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Posts Tagged ‘Fairbanks’

hammock

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.

Buldir

 

 

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bike sketch

http:/www.taylormadebikes.co.uk/faqs.html

The bicycle means different things to different people. For kids, it’s a stepping stone to a new form of play. For bike commuters, it’s a source of transportation. For professional cyclists, it’s a hobby and money maker. For the average American, I’m guessing it’s a form of exercise.

Then there’s someone like me who smiles at the memory of a good bike ride while dreaming of the next. I can wonder why on earth I’m crawling my way up a hill and then remember as I feel wind-induced tears of joy as I fly down the other side. I can yell at the headwind while wondering why I decided it was time for a ride and then breathe easily as I smile at my speed and ride a good tailwind home.

Unfortunately, scooping dog poop and carrying buckets of dog food and water has kicked up my carpal tunnel syndrome, which has led to wearing my wrist brace day and night. Currently when I bike, my hands do go numb, so today I looked up how cyclists deal with carpal tunnel. Just reading someone’s comment of “I do not wish to give up cycling because of it” put me on the verge of tears.

Even when I’m not certain, my bike Trekker just seems to know what I need and where to take me. For me, the bike provides mobility, freedom, thinking time, self-torture, exercise, and happiness – sometimes all in one ride.

When I climb on my bike these days, it’s often just to get around town; my bike is my car. Yet because biking is in my genes, I often find myself shouting, “Yay biking! I love biking!!!” (Seriously, I should have started the sticker company that makes these.)water bottle

Despite the wind, on Tuesday I needed to go for a real ride – not just running errands. My one errand included dropping off the rest of the brownies and blondies I’d baked the day before; they needed to get out of my cabin – hence the bike ride.

As I left campus and started up into the wind on Farmers Loop, I was in the middle of a pretty intense thinking session. Staying in town for this long has shown me that I am indeed a human who wants social contact. As happy as I am with opening my door to 60 puppies with wagging tails in the morning, I’ve realized I don’t want to spend my evenings alone in the cabin.

This led me to thinking about life and what I want out of it, and that’s less than a clear road to me… as in it’s the trail-less wilderness of Denali. After roaming around in my mind for awhile, I needed to get out. Instead of only dwelling on my thoughts, I started singing some of the sad songs that I find beautiful; instead of slowing down for puddles, I started riding full tilt through them, delighting in the rooster tail of water spraying my face, coat, and shoes. Before I knew it, I was having a blast racing my way downhill, riding a tailwind into the beginning of sunset. My biker’s high had been a little slow to arrive but had finally kicked in.

The only downside was that my feet had grown cold from the wet and wind, which made me decide to briefly stop in Barnes and Noble. Really it was part of Trekker’s plan all along, I think, as inside I found the remains of a free food event. I inquired as to what had happened and learned that the Alaska Writers Guild had just held their monthly meeting.

“Are you a writer? If you’ve written a sentence, you’re welcome to come talk about writing and get input,” said a middle-aged male member.

Hmmm. Am I a writer? That’s something I ponder now and then. Was this serendipitous meeting meant to be a kick in the pants for the future?

After chatting for a bit, I sat by the fire to warm my feet and jump on better internet to check for sub jobs. Since poor Fairbanks is desperate for substitute teachers, subbing is my new time filler and money maker. Being in charge of kids who just want to horse around while teachers are gone isn’t my ideal job, but it’s something that allows for a very flexible schedule and challenges me to work around people.

Since I’m so inexperienced and rather out of my element, I haven’t necessarily been excited about most potential jobs. However, this time was different, as there was a job in a computer class at a middle school. The appeal lay in the class note, which read, “Students are working on a world tour project where they need to do research and find 21 places around the world they would like to visit.” THAT I could try to keep kids focused on all day. Travel’s the greatest!

With the job impulsively in hand, I realized I needed to bike the rest of the way home and get to bed before a day of travel talk. Yes, I’d be the annoying sub with far too much enthusiasm for the topic, and it would be great.

On my way home I was all smiles as I enjoyed the tailwind and sunset. Trekker had done it again, given me just what I needed: a 26 mile ride, a brief visit with a running friend I bumped into (not described in this post), ideas for the future, and the chance for a Steph-geared subbing job. Yay! Biking!

 

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Monday/Thursday 15/18 August 2016, week 14: Buldir Island, 17:00

Since I was so wrapped up in relaxing on our day off that I forgot our day off means shower day, it seems fitting that I address how we deal with personal hygiene in field camps.

Field life is certainly not for everyone; showers – if possible at all – come less than once a week, in my experience. For someone like me who embraced 2 years of college life in a dry cabin – meaning no running water – in Fairbanks, Alaska, the limited bathing options of life in the field are no big deal. Teri and I used to go without showering for nearly a week and laughingly do “pit checks” in the cabin, which is when we’d realize we probably should find time to shower. Those who shower at least every other day might find that repulsive, and the daily showerers probably think I’m on the same level as animals.

Keeping that kind of lifestyle definitely has made field life seem less extreme, and my tendencies between civilized and field life are not that different. That’s not to say I don’t shower often. I do use running water and shower on a fairly normal basis when I’m in town. However, I’ve noticed that on over ½ of days in non-field life, I can have been around town for hours before realizing that I never looked in the mirror to see how crazy my wavy, curly hair had decided to be that day. It’s not that I don’t care about my appearance, but rather that I assume I look fine. I’m comfortable with my natural appearance, which is the easiest option for field life.

Bathing options vary across field camps, but I’d guess the most typical form is the solar shower. On the North Slope we boiled a pot of pond water and combined that with cool pond water in a solar shower bag. That was hoisted up by the ceiling in an old shed, and voila! A hot, relatively clean shower was possible. I lived the life of luxury in buildings on St. George, my kiwi island in New Zealand, and in NE Alberta, so showers came fairly frequently.

In remote camps having one t-shirt and sweatshirt designated as “sauna/shower clothes” means I’m always guaranteed to have clean clothes to wear after the shower. These clothes NEVER get worn otherwise. Baby wipes are must-haves for field life, as a wipe-down with those can feel great on the particularly sweaty days.

My current and previous 2 summers provided me with my favorite bathing memories of field camps. The black brant camp on the Tutakoke River features a plywood sauna wrapped in Visqueen, and it’s heated by a barrel stove. By collecting firewood via snowmachine early in the season, we had a nice supply of wood to fire up the sauna about once a week all summer.

Since I have Finnish blood and have taken many a sauna on the shores of Lake Superior, I had low expectations for the heat levels. Boy, was I ever proven wrong. Both summers we got the sauna piping hot to the point where we were legitimately covered in sweat and needed to dash out of the sauna to jump in the Tutakoke River to cool off. We soaped up in the sauna, rinsed off in the tidal river, and then used warm snowmelt water in 4 pots on the floor to rinse off the saltwater. Sometimes I swam across the chilly river to walk around on the mudflat, and another time the crew rode the tide a good ¼ toward the mouth of the river just for fun. I didn’t expect to spend 2 summers sitting naked in the dark in a hot 7’x7′ box with my boss and co-workers, but sauna days were some of the best days of summer.

Here on Buldir Kevin ramped up the showering situation from last year. He assembled an old plywood shower stall around a pallet floor, but to this he added some corner shelves, a buoy for a seat, and a small net to hold clean clothes and a towel out of the shower spray. The brilliant feature is his crowning achievement for the summer: a window offering a view across North Marsh and toward Buldir Eccentric, as well as a skylight, which allows the stall to heat up with the water’s heat and any small amount of sunshine. With the right temperature of creek water in the solar shower bag, showering on Buldir is about as good as it gets for the field.

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Trekker

At the start of my sophomore year I made the mistake of buying a ridiculously heavy Mongoose brand bike from a pawn shop. That bike spent most of the year sitting in my dorm room, and I knew it had to go. Fortunately I was able to sell it for a small profit and go buy the quality of bike my genes prefer.

Enter May 8, 2009.

Walking to Goldstream Sports from UAF took… 10 minutes. 20 minutes. 30 minutes. 40 minutes. 50 minutes. 1 hour.

day 1

Day 1

Biking back to UAF took… 10 minutes. 15 minutes. “Hey, I’m back!”

From then on out I’ve felt nothing but love for Trekker, my loyal companion of the last 7 years. All right, sometimes I wish he’d lose a little weight or have a feature to turn a headwind into a tailwind, but I wouldn’t change much about him.

This bike has given me my mobility during my stints in Fairbanks for years. When I moved off-campus my junior year, I biked only until the snow started because I knew I could walk the quick 20 minutes to campus with Teri. Worrying about winterizing my bike just didn’t seem worthwhile. I knew I’d likely end up walking alone my senior year, so I decided to bike until I crashed and then re-evaluate. With my first crash occurring on a patch of black ice on the first day of spring, even a few tears couldn’t keep me from continuing to bike. Why end a good thing?

In my mind, Trekker is my trademark when I’m in town. The miles I’ve put on the bike while running errands are too numerous for me to imagine. My bike was my car for my summer working on the Riverboat and at Trailbreaker Kennel.

Biking isn’t all about day-to-day transportation, though; there most certainly are adventures to be had. I once tackled the Old Nenana – Parks Highway loop, a route that was referred to as a “buttkicker” and nearly made me turn around before I told the road, “No! You can’t make me go back.” While much of the ride was a very slow climb, the miles of sustained 30+ mph as I rode back down the Parks with wind-produced tears of happiness made it all worthwhile. silver gulchMy route through Goldstream Valley and out to Silver Gulch Brewery in Fox lets me appreciate the more wooded areas (and the northernmost brewery in the US) before testing my climbing skills again. Once I gain the top of the ridge, nothing can stop a smile from spreading across my face. Cruising at 40+ mph on my mountain bike as I descend back into the Tanana Valley may not be the most advisable, but ohhhhhh man is it ever a rush!

Although I love my bike more than some people love their cars, I am a terrible person. On the eve of our 7th anniversary, I gave Trekker a hug and put him back in storage for the summer. Fortunately he’s a good guy and will be waiting for me when I’m done playing in the Aleutians.

bike at storage

May 7, 2016

 

 

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In about an hour from now (around 01:00), I will have landed to visit UAF for a long weekend exactly 8 years ago. My, how the time flies.

A few weeks ago I realized that – for the first time ever – I had completely forgotten that March 20th marked the anniversary of my puppy Pixie’s passing. If anyone missed my sob story about how she directly connects with my college decision, here’s the link to My Journey North.

After living the first 18 years of my life in the same house, I can say I haven’t spent more than 4 consecutive months in one residence in the last 8 years. In fact, while working on my federal background check for my US Fish & Wildlife position, I’ve determined that I’ve “lived”/traveled in over 20 places in the last 5 years.

All of my moving around in the 4 years since I graduated college has definitely been a bit tiring and stressful at times, but it’s also always exciting. Just looking through my pictures gives me the travel bug. Although maybe I’ll never have enough money to retire, I’ve taken to saying, “I can’t wait to retire!” Being only 26 and having never held a normal job for longer than a year of school, it’s safe to pronounce me “doomed.”

Living with packed bags on a prayer has made me realize a few things:

  • Fairbanks must not be a bad place. It’s as close to a home as I’ve had since leaving for college…
  • … yet I always find myself leaving. Whatever I’m hoping to find just isn’t here right now.
  • I’m not very skilled in the ways of normal life, such as dealing with car ownership, the details of housing agreements, budgeting for a typical month, treating myself to nice dinners, indoor jobs, etc…
  • … but I’m good at finding myself cheap transportation and lodging for budget travel, trying to reconnect with friends in travel locations, trying local foods/food joints when I’m hungry, people watching during solo travel, living in the middle of nowhere, and working with wildlife.
  • I’m fortunate to have supportive parents and friends who think I’m crazy but don’t actively try to stop me from enjoying my different kind of life.
  • … and I couldn’t do it without them.

I live off my own means and work on paying back student loans, but my Dad is my unofficial financial adviser who lets me know about consolidating my random retirement accounts, opening IRAs, and suggesting when a certain amount of money should go where. Since apparently my high school and university – like many – aren’t wise enough to require every student to take a personal finance course as part of a core curriculum, I have virtually no useful background in money management or the language of finances. Ours is a complex world that will swallow one’s money if one is not careful, so fortunately my parents raised my brother and me to be thrifty. I’m also fortunate that my parents are admittedly envious of places I’ve worked and the type of work I do.

Lastly to my friends near and far, in Alaska and the Lower 48, New Zealand and Europe. Maybe we were good friends in high school and you’ve now dealt with my infrequent visits or haven’t even seen me for years. Perhaps we were study buddies, lived in the same dorm, or watched the aurora until 03:00 from the campus trails at UAF. Some of you I’ve only known for a couple years through post-college town and field jobs. A couple of you were placed in my path through some faulty planning of my own. One of you I’d never even met until I got off the train in Vancouver, and I was just trusting a friend’s reference. Whoever you are and for however long I’ve known you, thanks for being a friend and for reading this, because I’ve also learned that as much as I’m grateful for everything,

  • My thank you’s are never as complete as I’d like them to be.

So many of my travels would not be possible without my scattered friends. Since so much of my life involves solo travel, it’s nice to be connected to friends when I’m on the road. To anyone who has put me up on a couch for days or weeks, given me a mattress on the floor, shared a tent, let me sleep in a kennel, or given me a spare bedroom and storage: you have my deepest gratitude. I’ve been so thankful for the chance to visit, sleep, and keep up with your lives. Thank you for the rides, bike loans, food, beer, and laughter. Through your generosity I’ve been able to continue with these trips; believe me, I’ve already concocted a possible option or 2 for fall.

Whether I know you or not, thanks for reading the sometimes random thoughts of a wandering ginger. Hopefully I’ve entertained you or somehow added to your day with my entries.

When I flew here to Fairbanks to visit 8 years ago, I didn’t fully realize how much my life would change. I guess I really should be saying, “Thanks, Alaska.”

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Rather early on in my years in Fairbanks, I’ll admit I wanted to list myself as being in a relationship (on Facebook). Unfortunately I wasn’t able to specify my partner’s name because Alaska didn’t have an account. I couldn’t say I was “In a Relationship with Alaska.” Little did I realize just how correct that statement would become.

Apart from Michigan, Alaska is the place where I’ve spent the most time. I have an Alaska Driver’s License, am registered to vote there, and store the majority of my belongings there. However, it’s not the place to find winter wildlife research. The birds are down south, the bears are sleeping, and most everyone else gets forgotten during the cooler months.

I’m spending this winter working for The Nature Conservancy around the Sacramento area of California. Although I enjoy my co-workers and don’t mind the work, I’m not a California girl. I feel like I’ve abandoned Alaska this winter. I’ve lived through the driest January on record, but that’s not my style. I’m wondering,

Where’s the snow?

Hearing about the big snowstorms hitting the Midwest and East Coast is breaking my spirit a little. Being able to run in shorts and a t-shirt in January and February is convenient but just feels wrong. I don’t have the pleasure of frosted eyelashes, wearing Yaktraks, and wondering how many layers to wear. The ground here is generally green, but fields and trees are dead; the snow and frost of Fairbanks would sure look a lot more pretty.

As people grow they develop certain tendencies and interests. Whether by genes, fate, or interest; I became a northern girl. The 4 seasons make life beautiful, and I don’t particularly want to live in a place where they just differ by rainfall. Fall and winter are probably my favorites, and since my eyes seem to be more sensitive to light than most people’s, Alaska’s wintry darkness is the best. I’ve also found that warmth + light put me to sleep, so the dark chill of winter actually keeps me awake.

Apparently others have noticed my northern ways, as numerous friends have commented that my recent travel to Hawaii seemed rather out of character. One friend said, “Of all places I expected you to visit in your lifetime, Hawaii wasn’t on it.”

Areas of warm weather and higher densities of people are two traits that typically don’t attract me. A co-worker from Tutakoke round #2 said he was surprised to hear I was headed to California for winter. When I commented that it wasn’t my ideal location, his response was “Yeah too many people, haha.”

thumbs down

Too many man-made structures = thumbs down

My field co-workers know I’m not one for being around many people. At the peak population this summer, we had 17 people at Tutakoke. When I saw the spread of tents on the horizon, I wanted half of them to disappear. How was I to sit in my corner and read or journal with so many people around?

I mention all of this because – as I feel like I belong in New Zealand – I can tell I don’t belong in California. I know there’s a lot more to this state than the Central Valley, but I just feel it’s a state I’m supposed to pass through as a visitor. Despite the fact I’ve only been here for about 1.5 months, I already have itchy feet.


When I lived in my dry cabin in Fairbanks, I often enjoyed late night walks home under the Northern Lights. I’m not one for singing when other people are around, but I sing along to music when I’m alone all the time. At some point I decided I can decently sing along with U2’s song “With Or Without You,” a song that I find rather beautiful. It became my go-to song to sing when spinning around with eyes turned up to the sky, on my walks back home. With brilliant colors dancing overhead and the chill warming up my spirit, I’d belt it out to the skies.

“I can’t live with or without you…”

Only now do I realize just how fitting the song title is for my perspective. I dearly miss my Northern Lights. While in Hawaii and even now here in California, I’ve found myself getting excited about wisps of cloud that look like pale green lights, only to remember I’m not in Alaska. I miss -40F and hearing everyone complain about it; I know they actually secretly love it. I miss my puffy coat. I miss skiing to cabins and then climbing into a gigantic down sleeping bag. I miss waking up to the frosty inside of a tent and having my good friend Tad greet me with a friendly “Good morning beautiful.” I miss my failed sled dog friends. I miss gatherings of plaid-clad friends enjoying a pint in the Pub or in dry cabins tucked in the snowy woods. You can’t find camaraderie like that of Fairbanks folk frozen together for the winter anywhere else.

YQ

Start of Yukon Quest 2008

white mountains

White Mountains National Rec Area

But at the same time, what am I to do in the winters up there? Permanent field tech positions are few and far between. Also, travel in and out of the state isn’t exactly cheap, making it a less-than-ideal home base.

It seems I can’t live with or without Alaska. I suppose there are worse dilemmas in life.

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I’m doomed. While in NZ I discovered that author Bill Bryson writes highly entertaining books, and many of them just happen to be about his travels. I’ve read a fair number of them since, and a friend just passed on another to me: Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe.

I knew I’d be in trouble dreaming up trips before I even cracked open the book. Bryson didn’t fail to meet expectations, as I found myself wondering where exactly his first stop – Hammerfest, Norway – is on a map. He opens the book with:

“In winter, Hammerfest is a thirty-hour ride by bus from Oslo, though why anyone would want to go there in winter is a question worth considering. It is on the edge of the world, the northernmost town in Europe, as far from London as London is from Tunis, a place of dark and brutal winters, where the sun sinks into the Arctic Ocean in November and does not rise again for ten weeks.”

My response? I want to go!! Then he makes the draw even stronger by making comments about other passengers and a rest stop in “Where the Fuck, Finland.” I want to go to WhereTF, Finland! First off, its actual name is Muonio. Secondly, middle of nowhere tiny towns tend to make me laugh.

I’ve found that certain Finnish tendencies run in my blood. I’m an introvert, I love taking real saunas and then jumping in cold water (Lake Superior or the Tutakoke River), and I don’t mind the dark or cold of snowy winter. Also, check out the look of the Muonio region, the area of Finland that supposedly has the longest snow season. Now check out the look of Interior Alaska – minus the large mountains. Coincidence? I think not. Both places are essentially boreal forest and northern lights. Hmm, Fairbanks may have been my destiny.

Reading this book can’t be healthy for me, seeing as I’ve already looked up places on maps, searched for pictures, and wondered about airfare. Although my interest in travel may be a bit extreme, nobody in my family can call me strange. Wanderlust is in my blood.

Dad

My Dad on a trip to the Grand Canyon

 

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