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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Location: United States

Friday, September 30, 2005

"Gentlemen, pray silence for the President of the Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things." - Python, Monty

President Chen Shui-bian (pronounced John Smith) and I following our engagement announcement. I have no idea who the trollop touching my arm is.

So, here it is, as promised. The post where I divulge the awful secret that binds me to The President of Taiwan (Chen Shui-bian) like a salamander super-glued to a satin sheet.

I was sitting in the line to drive out of Whittier when I saw the same car that had been tailing me all the way from the Alyeska Prince Hotel that morning. We were stopped in the middle of the road, waiting fifteen minutes for the next traffic release to leave Whittier. Then seven men got out of the stretch Lincoln Limo, and one of them, a Chinese gentleman wearing a two-piece navy suit and dark sunglasses tapped on my window with the knuckles of his hand.

Said gentleman introduced himself as Chin Long Soo (his brother?) and indicated that he was in the Secret Service of Taiwan, and was curious if I would like to meet the President of Taiwan. There was only one catch - did I have any Judas Priest in the car?

Damn straight I did.

Soon, the President of Taiwan and I were jamming to "You've Got Another Thing Coming" as we sipped champagne in the back of the Limo. His Secret Service guys drove my car through the tunnel. Then we drank a bunch more champagne and played poker until dawn. I think I own the Taiwanese Navy now. (It has three ships, two more than Canada's.)

Okay, that was all a lie. A damn fine lie, but a lie.

Now the truth.

Okay, so it's mainly coincidence.

When we checked in to the Alyeska Prince, I saw lots of official-looking cars. Cars with Alaska State Legislature plates, things like that.

Turns out (I found out after the trip) that the President of Taiwan was hanging out at the Alyeska Prince when I was, talking about trade with Alaska. Now, I'm not going to tell you how I offered him five dollars to take my luggage up to the room, and how I was swarmed by the Taiwanese Secret Service. That would have been a story. But, no, I didn't even know he was there until after the trip.

The President of Taiwan ended up getting stuck in Alaska, due to weather down in Florida, or something like that. So, I followed his progress thanks to Google News, and that's when I saw the picture above. I started cackling, and showed The Mrs. She started cackling, too.

The picture below is one I took. Of The Boy. Same spot that The President of Taiwan occupied two days later.

The Boy and Smokey T. Bear. The Boy is impossible to photograph, given the great magnetic field that his body exudes like grease from Donald Trump's hair.


Both pictures were taken at the Begich and Boggs Visitor Center to Portage Glacier. When we had gotten in line to go through the tunnel out of Whittier (despite asking him previously) The Boy declared that if he was not allowed to use the bathroom immediately, he would be the first person since 1936 to die of a ruptured bladder.

There was no way we were going to miss the tunnel release, since that might mean we'd need to stay in Whittier another two hours. No. Not going to happen.

So, we went through the tunnel, he suffered, and we stopped at the Visitor Center. There The Boy blissfully made peace with his internal waste storage system. We hadn't intended to stop, but we did. Thus, the result is the picture above.

The 'Begich' in the name of the Visitor Center was an Alaska politician. He was lost when his plane crashed on a glacier, and has never been found. His sons have risen to prominance in Alaska, though, one being mayor of Anchorage, and the other for writing books about how HAARP controls our minds.

In retrospect, I'd like to thank The Boy's bladder. Stopping at the Visitor Center was nice. The pictures of Portage Lake and Portage Glacier below would not have been possible with out the liquid intake.

This is a big honking glacier. Portage is its name-o. Same-o for the lake-o.

This is Byron Glacier. I'm not sure if this one is named for Lord Byron or not. But, the name remains Byron.

This is just another damn glacier. Another one. These things infest Alaska like cats infest an old lady's house. Damn glaciers, anyway.

So, The Boy's bladder provided the punchline to this bit of story. Does anyone know what the average salary is in the Taiwanese Navy?

By the way: Shout out to my Pop on his birthday. Dads rock.

Next: Toys, Anchorage, and The Dreaded Slutch of Doom

Things to Do in Denver Whittier When You're Dead

(above - the only apartment building in Whittier - click on any photo for an enlargement. Of the photo. You have a dirty mind.)

Whittier, Whittier.

What can you say about Whittier?

I'll start with the bumper sticker, "Whittier: A quaint drinking village with a fishing problem."

(above - proof of fishing village status)

Then the comments:

"What'd you do this weekend, John?"
"Went to Whittier."
"Did you see the Wh-idiots?"

That may sum it up.

Whittier is a former army supply base. Whittier has some advantages for this - it's a deep water port that's ice-free year round, and is a major supply location for Anchorage. Ships dock regularly and drop off stuff that gets on a train and goes to Anchorage.

All that may be nice, but you have to be just a bit off to live here. Really. Right now, everyone lives in the old Army barracks - essentially in one building. All 172 of them. I did see one address that showed a PO box number above five hundred . . . but I figure the first digit is the floor of the old army barracks that they live in, so if your PO box number were 788, you'd live in room 88 on floor 7.

All of the rooms are condos, so, the bright spot is that there is someplace in Alaska that condos make sense. Which would be one location. Whittier.

I asked what the winters were like - the answer was that winters in Whittier are hellish, but the special kind of frozen hell reserved for people from the tropics who did something really, really bad.

Folks in Whittier live with constant wind, and in the winter it gets up to 100mph shooting up the fjord that they live in. Add that to a temperature of -29F, plus the town getting no direct sunlight (no, not above the Arctic Circle, just high mountains surround the place) from November to February. Then, add in 25 feet of average snowfall, plus being within a hundred miles or so of the fault that has produced the largest earthquake ever recorded, and you see what I mean about having to be off to live there. Whittier is the edge of the world.

(above - more of Whittier - the long white building is where they used to practice Army stuff, but is now essentially abandoned, except for some killer freeze-tag games)

We were there in mid-September, and the touristy businesses were mostly closed. Whittier is shutting down for the winter (and, it snowed up in Fairbanks last week, so, winter is getting closer).

(above - the harbor at Whittier - beautiful, but, it's in Whittier)

As if all of the above weren't enough, Whittier is also hard to get out of. The Mrs., The Boy, The New Boy and I did most things that a tourist can do in Whittier without a boat, and decided it was time to go back toward Anchorage. We drove back to the tunnel. It was 1:04 PM. The big lighted sign above the tunnel said, "NEXT TRAFFIC RELEASE 2:00 PM." So, we went back toward the same six open stores, kicked around, took a few more photos, and generally sat in the car until 1:45. I was not going to be late and become stuck in Whittier for however much longer until the next traffic release - I was going to be there early. I mean, the lady in the shop that sold Fudge had been nice (but we were not going to stop at the store that sold ice cream and bait) but we were ready to leave Whittier by now.

(above - the old fuel depot at Whittier, with a looming glacier in the background, just sitting there looming)

So, back through the tunnel we went. A fairly large noise was evident when we went through, and The Boy said, "Monsters!"

I explained that those were actually ventilation fans - "air fans" I called them, and he asked why they had "Hair fans."

I explained that those weren't hair fans, they were air fans.

He paused a minute. "Then what are hair fans?"

Sometimes my life is an Abbot and Costello routine.

Next: Proof that the President of Taiwan is Stalking Me

"Remember, attraction is a three-way street. Or is it a one-way tunnel?" Kelly Bundy - Married, With Children

Girdwood is a nice, pretty, cozy town. The picture that I took of the hotel (last post) was taken in the morning. I also took the picture above. There's a tram that's built into the hotel, and a restaurant at the top of the tram. The idea is that the Alyeska Prince is a place where you can almost go skiing without going outside, except for the sliding down the mountain part. One day the super wealthy will solve that problem, too. Maybe have folks ski for them.

If it hadn't been so overcast with such low clouds, I think I would have popped out the money to scoot up the mountain. As it was, I think the view would have resembled being in a bag full of cotton balls. If you're wondering how I might know what that looks like, remember, I had an older brother.

So, we headed out of the Alyeska Prince and into Girdwood. Many of the streets were named after other ski resorts, such as Aspen, Vail, and Davos. I stopped at a restaurant that appeared fully functional and staffed, and was informed that they were yet to open. Not a problem - but I'm not waiting a half an hour just to order a burger. Not with a Hungry Boy and The Mrs. also feeling a bit peckish. We headed down to the same strip-mall that has the State Patrol, a gas station, and a liquor store and hit the diner there.

Note: it sounds like The Mrs. is always bugging me about going somewhere to eat. Not the case. I pretty much starve the family when we drive. Also, restaurants are also a good place to make observations about Alaskans, when and where they herd together. It is the watering hole, where gazelle and lion both fill up before clocking in.

It was The Boy's birthday - five years, and still he refuses to learn calculus. We stopped and had perhaps the friendliest waitress we've had in years. She focused on The Boy, and treated him like royalty on his birthday. It didn't hurt that her birthday was two days before The Boy's birthday. The Boy had a cinnamon roll the size of his head.

The diner was nice - it was the kind of place that tobacco-chewing hunters were in peaceful co-existence with dredlocked euro-eco-tourist types. The graffiti in the bathroom referenced "The Family Guy," and the guy exiting the single-stall mens' room indicated, "You might want to wait a bit before you go in there - wheew-ee, dunno what I ate."

We once again assumed our positions in the chariot pulled by a train of white stallions car and headed toward Portage.

The valley that you enter as you head to Portage Lake and Portage Glacier has the steep sides that you'd expect in a land carved by glaciers periodically over geologic-type time scales. What surprised me, however, were the constant waterfalls. They were like veins of silver etching down the sides of the mountains, and they were everywhere. These are fed by the glaciers in the mountains above the valley. They made me think of restrooms.

It was nearly time to head to Whittier. Driving to Whittier, there's only one road that leads in. It leads through the Anton Anderson Tunnel, which is the longest tunnel that's a part of a road in North America. Anton Anderson was the engineer who built the tunnel during WWII, working for the army. This particular tunnel was designed for trains, and is still used by them. I believe it's owned by the Alaska Railroad, and hence not a publicly owned road. The nice thing is that I don't think you could get a real ticket that you would have to pay should you violate traffic regulations - maybe you'd just get a railroad ticket. Which you could use to see something nice.

The tunnel is one-way, and you pay to drive it, $12 for the round-trip. Cars and trucks are staged and in best railroad fashion, the road is scheduled - you go one way for this hour, one way for the next. As we entered the tunnel we had no idea what we would see on the other side. In a truly serious note, what we saw could not have been odder.

Next: Whittier
After that: The President of Taiwan and Me (I think that's how it will work out).

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

"What's that? Crying? There's no crying in baseball driving to Anchorage." Coach Tom Hanks

So, after traveling hours and hours and hours with an infant (The New Boy), a soon to be five-year-old, and a perfectly male husband, I imagine that The Mrs. wanted to gouge out her eyes with a spoon. You know, because it's dull, and would hurt more. But, she got the biggest bonus yet. She got to continue driving farther south than Anchorage. I know that most things (including all of the past, current, and future members of Van Halen) are farther south than Anchorage, but Anchorage might as well be Dixie if you live in Fairbanks.

We got to go to Girdwood, Alaska.

Just the name sounds uncomfortable. Gird. Like girth. Gird. Like girdle. Makes me think of William Shatner. Who'da thunk it was a pretty and nice town?

But, we couldn't see any of that. We got there at about 8:30. After driving through some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable, yet just dark enough that my camera would have produced pictures of what you might think were whales mating in some deep Pacific trench where fish don't have eyes.

But we got a bonus.

The New Boy decided he was hungry in Anchorage, and the decision was
a. feed him then and there or,
b. push on to the hotel.
The Mrs. made the call: push on. And we lived with the auditory results for the duration of our trip to the hotel. It really didn't stress me out. I'm a man, and a dad. That gives me a selective deafness that would allow me to sleep through a jet landing on our house, if it came ten minutes before my alarm for work went off. That doesn't bother me. The fact that The Mrs. was stressed did.

When The Mrs. ain't happy, nobody's happy. (I counted up the negatives, and I think I got that right). We got to the hotel, and The New Boy promptly decided that all people around him who were capable of holding a bottle to his mouth were either dead or incapacitated by avian flu, and became quiet as a mouse.

Now, you may be saying - "How dare you not feed a hungry baby? That could be bad or something."

You haven't seen this baby. He's huge. Not any fatter than a usual baby - he won't be featured in a paper anytime, but he gains about a pound a week. He eats about sixteen quarts of formula a day, and we're thinking of moving him up to ribeye steak flown in directly from some Japanese farm where they have a string quartet that serenades the cows as they feed them beer and massage them. Because that would be cheaper than the baby formula. He gained a pound in a week - 1/18th of his current mass - at four months' age. He may be big enough when fully grown to look down on Hulk Hogan. So, don't worry 'bout The New Boy.

And, drive the Seward Highway when you can. Wow. Pretty, even in dusk.

A buddy of mine suggested that we go and visit the Alyeska Prince Hotel(no relation to Artist Formerly Known as Prince Hotel). The Alyeska Prince Hotel (pictured above, I know it looks like a Stephen King novel hotel, but not a single person tried to disembowel me that night) caters to rich tourists that fought in the Spanish-American War and decided to cruise to Anchorage in the summer. In the winter, it caters to rich dotcom billionaires who want to go 'boarding in a state where weed is almost legal. For the fifteen minutes between 24-hour daylight and weather in a place a company puts you because you pissed them so much they don't want to fire you, but instead torture you with the ever-present thought of frostbite, the Alyeska Prince is a bargain. If you have an Alaska driver's license.

We got there. The Mrs. was again demanding that her now-tenuous relationship with the food chain be restored. I found a thriving convenience store in Old Girdwood (which I think most of just slid right into the ocean when the '64 Earthquake hit) that had sandwiches. And wine.

I bought some wine because I thought that might cap off a relatively stressful last leg of our trip. When I got back to the hotel, The Mrs. was working on putting The New Boy to bed.

About the Alyeska Prince: The hotel is nice. Head of State nice. In fact, when I was lurking in the parking lot, several vehicles with Alaska Legislature plates were hogging spaces. I waited for one state senator to move his ass out of the space so I could shimmy in. The beds were like sleeping on clouds, and customer service was great, even though I asked for two doubles, and they initially put us in a single king. (I love The Boy, but I'm not going to spend the night with his pointy elbows and knees pointed at me.)

The wine was good. The Mrs. was too exhausted to have any, so, in the interests of economy, I threw myself on her share. And went blissfully to sleep. Little did I know that the President of Taiwan was lurking, waiting to disrupt not this post, but probably the next one after this, or maybe the one after that.

Next: To Whittier and Beyond

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Peasant: "Who are you?" King Arthur: "Your King." Peasant: "I didn't vote for you." King Arthur: "You don't vote for kings." - M. Python

So, we headed back west from Glennallen. The permafrost, as shown by the prevailing taiga, still surrounded us. The road likewise showed the effects of the permafrost, maintaining the consistency of Fruit by the Foot thrown over piles of spare change. Which is, I believe, standard road construction technique in Alaska.

The mountain above was visible for about the first twenty minutes out of Glennallen. It looked like it had been sprinkled in gold - with the sunlight, as far as I could see in the panorama before me, shining only on its slopes. You can click for a larger version.

The rest of the trip took us up and down through winding roads. The Glenn Highway is on the north side of a large valley, and never dips down. The north side of this valley consists of the Talkeetna Mountains. The south has the Chugach Mountains. The Chugach mountains were the epicenter of the 1964 earthquake, which some estimate was a 9.2 earthquake. One thing, besides containing more force than Madonna's breath after a garlic-laden dinner, was that it lasted five minutes. Five minutes isn't long when you're watching the season finale of Battlestar Galactica, but it's forever if you're being shaken around like a chew toy in a teacup poodle's frenzy. These mountains and the pretty things we have in Alaska don't come free - we gotta pay with the earthquakes and volcanoes from time to time.

The Chugach are also covered in glaciers like a pile of fries are covered in ketchup. We passed three major glaciers, and the last of them, the Matanuska, is shown below. I pulled off the side of the road on what looked like a rough trail to get this picture. I could see the campers and 4x4's of moose hunters beyond, so I figured the road would work for me. The road narrowed alarmingly, with the passenger side dropping off about eight feet. I soon saw that the road that looked like it headed to the parking lot below (as we continued to climb) was really a trail for four-wheeled ATV's. I imagined it starting to go in directions that my 4x4 could not follow, and having to ask the hunters in their campers below for help to get me out of a place I'd been silly to get into. Fortunately, the trail leveled off widened out and I could see a way to get back out. This is not to say, however, that The Mrs. was entirely pleased with this lack of planning on my part. But, angels do follow foolish husbands, at least one did this day.

Below is yet another breathtaking mountain. Ho-hum. The drive twisted through mountains as it hugged the north side of the valley. Signs periodically noted that it was illegal to impede four cars, and the truckers who could not maintain the speed limit did regularly pull over. Polite!

After a few more hours, we finally ended up in Palmer. Palmer is nestled between mountains and looks like it was conceived in a dream. One thing The Boy immediately noticed is that the McDonald's sign was about three feet off of the ground, as were many of the signs on newer businesses. I figured it must be a new ordinance, to preserve the beauty of Palmer.

This is in contrast to Fairbanks. Recently, the Fairbanks-North Star Borough (remember, we don't have counties up here) tried to pass an ordinance that would allow them to enforce existing ordinances. I know that sounds silly, but though there may be ordinances on the books, there's only one employee that has that theoretical power for a borough of about 90,000 people. If the lawyer for the borough gets around to it, he might send you a nasty letter, telling you please, please, fence that junkyard that is your front yard. Or, he may send you another stern letter.

So, no sweat, it passes, right? I mean, it's brain death to pass an ordinance you can't enforce, right?

Maybe in Fort Wayne. Maybe in Palmer. Not here.

The residents of the borough did me proud. To quote one resident (from the News-Miner, link at left), "We came to Alaska to get away from this!" According to the News-Miner, there was a near riot. The Assembly rejected the ordinance.

There are damn few places you have the freedom from silly regulations of local government, telling you what you can and can't do on your own land. This is (mostly) one of them.


Anyway, we followed a VW Bug (New, not old) that, until we passed it, looked to be a miracle of German engineering, since it had no driver. As we finally passed it on the way out of Palmer to Anchorage, I could see the older couple that were driving it, or, heck, maybe the Germans have added an autopilot.

The Mrs. and I mused about how the VW Bug (new) is perhaps the most silly car we could imagine for an Alaskan. It's expensive. It's impractical - where can you go in one of those? Maybe they use it for trips between Palmer and Anchorage - where the roads are good. The Boy overheard our conversation, and was fairly sure that the VW was without a driver until we passed it.

Next: The Hotel and The President of Taiwan.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Hey, buddy, how you doin'? Pizzaland, huh? Yeah, that's lots of fun. I just called to tell you that YOU BURNED MY FRICKIN' HOUSE DOWN! - Carl, ATHF

It was time for our trip south. The Mrs. had been agitating for some time to get the heck out of Fairbanks for a while. As usual, she was right. We had originally thought to go earlier in the year, but decided better when we looked at how much a hotel cost in Anchorage. In mid-September, hotel rates drop by half or better, so, we rationalized this would be a good time to head out. Because I'm cheap.

In theory, the purpose of the trip was to get The Boy birthday presents in at a place that doesn't sell groceries as well. The reality of it is that Fairbanks is like living on an island - you drive the same roads day after day, seeing the same sites. There is a sense of isolation up here, sort of like being trapped in an elevator with Carrot Top. It must be worse in the villages that are unconnected by road to the rest of Alaska, maybe like being stuck with a smelly Carrot Top.

Anyway, we saw the above mountain on the way down south. It's called Rainbow Ridge, according to the Rand-McNally. It is worth a click to see larger. Don't worry, I'll wait. Another picture is below.

We covered this portion of the road in earlier posts, here, here, here, here, and here. Rainbow Ridge was on our way, but without the smoke and with the changing seasons, it was much prettier this time.

We drove right past Paxson (which, as far as I can see consists solely of a gas station/cafe/hotel (single building) and an airport). At this point, The Mrs. indicates that in some fashion she'd like to be part of the food chain, preferably at the top. Paxson, though, is pretty far from a place where you can get a hot meal, and rule one of traveling with John is once you've past it when you're driving, it no longer exists. We kept heading south.

We passed a blue highway sign with a plate, knife and fork. The Mrs. indicated through a weary series of near-starvation gasps that she thought that there might be food there. I slowed.

"Do you want to stop?"

No answer. I think she did. Maybe the hunger had made her weak. So, we went on. Because I'm a guy. Driving.

The Mrs. thought that this might be a good time to conserve her energy by sleeping so that her body did not consume itself. Then the chorus started from the backseat weasels:

First The Boy: Car sounds.

Then The New Boy: Crying.

But never at the same time - it was as if an invisible pendulum slowly and inevitably moved back and forth, and when it was pointing at one of The Boys, it was their turn to make The Mrs. not sleep. As we passed Dick Lake, I really wanted to stop and take the picture, because deep in my heart I'm eight, and a sign that says Dick Lake, well, it says Dick Lake. But, The Mrs. finally was sleeping, and I didn't follow the call of the pendulum above me.

I did miss one Alaska site to see due to The Mrs. catching some sleep - we drove right past where HAARP:
a. Controls the weather
b. Controls the minds of mankind
c. Conducts research

You choose.

You can HAARP-out more at a previous post.

We finally reached Glennallen. I heeded wisdom over sense, and stopped at an establishment that I believe was called the Glennallen Roadhouse. Ours was the only car, but, they were open.

It's far past tourist season, and the fifty or so tables in the restaurant were as empty as the logical portion of Susan Sarandon's brain. We picked a table and ordered. For being the only people there, the waiter exchanged no witty banter, nor was he very good at keeping my coffee full. We got some gas at the local station, and a plethora of signs indicated things we shouldn't do. Most of them were things that you wouldn't do, anyway, if you have manners. Putting up a sign just makes you look unfriendly. Don't put up a sign. If someone does something truly rude, challenge them to a duel. Anyway, the signs cemented our thought of Glennallen as an unfriendly place. But, then we found out why.

Every house that we saw in Glennallen was firmly rooted in permafrost. Which is to say, it is not rooted at all. When you put a house above permafrost, the permafrost will melt. This isn't global warming, it's local warming - houses put off heat. When the permafrost melts, your foundation will be useless. All of the new construction that we saw going on in Glennallen consisted of new houses going in on discrete pedestals. On theses pedestals were screw-jacks. So, when part of the permafrost under your house melts, you go under your house and adjust the jacks, and, ta-da, your house is level again.

All of this doesn't help if you own the house above. It is for sale. No bank will loan money on a house with such gross structural damage, but, if you did successfully purchase a house like the one above anyway, the realtor gives you a gas can and complementary five gallons of gas. For the insurance fire.

Perhaps that's why the residents of Glennallen are so angry - the price of starting an insurance fire has gone up since oil is up.

Perhaps the other thing that irritates them is that they live right next to an active volcano.

Mt. Wrangell is visible from Glennallen, and has been heating up since the 1964 earthquake. So, you live on icy muck, and there's a volcano for your backyard. We couldn't see Wrangell from the road, too cloudy that day. But there was more ahead. Things that would shock us to the very core of our existence. Okay, that's a lie. Actually just a pretty drive was next.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

"I remember a gentle visitor from the heavens who came to earth and then died only to be brought back to life again. His name was: E.T." -Rev. Lovejoy

Above is yet another picture of Denali. When The Mrs. saw it in the Visitors' Center at Denali National Park, she said, "I thought it would be bigger." The Mrs. is used to disappointment that way.

Well, for that matter, I thought it would have been, too. I was unaware on all of the times that I'd flown over this massive mountain in jet airliners traveling at 300 miles per hour that it was actually in the Visitors' Center. They must roll back the roof when planes fly over. You can click on this picture, or any of them, and you can view them in WilderVision. Okay, you can just look at a larger version.

Actually, it's a scale model of Denali. On a big round table. It was nice, because this was going to be the only picture that I would get to take of Denali all day long, what with the clouds and all. That's the problem with having a huge mountain as a big tourist attraction: sometimes you don't see it at all. I'll bet David Copperfield could have undisappeared it, but he's been banned from Alaska for introducing Celine Dion to the world. Or, maybe just because he's David Copperfield.

I apologize for the mislabelling of Denali as McKinley. It would appear that Ohio still wants the name of the mountain to be McKinley, and we won't be able to change it until Ohio isn't looking.

We wandered about the Visitors' Center for a bit. It was nice and touristy. You could get a road map of Alaska, signed by Governor Frank Murkowski himself. You could also get pamphlets telling you not to annoy the bears. Obviously, Charles Darwin was not in charge of writing the pamphlets. Had he been, the pamphlet would have encouraged you to annoy the bears. Maybe with pictures for those that couldn't read. Thin the herd. Darwin would have wanted it that way. Besides, we need more "Bears Eat Dozens of Tourists" stories in the papers. Keeps the weak away.

Anyhow, we wandered about the exhibits. There were stuffed bears and moose. One exhibit, though, actually irritated me quite a bit. It is shown below:

This is a microphone station that Federal scientists (that you pay for) use to measure sound in the park.

You read that right. Somehow, they got a government budget line item to listen to a forest. News Flash: "Federal Scientists Listen to Forest: Still No Man On Mars." So, in the interest of science, a quick quiz:

A forest sounds like:
a. An office building.
b. A construction site.
c. The inside of Terrell Owens' head.
d. A forest.

If you answered a., b., or c., you too could be a Federal forest listening scientist. This thing looks like it was designed for NASA, maybe to listen to Saturn's rings. I have no idea what one cost, but it was probably more than the tape recorder you or I would have used had we really wanted to hear what a forest sounded like. I mean, if we weren't there, listening.

Above is an eagle, getting ready for a midnight snack. One thing I complement this particular Visitors' Center for was a model of a carcass of a moose being fed on by lots of different critters. Rather than the Bambi kind of cute animals that talk and have big emotion-filled anthropomorphic eyes. No, this place showed that wolves don't pick up take out meals at the local Taco Bell and that eagles eat cute and fuzzy voles. Actually reminded me of dinner time at the Wilder house.

Another thing I liked about the Visitors' Center was the map above. It shows a polar view, to scale. It really points out that Alaska is really damn far away from the rest of the U.S. We're quite literally within about nine hours' air time from 90% of the industrialized world - a very strategic place. This explains why the airport at Anchorage is continually filled with jumbo jets slinging I-Pods from Shanghai to Moscow or New York. It's a great big gas station for your Chinese-made goods. I'm not advocating that all maps should show Alaska at the center. All maps should show Alice Cooper's house at the center, because, you know, Alice Cooper rocks.

Anyway, we stopped at Nenana on the way back. Nenana is home to the Nenana Ice Classic. You might think that was a hockey tournament or a figure skating competition. No. The Nenana Ice Classic is where they put this tripod (which is actually a quadrapod, but who's counting) on the river ice. They tie a string from the tripod to a clock. When the string pulls the mouse door and the mouse eats the cheese that allows the bowling ball to trip the match which lights the candle that burns the house the clock is housed in down, someone takes the time down. If you bought a ticket and guessed the date and time that the ice in the river melted enough for this to happen, you win some portion of the money put in for the tickets. In 2005, 46 people split $285,000. It would probably been fewer had the time not have been 12:01PM.

As you might have guess, like many Alaskan things, this was devised by a group of bored and probably drunk engineers. A group of railroad engineers in 1917 bet $800 on the outcome, and it has become a popular local tradition. The records generated since 1917 have even been used to suggest that global warming is here. Here is another viewpoint. I read today that global warming has been seen on Mars. I'm scared - our SUV's are killing them, too.

Anyway, we got home. Despite our inability to see anything more than a few hundred feet off of the ground, our relatives were quite pleased with the trip. Hey, what's a Visitors' Center for, if not to visit? Maybe the picture below explains why they weren't disappointed.

You be the judge.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

"I reject your reality, and substitute my own." -Adam, Mythbusters

We recently went back to Denali, to show the visiting relatives a little of Alaska. The choice given to them was to head up north, toward the Arctic Circle, or to head to Denali. Denali, being a big mountain, won over the concept of a line that's way far north. I mean, without surveying it, how would you know you had been there? Sure, there would might be a sign, but what does that really prove? That you visited the sign that some guy put up to tell you that you've been to the Arctic Circle? That takes a lot of trust. And, the roads are bad. Which really says something since most roads in Alaska might have been paid for by dentists so they can drum up a few bucks replacing fillings. So, we headed south. Above is the bridge over the Nenana River near the Denali National Park entrance. Below is the raft launching facility into the Nenana. Steeper than it looks. I didn't measure, but it looked to be about forty feed down. Nearly straight down.

Getting to Denali was nice. Part of living in Fairbanks is like being on the television show Survivor. You and a group of other folks walk around naked are pretty physically isolated from the outside world, and Mark Burnett follows you around with cameras all of the time. Forget the Supreme Court, I just want Jeff Probst out of my bedroom.

Alaska is like a reality show. Denali is one big reality set. So, we went up to visit some of the reality crew at Denali.

If you're coming to the park from the north, the first think you visit are a large number of tourista gift shops and hotels. You can stay in a wonderful hotel (pictured below) on a hillside. Quite a marvelous vista, and that's just looking at the hotel. I would definitely be worried about falling out of bed at this place.

Most of the gift shops were getting ready to close when we got up there; some already were closed. The clerk I talked to came up in summer, and had done so for 17 years, to sell t-shirts and fuzzy bear slippers. He spent the rest of the year in Arizona. Now, I might be a caveman, but though he's logged a lot of time here, I don't think you can be called a local if you spent every summer up here. At some point, you've got to get to winter, or you're as real as a FEMA official before a disaster. We bought stuff at the gift shop. Signs around the gift shop indicated it was GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. Further conversation with the clerk revealed the reality: FOR THE WINTER. Most of these shops are open for exactly four months. Yet, mortgage payments are longer. Therefore, profits during that three month period must be good. I actually did find some bargains at the shop, and bought The Boy a compass to which the idea of "North" was only a passing suggestion. Its matching thermometer seemed to understand temperature a bit better, but it was always 80F in the car, since the thermometer never left The Boy's sweaty palm. And, whatever direction he was facing was always north. Not bad.

So, the crew was packing up for the winter, to head to the places they came from, to come back next year for more.

Next: The Visitor's Center From Beyond

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

"Hey! Hey, I noticed you moved. You guys must've got kicked out of uh, Gizmonic Institute for shooting us into space like this, I bet." - Joel, MST3K

What, really, do you expect in Alaska? Well, you can start with people with guns. If you're the kind of person who starts to sweat when someone mentions the word gun (like, if you're Canadian, or from Australia - you know, one of the failed colonies) then Alaska will make you sweat. A lot.

Listen, the above mailbox may be mended with more duct tape than a mailbox is actually worth, but, hey, you know, the guy who owns it had the tape, and he'd have had to bought the mailbox . . . .

Behind the mailbox sign (not pictured, but I can be bribed to go back and take a picture) are two signs:

"No Trespassing"
"Warning: Traps on Property."

So, whoever duct-tape-mailbox-fixing-guy is, I would expect he likes privacy. This would not be obvious since he also has a piece of corrugated metal with his house number spray-painted in letters three feet high, but, I'm getting the message he doesn't want me to attempt to sell him Avon. (Ding-dong, Avon Calling, can you help me get this badger trap off of my ankle? [Digression-I have no idea if one traps badgers, but I can bet that would be a better way to get them in your house than sending them invitations to some fake celebrity wedding you threw]).

Alaska is like that.

Alaska is also where you'd expect the following sign:

Dammit, if Ted Nugent, author of "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang" wants me to have a gun, not only will I have one (or a dozen), but I will clean up a highway to help his sweaty self out. I like Ted Nugent. I did not know this organization exists, and am not a likely member. But, if there are places that a bunch of rock and roll lovers are going to clean a highway to support hunting, this is one of them. (A minor digression: Fairbanks really does have a pretty good rock station, which features very few synthesizers. Rock on.)

Hey, even up here there are protesters. I like this protest sign: "End No Shooting Zone." I, personally, am in favor of ending all no shooting zones. Well, most of them, at least. This actually refers to a state law that bans you from shooting within 1/4 mile of a developed area in a public forest. This does not apply to my next-door-neighbor, who continually shoots one shot at something.

Just one shot. Not a dozen, like he's sighting in a rifle.


I have no idea.

But, Alaskans like rules. See this sign, telling you where you can shoot? Yeah, Alaska's like that, too. Alaskans seem to like rules. So they can ignore them.

I like that, too.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Aurora? At this time of year?At this time of day?In this part of the country?Localized entirely within your kitchen? -Supt.Chalmers,The Simpsons

So, last night your faithful correspondent went to bed, the heavy responsibility of producing quality three times a week at Life In Alaska ready to drop from me like veils from a naughty dancer. But then, the glow stopped me.

Oh, I know that it's just high energy particles hitting the upper atmosphere of the Earth at about a million miles an hour. I could just sleep through it. But, hey, it's the friggin' Aurora. So, like that kid in that movie who woke up those people, I just couldn't let it rest. I grabbed The Mrs. and our visiting company, and out we went.

We were not disappointed. I know that the picture above sucks. I really, really understand that. But, this picture represents the first picture that I've captured of the Aurora. So, here it is. Enjoy. See the ultimate limits of Sony technology in Aurora-image-capturing. You can click on it to make it larger, but a better idea might be to move to Fairbanks. Because, unlike where you live, it has this:

Trying to show the Aurora with a picture like this is like attempting to show the concept of love by showing a blurry picture of a fish. It simply fails in the attempt. The Aurora moves, it undulates, it sweeps across the sky and flashes on and off like a neon sign at a bad bar.

The majesty of the Aurora is so hard to capture with words. I know lots of words, many of them obscure. But, I have a paucity of them when I try to capture the splendor that is spread over the night sky when the Aurora peeks her pointy little green head above our horizon.

One night, back during the bad old days when the Soviet Union had thousands of multi-megaton warheads pointed at our lovely land, I was driving in the mountains in some state that has them. It was winter. I was listening to Motley Crue (maybe it was The Scorpions, hell, maybe it was The Clash, I just damn well know that none of my cassettes had a synthesizer on them, just raw, naked, rough guitar - no damn Culture Club for this guy) and I looked to the north, to the big city I was heading toward. A diffuse red glow was smeared across the sky. At that point, I was pretty much thinking I'd be heading out to some sort of Mad-Max type world. I hit the radio - nothing. Not unusual in the mountains (that's why I was listening to the tape). I kept going on up the road, thinking that where 250 million Americans were there might just by a bunch of smoking holes. Around the bend as I reached the summit of the mountain pass, the radio announced the good news. No apocalypse. Nothing abnormal.

I read the next day in the paper it was an unusual burst of the Aurora. That was the first time I saw it, and as near as I can figure, I was the farthest south person in the world who could see it since the paper indicated that sightings were barely possible a hundred miles north of me (this was impossibly far south for the Aurora, and the only time I would see it for the next twenty years).

That was a hint of color in the north sky.

This, though, is like Nintendo, Playstation, and X-Box exploded in the night sky. Playing Pong with God, perhaps. Amazing.

There are things you have to see before you die. Maybe the ballpark of your favorite team. Maybe the Grand Canyon. But, if you want to see the hand of God in action, come to Fairbanks. See the Aurora. I will make this guarantee: it is worth every penny, and, more importantly, every second you spend in this quest.

But, it's better if you're in a hot tub, drinking beer, talking with the woman you love. Damn, sometimes, I envy me.

Friday, September 09, 2005

"Look bullethead-if they're hiking through the jungle there's nothing I can do about it. I have a car. I am not Tarzan."-D.DeVito, Romancing the Stone

So, on Labor Day weekend, The Mrs. had the idea she'd not like to go home and keep working. Yet again. She agreed she would work, but, dangit, a girl's gotta get some time to just see the sights. As usual, she was right.

So, we packed up the camera, the .45, The Boys and ourselves into the 4x4 and headed up the road. "Born to be Wild(er)" was running through my head as we pointed the car east and began our adventure. The picture above is where we ended up, despite not planning on it.

The road (Chena Hot Springs Road) hadn't changed much since last we'd been on it, except for the Fall color. Well, that and it was as bumpy as Lou Diamond Phillips' film career. A good road in Alaska is one that doesn't buck you off at 40 mph. This one, by that standard, is a good one. However, we did see where lots of stuff had bounced out of or off of somebody's rig as they headed up the road. My best guess that there is a moose hunter out there who is looking askance at his moose-hunting buddy wondering if he stole his Twinkies. Then, they'd get all "Treasure of the Sierra Madres" on each other, and not sleep so the other guy wouldn't steal the Fritos . . . .

Anyhow, the road is bumpy. As I've mentioned before, that's due to piling dirt and asphalt on ice (permafrost can be about 50% ice). Sometimes, when you mess with it, it melts.

Well, we got to a state park, and were getting ready to go out for a hike, and noted that 36 miles from Fairbanks, the state wanted to charge us $5 for parking. We opted out. I had noticed some roads heading off in our direction, and we put the 4x4 to use traveling over a fairly decent road to the edge of the river, and through a campsite of Fairbanks folk taking the river back after the tourists and mosquitos have left for the season.

Above are some moose hunters using an air-boat to skim up the river. The rivers up here are shallow, so an air boat is a great choice to skim inches above the gravel that makes up the river bed. You can then, in this 140 decibel machine, sneak up on the moose. Don't know if that theory worked for these guys. Didn't see a moose in the boat, but then again, I don't think they'd have let the moose drive.

We hiked as far as we could, given that I was carrying the 20 pound anchor that is The New Boy in his car carrier. Makes your arms ache. Just to get into the hunting spirit, The New Boy kept developing his own natural camouflage as the falling fall leaves kept accumulating in his carrier.

We finally parked The New Boy, and got to business. There are rocks, there is a four year old. There is water. Mash them all together? The Boy did his best to fill the river back up with rocks. Thankfully, for river navigation, he failed. Above is a picture of his patented Underhand Rock Toss. I swear, if we could convince him that hauling firewood was in some way destructive, our house would be full to the brim with the stuff. Wait, our house is full to the brim with the stuff. Nevermind. I apologize for getting "all artsy" and posting a black and white photo, but, for this one it seemed to look better. If you have the right software, feel free to re-colorize it.

Above can see The Mrs. and The Boy coming up the trail. The trail itself is barely a trail, mainly just a hint of direction until you get to the spots where the 4-wheeler ATV's come though. Those areas are nice and broad to walk through. Recently, there has been some argument over how much land should be available for the use of recreational ATV folks in the White Mountain area. My answer: All of it. If we aren't going to have roads, at least let us have ATV use in most areas so that people can enjoy it. Let's face it: only unemployed granola crunchers and exceptionally wealthy uber-Wall Street traders can take a month off to go and hike these places, and it's not such a bad thing that your average Alaska-Joe can jump on an ATV and go and see the stuff he'd like to see. Below is a picture of work done to make a place hard to get to on ATV. Not good, as far as I can see, for anyone. And, they hired someone to do this, to keep pickups out of a fire line they'd set up some time back. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

John's Theory of Going Places Real Far on Foot: I've visited places that were formerly available for trail bike/ATV use that turned into much trashier places when it went to foot only. The backpackers and hikers were less likely to pack someone else's trash out when they had to expend their own shoe leather than when they could just chuck it in with the rest of the trash they had. Plus, fewer people could get in and visit, including forest rangers that might clean the place up. I know we want to protect some wilderness, but please, fly over the damn state. It is all wilderness.

So, we did work on Labor Day. We painted, spread asphalt on the roof, cut wood, cleaned the house, and in generally worked our butts off on projects 'round the house. But, first we hiked.

And, as usual, The Mrs. was right.

Monday, September 05, 2005

"Why is it that every time I think I know the answers, someone goes and changes the questions?" - Fox Mulder


I know that you folks that are sitting through 90+F weather, well, the last that you want to hear is how we're running a fire up here, because it froze the other night. You can see the reaction of my trees above. Click on it for a larger picture of the beauty that is fall (in my front yard) in Alaska.

We're loving it (not to gloat, too much). I love the cooler temperatures up here. You see, there is a limit to how much clothing I can take off in the summer and either:
  • remain in the bounds of civilized propriety, or
  • not get arrested for lewd exhibition.
As it gets colder, however, there is no limit to:
  • how much wood or junk mail I can put on the fire,
  • how many blankets I can put on the bed,
  • how much I can shiver to generate internal body heat, or
  • how much clothing I can put on to get warm.
Cold, I can handle. Hot, I'll pass on. If avoiding high temperature is your only criteria, then Fairbanks is a good bet for a place to live. When my ancestors thought kicking about England on spring break 793 A.D. from Viking College was a good idea (you can get the DVD - Vikings Gone Wild, for only $9.99), you can guess that one of them complained that England was just too hot.

Likewise, some Alaska residents complain about how hot Fairbanks is in the summer. When it's about 80 out, you can really hear people squeal about the heat. I've lived in places that were as hot and humid as a baboon's armpit, so 80 is fine with me.

The other change that comes with the approaching equinox is night. Last Sunday night was wonderful. I looked up at the sky, and for the first time in months I saw the stars, the Milky Way splashed across the sky. Would have been even nicer had I had my glasses on (darn this getting old thing), but as it was, it was marvelous. Aurora's been out, too.

The light is the sneaky part, because so much of the change in daylight duration occurs at night. There's a pretty consistent change of about 7 minutes a day, either gaining or losing daylight. After it's daylight at 11:30 pm, you pretty much miss on a lot of the daylight gain. Likewise, when it starts to get dark at 3:00 am, you miss that action, too.

Now, though, it's visible. You can feel the days getting shorter. When a day is 35 minutes or so shorter per week during the time you're awake, well, you tend to notice that. Soon, we'll hit winter, and then it'll be really short days. It's my theory that the time zone we're in up here is relatively meaningless, might as well toss us in on Pacific or Mountain time, since in winter or summer it doesn't matter when you get up, it's dark or light, respectively.

Above is a picture of some Taiga. Taiga is Rooshian for "little sticks," and it forms because (I assume) it's so damn cold that roots can't grow. Most of the time, Taiga is pretty ugly stuff. At this one time of the year, it's pretty. There's some sort of plant that turns red when it gets cold (not fireweed) that grows in the Taiga. Anyway, it's lovely. So, to answer the question, no, the Alaska state color isn't grey. Or, gray.

So, the colors are changing, the temperature is changing, and even the amount of light we get is changing. And, by that smell, The New Boy is in need of changing.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

"Like I told the Mrs., I never drive faster than I can see. Besides, it's all in the reflexes." Jack Burton, Owner, Porkchop Express

After leaving the glacier, around dusk, the long drive home began. You may have heard of gorillas in the mist, well, above, that's a mountain in the fog that we saw on our way out. You can click on it to make it larger, if you dare.

Anyhow, as much as we saw on the way out, we really weren't prepared for what we'd see on the way back. That would be wildlife. Lots of it.

We started off with the bald eagle. This majestic bird was up in a tree as I whizzed past at 65mph. The Mrs. said, "hey, a bald eagle." You don't hear that often, so, in the best Dukes of Hazzard Rockford Files tradition, I did a bootlegger's turn at 65 mph on the narrow highway. Okay, I lied. I did an old-man style three point turn. But I pretended I was doing the bootlegger.
We tried to take pictures of the bald eagle but he or she was far from cooperative. I wondered how you could tell the difference between a male bald eagle and a female bald eagle, and I pretty much came to the conclusion that I'd have to see eggs being laid to tell, so, by definition I would never be sure I was seeing a male bald eagle. Whatever. Bald eagles are big. And, I wondered just what this one was eating. I soon found out.

So, we'd passed the moose hunters, so the next logical thing was to see the moose. First off was a bull and a cow moose just munching side-road-salad as we drove past. We stopped, backed up, and then took this picture. They kept eating. I honked the horn so they would look at us, and they obliged. Not afraid at all. The funniest part is that while I was taking these pictures, I could see moose hunters a half-mile ahead. I so wanted to shoo the moose away - run, hide from the hunters! It would hurt me deep inside for these moose to be shot by some heartless hunter. Well, any heartless hunter but me. I want them to live, grow strong, so that next year when I get them they will fill more of the freezer.

The next moose I saw was a beauty. The first bull moose was a young bull moose. This one was a giant, complete with Bullwinkle-size antlers. Not that you could tell from this picture. From this picture, it might as well be bigfoot, D.B. Cooper, or Noah's Ark. Again, a lovely, stately walk, unconcerned about our presence. Yet, we were still not done with moose.

I told you I'd been wondering what the bald eagle ate. I think I saw it. Or, rather, them. The first rabbits we saw were clustered in twos and threes next to the road. And then, on some stretches, you could see twenty eagle take-out dinners at a time, (on either side of the road) all getting ready to hop. Where?

Was there some big rabbit-orgy being prepared? Was it an American-Idol type competition to pick the next Peeps model? Were they commuting to work? None of them were suicidal, like the jack rabbits that lived where I grew up that would literally wait until your pickup was right on them and then throw themselves under your tire. Really. These had the good sense to at least go away from the road as we approached.

It was now officially nearly dark. And, we had driven back into the smoke-haze that we had fleetingly escaped.

It was then we saw the last moose. A big cow. A really big cow. Stately walking across the road. Slowly. Directly in front of our speeding 4x4. Just taking her time.

If you've never approached a cow moose at 65mph, it's hard to explain. Let me try. 65mph is roughly 95.3333 feet per second. A 1200 pound moose weighs 1200 pounds. The kinetic energy available to the moose is therefore 1/2(mass of moose)(velocity of moose)(velocity of moose). Since the moose is at rest, we can use the velocity of my car. This translates to 5,453,067 lb-ft^2/s^2. Which is pretty meaningless. I guess that I can give you an approximation based on true life: that's the energy in hitting a moose dead on at 65 mph. (for those of you who are picky about mass and weight, assume I'm using a pound mass.)

Now, from experience, I can tell you that hitting a deer at 65mph* (200 pounds) will ruin your car's day. And will, in fact, end the existence of your car as anything but a pile of spare parts. A moose is six times bigger. I can tell you from experience when you see that moose in your headlights it is as big as a Star Friggin' Destroyer. The center of the moose's body was well above the hood of the car. Not good.

Which is why we have eyes as a species, and use them. And also why we put brakes on cars. I used both of them, we stopped. The moose sauntered across the road as if she hadn't been putting her moose-life in my hands.

As we screeched to a halt, I looked at The Mrs. and calmly said, "Honey, I never drive faster than I can see."

Without missing a beat, she finished the quote, "Besides, it's all in the reflexes."

Dang, I love her.

* True story: Driving in the car:
The Mrs.: Deer.
Me: Honey.
The Mrs.: DEER!
Deer: Oh no, they're not stopping . . .

Now she says: STOP. Thankfully, "Moose" isn't a pet name she has for me. Now, "Bear" is a pet name . . .

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