Tag Archives: alaska

Homemade in Ruby, Alaska

(Nora Kangas, 92, watches her great grandson Rohn in Ruby, Alaska)

The arctic air has an influence on Ruby on the Yukon River. At least my pilot thinks so.

And I tend to believe him.

We’ve been here a day and a half, and we haven’t had those 10-times daily snow showers we had in McGrath.

“Ruby is on the Yukon, and it’s way more susceptible to those arctic weather patterns,” he said. (our pilot)

We’ve had two days of high-pressure golden Ukrainian flag-type days up here on the Yukon River. Never mind that some man built the town on a wind-buffeted hillside in the middle of nowhere.

Ruby is a gem of a place. Cold, quiet and about as full of hospitality as you’re likely to find anywhere on the Yukon.

Rachel Wiehl runs a bed & breakfast, The Wild Iris B&B, that is a favorite among Iron Dog racers and Iditarod watchers alike.

It’s not just the view, it’s the attention to detail.

It’s probably the food more than anything.

We arrived cold and wet from Cripple to a Thanksgiving feast of turkey, mashed potatoes, rolls and gravy.

Rachel doted on us and offered her truck and her snow machine for the 1-mile trek to the Iditarod checkpoint.

It’s the stories too.

Rachel is full of them, which you might expect from such a vivacious woman running a business in rural Alaska.

The tells a story about her kids getting excited about seeing “real” indians at a powwow in the Lower 48.

“I told them you’re real indian, you’re Athabascan,” Rachel said. “But they were like no, these are ‘real, real’ indians mom.’

She tells stories about Iron Dog that might make a racer blush.

Hospitality is something that has gone by the wayside, especially in the big cities. It’s hard to find the kind of personal care that makes you feel like family. It’s all clinical now, with hospitality in little bottles of shampoo and conditioner and skin-drying hard soap that is unbelievably difficult to unwrap. 

Her grandmother welcomes visitors with a big grin and a dozen questions.

“Grandma, they’re busy,” Rachel says several times before giving up and letting Nora Kangas, 92, fire away with her combination of genuine curiosity and historical analysis.

After two days, this is home.

The things we do for WiFi

If I hold my tongue just right, and I extend my left arm up over my head holding a clothes hanger, I can get two bars on my GCI Android phone. This is just enough to allow me to send a text message or possibly a Tweet.

Never mind that I look ridiculous doing this in the middle of downtown McGrath, which is a veritable city by Alaskan bush standards.

Today I have cursed, cried, pushed, pulled, prayed, worried and willed my way to Internet success. I’ve used four devices, my iPhone, my Android, my iPad and a laptop. I have created hot spots to send an email, and I’ve held my Android to the sky trying to get one bar of broadband in order to send a photo to Facebook while mushers feeding their dogs looked on in what I can only think of as the way they might view a moose behaving strangely on the trail.

This is Iditarod. This is a race that pits man and dogs against the extremes of all that is the mothership of extremes – Alaska.

It is 1,000 miles of silent, frozen rivers, burned out hillsides, banshee-filled coastlines and every possible weather element one can imagine.

There are stops along the way, and it is in these shelters that we, the media, go to meet the mushers. A stop like McGrath is often greeted with a surprised look from the mushers who have been alone with their padding canine companions and their thoughts for the previous seven hours.

And we thrust recording devices into their hands and then run away full-sprint toward the nearest wifi signal to try and keep our readers and viewers updated to the very last second.

It is many moment spent watching the blue status bar crawl up the percentage ladder. Little celebrations occur at 20, 40 and 75 percent. And then the terminal wait for the spinning star to indicate that it has indeed processed.

Then you run out again hoping for a quick bite or something short you can send to the gods of web.

Covering the Last Great Race on Earth in one of the world’s most isolated places has its challenges, but for all of these, I’m astounded that in the heart of Alaska, in McGrath upon the Kuskokwim, I can type these words and press send. Sitting here in the McGrath school, where the broadband is almost as wide as that river behind me, I can press send and deliver this to you moments after I write it.

It took me two days to figure out that the school has the best Internet connection in town, but I secretly like to sit in the cafe with the slow speeds and people watch while waiting for videos to upload to Facebook.

Tonight I charge my phones and my laptop in hopes of finding a connection in the next remote town, that which they call Ruby on the Yukon. I’m told there is nothing there. I may go crazy.

I’ll see you on the other side.

McGrath on the Iditarod Trail

Three pilots conversed about the weather as if it was a mechanical problem that needed the collective wisdom of a few old wrench monkeys.

We were flying in a Cessna at around 2,900 feet around Rainy Pass, a small window through the formidable Alaska Range.

One pilot could not find the entrance to Rainy Pass, another decided to check further downrange to see if something called Hells Gate was open.

By open, they mean enough visibility to see a few miles in front and on the sides. Because once you go in, there is no turning around.

We punched through behind two other planes, the voices of the other pilots explaining the changing weather conditions in front of us.

When we flew out onto the great open plain that is the Kuskokwim River valley, the world seemed too big and flat suddenly after squeezing through the giants of the Alaska Range.

In McGrath, we drank tea and ate lunch before making our way down to the Iditarod checkpoint.

Bales of straw, dogfood and extra sleds awaited the mushers who still were several hours out negotiating snow squalls and rough trail.

Evening rolled around, and after finding some food and a few places to connect to wifi.

By 8 p.m., a crowd gathered near the river to watch. For some, it was their 25th Iditarod.

For others it was a first.

Loving the Last Great Race on Earth

Photographers love the golden hour. That time of day when the sun light filters through low-lying topography and tree branches to create the opposite of shadows and triangle definitions on things normally too flat to stand out.

Today the golden hour fell as I was cruising along the Yentna River on a Polaris snow machine at 40 miles an hour and my camera was snugly bungee corded behind me.

The mushers in the 40th Iditarod moved up the river like ghosts amidst the pools of golden-hued light and into tree shadow and campfire smoke.

I shot them from a wide bend that found the cold side of the sunset far too early in the evening, and I coaxed every last bit of golden hour out of my position in the middle of the big, frozen river.

But I remembered something I wanted to try this year. I stopped and watched the mushers move in and out of the light, their fairy-tale creatures padding along in pink booties, the faint shush of the sleds along the deeply rutted snow.

Sometimes you have to experience something to understand it. Journalists sometimes rely on simply recording with a device and not with their minds. A card full of photos is a wonderful way to share an experience with friends, but not at the cost of never truly seeing the event with your own eyes.

This was my second year watching the race from the Yentna River.

Somewhere out the in great everythingness that is Alaska outside of Anchorage, we miraculously ran into a group of people that our ride leader knew. They were gathering firewood for the river fire that characterizes this particular spectator sport.

He asked if we could join them, and we might as well have witnessed the signing of adoption papers for the hospitality and friendship we were afforded. We wanted for nothing. 

Hemingway had his bullfighting. I’m not sure I can take sled dog racing to that level, but I understand why he loved it. There is something both beautiful and terrifying in the Iditarod for me.

The beauty is in the symmetry of man and beast working together to overcome obstacles along what once was a thousand mile race course.

The terror is in the isolation of traveling with magical companions that I’m not convinced can talk in a meaningful way, something I require to get through even a single day.

The beauty is in the race course, perhaps the most beautiful tract of earth covered in perhaps the most peaceful way a human can travel other than with the use of their own two feet.

The terror is in the beautiful tract of earth so deadly and unpredictable that only a certain mindset can even fathom it. The rest of us fly in or ride snow machines to the borders.

Iditarod is a magical time of year. It’s a winter race that tends to portend the spring. Today the Yentna River was lit up in brilliant sunlight under baby blue skies.

They, the mushers, may find themselves in a blizzard by the next day, but today they traveled under a beautiful blue omen.

Last year I witnessed the first and last day of the last great race on earth. This year I’ll tag along at a few other famous stops along the way. McGrath, Ruby, Unalakleet and the finish in Nome.

I’ll document each day here on Tumblr if you’d like to tag along.

Here’s a photo gallery from the first day to hold you over until I can catch you up again.


The Week In Between

It is the week in between.

In Alaska, February falls into March like snow falls on the tundra. It’s a seemingly endless process, the glory and the bane of those who call the great white north home.

They are one month, sixty days with a leap year, a period of time in which Alaskans so cabin feverish from a January spent below zero and 114 inches of now dirty snow on the ground that they gather together to celebrate a midwinter festival.

A gathering of the various parts that make up the vast and varied state of mind known as Alaska they call Fur Rondy.

Not unlike carnivals and festivals elsewhere, there are recognizable elements in the rides, the frostbite footrace and the grand parade. But the similarities end there.

Fox, caribou and bear hides aside, the Rondy features a full-combat snowball fight with well-trained teams, outhouse races and the annual running of the reindeer.

But the Rondy, by comparison to the two events on either side of it, is absolutely sane and normal by most standards.

The Iron Dog is a 2,000 mile snow machine race that starts in Sarah Palin’s back yard, literally, and ends in Fairbanks, after traveling through Nome. You simply have to look at a map to understand even an 1/8th of the magnitude of this race.

Sarah’s husband, Todd, is a four-time champion of the Iron Dog.

There is nothing like chasing guys doing 90 miles per hour down the Yukon River trying to make slot for the 10 p.m. news.

After a week of breathing two-stroke fumes to the point of dizziness and conducting interviews on frozen lakes, rivers and seas, one is ready for a month’s worth of downtime.

Rondy marks the nonexistent divide between February and March. Somewhere in that Mardi Gras of the north there is a metaphorical change of the calendar page.

But the snow will continue to pile, and this year the all time record is in danger of getting buried.

The ice will not break for weeks, possibly months. The ski resorts will have powder skiing through May, and I will continue to take liquid vitamin D until the solstice-the summer one.

In this perpetual Narnia that magically converts to Never Never Land when you least expect it, March is as far from anywhere, as bleak as looking north from Barrow and as long and unending as the line of RVs on the ALCAN in July. 

And yet 66 men and women and their dogs will set out on a 1,000-mile jaunt from Willow to Nome.

You can’t blame Alaskans for wanting to get out and about during an Alaskan winter. They are unbearably long. But the question I have now and may always have is this: Why the extensive journeys testing every ounce of human endurance?

I asked myself this as I watched the Iron Doggers cross the finish line in Fairbanks last week. I’ll ask it again as I drive a snow machine up the Yentna River to catch the Iditarod mushers checking in at Yentna Station, the first checkpoint, on Sunday.

I’ll likely ask this again at the finish line in Nome under the burled arch and over drinks at the Board of Trade with Hugh Neff.

Three weeks that span the month of Febrarch, or midwinter, and this is the week in between.

The downtime, the deep breaths, the hugs from my daughter and reading to her at night and talking to the kids about Iron Dog and the Daytona 500, the only time of the year our necks get this red.

The trail starts again next week. The insanity that is the northern lights and 30 below and the yelping of dogs so excited to run they can’t sit still. Mushers mumbling like gold prospectors who haven’t seen another human being in years and tourists wearing sealskin jackets like Patagonia from REI.

Looking back and looking forward. The pause in the middle of the long, cold night. The celebration, the revelry and the realization of so much more in the form of snow and ice and melt and breakup and summer, finally.

For now I’ll relax in the week in between. Review the winter worn so far and the threads that will shield my skin from the arctic frost that will hang around like a common but little-loved acquaintance.

Nome Exposure

Finding good Internet access in Nome is tricky. WiFi is my lifeblood, so I’m always interested in finding the optimal place, preferably close to whatever location I happen to be working, to get a good signal.

During the Iron Dog, the world’s longest, toughest snow machine race, Nome serves as the halfway point. The turnaround where racers spend 36 hours resting and wrenching during their 2,000 mile race across Alaska.

I spend a lot of time shooting photos and videos, but I spend a lot more time waiting for 2 minutes of video to upload or writing captions for photo galleries.

On this trip, I didn’t want to hang out in the two-stroke-fume-filled Nome City Shops, so I spent more time at the ramp that both welcomes racers and sends them out again.

The Polar Cafe, which sits just down Front Street on the Bering Sea coast, is full of big, wide tables and chest-level electrical outlets to plug in all the various appliances that go with being a digital journalist.

On Tuesday, I set up shop in the Polar in the early afternoon. I worked quietly in the corner for several hours putting together a bunch of video clips and photo galleries as well as updating our social media.

The waitress, a slight, long-haired Alaska native, kept checking on me, and I apologized for monopolizing her space. She just shrugged and quietly told me that it was all right.

She served me two cups of terrible green tea, and because I felt bad about staying in the restaurant so long, I finally ordered a cup of reindeer chili.

Eventually an older Alaska native lady walked in. She was missing most of her front teeth and seemed to be much too old to have a 10-year-old son. But she called him son anyway. 

They ordered, and when the waitress asked if she wanted anything else, the older lady said she wanted to send a meal over to a gentleman at the bar.

“Please get him the halibut, a salad and a bowl of soup,” she said. “And take it to him at the bar.”

Eventually her husband and another young child joined the lady and her 10-year-old.

They ate quietly at the table for a half hour or so before two highly intoxicated gentlemen sat in our section.

Being a writer and highly distracted by human nature, I took in bits and pieces of the various conversation.

The drunk men wore camouflage and hats with American flags on them. They sat in a two-top near the window.

“Oh, they have fresh local halibut on special.”

The other man just nodded as the waitress set down their waters.

The older Alaska native lady spoke up, suddenly, loudly.

“Whew, boys, the fumes coming off you could light this place up,” she complained. “Why you gotta drink like that.”

When one of the men realized she was talking to him, he responded.

“We don’t drink like this, you know. It’s just today.”

“Oh, you’re just in town for a little good time, eh?” she said.

“Yeah, you now, it’s just today,” he retorted.

She asked him if he was King Islander. He nodded affirmatively.

I worked a little more, until the two men suddenly erupted into a one-sided fight in front of me.

I couldn’t see or hear the quiet drunken man, but the man with his back to me suddenly started spewing profanities at his companion. 

“Give me that,” he spat. “You can’t take that.”

He stood up and walked over the shoulder of the other man so he could yell into his ear directly.

“Shut up, shut up.”

He sat down again and put some food in his mouth.

“Where’s your hundred?” he asked the other man. There was no reply.

The older lady and her husband were discussing what type of beverage would go best for the drunkard in the bar for whom they’d purchased a meal.

“Get him milk,” she said.

“No, get him coke, the milk will curdle with all that alcohol.”

“Ah, yes, the milk will curdle in his stomach.”

Then a man showed up holding a bowl of soup. He staggered across the floor to a table near mine and sat down.

“Thank you Goudis,” he said. “Thank you for the soup.”

“I didn’t just buy you soup, I bought you a whole meal,” she said.

“What do you want to drink with it?”

The waitress appeared, and the drunk from the bar asked for a cup of coffee.

“Coffee, he ordered coffee,” the older woman said to her husband.

The waitress returned with a cup of coffee and a large plate of food.

“Oh, I get more food, oh, thank you Goudis,” the drunk from the bar said.

Working became impossible, as every person seemed to want to try to speak louder than the other person.

Suddenly the two men at the table in front of me erupted into a verbal fight again.

“You’re my best hunter. Shut up, shut your mouth,” the man with his back to me yelled.

The lady called Goudis by the drunk from the bar walked over to the two men and began to lecture them.

“You can’t do that,” she said. “You can’t yell those things. There are young children present. Can you see that?”

The man nodded and went back to eating his food.

Finally he muttered an apology.

Soon his partner got up and walked away. I had never once heard him speak.

The lady called Goudis continued to lecture the remaining island hunter.

Finally he apologized, and with bits of food on his fork, he paid the whole bill and left to return to the bar.

The drunk from the bar thanked Goudis again.

“Don’t thank me any more. I take care of the people in this town. They know I won’t buy them liquor or give them money, but I will always feed them.”

“Thank you Goudis,” he said and sauntered away tipping his cup of coffee precariously.

“Don’t thank me again, you’ve thanked me enough. I’m just taking care of you,” she said.

I folded my computer, detached my hard drive, my card readers, my iPhone and my iPad charging on the wall.

I paid my bill and thanked the waitress for putting up with me all afternoon.

She looked at me and shrugged.

“It’s fine, any time you can come work her. I’m sorry for all of that.”

I told her not to be sorry. It’s human nature.

“It’s just Nome,” she said. 

“It’s every where you find humans, my dear.”

Nomeward Bound

Spend two days listening to KNOM, the local, Catholic radio station in Nome, Alaska, and you’ll find yourself in a ridiculously good mood.

It’s not just the short reminders about living a good, clean life or the playing of an Eric Clapton classic next to something from Foster the People.

Last night the two DJs played White Stripes and The Black Keys back to back for hours, debating which was the better band.

It’s not just the fact that they have great journalists who cover big events like Iron Dog and Iditarod with as much passion as a war correspondent or that they provide wide-spread news and cultural information around Western Alaska.

It’s not just the completely NPR-ish on-air personalities who sound exactly like a Saturday Night Live skit.

It’s a combination of all that.

People from other places look at me funny when I tell them I love coming to Nome. People in Nome know exactly why I like coming here. I like to keep it that way.

When we touched down with all the tenderness of a meat cleaver on Monday, I gazed at the powdered-sugar hills to the north of town hoping to see the herd of musk oxen that haunts those hills in winter.

My esteemed hosts picked me up in a lifted truck so big I needed help to climb inside. From such great heights I looked out over a sun-drenched and surprisingly warm city on my way to pick up the rental car.

Snow drifted into patterns based on where it was touched by the Nome wind. Alleys were scoured clean, while the snow piled into dunes. And these are beautiful, until you’re driving and find yourself barreling down on a snow dune.

When I approached my first snow dune, I was inclined to stop and inch through it, but I was going to fast and decided just to plow through. The high-walled tire tracks leading through the middle of the snow dune told me that this was what other drivers had done.

Maintaining control while speeding through the snow dune is of absolute necessity, as there is no telling how deep the snow off the sides of the road is.

Maintaining control while plowing through a snow dune at 55 is not easy.

But a sunny day in Nome proves too alluring for me to not venture out to get pictures. I decided to get in a quick meal at Airport Pizza, which I thought was the only restaurant in town until my second visit to this fair burgh.

After dinner, the sun seemed to hang enticingly at 20 minutes to sunset. I figured I could risk a few more snow dunes and venture down the Teller Highway a bit to get a good shot of the ball of fire dipping into the frozen Bering Sea.

It’s not a Kona sunset, by any means, the northern sun just lacks the power to really paint the sky. But if you like delicate pastels interspersed with lead, nickel and steel over bleak tundra, a Nome sunset is worth the price of admission.

As if to compliment my sunset drive, KNOM played something by a group of Arctic drummers followed by one of Bruce Springsteen’s less-played numbers.

I think I love this place.