Home is where we are parked

Home is where we are parked
Home is where we are parked

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

AK -- Fairbanks, 29 May–12 June 2108



Two weeks in Fairbanks, Alaska…

Why we came…

To explore Arleen’s old stomping grounds, and mostly to visit friends.

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Great friend and Fairbanks resident, Heidi, added the Alaska sticker to our map

The campground…

Rivers Edge RV Park is decent.  It felt a little run down, but we liked the location.  We were able to walk to the University, Pioneer Park, and two large grocery stores.  Vehicle, boat, and aircraft noise were noticeable much of the time, but quieted around midnight each night. 

We had full hook-ups, about 10 channels of cable tv, spotty wi-fi, and a reliable Verizon data signal.  There were roughly 10 washers and 10 dryers.  At $3 each, it’s the most expensive yet!  The sites varied quite a bit but most of them were narrow.  We barely fit in ours both lengthwise and widthwise. The sites were packed gravel that were fairly level.   Some sites had rows of trees and bushes between them and some were open. 

We were comfortable but would have liked more room, especially if we got noisy neighbors.  The location was good and we’d probably return.

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Camped at Rivers Edge RV Park near the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska

Nearby towns…

Fairbanks, Alaska, population in town ~32,000  and ~100,000 in the borough, at an elevation of 446 feet, is an interesting city, with an interesting history, in an interesting location.  It has most of the supplies and services of the cities of comparable size.

Though we respect folks for living in Fairbanks, we think they’re crazy!


Fairbanks climate data.  Note the record high of 99 in July and record low in –66 in January, a difference of 165 degrees!  Note also the “mean monthly sunshine hours”.


The drive:  Tok to Fairbanks…

The majority of the highway from Tok to Fairbanks suffers from frost heaves. It was smooth for the first 10 miles from Tok and the last few miles past Eielson AFB. Most vehicles did not seem to have issues. But those of us towing were getting bucked around pretty good. It was necessary to drive less than the posted speed limit.

Arleen noted that areas of the road that were lined with white fir and Birch had less frost heaves than areas lined with black spruce. It was an intuitive observation that was confirmed the next day at the University of Fairbanks Museum.

Snowshoe hares were everywhere. It is a good year for the bunnies so it must be a good year for lynx. We’ll keep our eyes open!

The braided Tanana River is second largest tributary that flows into the mighty Yukon River. “The river drains the north slopes of the high Alaska Range and is fed by a number of glaciers. The river drains approximately 44,000 square miles of interior Alaska.”

We crossed old bridges over the Robertson, the Johnson, and the Gerstle Rivers. We could see their extensive drainages that start from glaciers up in the Alaska Range. They were all sizable rivers and still had sections that were still frozen.

There was a noticeable increase in traffic once we hit Delta Junction. Plus, there was an increase in the number of homes tucked in the woods.

We had our first glimpse of the Trans-Alaska pipeline when we were crossing over the Tanana River near Delta.

Arleen shared memories with me as we drove past Eielson AFB and the town of North Pole. She was stationed at Eielson for four years back in the mid-‘90s.

It was strange driving into the city of Fairbanks since we had not been near a population center in three weeks.

We could really tell the difference in the length of the day when we laid down for bed that night. It was still bright daylight. Plus, each time we got up in the middle of the night, it was still daylight. On June 12th, sunset was at 00:35 and sunrise was at 03:05. There is not any darkness this time of the year. You just roll from dusk into dawn!


Route:  Tok to Fairbanks

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The eastern edge of the Alaska Range near Tok

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Our first view of the pipeline crossing the Tanana River near Big Delta

Museum of the North…

The truck was in the shop again stranding us on foot. Fortunately, River’s Edge is in a convenient location and the University of Alaska Fairbanks was within walking distance. So we walked up to their Museum of the North.

“The museum’s research collections – 1.5 + million artifacts and specimens – represent millions of years of biological diversity and thousands of years of cultural traditions in the North. The collections are organized into 10 disciplines (archaeology, birds, documentary film, earth sciences, ethnology/history, fine arts, fishes/marine invertebrates, insects, mammals, and plants) and serve as a valuable resource for research on climate change, genetics, contaminants and other issues facing Alaska and the circumpolar North.”

We thought the $14 admission was a bit high but it is free for UA students and Alaska-based military families with ID.

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The Museum of the North is small but packed full of informative displays

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Well preserved ancient critters like dinosaurs and mammoths have been found throughout Alaska

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After driving hundreds of miles on the frost-heaved ALCAN, we found these exhibits very interesting.  (Click any picture for a better view.)

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Interesting stories about two women and their role in the Alaska Gold Rush  /  We learned the difference between trumpeter swans and tundra swans

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A bowhead whale skull and a gray whale skull

Heidi and Dan’s homestead…

Our friend Dan picked us up and took us to his and Heidi’s place for dinner. Arleen and I have known Heidi for over 20 years. She has joined us for adventures scattered across the globe. We met Dan about 10 years ago.

Heidi and Dan have an off-the-grid-home north of Fairbanks. Arleen and I thoroughly enjoyed a tour around their slice of paradise. They have done a bunch since we last visited. They have embraced a minimalistic lifestyle and thrive in a very harsh environment. We respect them for that and admire their success.

We were reunited with the 60lb, 6 month old puppy Xander! He’s been growing since we first met him in February. He has grown into a sweet, lovable yet rambunctious puppy. We met his older sister, Sasha, who for a Great Pyrenees, seems petite but takes her guard duty very seriously.

In addition to the two dogs and Tanga, an 18 year-old cat, they also have a number of chickens and rabbits. Heidi always kept us supplied with delicious fresh eggs.

Our first night there, they fixed us BBQ chicken that was from their coop. Plus, we had root vegetables leftover from last year. Somehow food tastes better when you have raised/grown it.

Arleen returned a few days later to help Heidi play in her garden. A garden in such a harsh environment is a challenge but she has success with cold tolerant plants such as greens, beans, squash, peas, and root vegetables. Heidi is trying asparagus for the first time this year. The plants thrive with 15 to 22 hours of sunshine during the brief growing period.

The last evening we visited them was after some heavy rainfall. Our big heavy truck could not navigate their muddy backroad. Backwoods homesteads are not without their challenges. Again, we greatly admire Heidi and Dan and their lifestyle.

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They have chickens, rabbits, two dogs, and a cat  /  Heidi’s egg-retriever is a chuck-it taped to a broom handle.  

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Heidi planting asparagus in her garden  /  Their two Great Pyrenees on the lookout for unwelcomed critters

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Dan doing one of his regular chores “Yes, we have running water.  We run and get it!”

The pipeline…

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline construction started in 1975 and finished in 1977.  The amazing feat of engineering traverses 800 miles through remote and rugged terrain and withstands Alaska’s brutal weather.

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Some facts about the 800 mile long pipeline  /  An earlier version of a “Pig” used to clean the pipeline

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Walking along the pipeline just north of Fairbanks

Riverboat Discovery…

We normally avoid “touristy” things. However, Sternwheeler Riverboat Discovery was highly recommended by lifetime Alaskan resident Dan and longtime residents Heidi and Rolf. The Riverboat is a three hour cruise down the Chena River; “one of the most unique Alaskan experiences available”.

River’s Edge RV Park offered a shuttle service so we took advantage of that and arrived at the landing dock about 45 minutes before our 09:00 departure. That gave us enough time to experience their “Alaska at 40 below” chamber. The room was at -35oF and we immediately felt chilled, especially our hands. They take a picture for you which is a fun souvenir.

The boat tour was a lot of fun. The river guide narrates stories about the history of the area and the scenery that we were floating by.

Shortly up the river, we were treated to a bush pilot demonstration. The pilot’s radio can be heard over the ship’s sound system. The boat guide and plane pilot then do an informative and entertaining question and answer session as the pilot takes off, circles, and lands by the boat.

Next, we arrived at Susan Butcher’s Kennels for a mushing demonstration by her daughter, Tekla. Like the plane pilot, Tekla has a radio system that transmits to the boat. She explained how the dogs are raised, exercised, and kept happy and then did a question and answer session with the boat guide. Again, it was informative and entertaining.

Next, we got a good look at the Tanana and Chena confluence, the “wedding of the waters”.

Finally, we arrived at Chena Village, debarked, and wandered around for an hour so. We visited three different venues where our Athabascan guide told us about “how the wolf, fox, martin and beaver were used to provide food and protection in the harsh Arctic climate, how the Athabascans skillfully survived for over 10,000 years, and how they adapted to village life and Western culture in the past century.” Afterwards Arleen and I had time to visit the dog yard and fish camp.

The crew treated us very well on the boat. They offer free water, tea, and coffee. When we launched in the morning, they offered free donuts. After our stop at Chena Village, they offered free salmon spread and crackers for our ride back up the river and return to the landing.

There were only about 200 passengers on our tour. We were able to move around from one side of the boat to the other. A crewmember told us that the afternoon tour would have about 600 passengers. It is very popular!

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Riverboat Discovery route on the Chena River  /  It’s COLD!

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Riverboat Discovery III  /  The large paddle wheel

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The boat captain and boat narrator.  They were both very interesting.

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A float plane takes off by the tour boat.  The plane’s pilot and the cruise guide converse over the ship’s speakers.  It’s a fun and informative talk.

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Our next stop was former Iditarod Champion Susan Butcher’s dog yard.  This time the cruise guide and Tekla Monson, Susan Butcher’s daughter, did an informative and entertaining question and answer session.

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Then we stopped at the Chena Village, where we learned how Native Alaskans live.

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We learned about reindeer, domesticated caribou  /  A rainbow awaited us at the “wedding of the waters” between the Chena and Tanana Rivers

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Learning about northern animals and how they are used

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The different animal pelts  /  Getting some sled dog kisses  /  These incredible coats take about 6 months to make

Creamer’s Field…

Creamer’s Field is a 2,200 acre bird refuge just north of Fairbanks. Charles Albert Creamer purchased the dairy farm in 1928. He used excess grain to feed traveling birds. “When the dairy went up for sale in 1966, the community raised money to ensure the farm fields were preserved so the birds would continue to stopover along their migratory route.”

As Arleen and I walked around the fields, she told me about living in the area and enduring the bitter cold winters. When the geese returned to the fields it made the local headline news! There might be snow on the ground but the birds signaled the end of winter was near and everyone goes for a walk at Creamer’s Field.

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Walk route around Creamer’s Field  /  Nice trails and informative displays a scattered around the area

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The dairy operated from 1903 to 1965  /  These tree swallows were taking care of youngsters

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Sandhill cranes and ducks

Lisa and Bill…

Leon’s daughter Lisa and her husband Bill have lived near Fairbanks for a number of years. I looked forward to a visit with my stepsister so we could share Leon stories.

It was a great visit! Lisa and Bill’s daughter, Ashley was visiting with her two small children who entertained us the whole time.

Bill gave us a tour of their place that includes a large garden and bee hives. He gave us a large jar of bee vomit, known as honey! Arleen swears that local honey is the best thing for allergies. We were in Fairbanks for the height of pollen season so the honey was deeply appreciated.

Bill and Lisa are such nice, fun and generous people. We look forward to our next visit with them.

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Lisa and Bill treated us to an outstanding dinner and fresh honey!

Chatanika River adventure…

The second night we visited Dan and Heidi, we took salmon to grill outside.

After dinner, Heidi and Dan loaded up on 4-wheelers and Arleen and I drove their side-by-side to the Chatanika River. There is a river access 12 miles from their house.

To get to the river, we followed the Trans-Alaska pipeline road for a number of miles. There are berms built into the 4-wheel drive road for drainage but for the side-by-side it was like a roller coaster ride!

At the river, we encountered some mud bogs but the vehicles made it through without an issue. Where there is mud in Alaska, there are mosquitos. Thankfully, they were still the big, slow, dumb ones. It’s the late season, smaller ones that are ferocious.

I grabbed my fly rod. Since I already had a leech fly tied on, I thought I’d give it a chance. Arleen and Dan grabbed spin rods with little spinners. Heidi took up photographer duty.

Within, a few minutes, my leech was attacked by a nice 10-12” Arctic Grayling! I was impressed by the size and the pretty iridescent colors! But when Arleen took a turn, she caught a nice 14” one. I’d hook several more including a twin of Arleen’s nice one. We were thankful to Dan for sharing his special spot with us.

I encouraged Arleen to drive on the way back. We started out in the mud bog but she handled it without a problem and enjoyed herself! That’s good! When I add one to the wish list in a few years, she might actually agree!

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Chatanika River north of Fairbanks

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Posing along the pipeline trail

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Fish on!

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Arctic grayling are one of the prettiest fish and they like flies

The Alaska Fire Service…

Wild fires consume an average of 1,000,000 acres of Alaskan forests a year. The Alaska Services Interagency Coordination Center (AICC) “serves as the focal point for initial attack resource coordination, logistics support, and predictive services for all state and federal agencies in wildland fire management and suppression in Alaska.”

Our friend, Heidi, has been a weather forecaster for the AICC for about 10 years. She has been an Alaskan meteorologist in one form or another for 25 years including time with the Air Force and the Kodiak Launch Complex.

As a fire specialist she uses fire indices that take into account temperature, winds, relative humidity and 24 hour precipitation. She has found Canadian products are more useful in Alaska since they are more representative of the risk of a fire in the Boreal forest that composes the majority of Alaska and Canada. After the wildfires have been ignited she can help predict their movement and volatility based on the same factors.

We were eager to watch Heidi’s brief to the AICC management. Their awareness of the potential for fire makes their decisions regarding assets and crews easier. The day we were there, it was still early in the fire season and just a few isolated fires were ongoing.

Then we went with Heidi for her brief to the Alaska Smokejumpers at their Jump Shack. Though a more relaxed brief, the 20 Smokejumpers in attendance paid close attention. They also cheered when Heidi briefed the previous day’s lightning strikes and the potential for thunderstorms. They love their jobs!

Alaska Smokejumpers have been in existence since 1959. They utilize “high performance fixed-wing aircraft and specialized parachutes to provide a rapid and long-range response capability for a wide variety of wildland fire missions.”

After the brief, a couple of the jumpers volunteered to give a tour to me, Arleen, and a couple college interns. They had just briefed us that they were on Crew 1, the first crew that would go for the day, when the alarms went off!

They quickly excused themselves! They have two minutes to throw on their suits and parachutes and rush to the aircraft which has six minutes to take off. The eager smoke jumpers whooped and hollered as they headed out the door. It was exciting to watch! We learned from the dispatcher that the fire was near Galena. We said a silent prayer for everyone’s safety.

Then Luke stepped up to complete the tour. The jumpers pack their own chutes. The younger ones use newer square chutes while older jumpers still use old style round chutes. The jumpers have to pass a rigorous physical training test that includes a 1.5 mile run in less than 9 ½ minutes, pull-ups, sit ups, and push-ups. They can be out on a fire for up to three weeks at a time. All supplies get air dropped to them. It is only a summer job. Luke works at ski resorts during the winter. It was all fascinating and we’re thankful to Heidi for arranging it for us.

On our return we met members of AICC. They briefed us on part of the decision making processes. Their large maps of Alaska provide a graphic of their area of responsibility. They have the entire state broken into several categories from lands that need immediate protection due to inhabitants and structures to lands that require only monitoring due to their isolated location.

Lands in Alaska are distributed between State of Alaska, BLM, National Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Fish and Wildlife Service, and Department of Defense. That requires a lot of coordination!

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A day with Heidi at the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center and Alaska Fire Service

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We watched Heidi do two fire weather briefs.  For the first brief, her audience is scattered across Alaska.  The second brief is for the Smoke Jumpers.

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Kids’ drawings are posted all over.  This was one of our favorites.  /  Learning how the Jumpers’ personal gear is maintained.

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Some Jumpers checking and packing their gear.  The place oozes bravado and quirkiness.

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We like maps.  Here are two walls worth!

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The alarm was sounded during our tour.  Our guides suited up and were quickly out the door.  They have two minutes to get the aircraft and the aircraft has to take off within six minutes!  /  Fire activity varies considerably from year to year, but it usually keeps these folks busy.  During “slow” fire years, the Alaska Smoke Jumpers often help fight fires in the Lower 48.

Pioneer Park…

Pioneer Park opened in 1967 as part of a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Alaska’s purchase from Russia. It is a FREE admission park with “family and visitor-friendly activities showcasing Fairbanks history”.

The 44 acre park includes the Bear Art Gallery, a historic sternwheeler, a carousel, miniature golf course, narrow gauge train, native village, gold rush relics, historic log cabins that are now summertime shops and eateries, the Palace Theater and the Alaska Salmon Bake.

Arleen and I walked a few miles down Airport Way from the campground to Pioneer Park. We had been listening to distant thunder getting closer and our pace picked up as it got louder. We got to the park just in time and were able to take cover in a cute souvenir store as the sky opened up and an onslaught of heavy rain and small hail lasted about fifteen minutes.

We wandered around appreciating the history and found the Palace Theater where we planned to watch a show a few nights later.

We walked the nearly two miles back and were glad to stay dry.

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Walk route from the campground to Pioneer Park in Fairbanks  /  A nice warm day in Alaska!

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Entering the park  /  There’s a narrated train that circles the park

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The Riverboat Discovery  /  These buildings date back to the early 1900s  /  Riding the big salmon!

Angel Rocks and Chena Hot Springs…

Angel Rocks was Arleen’s favorite hike when she lived in the area in the mid-‘90s. She was excited to share the hike with our dear friend Stefanie and me.

Angel Rocks are “unique geological formations formed by molten rock forced upward from deep layers of the Earth, which cooled and hardened close to the surface. As the ground eroded around them, these granite pillars have been exposed and are now impossible to miss. They date back millions of years and stand fewer than two miles off the road.”

From the trailhead, you can hike over 8 miles to Chena Hot Springs Resort, but we were going to hike the ideal length 3.5 mile loop.

The trail started out fairly level through a bit of forest and then opened up for a view. Then we came upon a huge old beaver pond where Arleen scattered her golden retriever, Buck’s ashes. They hiked here countless times.

We took a left at the Y and hiked the loop clockwise. From here the trail pitched up and soon we were at the formations and getting a view back across the valley to Chena Dome.

Arleen and Stefanie quickly scrambled to the top of the closest boulder. I went ahead to get an incredible picture of them back-dropped by the extensive Chena River drainage.

We continued the loop and continued climbing on the boulders like 8-year old children. We had the climb up to ourselves. It was on the climb down that we ran in to groups of other hikers.

Next, we drove down the road to Chena Hot Springs Resort. The resort was originally founded in 1905. Now it boasts a hotel, hot springs with both an indoor and outdoor pool, ice museum, dog sled tours, ATV’s and hiking.

After our hike, we were famished and made our way to the restaurant and enjoyed a healthy lunch that included “Chena Fresh” vegetables grown in their year-round green house. Then we wandered around the resort to check out the rest of the facilities. We encouraged Stef to return with her husband, Glenn, during the winter since the Resort is a premier location to watch the aurora borealis or northern lights.

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Hike route to Angel Rocks  /  Let’s go!

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The trail starts along the Chena River  /  Soon we’ll be on top of that rocky peak  /  We’ve arrived!

See Arleen and Stef?

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Sweet spot for a break

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People come from all over the world to experience Chena Hot Springs, especially in winter to see the Northern Lights

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Is Stef waiting for a massage?  /  Girls just want to have fun!

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Various scenes around the resort

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We saw this big guy on the way home

The Dinner and the Theatre…

It was time to enjoy a night on the town with our friends. But since there is no night in Fairbanks during June it felt like more of a pleasant evening outing.

First, we met Heidi and Dan plus Stef and her brother, Henry, for dinner at the River’s Edge, Chena’s Alaskan Grill. One of Fairbanks highest rated restaurants, they offer both indoor and outdoor seating. We were fortunate to get a table right away in the popular restaurant.

Next, the six of us went to Pioneer Park’s Palace Theater for “an old-school musical-comedy revue about frontier life”. We especially enjoyed their lessons on outhouses and winter wear. It was funny stuff!

Afterwards, Heidi and Dan followed us back to our home to help us paste our 30th state on our travel map.

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A night at the Theatre  /  The ladies of the Gold Rush  /  We learned about outhouse seats

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Two of them are stuck in Fairbanks in Winter and the other two are going to Hawaii  / The ladies on stage

Wickersham Dome…

Wickersham Dome is an enjoyable alpine hike north of Fairbanks. It’s considered one of the nicest hikes of Fairbanks due to its alpine setting, long views, low crowds, and mild terrain.”

It was one of Arleen’s favorite hikes back in the day and she looked forward to sharing it with me, Heidi, Dan and their dogs Sasha and Xander.

We drove to the trailhead, 28 miles north of Fairbanks. The trail was easy to follow. At first it was wide and flat.

Then we took a left at a Y and the trail pitched up but only slightly. What was concerning was the mud bogs. We each tried to leap over the mud areas or tip toe along the edges. Though our boots were all muddy, our feet stayed dry and it never got deeper than a few inches. The dogs, however, thoroughly enjoyed getting off trail and wading through the deeper mud.

What was funny is the mud that floated on ice underneath. The whole area would sink underneath the weight of your foot but you did not sink in. It was like firm jello.

Finally, we turned left and headed up to the ridge line and the top of the dome. We gladly left the mud behind. The trail was steeper here and the wind started to pick up.

I found a den that had been dug out by some critter. I spied a few game cameras clinging to the flimsy black spruce trees near the hole. I went over and danced for the camera. The camera’s owner should get a good laugh!

I also discovered a few areas of leftover snow and invited the dogs over to join me. Most dogs love snow. They rolled in it and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Xander is just six months old and not coordinated enough to keep up with Sasha, though he tries! He wound up more than once tripping head over heels as he chased her down in the tundra.

When we got to the ridge just below the dome itself, the wind was whipping at about 40mph. We took the view in, snapped a few quick pictures and then hurried back off the top skipping the dome itself. In addition to the winds we could see thick dark clouds headed our way. The three meteorologists in our group knew that the dome was a favored spot for lightning!

Besides we had worked up an appetite. On the way home we stopped at the Hill Top truck stop for a hardy meal and ice cream. It’s the best way to end a hike.

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Hike route to Wickersham Dome  /  Let’s go!

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Headed up the trail  /  Our goal, Wickersham Dome, is above Arleen in the picture

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Pictures along the ridge.  It was windy.  The scenery reminded us of the Smokies.

Jim and Sheila…

We both worked with Jim for several years when we were all in the Air Force. We respected Jim for his work ethic and integrity. His career success after the Air Force is proof that our admiration was spot on.

More than co-workers, we were good friends with Jim and his wife Shelia, having fishing and dogs in common. It was good to see their family doing well. Their small daughter has grown into a beautiful young woman and they now have a strapping, athletic son. Arleen enjoyed spending time with their two golden retrievers.

It has been many years since we saw them. But as we sat, chatted, and laughed during dinner it seemed like it had only been a short period of time. That is how it is with true friends.

We hope it is not that many years before we see them again!

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We hadn’t seen Jim and Sheila for 18 years!


We are currently with friends in Big Lake, Alaska!  Our next stops are Palmer, Anchorage, and then Soldotna.

Parting shots…

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The climbing wall at the university  /  Arleen checking out locally made jams and sauces at the farmers market

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Cute sign at Chena Hot Springs  /  Electric outlets in parking lots are used to keep cars warm in winter  /  Don’t park under cottonwood trees in spring!  Those sticky seed pods are a pain in the butt to clean!