Author Archives: Aaron Baker

Aleknagik Lake and a Moose!

Samara had to return to work today, but my family is still here visiting. Today we decided to take a drive out to Aleknagik Lake and see the view. There’s not a lot to do out there, but it’s a really pretty area. Since the weather was okay (cloudy, but not raining), we headed down the 20 mile road to the lake.

Before you get to Aleknagik Lake, there are a couple of small lakes on either side of the road. We stopped and took some pictures there.

Then it was back on the road for the next mile up to the lake itself. Natalie really loved it. We took a bunch of pictures. There was a great view of the lake and surrounding mountains, and plenty of people were ferrying their groceries and whatnot across the lake to the City of Aleknagik on the north shore. There was also a float plane parked near the boat ramp.

On the way back into town, we were cruising right along when I came over a hill and there was a moose and her calf. Natalie was very excited. I only snapped a few pictures before they trotted off into the brush, and mom wasn’t able to get out in time to get a good picture with her regular film camera. Here’s the two pictures I took in regular size and with close-ups.

That’s the second time I’ve seen a moose and calf on Lake Road. This time it was right outside the Dillingham city limits. I’m usually pretty unlucky in being able to see wildlife, so I was worried that Natalie wouldn’t get to see a moose while she was here. I shouldn’t have worried so much. My luck has turned, and moose are all over the place now.

We’re headed down to culture camp to help Samara out with teaching the local kids how to do things like clean and cut fish for smoking. I hope to get some more pictures down there.

A Visit From My Family

We’re enjoying a visit from my parents and sister here in Alaska. They flew up here to Dillingham all the way from West Virginia. It was a very long flight. They left very early in the morning on Wednesday from Charleston, West Virginia, flew to Cincinnati, then Seattle, from there to Anchorage and finally to Dillingham. They arrived at 5pm our time, and were plenty tired from the trip.

I took them for a quick trip around the town, and it didn’t take long for them to see most of Dillingham. They’ve been enjoying the stay. But of course, the most exciting part is the sightseeing outside town.

We took a trip down to the end of Wood River Road for a view of the Wood River, the fishing boats and the mountains.

There was a boat unloading some fish there. And Natalie immediately wanted to take some pictures of the mountains.

We had a pizza for dinner at the Windmill Grille. It’s not the best pizza ever, but the pizza is one of the better options on the menu at the Windmill Grille. Samara and Dad both enjoyed an Alaska-brewed beer.

The next scenic stop was Kanakanak Beach, to see if any folks had caught fish in their nets. We didn’t see many fish, but we did get some nice pictures of the family at the edge of the Nushagak Bay.

Kanakanak Beach also gives a slightly different view of downtown Dillingham.

I think one of the best sightseeing trips we’ve taken since my family got here is up Snake Lake Road. This is where Anthony and I started our hike when we saw the brown bear. Natalie especially wanted to head out there. We drove up Snake Lake Road to the lookout point. Everyone was pretty impressed with the view.

These are some pretty good pictures of the mountains around Dillingham, which don’t usually photograph well.

It has been pretty cloudy for the whole trip, but at least no one is getting sunburned. We went farther down Snake Lake Road and got a good view of the lake.

Our next restaurant trip was to the Muddy Rudder. It’s a favorite of mine, and I think everyone else liked it as well. Natalie really enjoyed her milkshake.

Dad had a seafood alfredo, Natalie demolished a cheeseburger, Mom had the grilled halibut and Samara and I both ordered the fried halibut sandwich. Definitely a recommended dining experience in Dillingham. Too bad they’re only open in the summer. I miss it all winter long.

The family have all been taking pictures as well, but those are most of the pictures I’ve gotten. We also went down to the beach at Snag Point, below our apartment, and collected a ton of sea glass. It all seems to wash up there when people throw their glass bottles over the side of the boat. You can find lots of rock-tumbled, smooth pieces of glass all along the beach. We picked up a bunch!

I also introduced everyone around at the courthouse, which was nice. They got to see my office. Natalie, Mom and Samara went shopping at the gift shop at the airport. We also took a tour of the Sam Fox museum. It had some neat history of the Alaska Natives, local fishing and prehistoric animals native to the area. It’s a small museum, but not bad.

We also checked out our new digs. Samara and I are moving to a cheaper place to live, out by the airport. (It’s quite a bit cheaper–it’s free!) We’ll be managing the property for the absentee owner. The place we’re moving into will take some work to get into shape. I might even be able to get dad to help me out a little while he’s here.

Natalie has been keeping her eye out our window for a bald eagle that lives on the bluffs. We saw him out the window one time, but since then only dad has been lucky enough to spot him again. I took a few pictures from the bluff tonight, but all I could see was boats and seagulls.

More pictures as we have time. The family is here for another few days–they don’t leave until Thursday. We haven’t even gotten out to Aleknagik Lake yet, so I can guarantee a few more pictures then!

He wasn’t exactly Paddington bear.

We had a birthday party for Saramay yesterday, and Anthony was antsy the whole time we were there because it was nice outside and he wanted to go for a hike to scout out places for fishing. I promised him that I’d go hiking with him all day today.

So today, we got our packs together and went hiking. He has a few places that he wants to scout out to see if there’s any good trout fishing, but I convinced him to head for a place off Snake Lake Road that we had been on snowmachine before. It’s a bit off of the road itself, but it’s a nice little valley with a stream where there’s usually lots of moose. (Except, of course, when I’ve been there, but there have been moose every time Anthony went without me before.)

We drove out (Aleknagik) Lake Road towards the start of Snake Lake Road. As we were driving out there, with his dog Sofie happily sleeping in my lap as we drove, we came up over a hill and there was a moose right in the middle of the road. It was huge! It was actually a mother with a calf, which was much smaller. The calf was about the size of a Great Dane and the mother was as tall as any thoroughbred I’ve ever seen. It was a seriously large animal. Anthony’s camera was still in his backpack, so we didn’t get any pictures as they trotted off into the woods. It was pretty neat, though, and the closest I’ve come to a moose yet.

We turned off onto Snake Lake Road and drove up to the overlook point. This is a little area of broken rock to the left of the road. The road itself actually goes up and across the side of a mountain, so there’s always mountain on the right and a drop-off into the valley to the left. The overlook spot is on the left and gives a great view of the area. Anthony took a panaramic picture of it.

We got unloaded, both of us with our packs, me carrying my single-shot shotgun and Sofie bounding along beside us. The stream we were headed to is about 2 miles down from the road. First we had to get down the hill through a lot of brush. It’s really slow going through this stuff, but we made our way from clearing to clearing and got down into a wooded area with alders and spruce. It was easier going then. We saw a lot of moose scat. At some point we came across some scat I didn’t recognize as moose, and there was a lot of it. Our educated guess was that it was bear scat, so I put a slug round into the shotgun, which I had been carrying empty.

As we came down through the trees, we could see open country to left, so we weaved out there. It was really marshy tundra, though, so we moved back into the trees a bit. After a few minutes of walking like this, we came out into the open again and it was less marshy. I had Anthony wait up for me and as I caught up to him, I turned around.

A flash of brown caught my eye, and I pointed it out to Anthony. It was a grizzly bear. I would have estimated from memory that it was about 300 yards away, but we measured with Google Earth as well, and it said it was more like 1/4 mile. No matter what the actual distance was, it felt close. We were in the open, with trees to our back, and the bear was across the open area.

He was lumbering along as he was coming down off of the ridge between us and the road, and while he was travelling parallel to the road, he wasn’t walking perpendicular to us. In fact, as he was coming off the ridge, he seemed to be pointed straight at us.

We immediately froze, and Anthony took off his backpack and clipped Sofie to it. He started his camera rolling in video mode, and unholstered his .45 pistol. I held my shotgun ready just in case. The proximity of such an enormous, powerful animal made me really nervous, and he kept lumbering along mostly perpendicular to us, but closing the gap slightly. Anthony and I were immediately afraid that he would run into the trees that we just came through that were now to our left as we faced the bear, and then we would lose sight of him.

The wind was in our faces, so I don’t think that the bear actually knew we were there, so the first thing we did was yell really loudly to try to get its attention. On the video Anthony shot, you can hear us yelling, but the bear doesn’t even seem to notice us. He is still just moving at the same angle to us, towards the trees. Anthony suggests that I fire a shot into the air to startle him. I tell him that I’m switching to buckshot, so that I don’t waste a slug in case the bear comes towards us. Then he says that he could fire a shot from his pistol. I really didn’t want to waste any ammunition for the shotgun or his .45 pistol, though, so I tell him that I’ll fire off a round from the .380 pocket pistol that I was also carrying.

In the video, you can hear Anthony say that he’s going to cover his ears. Then I pointed the little pistol into the air, cover my closer ear with one hand and fire off two rounds in fairly quick succession. A split second after the first shot, the bear’s head snaps up and he looks in our direction and then begins running full tilt perpendicular to us and into the woods. I had to recock the pistol because the magazine slipped out a little, and then I fired a third shot into the air. The bear just keeps running for the woods.

(Anthony got a video that’s about a minute and a half long, from the time we see the bear, yell at him, and then finally shoot into the air and scare him off. It’s about 30 megabytes, though, so I made a shorter clip (3.5 mb) that starts when he suggests shooting in the air, and ends when the bear hits the treeline. It’s a bit shaky, but watch the bear’s head snap up as it hears the first shot, and look how fast it runs.)

As soon as the bear hits the tree line, we decide to head in the exact opposite direction, through the open tundra where we can keep a good eye behind us. Anthony let Sofie loose, and she immediately began running towards where we last saw the bear. We both yelled for her as we headed the other direction, and she quickly realized that we weren’t going to follow her towards the bear, and ran back to us.

Anthony looked back as we were moving across the tundra and said that he saw the bear heading back the way it had originally came, up towards the road. That didn’t really leave us any good options for turning around and going back to the car right away, so we headed further out into the bush towards the stream.

We found the stream easily. Anthony took a nice panoramic shot of it.

We planted ourselves down in the valley next to it. Anthony scouted around for some good fishing spots while Sofie and I relaxed for about an hour.

When Anthony finally got done looking around, we packed back up and headed back out of the valley. At the top of the ridge, there was a game trail and we saw some fairly good-size bear prints, but the camera battery was dead, so we didn’t get any more pictures.

Almost as soon as we got into the trees to cross back over to the open tundra, Anthony found a giant moose antler that had been shed. We looked around a little for the other one, but there was just one. He lugged it all the way back to the car. It was a pretty good find–definitely an Alaskan touch to decorate their house. Apparently people find them in the woods all the time when the moose shed them.

We kept to the open tundra for the entire trip back to the car, except when we got to the mountain itself, where we had to crawl and scramble our way through brush that even a bear would probably avoid. I was exhausted by the time we reached the car again, and very happy not to have seen our friend the bear twice.

I think our little episode with the bear was scarier when it was happening that it really needed to be. Like I said, when we checked the distance on Google Earth, it said it was actually 1/4 mile away, but it sure didn’t seem like it at the time. Also, if the bear ran 30 mph, which I understand they can when they’re charging, it could have reached us in less than half a minute. That would not have given us much time to shoot and reload a single-shot shotgun, if it became necessary. Then again, even brown or grizzly bears are usually skittish around people unless they have cubs or you surprise one by walking right up on it in the bush. We were in the open, so that was probably the safest situation. Nevertheless, it was both scary and pretty amazing.

Deputy Magistrate

I am now a judicial officer for the State of Alaska. My deputy magistrate certification arrived last week while I was out of town, and I was sworn in today by Judge Torrisi.

I just have to do five hearings while supervised by a judge or magistrate and then I’ll be doing weekend arraignments by myself once a month.

A year out of law school and I’m working as a judge before I’ve even tried a case.

Not bad.

When is a 5-year adjustable rate mortgage a good idea?

When is a 5-year adjustable rate mortgage a good idea?

When you’re me.

The conventional wisdom is that when the market is good, you should just get a 30-year fixed rate mortgage to take advantage of the low interest rates by locking them in. When we bought our house, the market was good. Not great, but good. Nevertheless, since we were buying just as I was going into the first year of 3 years of law school, we opted for the 5-year ARM. Adjustable rate mortgages give you a fixed rate for the first few years, and then they vary each year after that. The rate is lower for the initial period. We figured we’d probably sell our house once I was out of law school for two years, so the 5-year ARM worked for us and got us a lower rate.

Little did we know. I did a dual-degree program and took 4 years to finish school, and then we went to Alaska for 2 years. So our mortgage rate is adjusting this year, and we’re nowhere close to selling our house.

I got the Notice of Intent to Change the Interest Rate on Adjustable Rate Mortgage from our bank today. Scary stuff, right? Our rate is gonna go up like everyone fears, right?

I laughed out loud. Our rate is tied to the 1 Year US Treasury Security Weekly Average. Our initial ARM rate was 5.375%. The new rate for this next year is 3.25%.

What can I say? Sometimes you step in shit and come out smelling like roses.

Our new mortgage payment is a fiver short of $300. (That’s down from $350.) We’ll keep paying the $400 we always pay, of course, but now that’ll be more money going towards our principal.

Hooray for the economy being in the crapper!

(As you probably surmised, Samara and I returned safely from Fairbanks. The flights were uneventful, we took most of the day off from work on Friday, Dillingham has turned green, I went hiking with Anthony, and then today we had dinner with Erin, Anthony and Saramay. Shaping up to be a good weekend so far, except for a little rain.)

Stampede Trail Hike (Into the Sort-Of Wild)

I made good on the promise I made in yesterday’s blog post. Today I hiked the Stampede Trail in Alaska’s interior.

First, some background. Samara is here in Fairbanks for training, and I just decided to come along with her so that we could spend some time together outside of Dillingham. We arrived in Fairbanks a few days early and did some shopping along with various touristy activities. When I asked people what we should do in Fairbanks, more than a few folks thought it would be a good idea to drive the couple hours down to Denali National Park and do some hiking. Samara and I had actually planned to do that, but she ended up getting sick on Tuesday. It just didn’t seem like such a good idea to take a really long drive when she wasn’t feeling well.

There isn’t a bookstore in Dillingham, so we picked up a lot of new books when we first arrived in Fairbanks. One of the ones I picked out was Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. This is a true story about a young man from a good family, Chris McCandless, who took up a vagabond lifestyle, traveling around the United States. His ultimate destination was Alaska, where he ended up in Fairbanks. From there, he traveled down to a road outside Denali National Park called Stampede Trail. This road was built by mining companies in the 1960s. It’s a 50 mile road to nowhere, and about halfway down this road is an old city bus that was put out there to provide shelter for the miners using the road. Chris went out to the old bus alone and tried to live off the land. He arrived in the spring, and by the beginning of fall, his body was found by some moose hunters. He had starved to death, despite apparent success in hunting small game and gathering local roots and berries.

The book contained a map of the area.

The road on the right side is the highway to Denali National Park. Stampede Trail (now known as Stampede Road) goes west from the road, just north of Healy. Some important landmarks to note on the map are Eightmile Lake and the line indicating the end of the maintained road. There are a few rivers that cross the trail, and none have bridges. The abandoned bus is about 10 to 15 miles off the end of the maintained road.

I didn’t honestly think I would make it all the way to the bus, but I figured that if I drove down there to do a little hiking, that it might be an interesting experience. So when Samara went to training at 8am this morning, I got in the car and drove down to the Stampede Trail. It’s a two hour drive, and I had to be back around 5pm, so that only left a couple hours for hiking each direction (in and out) of the trail.

It was a beautiful drive down towards Denali.

As I got closer, I could see the mountains in the distance.

In about 2 hours, I reached Stampede Road.

Stampede is paved for the first few miles. I noted my odometer and figured I’d make it about 10 miles in before I had to park and walk the rest of the trail. The paving actually gave out after 4 miles or so, right after a little hippie commune/bed & breakfast called Earthsong. After that, it was all river-rock gravel.

It’s beautiful country. Of course, I only made it to about the eight mile mark before the maintained road ended. (You could probably guess that based on the name Eightmile Lake on the map.) It went quickly from a two-car-wide gravel road to a single-car gravel road with large potholes filled with water. I stopped at a little pull-off right before the road went to a single-car width and parked.

It was definitely a good choice to stop there. As you can see, our white rental car is not a four-wheel drive monster. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t even supposed to take it off the paved road, but considering how many gravel parking lots there are in downtown Fairbanks, I don’t feel too bad about going down Stampede Road as far as I did.

You can see my equipment leaning against the car, there. Here’s a closer picture.

The backpack was on sale at Sierra Trading and it’s a great bag. Samara bought me the carabiner and carabiner-handled coffee cup that you see clipped on. I have a filtration water bottle and regular water bottle packed inside, along with lunch, a change of clothes and a jacket. The shotgun is a single-shot H&R 12 gauge. I packed buckshot and slugs for bear protection. That might seem a little silly to those of you sitting in your living rooms in the lower 48, but I was hiking alone in an area where brown bears (grizzlies) and black bears are both abundant. (In fact, that’s what a lot of people go to Denali to see.) When Samara told someone at her conference today that I was hiking Stampede Trail, they expressed concern about bears. That made me feel even better that I made the investment in a shotgun. (Which, by the way, was an amazingly good deal. Just over $100 for a gun that provides bear protection, and I can also take it duck or grouse hunting in Dillingham.)

At this point, it was a little after 11am, and I started down the trail.

As you can see, it was very muddy. I had to dodge around some pretty big puddles, some of which took up the entire trail. It was fairly easy hiking, though. I had almost expected the road to simply end and have to pick my way through the overgrowth. I was worried about actually being able to follow the old trail. I needn’t have worried. If I’d had four-wheel drive or an ATV, I could have driven the entire route I took.

The scenery was, obviously, very pretty.

There were rolling hills and mountains to see at first, but before long, there was a lot of brush on either side of the trail. That’s when I started seeing small game.

See it? How about a little closer…

I’m no expert, but I believe this is a spruce grouse. It was skittish enough to run away if I approached too quickly or too closely. Nevertheless, I got within five feet of one of these guys. I should think it would be easy to take these guys with a shotgun using birdshot, or even a .22 rifle. They’re the size of a small chicken, so they should have a decent amount of meat.

One thing I noticed as I was walking along was that some of the trees seemed to have a fair amount of missing bark. My educated guess is that the moose were eating the bark before the plantlife around here starting greening up.

As I came down the backside of a hill, I started to get a nice view of the hills off to my left.

There was a creek running beside the trail as well.

I didn’t see any actual beavers, but I did notice some beaver activity. This tree appeared to have been downed by a beaver.

There was plenty of evidence of human activity on this trail, but this tree clearly wasn’t chopped with a hatchet or axe.

Speaking of evidence of humans, I wasn’t the only one on the trail. After I’d gone a little ways, a guy came down the trail behind me on a mountain bike. He surprised me, to be honest. He stopped and chatted for a minute. He had just moved up to Healy and was going to see how far down the trail he could bike. We discussed the relative merits of a shotgun versus pepper spray for bears. While I’ll spoil the end now and tell you that I didn’t see any bears (or any large game at all), I’d still rather have a shotgun in hand than pepper spray in my backpack if I were to come across a large brown bear.

The other evidence of human activity on the trail was the ATV tracks that followed the entire course and the fire pits that I stumbled across somewhat regularly. There was also evidence that folks liked to camp down this trail. Someone had taken a home-made pickup camper and dropped it off into the woods.

It was just twenty yards off the trail, across a small creek.

As I went on down the trail, I saw plenty more small game, such as this hare.

I saw a few of these. Just as in Dillingham, they’re turning from winter white to summer brown. They were skittish, but only if I approached quickly. The other small game I saw were a couple of squirrels. I’m used to eastern gray squirrels. These guys were brown, and they were pissed off that I was in their territory. Both squirrels I saw chittered at me loudly and stood their ground until I was very close.

I ran across another makeshift campsite.

I don’t know what this area was like when Chris McCandless walked in here in the early 1990s, but it’s hardly the most remote area of the Alaska bush any more. I guess it probably wasn’t that remote when he was here either. That’s one reason it’s so sad that he starved just 30 miles or less from a main highway.

After a bit, I started to run into places where the streams and creeks crossed the trail.

I don’t know if any of these bits of water were the ones marked on the map. In all honesty, since I didn’t reach the bus or any other definite landmark before turning back, I have no way of knowing how far I hiked. I did hike for 2 hours in, so assuming an average speed of 1.5 to 2 miles per hour, we can assume I made it 3 or 4 miles past the end of the maintained road. That should have gotten me past the first stream marked on the map and possibly to the Savage River. I know the rivers flow quite differently depending on the season, but I just don’t know if I really reached any of the ones that are actually on the map.

It doesn’t help that the map is probably outdated. For at least one section of the trail, a creek had decided that it would take the path of least resistance and route itself over the actual trail.

I had to take a detour through the pines off the side of the trail.

There I encountered another angry squirrel. He surprised me, but not enough to need to use any buckshot on him. He sure was loud and angry, though. If he’d had a shotgun, he probably would have used it on me.

I had planned to hike until 1pm and then turn around. I passed the mountain biker coming back my direction, and he asked how far out I thought the abandoned bus was. Apparently he knew about Chris McCandless, and had wanted to see the bus. He didn’t get that far, though, and he was moving much faster than I was. Shortly after we parted ways again, I reached another stream crossing the trail.

Given the time, and since I knew I wasn’t anywhere close to the bus, I decided to have a little break and then turn back.

I stopped for lunch next to an old firepit that was on a bank just above this stream.

It was a nice view from where I sat and ate my sandwich and chips.

I had read online that this wasn’t a very beautiful hike and that Denali was a better choice. I disagree. Sure, there weren’t lots of mountains, but it was still a very pretty area. I think the locals would rather discourage people that are only interested in the area because of the bestselling book, but I think it’s worth the hike to see such a notable area.

Here’s me at the turnaround point.

As I was hiking back, I saw a couple of ducks sitting in a stream, but they took off before I could get their picture. Still, the stream itself was pretty.

I took some pictures of a couple of piles of scat that I crossed on the trail, but Samara says scat isn’t very photogenic and that I shouldn’t post it. So I won’t. But my guess is that it was moose scat, and that it was old.

On the way back up, I was glad I had turned around when I did. My right ankle started to get really sore and I was slowed down considerably. I did see another spruce grouse on the way out.

I also saw some tracks. The first ones I think were moose, and Samara agreed at once when she saw the picture.

The second set were bear, I think. They’re very faint, so it’s hard to tell. I’ll post them anyway, and you can decide for yourself.

There are two tracks in that picture, running diagonally from bottom left to top right. You can see separate toe prints on each one. (Ignore the obvious ATV tracks at the bottom right of the photo and concentrate on the fainter tracks in the middle.) I compared those to some images online, and they certainly could be bear. I didn’t see any actual bears, though. Of course, between the mountain biker running the trail ahead of me and me yelling out “hey-yup” every few minutes, I hopefully scared off any large predators. I didn’t have any desire to see a bear up close and personal.

When I arrived back at the car, there was a great view of the mountains to the south in Denali.

The mountains were really big compared to the ones we get in Dillingham, and unlike the ones around Dillingham, I was able to get a better picture of these.

It threatened to rain on me all day, but it never quite opened up. I was thankful for that. The clouds looked ugly a couple of times, though. I wore a jacket for the first hundred yards of the trail, but I stripped down to my t-shirt after that. My pack actually made my back sweat a lot, and the pace kept me warm enough, even though it was a cooler day.

I took a picture of the note I left on the dashboard of the car. Even though Samara had told me that she was going to call the Alaska State Troopers if she didn’t hear from me or see me by 6pm, I wanted to be on the safe side.

I wrote that note on the back of the author’s bio page from Into The Wild (which I carried with me for the map it contained). If Chris McCandless had left a note like this for someone, perhaps he wouldn’t have died a mere 30 miles from help. Better safe than sorry.

On the way out, I got another good picture of Eightmile Lake. There’s a small cabin at the edge of the lake on the right.

I also got at least one good parting shot at the mountains as I was winding my way back down Stampede Road to the highway.

I wasn’t even off the Stampede Trail when Samara called me on our pre-paid cellphone. (There was no cellphone service after the maintained road ended, so I left the phone in the car, but as soon as I hit the maintained road, I got service again.) I left her know that I hadn’t died and was on my way back to Fairbanks. It was a smooth trip back, and I arrived by 5pm. I took a nice hot bath to soak my ankle and wash off all the 40% DEET bug spray I was wearing. (Mosquitos are killer here!) After that, we ate a nice dinner at Chili’s. (I actually miss chain restaurants–I’m definitely not ready to go “into the wild” for good.)

Tomorrow we catch a 6:15am flight back to Dillingham via Anchorage. We’ve enjoyed our mini-vacation in Fairbanks, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it. Cross your fingers–we’re hoping that when we get back to Dillingham, it’ll be as green there as it was here in the interior. Then maybe you’ll get some hiking-related posts from Dillingham.

Fairbanks Vacation – Wednesday

Not much to report for Wednesday. Samara did her first day of Cultural Recognition blah-di-blah… whatever it was called. (You know, her seminar on how not to be the white oppressor.) She was gone from 8am until dinner. I ran around town and did a little shopping, but nothing too exciting to speak of.

I did finish reading Into The Wild, about the guy that lived in a bus up here in the Alaska bush and died of starvation. Turns out that the bus he lived on isn’t far off the beaten path, and is between here and Denali. So while Samara is at her training tomorrow, I’m going to drive down there and do a little hiking to see if I can find where the guy was living. It should make for an interesting blog post with some pictures. It will also let me try out some of my new hiking equipment.

I’d post more, but the wireless internet at the Pike’s Landing cabins doesn’t reach to the actual cabins. I’m sitting outside right now to get internet access, and it’s gotten kind of chilly.

More tomorrow, I promise!

Fairbanks Vacation Days Two and Three

Monday was Day Two in Fairbanks. We didn’t end up seeing a movie on Sunday. We just did a little shopping instead. After we got back to the hotel, we realized that sleeping was going to be harder than Dillingham. The sun sets after 11:30pm here, and rises again around 4am. We never see the night.

The bed at the Extended Stay was less than great. We both woke up Monday with hurting backs. We slept in for a while, then went out and had some breakfast. At Taco Bell. Well, we did get up late, and Taco Bell is something Samara really misses in Dillingham. After that, we drove around a bit and found a tattoo shop and salon right next to each other. Samara wanted me to get a haircut, so we stopped in there first. Since it was going to be a fifteen minute wait, we went next door and spoke to the guys at the tattoo shop. One of the guys there really admired my sleeve–Scott should be proud. He said it was the best work he’d seen from outside his shop.

Pretty soon we went back over to the salon and I got my hair buzzed down for summer. Samara likes it short, and I like Samara, so it’s a pretty good haircut, I guess.

Next activity for the day was a little canoeing down the Chena River. Chena River runs through downtown Fairbanks. We rented a canoe near Pioneer Park and paddled downstream to the Pump House restaurant, where the canoe rental folks picked us up. They said it would take at least two hours, but we were done in about an hour and a half. I guess we’re fast paddlers.

Here’s some pictures from our canoeing trip.

(Samara would probably want me to note that her swimsuit in this picture is covering her lower back–that’s not her butt. She seemed to be displeased with this picture when I took it.)

Since Samara was in the front of the canoe, she got stuck in most of the pictures. But I was there too!

We saw a sternwheel boat on the river.

And a float plane took over from the river and flew right over us.

After we did the canoeing thing, we decided to take a trip to Chena Hot Springs. This is about 60 miles up the road, through the Chena State Recreation Area. There’s a little resort there that has a hot springs. It costs $10 to swim all day. The drive was probably the nicest part.

In fact, as we were driving through the Recreation Area, I saw my first up-close moose! It was on the left side of the road, just grazing, and I saw some brown movement and slowed the car down. It took Samara a minute to get her camera out of her purse, so the best picture I got was of its rear end headed into the woods.

The Chena Hot Springs Resort is at the end of the road. The very end. It seems to cater to the tourist crowd. From the signs, I’d guess mostly Japanese tourists.

We saw some horses tied up when we arrived. I guess you could take a trailriding trip.

As we walked down towards the hot springs, we saw the ice skating pond, too. Guess it’s more impressive in the winter.

The hot springs itself was nice. They had an indoor pool, two indoor hot tubs, one outdoor hot tub and a hot spring-fed rock pool. The hot spring pool itself was about 106 degrees. We couldn’t stay in it for very long.

We hung out there in the Chena Hot Springs for maybe a hour, and then headed back towards Fairbanks for some dinner. On the way back, we saw some funny road signs.

We called our friend Ricky, who went to college in Fairbanks, and asked him where we should eat for dinner. He recommended Brewster’s, but they turned out to be closed for Memorial Day. We went back to the hotel and got out the phone book. We decided we had to try the local barbeque place.

It is advertised as the world’s northernmost southern barbeque. I suppose it is. It was pretty good food, as well. For the price, in fact, it couldn’t be beat. We had a lot of leftovers to take home with us.

After dinner, we passed on the movie for a second time and did a little more shopping at Fred Meyer. We picked up a DVD to watch in our room. We made it about halfway through the movie before we both decided it was time to just zonk out.

Either the light or the bed was worse the second night. Samara and I both had trouble sleeping, and she was pretty sick during the night. In fact, she didn’t feel well at all this morning. We had planned on taking Tuesday to drive down to Denali National Park, but the prospect of two or three hours in the car each way was just too much with Samara feeling bad.

Instead, we started off with a trip to the northernmost Denny’s for breakfast. Every Denny’s is the same, let me tell you. This one wasn’t too great. After that, we checked out our new hotel, the Pike’s Landing Lodge. They told us we could check in after three o’clock. So we decided to do a bit more shopping. We got some blackout curtains and dog treats for our friend Saramay. Then we decided that we’d go ahead and watch a movie today. We saw the new Star Trek movie, which was pretty good. Not the best movie ever, mind you, but fairly entertaining.

At that point, it was nearly three, so we went back to our new hotel. They really pissed Samara off, because she was sick, the room still wasn’t ready, and they walked off when she tried to ask about switching to a different room. So we took off for another hour and drove around Fairbanks.

At 4, we got back to our new hotel, and Samara talked to the manager. She was really apologetic, which helped Samara’s mood a bit. We got our room, which is actually a single-room cabin by the Chena River. It’s nice, and the curtains do a much better job of keeping the light out than they did at the Extended Stay motel. I left Samara taking a nap and went out for a stroll.

There’s a little pen with baby ducks in it, called the Duck Hotel. They have a pen with a little pond, a little house, and a coin-operated feeder. I had some quarters to feed the ducks, but the machine was empty. I guess someone will feed them.

I took a picture of the river near our hotel.

Tonight we’ll probably try eating at Brewster’s for dinner, since they should be open. Tomorrow and Thursday, Samara has training all day. I’ll probably do some shopping around town and whatever else suits my fancy.

As far as vacations go, this one is so far, so good.

Fairbanks Vacation Day One

Samara and I are vacationing in Fairbanks. We left Dillingham early this Sunday morning and arrived this afternoon in Fairbanks, in the Alaska interior. Samara has training here on Wednesday and Thursday, but until then, we’re just here to have fun.

We both woke up early this morning, before our alarm. Anthony drove us to the airport, and we got there an hour early to check in. Samara always gets flagged by TSA for an extra security check. It really pisses her off, and we have no idea why it happens. So we had to stand there the extra few minutes while they called someone to clear her to fly.

The flight from Dillingham was okay. We sat in the exit row right over the wing, and it’s a Saab turboprop plane, so there was a fair amount of buzzing vibration from the engines. They give you earplugs, if that gives you any idea what kind of flight it is. The plane sits three to a row–one on one side of the aisle, and two on the other. I got a window seat, and although I didn’t take any pictures, it was neat to get a bird’s eye view of Dillingham as we left.

Samara bought us some new books while she was in Anchorage last week. I had already read one, and started the second before we left on our trip. I finished the second one on the Dillingham to Anchorage flight. That left me a little time to just stare around the plane. Honestly, flying on a Saab turboprop is kind of like taking a Greyhound bus with wings. They do provide in-flight service, though. Soda and bags of made-in-Alaska potato chips.

We got into Anchorage and got off the plane fairly quickly. With these small planes, they just park you on the tarmac and you take the stairs down and walk across the asphalt to the airport. Once inside, we went straight for the baggage carousel. At Dillingham, they gave me both my boarding passes and checked my bags through to Fairbanks. Since Samara was flagged, she only got her boarding pass for her first flight, and they said her bag wasn’t checked through. So we were waiting for her bag in Anchorage, but it didn’t show up on the carousel. She asked the nice baggage ladies, who told her that she was checked through.

Upstairs we went to the Alaska Airlines check-in and waited in line. My boarding pass said 12:25 was the flight to Fairbanks, and it was already after noon. I was worried we’d miss our flight. Samara got her boarding pass for Fairbanks, though, and the girl said we had plenty of time. Turns out that it wasn’t departing until 1:10, and didn’t load until 12:40.

We had to take off our shoes, pull out my laptop, take off our jackets, and Samara had to throw away some hand lotion so that we could go through security. PenAir is definitely our favorite airline. You don’t have to go through any security at all to get on their planes, either in Dillingham or Anchorage. But Alaska Air, you gotta go through the TSA folks. Samara was convinced that she would beep in the metal detector, but it was me who beeped. I had to go into a separate little glass cubicle and the guy patted down my baggy pants. Dunno what he thought he’d find.

I left my shoes off after that, and we cruised on down to the gate for our flight. Then we realized we had plenty of time, so I put my shoes back on and bought some magazines to read on the Ancohrage-Fairbanks flight. I got a Shooting Times and The Economist. Samara just laughed at me.

The flight to Fairbanks was on a jet, which was more comfortable, quieter, and had lots more people. It probably took longer to load and unload the jet than we were actually in the air. The flight is less than an hour. We only got water or juice and a small bag of peanuts. Lame. PenAir is definitely better, even if you do have to wear ear plugs.

Once in Fairbanks, we got our luggage pretty easily, and then Samara stood in line forever to get our Ford Fusion rental car. We drove out of the airport, and realized that we didn’t actually know where the hotel was. It’s the Extended Stay, and thankfully Fairbanks isn’t that big. We drove right by it. It’s right next to a Fred Meyer store. It’s not the nicest hotel ever, but it’s okay, and the small indoor pool does seem to be working. Also, we got it for $43 per night on Priceline. Not bad.

After getting our stuff unloaded, we decided that 3pm was long enough to go with nothing to eat except airline food all day. We drove down the strip and found a Wendy’s. Besides the fast food Samara has flown into Dillingham on her trips, this is the first time I’ve eaten fast food in 8 months. It was yummy. But they didn’t have air conditioning, and Fairbanks is hot compared to Dillingham. It’s almost 80 degrees here. After eating our lunch, we decided to drive down and explore some more.

I can’t say much except that Fairbanks doesn’t seem to have a lot going on. Between the rental car and its strange new car smell, the flat terrain and strange city, I felt like I was in Oklahoma for some reason. It was like vacation flashback, or something.

On our way back to our hotel, we stopped at Pioneer Park. This is a public park with free admission that was first set up for some kind of expo in the 60s. They have old cabins turned into museums and gift shops, as well as various restaurants and park stuff there.

This is me outside the entrance, with a little train going up overhead in the background.

There’s a big paddlewheel boat that’s been turned into a museum with boring dioramas here.

Whee, boat!

Samara is relaxing outside a gift shop.

Doesn’t she look nice? Compare that to my scruffy mug outside an old church.

Samara talked me into buying her some ice cream.

It was okay, but we didn’t finish the tiny cup. Then we walked around a bit more and went back to the car. On the way home, I stumbled onto the place I wanted to rent a canoe from. You can rent a canoe and go down the river here for a few hours and then they pick you up. It seems like a fun thing to do, and if the weather holds, we’ll probably do that tomorrow or Tuesday.

We’re back at the hotel now, and Samara is napping away. I think flying takes it out of her. She had a headache and some nausea. We’re talking about taking in a movie tonight. The new Star Trek is out, and that seems like a good bet. It’s been 8 months since I’ve seen a movie in a theater, too.

It’s actually been 8 months since I’ve done a lot of “civilized” things. This should be an interesting trip. Stay tuned.

Throwing Shoes

On Sunday, Samara went to Anchorage for a meeting. She was gone until today, Wednesday, and I missed her. She brought back goodies, though: blackout curtains, various and sundry bath and hygiene supplies, and some new books. Always good.

I don’t have a lot of pictures to share with you today, so I’ll start off with the ones I do have. The bay is clear of ice now, so the barges have started rolling in. There’s a really nice place on the edge of the bluff, behind our apartment, where you can watch the bay.

In the above picture, you can see the edge of the bluff, the retaining wall at the shore below, and a giant barge out in the bay. It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of the bay when it’s empty, or even when there’s ice in it. It takes a large boat like this to realize just how big the bay is.

There’s actually two boats out there.

A barge.

And a smaller boat–maybe a fishing tender or some kind of smaller barge? I really don’t know. I’m not very familiar with the different kinds of boats they use around here. I know that there are small fishing vessels, larger tender boats that take on fish that are caught by the smaller vessels, and then there are tugs and barges. I know a barge when I see one, because they’re covered with shipping containers. Well, except the one above, which is empty, because it already offloaded at Dillingham’s dock.

That’s it for pictures. How about a story?

This is a work story, but it’s one of the more interesting things that has happened since I started working at the courthouse.

It seems there was a fishing tender (a vessel of the sort mentioned above that collates the catch of smaller vessels) that was anchored in Togiak Bay. Many people come from around the world to work on fishing vessels. For instance, the clerk of court related to me that she has fished with many Russians. On this vessel in particular, there was a gentleman from Somalia. He had a bunkmate, of perhaps the same nationality, although I don’t know for sure. He and his bunkmate did not get along.

As a result, this Somali gentleman threw his shoe at his bunkmate and threatened to kill him. Allegedly. In many nations, including Somalia apparently, it is a grave insult to throw a shoe at a person. The bunkmate was not pleased, and spoke to the skipper of this vessel. The skipper, no doubt concerned about keeping his crew happy, contacted the Alaska State Troopers and reported the assault. The Alaska State Troopers sent one of our local troopers over there in a chartered helicopter to pluck this gentleman from the boat and bring him to Dillingham to face the music.

He was charged with assault in the fourth degree. (That’s the lowest level of assault, reserved for placing someone in fear of imminent physical injury by words or deeds.) Having lodged him in the local pokey, the trooper decided that his conduct was not exactly the crime of the century. He called up the local district attorney to see about having the charges dismissed. He figured that putting this guy on the next plane to Seattle would be sufficient to resolve the issue. The district attorney was out of town, convening a grand jury in Anchorage. He called the back-up DA, who refused to make that call without discussing it with the full-time DA. Left with no choice, the trooper contacted the courthouse, hoping to have this footwear-heaving miscreant arraigned before the magistrate.

Ah, but there’s a rub. Have you guessed it yet? Our Somali friend speaks no English. In fact, the folks down at our Dillingham jail didn’t know what language he spoke. Never fear, I thought, puffing out my chest. I have a degree in diplomacy! I wikipedia’d Somalia and learned that two languages were predominantly spoken there: Somali and Arabic. Aha! I have a very good friend who is both a public defender in Kentucky and an Arabic speaker. He had taught me some Arabic phrases. (Okay, mostly how to cuss, but I think my pronunciation is fair.) I looked up a few phrases in Arabic on the internet, transcribed them phonetically, and went to the clerk’s office.

The clerk got the jail on the phone, where I could hear the jailor asking our Somali pal what language he spoke in louder English, as if that would make him understand any better. The clerk got the jailor to put the defendant on the phone, and put it on speakerphone. I cleared my throat and gave it my best: “Hal tatakallum al-lughah al-arabiyah?”

“No,” he said. “Somali.” Okay. So he doesn’t speak Arabic. Well I don’t know a lick of Somali, that’s for sure. We hung up, but now at least we knew what kind of translator we needed. We got the AT&T language line paperwork out and called them up. Sure enough they had a Somali translator. Great! We could arraign Mr. Fourth-Caliph Prophet. (I won’t actually say his name, to protect the dubiously innocent. But he’s named after both the fourth Caliph and the Prophet, in that order.)

The trooper who helicoptered him off the boat brought him up the courthouse. We hooked up the translator on the overhead and the magistrate used every last bit of patience he had to wind his way through an extremely long version of a simple misdemeanor arraignment. When the magistrate first read the charges to Mr. Prophet, he broke down in tears and started sobbing. It was hard to watch. We learned that he had grown up as a nomad in Somalia. Considering that Somalia is a failed state with no government, I can only imagine what it was like to live there. He was likely worried that we were going to take him out back, shoot him with an AK47 and kick his body into a ditch. Once the magistrate explained all the rights he had under our justice system, he calmed down quite a bit. When asked for his position on bail, the trooper recommended that our Somali friend be released on his own recognizance and be allowed to travel to Seattle. If that happened, we’d probably never see him again, and I’m pretty sure the trooper knew that. I really don’t think he wanted to pursue the charges, but the district attorney just wasn’t around to sign off on dismissing the case. After the arraignment, we kept the translator on the line and the trooper used her services to try to discuss with the defendant how he might be able to travel to Seattle once he was released. This officer really went above and beyond to help out this guy.

The magistrate didn’t actually just let the guy out of jail completely–he appointed the public defender agency to represent him, and required that they get an address in Seattle from him before he could be released. Unfortunately, the person that he thought he could stay with in Seattle told the attorney that they had never heard of the guy. So she couldn’t get him released from jail. And by the end of the day, we still hadn’t heard from the district attorney about whether the charges should be dismissed. Our Somali friend, therefore, is still in jail here, but I hope that he’ll be released by tomorrow.

It was an interesting day, and I recommend taking this lesson away from this story: don’t throw shoes at people when you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language.

The final bit of news from this blog post is that I’m finally going to get to do a little traveling. Samara just returned from Anchorage, but next week she has a training in Fairbanks. I’m buying a ticket to go with her. Her flight, hotel, rental car and per diem are paid for. I just had to buy my ticket, essentially. It’s going to be nice to get out of Dillingham. Her training is Wednesday and Thursday, so she was originally going to be gone from Tuesday through Friday. We’re leaving on Sunday instead, and staying until Friday. We’ll get a hotel room or camp for the first two days, do some sightseeing and shopping, and just generally enjoy a little vacation. I’m personally really looking forward to seeing some of Alaska outside of Dillingham.

And I figure we’ll get some more good pictures for the blog out of that trip.