Banana, Fatman.  Nick asks for a piece of each, to take home.


The door opens, letting in a truck driver and a gust of frosty air.  He approaches the diner counter, smiles at the woman behind it.  Acquainted, they fall into conversation.  He looks tired, long journey behind him, after delivering supplies to oil field workers in Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic coast.

I pause to think of it for a moment.  We had not planned a lengthy drive today, but still  considered packing into the trunk of our car extra jackets, boots, flashlights, mittens. What precautions would he have had to take, to embark on a drive that would take him the length of one of the most remote and isolated highways in the world.  A journey that would take him some four hundred miles north, with no gas stations, restaurants, rest stops, hotels or cell phone reception.  Only a gravel road winding north, potholed, heaved by extreme freezing and thawing, through unpopulated treeless alpine tundra, across the Arctic Circle, up and over Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range.  He had probably encountered snowdrifts, or a blizzard, as he drove on, white-knuckled, gripping the steering wheel of his rig.  He would squint beyond the windshield wipers, paralleling the trans-Alaska oil pipeline alongside, his only companion for hours.  He would think about reaching Coldfoot, a tiny settlement midpoint, and be reminded of the fact that it got its name, when travelers, approaching the oncoming winter, got “cold feet” and turned back around.  Should he be encouraged by the notion that his destination was named Deadhorse?

Yet he covers the distance, over and over, for reasons of his own.  For a paycheck, most likely.  Or, perhaps, to drive, unencumbered, into a world without edges. To cross the wide Yukon River and to think of its bearing as a major trail river of the north.  To see tors of granite, jutting rock formations caused by weather erosion over years, on an alpine tundra.  To encounter a herd of caribou as they slowly make their way across the road. To find oneself on a line that traces the Arctic circle, where the sun stays above the horizon for a day on the summer solstice, bathing its surroundings in light. Or to return to a truck stop, just shy of home, where the smile of a woman behind the counter tells him it was worth the journey.




Arctic Handyman

People in Alaska still surprise me. By now, having lived here for nineteen years, I felt I had encountered most types that venture so far north.  Rugged outdoors types, living in and out of the bush, still panning for gold or setting up traplines.  Native Alaskans, coming to Fairbanks for conventions and meetings, living in small settlements that can be reached only by boat or bush plane. New migrants, drawn by adventure and a new latitude, who either flee south after the first winter or stay a lifetime. A motley assortment.

Then I met Lyle.

He came to us one summer, looking for work.

“I can do most things,” he offered, standing just beyond the front door, dressed in Carhartt pants, boots, a flannel shirt.  Painting, gutter cleaning, pressure washing, tile regrouting, winter snow preparations. “Mostly, I like outdoor work.”

He had a manner of going off on tangents when he spoke, gesticulating wildly into the air when a topic arose that excited him. Often, he lost his train of thought. “What were we just talking about?” he would then ask, brow furrowed, until we directed him back to the conversation at hand.  We had to smile.

His work, a little unorthodox in manner of execution, was always eventually completed. When faced with the task of cutting the brome hay on the steep hillside behind the house, he tied a lawnmower to the hitch of his pick-up truck, levered the mower down the hill, and then ran the truck back and forth on the driveway above. When I asked him to help string up Christmas lights on the spruces outside, he came back with a long pole and hook which he circled, haphazardly, around the trees.  The end effect was what he called “natural-looking”.  He took me proudly one day to show me the cottonwood he had neatly sawed and stacked but was crestfallen when he learned he had piled them on top of my raspberry bushes.

Lyle’s tasks were always preceded by a text message.  They came to my phone, with no punctuation or regard to spelling and grammar:

“Hello how are you doing next day or two I’m going to try to make it up there for the breast removal.”  Breast removal?  He meant brush removal, I realized.

At times, we questioned whether he smoked pot, particularly when we thought we caught its scent one day from behind the woodshed.  Sometimes, we wondered if the job at hand would ever be completed.  Or whether he would ever return to pick up his equipment, rakes and sleds and gasoline containers, which he had deposited at the end of our yard. We shook our heads and asked ourselves why we kept him on.

One day, he brought me a decorative hummingbird, powered by a tiny solar panel, to hover and swivel over my peonies.  Another time, some interesting rocks that he lined the flower bed with.  He had a soft side for children and dogs, I noticed, when I heard his stories about taking his grandchildren to look at fossils etched into the red rocks near Healy. When Buddy, our older dog, was spooked by fireworks and ran away, causing us to frantically look for him in the middle of the night, Lyle came promptly the next morning to build him a safe dog enclosure.

What did I really know about him, I thought, except that he was trying to make a living, not only for himself, but also for an extended family. I learned he had lost his wife early, years ago, and was now helping his single daughter and her children stay afloat.  He shared his earnings with those needier than himself and found room in his heart to construct little gifts for me around the garden.  All of a sudden, it didn’t matter that the jobs were done sporadically, somewhat eccentrically.  Be kinder than necessary, the saying goes. I must remember to take an example from him.

Beyond Alaska

Helen, my youngest child, sits at the kitchen table on a Sunday evening, college applications spread out, fan-like, in front of her.  She turns to look at me, doubt clouding over. “What if they don’t accept me?” She has worked on her personal essay for days now, reshaping, rephrasing, trying to convey in a mere 650 words to an admission board the worth of her life.

I want to smile and hug her.  Of course they will, I want to tell her. You have excelled in your classes and scored highly on the SAT test.  You will tell them your story and win them over in an interview. You are young and strong. The world is beckoning to you.

Soon it will be her turn to leave.  She is ready to go, to the Lower 48 States, not because she doesn’t love Alaska, but because of practicalities. Fairbanks has yielded to her everything it could. She has tapped into every academic resource that living in a small town on the edge of wilderness could offer.  Her competitive soccer playing has dwindled, as players “age out” and teams to play against grow scarcer, far away, in Wasilla or in Palmer or in Anchorage.  She is brimming for more, she explains.  Proximity to the urban bustle of some larger city.  The cultural enrichment of museums and musical performances.  The social amenities of shopping malls and clubs and restaurants. A college or university that will offer her fresh courses, diverse topics, a new challenge. The opportunity to live on her own, resourceful and independent.

I share her excitement, smiling at her exuberance, encouraging her to go.  At the same time, I swallow. When has time started to gallop so?

“I should tell them about Alaska, don’t you think?” she asks aloud, even though the essay she has written follows a different prompt.

I nod.  It is the place that shaped you.

A Last Frontier, but she and the other kids, growing up, didn’t really know what that meant.  It is something visitors to the Far North said, something that is etched onto the license plates of cars. For them, Alaska meant waiting at snowy school bus stops and sledding down steep driveways. It meant looking out for the northern lights on dark winter nights, whenever they remembered to do so.  In the summer months it meant campers parked on gravel bars, and fishing for salmon in swift rivers, and going to the Tanana Valley Fair.  It meant combing the hillsides for blueberries in the fall and walking with dogs through the boreal forest. The usual. A typical childhood for them.

This time next year, in the fall, she will be honing her own path, wherever she finds herself.  In time, perhaps, after the exuberance of cities and universities become commonplace and their novelty tapers, she will remember again the land she left behind, bountiful in landscape and wildlife and adventure, the place she had given little thought to while she was growing up in it.  One day she might, even, return north.




Traffic Jam in Alaska

Autumn and I breathe a sigh of relief.  Time slows, evenings lengthen. Whatever summer activities, multiplied and frenzied beneath a midnight sun, slowly wean themselves in the tempered days of fall.  I have hiked the trails – Chena Dome and Angel Rocks and Rock River Trail.  The Tanana Valley State Fair came and went, with rides and Polish dogs and Cajun shrimp.  Flowers and vegetables have been coaxed to unimaginable heights in the almost continuous daylight.  The seafood freezer is full, crammed with salmon dip-netted from the Chitina River and halibut from Katchemak Bay. Summer visitors have left, taking home with them images of floating down the rivers, eating crabcakes at the Pump House, and of Denali National Park. And I can settle, glad for the quieter seasons to come, with days eased to a slower tempo, when a moose crossing the road is the only traffic jam in my day.