Posts Tagged ‘belonging’


Saturday 13 May 2017, end of weeks 0a / 0b in Homer: too late… it’s really Sunday

Can someone please explain what’s wrong with me? At the beginning of the month I left the above Mexican Alaskan set-up, my neighboring puppies, and the chance for a real summer of hammock time, biking, and friends for another season of fieldwork in the Aleutians.

I believe there comes a time in every wildlife field technician’s career when he or she can no longer ignore the the little voice in the back of his or her head that’s been whispering, “Summer. You want an actual summer,” year after year.

That time has come for me, to the point where I would have been quite content if the government had shut itself down for the summer, thereby denying me the season of fieldwork. I’ve only ever had 1 true Alaskan summer, and that was when I worked on the Riverboat and at Trailbreaker Kennel in 2012.

tiglax in seward

Being paid for a day of roadtripping to Seward and driving the empty van back to Homer was great!

As I was driving back from meeting the Tiglax in Seward on Monday, I realized that I just want to bike, bake, read, write, and drive this summer. Those sound like the makings of a great summer – well, those plus eating Hot Licks ice cream, participating in the Midnight Sun Run, floating the Chena, backpacking, checking out the Chitina River (where everyone goes for fishing adventures), and just enjoying summer weather.

This comes from the realization that spending time in a place that means something to me (Fairbanks) lends itself to wanting to belong. Over the years I’ve become the person of whom it can be said, “Steph leaves… that’s what she does.” As much as I’ve loved my travels, this saddens me, as I’m learning people matter as much as adventure. Apart from when I have a puppy or my bike with me, I’m starting to acknowledge that my wandering ways are growing lonely.

Being in couplesville at the bunkhouse in Homer has emphasized how nice it would be to have someone else with whom to cook, plan, and wrap up loose ends before leaving for the summer. I was lovingly referred to as the “9th wheel” and “redheaded stepchild” of this year’s 3 Aleutian crews, which are composed of 3 different couples + me.

But enough of that for now. Since those knuckleheads in D.C. managed to agree on a budget, in the morning I’ll board the Tiglax for my westward cruise back home to Buldir with Kevin and McKenzie. We’re extremely curious to see what this year’s weather brings and how the birds’ breeding season plays out. I’m looking forward to sleeping to the sounds of waves and storm petrels.

The day before I left Fairbanks the temperature was around 60F, and I was itching for a final bike ride. I’d wanted to head down Chena Hot Springs Road (CHSR) but didn’t necessarily want the miles through town to get there, so I settled on biking Chena Ridge (left loop on map).

Unfortunately those 20 miles weren’t enough, so after my mid-ride muffin – because my hopeful mid-ride mojito venue wasn’t open yet – I decided to tack on Farmers Loop (right loop). Well, I got to the far end of Farmers Loop and realized I was just a little over a mile from CHSR, and before I knew it, Trekker had turned that direction and I had no say in the matter.

When I turned on CHSR, I had my usual goofy biking grin on my face and was loving life. I still needed to pack and take some belongings to storage, but biking was more important. By the time I forced myself to turn around, I’d learned that the big hills of the first 9 miles aren’t as steep as they look from a car. I’d also learned I should know better than to think bringing snacks wouldn’t be necessary. I know my riding habits.

By the end of the ride I was in no hurry to think about leaving Fairbanks, and I was thrilled to see I’d managed to squeak in a 60+ miler on my last afternoon. I could have gone another 20+ miles without a problem. Next time. That’s the dream!

First, it’s time for the dream of another long boat ride and season surrounded by seabirds.





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Apparently Fairbanks read my last blog post about town, and it wasn’t too happy with my thoughts. For the last week – especially the last few days – this town has really brought its ‘A’ game. Let me rewind for a minute.

Last Wednesday I left Anchorage for Wasilla on the Valley Mover bus, which – fyi – is a fantastic deal at a mere $7 for more than 40 miles of transportation. In Wasilla I met up with Jeff, my first craigslist rideshare driver, for a ride to Fairbanks. Having only communicated by email, we were both a touch curious if we were meeting up with a crazy person. Fortunately when he showed up at the Fred Meyer parking lot to meet me, each of us saw the other – him in a clean pick-up and me with my 2 backpacks – as safe.

We enjoyed a pleasant drive up to Fairbanks as we slowly left fall behind and made our way to winter. A stop in Talkeetna did lengthen our trip; only in Alaska would someone have a private flying lesson booked to fit in with their drive! Since I’ve never had the time to relax in tiny Talkeetna on my own, I grabbed my backpack and camera and prepared to find a snack and place to sit. After deciding to stop for a breakfast/snack at a cafe, I noticed what looked like a camping area and park at the far end of downtown. Obviously I had to nix my decision to sit down and instead proceeded to the end of the road, the end of the sidewalk, and to the banks of the Susitna River to this view.


Susitna River & Alaska Range

Although flying through the clear skies above this gorgeous landscape would have been even more marvelous, I had one of those moments in which I said to myself, “This isn’t fair! Most people who come to this state don’t get a clear view of Denali, and here I am on my 2nd road trip between Denali and Anchorage in just over a month, enjoying perfect weather.” Since I was prepared with my DSLR, I pulled it out and had a photography session.

Whenever I see something beautiful and stop to take pictures with varying zoom, depth of field, etc.; I find myself in the photography zone. Even though my resulting images rarely impress me, I enjoy crawling around an area to try catching a scene in different ways. Just the action of taking pictures seems to make me happy, so making myself move on down the trail is sometimes difficult.

Coming from a family where my mom took countless photos on vacation while my brother tended to scowl, I’ve heard the debate between capturing a moment in pictures and simply enjoying the moment numerous times. On this outing, once I’d convinced myself to put the camera away, a bald eagle flew right at and over me. If the camera had still been out, a lucky shot would have given me an image of a bald eagle flying over the Susitna River with Denali in the background. I’m glad the camera couldn’t distract me from the “wow” moment.

Before returning to the airport I did grab a beverage and bagel with delicious sun-dried tomato cream cheese from Conscious Coffee, the epitome of cozy, cute coffee shops. Since Talkeetna is primarily a tourist town, it was very quiet when I passed through in early October. Just a couple of locals were reading the newspaper and chatting in there, creating my favorite slowed-down, backwoods, small town atmosphere.

Back on the road Jeff and I shared off and on conversation as 2 strangers who were free to talk about anything. wolfTalking about life with a stranger provides ample chances for fresh perspective, which I think many of us lack in day-to-day life. Just shy of Nenana we were fortunate enough to see what we’re pretty sure was a wolf cross the road! Considering I had never seen a wolf until riding the bus out from Denali in early September, and then I saw a lone adult wolf on Resurrection Trail, seeing my 3rd wolf in a month was rather unbelievable.

As we approached Fairbanks, I noticed I didn’t feel like I was returning home. The scenery was so familiar, yet my feelings were foreign.

On Wednesday night I was dropped off at the Red Fox, a local bar where Scott was watching his Boston Bruins hockey game on TV. After tossing my bags in his car, I joined him inside with his group of work friends. Immediately I felt like the odd man out because that’s what I was.

Honestly, that was one of the few times this week when I’ve felt that way. On Friday I helped celebrate Scott’s parents’ border collie Starlight’s 10th birthday by joining them for a delicious dinner of moose steak, Alaskan carrots, and Alaskan mashed potatoes. Then I was off to Alesha’s birthday gathering at the very cabin (Spruce Hollow) where I fell in love with dry cabins roughly 6 years ago.


Spruce Hollow

Over the weekend a friend came up from Seward with her 6 month old puppy, and I stayed in to write about dreams, watch football, and pet a certain puppy. 2 friends from my late night intramural broomball team came over to socialize one night, and I soon found myself caught up in talk of the strange things Fairbanks dwellers do during the winter, such as playing hockey at midnight in -20F temperatures.

On Monday I perfectly timed a 4+ mile walk to meet up with my Wildlife Bio study buddy (and friend since being in the same cheesy orientation family in 2007) Tim and his fiancee Katie for lunch. We caught up on life and the trials of working seasonally before they kindly drove me to the UAF campus.

My first stop was right outside the renovated Wood Center, which is more or less the student union building and what had become something like home over my years at UAF. From the beginning I was an Outdoor Adventures groupie, and I progressed to volunteer and employee throughout my college career. Now, a coffee area sits in what once was my Outdoor Adventures office. Where once there was a mediocre food court, there’s now the brand new dining facility. It just isn’t right.

But, I was proven wrong just a few hours later. Feeling overwhelmed by various news, I took to the North Campus trails, a part of campus that had better never be drastically changed. The hours of sleep I lost to midnight hikes were the best part of college, and that’s where I head whenever I need to reconnect with my college campus.

Eventually I made my way back to the Wood Center because that’s just what I’m programmed to do. I even entered through the same side door and walked down the little ramp that used to be the steps into the OA office! By this time it was getting toward evening and my plan was to have a hot chocolate and sit in my old office.

So there I was, looking out the new windows of my old view, when I saw this skinny guy walking toward the Wood Center. “Hmm, he looks like James Smith,” I thought to myself. With a double-take I realized it was James, and he had changed his course to come say hi because he had noticed me, as well. His head was tilted with his usual questioning look of “Since when are you here?” Somehow James and I always manage to bump into each other before I can let him know I’m in town. 🙂

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Oh, you know, just sitting in the office,” I responded.

“Well, I’m going to your other office (The Pub), so you should come.”

While smiling, “Ok.”

Just like that, I was strolling into The Pub and finding myself visiting with James and Bryson, 2 of the guys present at my first visit to The Pub on my 21st birthday many moons ago. We chatted as they threw darts, and then I started recognizing that Fairbanks is my Alaskan town. My friend Katie had contacted me about meeting up during my brief visit, but I hadn’t gotten around to arranging anything yet. Part of me had wondered if I could visit with Katie and James at the same time, since we were OA/Wildlife groupies. And somehow it happened just like that. I was sitting there visiting with the guys when who walks up but Katie, who was coming to The Pub to meet up with James! I can’t make this stuff up. Without making plans ahead of time, I found myself in the middle of a mini reunion. I even had to cancel on my previous idea of walking out to a friend’s cabin because what I had right there was too good to leave.

Somehow the next day was just as momentous. After playing around at my storage unit for awhile, I took the bus to UAF and started walking my old route home to my favorite cabin neighborhood just a mile from campus. Actually I was planning on walking past it to my original favorite cabin, but when my feet reached the point where they’d either cross Farmer’s Loop Road to enter my Iniakuk haven or continue up the path, there was no stopping my feet from crossing. Knowing Teri’s sister lives near my old cabin, I decided to pause and gaze longingly at my first cabin before searching one street for the familiar Ford Explorer.

Wouldn’t you know I picked the appropriate street and was able to casually stroll up the driveway and find Christin at home? I’ve got to admit that one fun aspect of my life is that now people just half expect me to randomly show up. Christin invited me inside and even fed me delicious chili and Alaskan carrot cake. Honestly, does life get much better than Alaskan cabins, friends, and good food?

From there the plan was to continue on my way to finally visit Alesha at Spruce Hollow, but then the discovery of the loss of my student ID forced me to retrace my steps back to campus. I didn’t find my card, but as I was leaving the Wood Center area, who would be walking toward the Wood Center but James?! This time he wasn’t alone; Thomas, a UAF/sled dog handler friend who I hadn’t seen in years, was with him!

“Turn around. We’re going to The Pub.”

Seriously, could I say no? Absolutely not. Tuesday is Pub Trivia night and apparently also when the old UAF Pub crew shows up. Half of the teams in there were from my days of being a student, so I felt right at home with all the familiar faces. Of course Victoria made me smile by just repeating my name over and over until I saw and heard her. I even saw faces I didn’t necessarily care about seeing, but seeing them just made me all the more comfortable.

Catching up with these various friends over the last week has been fantastic. With meals, chance meetings at Fred Meyer (where I saw Trailbreaker Kennel handler Mandy), birthdays, The Pub, and cabins (I did finally get out to Spruce Hollow); I realized I still have plenty of friends here in Fairbanks. I didn’t even get to see everyone!

While at a potluck at a cabin last night, I felt the relaxed cabin-dweller vibe and savored the sweet scent of life without running water. I used an outhouse lit with Christmas lights. I saw people who band together for winter and look forward to skiing or aurora watching from their front porches. I watched a husky mix just hang out while plaid-clad folks chatted over stew, fresh bread, and cookies.

These are the atmospheres and people you don’t easily find in Anchorage. Fairbanks is home for the people who want to live in a cabin neighborhood where the FedEx delivery woman can’t necessarily find their cabin to deliver yet another parcel of exciting outdoor gear and so calls to see if they want to just pick it up in town. I truly love that.

Because I love that, I don’t want to leave Fairbanks for Anchorage. In Fairbanks I know how to quickly get around town by foot, bike, bus, or car. I have my coffee shop, my places on campus, and my people. So although I may leave town for long periods and be pretty awful about staying in touch, I know Fairbanks will be there. As tempting as Anchorage may be with its plentiful jobs and step closer to cheap travel, there’s no feeling of community like we have in the ‘banks. Until Anchorage comes up with a killer lure, Fairbanks may have won me for a little longer.

So thank you for the visit, Fairbanks. I’ll miss you while I’m melting in Hawaii.


(Tomorrow I start on a rideshare through Canada to Seattle, and there I’m catching a plane to a month of something called heat and humidity. Can someone explain those terms to me?)

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