I squinted in the mid-morning sunshine that reflected off the hood of my old pickup.
Concentrating on frost heaves, I was nervous and wary of any wayward moose that could burst out of the birches at any moment. The seasons change rapidly in Interior Alaska, the sun quickly ebbing and flowing like a giant solar tide. Sourdoughs often remark that there are only two seasons in Alaska, “winter” and “not winter.” Here twenty miles southwest of Fairbanks on the Parks Highway, it was definitely “not winter.” I eschewed sunglasses to bathe my face in the dazzling sunlight. It was a welcome change from the gray skies that had settled over Anchorage for the last several weeks.
I didn’t push the old F-150 too hard. It was a drab beater, but roomy, and I was enjoying the open road. It was early May, and the daytime highs had already climbed into the 50’s, with nighttime lows barely below freezing. The recently ice-bound rivers of Interior Alaska were once again on the move.
About 45 miles back, I passed through the City of Nenana, which sits on the south bank of the Tanana River, just east of the mouth of the Nenana, one of its tributaries. Every year thousands of Alaskans enter the Nenana Ice Classic to bet on the date and time that the ice will go out on the river.
Earlier in the spring, when the ice was thick and stable, a tripod was set on the ice. It was attached by wire to a clock in a watchtower onshore. When the ice broke up and was swept one hundred feet downriver, it took the tripod with it, stopping the clock. This signaled the beginning of “not winter;” and a $310,000 windfall to the lucky entrants who correctly guessed the exact time of “breakup.”
This year the ice had gone out on April 28th. My pool of hockey teammates and I had missed it by a week. Passing through the hills between Nenana and Fairbanks, I was entranced by the land along the Parks. It is a mosaic of white and black spruce, birch, and aspen interspersed here and there with poplar, alder, and willows. The young leaves bursting from birch and alder buds shined with a luminescent green as the newly awakened plants thrust their chlorophyll into the morning sun.
As sublime as the scene outside the passenger window appeared, within the confines of my truck, I felt detached from my surroundings. Spotting a broad-dry area abutting the shoulder of the highway, I pulled over to take a short cross-country hike. I figured there would be a ridgeline a hundred yards or so to the south. Before I left the vehicle, I wrote a short note explaining my intentions and the date and time of my departure. There are many tales in the Yukon and Alaska of people who took a short hike into the wilderness and were never seen again. I had no intention of being the lead in a story that began:
“The search for an Anchorage man was suspended today -”
I slipped the note under the windshield wipers. If I broke my leg, had a heart attack, or was otherwise incapacitated a State Trooper or conscientious citizen was sure to stop and check out the truck before nightfall. Despite the quantum leap into the modern world since the pipeline era, Alaskans still take care of each other.
As I headed into the wild, I felt liberated—from winter, the responsibilities of life, and the press of business. I now felt connected to the earth around me and felt the animist spirit rising from ancient places within and without.
As I neared the ridgeline, I caught glimpses of the Tanana Valley through gaps in the trees. After a short trek, I located a small clearing that afforded an unobstructed view of the boreal carpet that stretched to the towering white peaks of the Alaska Range to the south. I felt a familiar tug from deep within. Old feelings were stirring again, feelings I initially felt many years ago when I first stepped off the jet at Fairbanks International to attend college.
Exiting the Alaska Airlines Convair 880 I had looked out over the country for the first time. For as far as I could see the birches and aspens were adorned with golden leaves that glowed in the afternoon sun. As I reveled in the beauty of “the golden heart of Alaska,” I felt a deep yearning arise within me. Robert Service called this feeling of love, longing, and dread, the “Spell of the Yukon”—a spell that transported men into reverie, melancholy, and often, madness. Not every person feels the spell, only those who are touched by the country and feel their spirits leaking out into its vastness. On lonely lakes throughout the Interior, the call of the summer call of the Arctic loon echoes in these stricken souls. Locals say that once you have heard this call you will forever return. I had heard the call many times.
I felt surreal as I drove into the outskirts of Fairbanks. Not because the area had drastically changed, but because it had not. There was too much that was familiar pulling my heart and soul back to an earlier time. Here was Alaskaland, now called Pioneer Park, where I had worked as a security guard. There, was a log house of a roommate’s family that I had visited while in college.
As I drove into downtown Fairbanks late in the day, it was a different story. I noted that there were new buildings and street improvements everywhere. The wild and seedy bars and shops of “2 street” had been eliminated to sterilize the way for the upscale hotels and the sensibilities of the hordes of omnipresent summer tourists. But in spite of the cultural cleansing, the squat little city felt, as it had always felt, a community anchored hard to the Chena, and hunkered down for the long Arctic nights that are never more than a few months away.
Unlike Anchorage, Fairbanks has not lost its sense of place. In many ways, Anchorage has become Houston with added insulation. Nor is Fairbanks an agency town like Gallup, New Mexico, or Bethel on the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska. While the white population in Fairbanks has not always fully embrace the Interior’s native Athabaskan people, they were, nonetheless, generally accepted as more than transients, business partners, or governmental recipients. They were, and remain, an intrinsic part of the fabric of the community. When Anchorage was a tent city above the Cook Inlet mudflats, the great rivers of Alaska, the Yukon and Tanana, tied Fairbanks to the Athabaskan villages of the Interior.
Fairbanks is not old by European standards, but it is anchored and secure—tied to the land and its inhabitants by a shared history of perseverance and hardship. Fairbanks has had its share of earthquakes, floods, and fires. But it is the winters that have tightened and tempered the bonds of community. Earthquakes and floods come and go, but the cold abides, even in the face of global warming.
As I drove along, I became disoriented and light-headed. It was as if some cosmic force had struck, leaving the past and present side by side. I felt caught in a vortex of time as events past and present washed over me. I parked my truck near the Tanana Chiefs building, a community center for native people in Interior Alaska, and walked through downtown. Here was the tavern in which I drank four yards of beer in a half hour to earn pizza for my pals and a three-day hangover. There was the curb where my friends and I prevented a Texas pipeline redneck from putting the boots to a smaller Native man for sport.
Fairbanks has its roots in the river and dirt and looks it. Here was real Alaska. Not some artificial creation for the benefit of the tourism industry, but surviving pioneer stock wresting a living out of a difficult, and sometimes brutal, environment. It is a hard land. People work close to the earth here, and the earth has been scourged by them. The cold of winter, the fires of summer, and the isolation of mind and spirit have, in turn, ravaged the inhabitants.
There is something in the atmosphere in the Tanana Valley that is different from anywhere else I have been, an air of mystery—a sense of awe—even danger. Things awful and wonderful have happened here and lingered in the folds of space to drop through the curtain of time on those with drifting souls and a tenuous connection with the present. I had felt it many years ago, and in the arctic gloaming, I could still feel it. I was home.
BIO: Francis Flavin is a poet, writer and author. In his writing he draws upon his experience as an educator, hockey player, fish and game field worker, public interest lawyer, investigator, and adventurer on four continents.
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