Wilder by Far

A look at life with the Wilder family. Updated most weekends and some vacation days. You can contact me at movingnorth@gmail.com..

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Saturday, February 26, 2005

Local Sights

This is a picture of the UAF sign as you head to the main campus. As you can see it's a HEAT WAVE up here. 20! Actually, this is much warmer than it normally is. In the smaller picture (above) you can see a faint object next to the sign. You can click on the picture for a bigger version (same with all of the pictures). I think it's supposed to be a bear. Probably a polar bear, since the mascot of UAF is the Nanook, which means polar bear. If you could see it up close, you can see that the muzzle of the thing looks really flat. It looks like a pig from the front. Still, much better than I could do with a chainsaw.

Odd House

This is a house next to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS) and the big tower of ice (both of which are pictured below). I know that it looks like the whole house and everything is on wheels (which would be extremely odd, to say the least) but those wheels actually connect only to a platform that they used to make a deck that goes most of the way around the house. Which is still pretty odd. As I figure it, those big wheels (and the platforms that they support) were used to move sections of pipe and other necessary items for the construction of the pipeline. Off to the left (you can't see it) was a big, customized engine for pulling bunches of these things. So, I can see how this went down.
"Hey, honey, I've got all of these eight foot high wagons. I think I'll use them to make a deck."
"Yes, dear."
"Did I mention I'd have to build a custom house so that the main level was at the right elevation for the deck?"
"No, dear."
"Well, I will."
"Yes, dear. Make sure that you keep the tires on the deck inflated."

As always, click on the picture for a larger one.

140' Tower of Ice

So, I read in the local paper (the News-Miner) that a guy living in Fox, Alaska decided to just put water up pipes and build the biggest tower of ice that he could in -40 weather. Here it is. A local ice climbing club (now THAT I cannot fathom - I can imagine people climbing ice. I can imagine clubs. A combination of the two???? And they said Star Trek fan clubs were strange) climbs up and puts more pipe and blue food coloring up at the top. They claim it's 140' now. It is big, and I'm not planning on taking a tape measure up and checking. I went with The Mrs. and The Boy and we looked at it two weeks ago, and they've gone up a lot since then. First time we were there, a flock of Japanese tourists were taking pictures. There are quite a few Japanese tour groups that come year round. Rumor has it they like the aurora. More on that later.

The Pipeline

You have to admit, somebody had GUTS when they said, hey, we've got this state that makes Texas look like Rhode Island, has the most extreme weather conditions on earth, and we're going to build a huge pipeline from one side to the other. Wow. The pipeline is big. And, full of nice oil that we use in our cars, and nice plastic that we use to make G.I. Joes. As usual, click on the picture for a larger version.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Wood is Heavy!

This is The Boy, and His Dog. The Mrs. was getting wood when she took this picture, and The Boy decided that he wanted to help. He indicated that he was more than large enough to carry the wood, though we are thankful he hasn't decided that he's large enough to operate the chainsaw. When he IS large enough, he probably won't want to operate the chainsaw, but that's the irony of life.

Adventurers, Misfits, and Fortune Seekers

Still here, just unable to post last week. Was being chased by bears.

Anyhow, life is different here. Got a phone bill ($378!) from ACS, which stands for Alaska Chaos System, or something like that, and it billed me for three phone lines. I only have one, and it's a funky beast at that. Let me explain:

We asked for a regular phone, and ACS agreed that they could do that. Got here . . . and nothing. Turns out all of the wires to our area are in use. Whenever the last folks moved out, somebody else hooked up a fax, or some such. So, ACS gave us a cell phone base station that we hooked our regular phone into. We got charged for two land lines, plus the cellular line, plus hook up for some of them, plus long distance fees that were billed to the wrong line. "Good luck on getting data connected to your phone, I heard of one guy who did it for a few minutes," said the ACS rep. I didn't even try. What, really, is the point? I'm now on some sort of wireless cable internet connection, and it's a LOT faster than a phone line would be, if I could get one, which I can't.

The wireless cable is a lot like that, too, kinda balky, but works well on odd-numbered Tuesdays. Businesses here are small, but when you're only serving 92,000 or so population (including dogs, cats, and moose) there is at times an attitude of "well, where else are you going to go?" Besides, you work with their sister, or cousin, or brother, or ex-spouse.

There was a pop culture thing in the 1990's - degrees of separation. Kevin Bacon was the primary target. You could link him to most other actors in six or less films, i.e.,

The Oracle says: Laurence Olivier has a Bacon number of 2.

Laurence Olivier was in Little Romance, A (1979) with Diane (I) Lane
Diane (I) Lane was in My Dog Skip (2000) with Kevin Bacon

So, this is just a manner of showing how people are connected to each other. In Fairbanks it turns out that most people have a connection to most other people in some fashion. I suppose that's a feature of most small town living, but in Fairbanks, due the physical isolation, it seems to be compounded. I don't think that you can floss your chihuahua or change the oil in your lederhosen without someone you know hearing about it, so I'll just do that sort of stuff on a moonless night.

I digress. Part of having these small businesses around is that some of them have no competition. I was talking with a friend who was attempting to buy an industrial size coffee maker, one that makes the coffee, and then drinks it, and then washes itself out. You'd think that a typical business would be busting its hump to sell one of these babies. Probably costs as much as a PT Cruiser. Can't get anyone to call her back.

I myself am trying to buy a house. Either one person or another is out of town, all the time, so I'm actually in the position of living in a house that I'm trying to buy, but am unable to due to vacation schedules of the people involved in the transaction. Most of them are on exotic tropical vacations up the Amazon (really!) where they cannot be reached. Frustrating! Wouldn't it be nice if I could just trade some sea otter pelts and be done with it?

At least I'm not a postman. I was talking with a gentleman who had delivered mail for a time, and up one particular canyon there are signs that clearly state that you will be disemboweled and eaten if you cross some imaginary barrier. His new postmaster had decreed that all packages would be delivered to the addressee's door. He dropped off one package, and, after knocking on the door, he was greeted by a gentleman who asked if he worked for the FBI. Another gentleman had a rifle trained on him. I'm guessing the wrong answer would have been, "Yes." I hear tell that there's all of one FBI agent up here, but lots of folks who don't take it very kindly if you want to take a picture. You do the math.

I was watching a Discovery Channel program (or was it the Discover The Learning of History Channel??) on Alaska last month (as an aside, it appears that Alaska has tons more Discovery and History Channel specials than does Kansas - I can't see why . . . oh, yeah, it's FRIGGIN ALASKA) and it mentioned that everyone in Alaska was either "an adventurer, a misfit, or a fortune seeker." Made me wonder which one (or what combination) I was.

Other business oddities:
  • Don't bother renting at Blockbuster: the no late fees thing DOES NOT APPLY here.
  • Pizza Hut specials, pizza for $5? Nope, look at the bottom line of the commercial, you know the one that you can't read? OFFER VOID IN ALASKA.
  • Amazon.com, however, offers free shipping.
I'll stop complaining about the businesses, though (for the time being). I can get fresh veggies, or Malt-O-Meal, or whale eggs, or moose cheese up here, and am happy to have them.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Quest For Fire

Alaska is cold. I know that's a lot like saying water is wet, but, no real other place to start the post. Alaska is cold.

There are various choices that one can make when one desires that luxury, heat, but in the end, they all end up with a fire somewhere. You can have a fire elsewhere (electric heat) or you can have a fire at home (wood, oil). There has to be a fire.

So, oil (actually kerosene in this case) heat is easy. A nice man comes with nice kerosene, puts it into a tank, and the tank is connected to the fire making device in your house. It comes on automatically when the temperature at a specific spot reaches a predefined minimum. All you have to do is, well, pay the nice man. You don't even have to be there: your house can be warm without you. What could be easier?

Well, oil heat can be expensive. And, in my house we have a forced-air system, which really doesn't make the house warm. It makes it tolerable (in the sense that you are not in active physical danger of death by frostbite), but not deep down warm. We also have an Earth Stove, (motto: made by hippies, for hippies) in the house. Despite its name, the Earth Stove does not run on earth, but on actual wood. The Earth Stove has the benefit of creating real warmth in the house. There were times when it was -30F outside, and the Earth Stove made it so warm that we had to open the door to the garage to find a place to dump the heat the thing was putting off.

So, for our house at least, using some oil but a lot of wood makes sense.

We moved here in winter, so we didn't have that mythical time (summer) to get a bunch of wood cut and blocked. Purchasing wood in February in Alaska is a lot like trying to get tickets to the Super Bowl in the middle of the third quarter - it's all spoken for, and you're outside looking in anyway. Fortunately, the previous owner had a small amount of wood cut and ready to go. We started using that, and for the first time felt really warm (not constantly shivering) in the house.

But, the amount of wood was small, enough for two weeks or so.

Fortunately, there was more wood, but it was in the form of long (~10') poles, stacked in a triangular pile. That was good, so we could be warmer, longer. That meant I had a good reason to go and get a chainsaw. Chainsaws are neat. They're essentially a long, metal blade (in this case, 14") that have a chain that runs around them in a groove. The chain is whipped around the blade at about 1,569 feet per second. The chain has little knives on it, and the whole assembly, if first invented today, would be a lawyer's product liability dream. I have no idea if the chainsaw is ASTM approved.

So, wrapped up in my jacket, gloves, boots, and coveralls, I tromped out in -20 weather and began cutting the wood. Several things became immediately apparent:
  • Chainsaws are fun.
  • The pile of wood underfoot quickly becomes an unstable hazard, but a "Scooby Doo run" can save you from falling.
  • Chainsaws are not designed to operate reliably at -20F.
After about twenty minutes of sawing, the chain froze solid to the blade. I went in and got a cup of really hot water, and thawed the blade. Then, in reassembling the saw, I must have tripped the blade guard, so, in fixing that, the entire blade had sufficient time to freeze again. At this point, since I had been working on the whole thing outside and my fingers had decided that they weren't designed to operated reliably at -20F either, I decided to go inside and warm up.

I took the blade of the chainsaw and put it against the stove top to warm it up, and that appeared to work pretty well, as it made a satisfactory hissing noise as the ice turned to water and melted off. Couldn't do that with my fingers (well, I could have, but the Mrs. doesn't like the smell of charred flesh in the house), so I ran them under some warm water. Enough feeling (pain) returned that I felt that I could go on. Back outside, to cut some more.

Soon enough, the saw stopped cutting, mostly. I opened the chain oil tank (chainsaw chains must be continually lubricated, or they become as useful as a pink plastic picnic fork at cutting wood) and saw that the chain oil had attained the consistency of nearly dried glue. Enough wood cutting for the day, since my toes had by that time attained the consistency of cocktail wieners in the freezer. The saw and I were both done.

As I write this, I note that the temperature today is up to 0F, and is supposed to be up to 29F sometime next week. A heat wave!

Saturday, February 05, 2005


After last weekend's hockey game, we had to go skating. Not surprisingly, there are two ice arenas in Fairbanks to chose from. I packed up the wife and boy, and we went out to go and see if one was open on a Sunday afternoon. Both were, but the first arena we went to was being Zamboni'd for an upcoming hockey game. I looked around for about five minutes to find someone who might be in charge of the place, but gave up. There are quite a few local rec-league teams, and one was getting ready to play. I walked up the to goalie, and asked if there was an open skate, and was informed that Polar Ice didn't have one until 4 (it was 12:30) but that Big Dipper had one starting at 1pm. I thanked her (I did mention that it was a women's hockey team, didn't I?) and got back in the car.

Women's hockey is just another indication of how popular hockey is here. The other was kid's hockey, which we saw at the Big Dipper when we got there. It was a game filled with five year old boys and girls, moving around the ice like a group of young Gordie Howes and, in general, packed up in the traditional hockey gear. That means pads all over the place, a helmet, and jerseys. They actually looked more like tiny space explorers wandering back and forth on the ice, but they seemed to be having fun.

At this point, it was time to get our skates.

The nice young lady behind the counter looked at me and said "hockey skates, right?" and I nodded. I'd never skated on hockey skates, and this was only the third time that I'd ever been ice skating (though a large number of hours were spent at a roller rink when I was in grade school, skating forever 'round counterclockwise). I just did the math - figure skates - Dorothy Hamill. Hockey skates - big guys who run and hit each other. Figure skates - Brian Boitano. Hockey skates - big viking men with beards and axes relaxing after sacking Northern Europe. Figure skates must be inferior.

The wife began to put skates on the boy. Too small. I was charged (as most husbands would be) with walking back and getting a larger size. I had put my skates on, and figured that I'd have to walk to the door that leads to the ice anyway, so better start practicing walking with them on now. I stood up.

I am pleased to report that walking on skates is the most natural motion you can make, if you were born with little tiny metal blades on the ends of your ankles instead of actual human flesh-feet. Immediately, one of the blades tried to slip under my skate and lay flat, causing my ankle to twist like a dog's head when he hears the rustle of cellophane in the fridge.
Skating was not starting well. I hobbled over, balanced precariously on the metal blades. I had noticed two things about the skates when I'd been putting them on: first, that someone had taken the time to etch 11-3/8" in the stainless steel of each blade, and second, that my skates were stamped "ASTM Approved."

The 11-3/8" (and, actually, the metric equivalent as well) puzzled me. Why was it important that my skate blades be exactly that length? I can do the math here, too. One more (or less) inch of blade wouldn't spread my weight that much more effectively, so, why 11-3/8"? Still don't know. But somebody must think it important.

The ASTM designation really made me proud, though. ASTM is the abbreviation for the American Society for Testing and Materials. Very official. I went to the website and found that they, indeed, had a test for hockey skates. So, not only was I on hockey skates, I was on hockey skates that passed some sort of test.

So, folding up under me like a cheap accordion must be my fault. I hobbled over to the counter, and got skates two sizes larger for my son. I hobbled back, and was informed that these skates were still too small. I had time, however, to tighten up the laces on the skates to the point that my feet and the skate were rapidly going to become one, what with the lack of blood to the foot and all. The blade didn't fold up under me this time.

I went back to the counter, got yet another pair of skates for my boy, and waited while Mom put 'em on him. That accomplished, we were ready. We all were now hobbling off to the rink.
We got on the ice.

Nobody fell.

We began skating the proscribed counterclockwise direction, near the wall, sort of like three ducks that don't want to leave the nest. Or some other simile. Anyhow, skating was not so bad, with the exception that a pain similar to someone attempting to gouge the muscle in the arch of my foot out using a blunt instrument developed. I had to sit.

This pain (which I attributed to having some sort of muscle in the foot that was used only in skating) seemed to bother only me.

I kept skating. After forty five minutes, the pain was really, really bad. I saw someone I knew (who was a hockey player) and asked him.

'Oh, you want your skate laces real loose, except for around the ankles.'

I loosened the laces, and it was wonderful. The pain immediately went away. We skated some more, and the boy even managed to skate a few feet on his own.

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