Sunday, November 21, 2010
North to Alaska
My son is currently stationed in Ft. Wainwright, Alaska. It is located in Fairbanks, which is just north of Mt. Denali. Fairbanks is known as the jumping off point for the North Pole.
At times it must actually feel just like the North Pole. The temperature gets as low as minus sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit in the winters. Part of the reason for this, of course, is the latitude, but another part of the reason is that Fairbanks is ringed with mountains and thus gets temperature inversions. Thus, even though it may be a balmy minus forty outside those mountains, in Fairbanks it can be twenty degrees colder.
The coldest temperature I can ever recall being in was ten below in the Shawangunk Mountains of New York. It was miserable. I went cross country skiing, and even though my body heated up, I felt a weird sort of tension in my face the entire time, my nose ran though I didn't have a cold, and my skin just plain hurt. I cannot imagine what it is like at negative fifty degrees.
Too add to this misery, there are only three hours and forty-three minutes of sunlight at the peak of winter. (The Aurora Borealis, as beautiful as it is, does not count as sunlight.)
The "History" section in the Wikipedia entry for Fairbanks is almost comically brief. It was founded by a steamboat captain who ran aground there in 1901. (Some local prospectors evidently convinced him to set up a trading post at that location; I would have guessed Fairbanks had been founded earlier, as a gold mining center.) During the town's early days they tried to have enough local agriculture to support the town, but they never quite succeeded. And in 1967 the Chena River flooded the city, leading to the creation of the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project.
There you have it, the entire history of Fairbanks.
There are precious few attractions there. It's not exactly the kind of place you go for the ballet, or theater, or museums. And if you're interested in those things, it's not exactly as if you can get them in a neighboring town: the nearest city, Anchorage, is roughly three hundred miles away.
But the coolest thing about Fairbanks is precisely the same thing that makes it so forbidding: there is nothing man-made nearby. It's in the middle of a vast wilderness which is pretty much as it was before humans arrived.
When you look at a map of Maine it's neat to see that the northwest quadrant of the state is almost entirely wilderness, even if much of it is owned by the paper companies. It's exhilarating to visit Glacier National Park in Montana and see that vast expanse of pristine Rocky Mountain scenery. But Alaska makes any wilderness area in the Lower 48 look pretty much like Central Park. For roughly 800 miles due north of Fairbanks, and 800 miles due West, there are no towns worthy of the name. Just wilderness. About 250 miles due east is the border of the Yukon Territory, which is basically just another vast expanse of emptiness.
The Alcan Highway, which leads from Fairbanks into the Southwestern Yukon Territory, then into Northwest British Columbia, and from there into Alberta, is supposed to be one of the best places in the world for viewing wildlife. You can see black bears, grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep, arctic fox, and elk. (Polar bears and musk oxen don't quite come that far south.) But you don't have to travel far from Fairbanks to see wild animals. There are moose and wolves spotted regularly right on Fort Wainwright. (Hence, the First Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, my son's unit, are known as "the Arctic Wolves.")
Had you toured this area just ten thousand years ago you might have seen some scimitar cats (a cold weather variety of saber-toothed tigers), short-faced bears (which were larger than grizzlies), and woolly mammoths.
The Taiga, sometimes referred to as the boreal forest, is the largest biome in the world. It is the area that stretches from the tundra in the north to the temperate forests in the south, and encompasses most of Canada and Alaska, most of Scandinavia, and much of Russia (including almost all of Siberia). It is also the largest natural ecosystem in the world which has remained largely untouched by man.
Johnny always said he wanted a life of adventure, and not a life that required sitting behind a desk. This is certainly a start. Hope he enjoys the winter.