by Marcie Stumpf [now Foley]
Summer is over. I arrived in Fairbanks during a last heat-wave, and then it cooled off and has rained for most of the time since. Now the leaves are changing here.
I was very lucky with this apartment... I am at the end of a building, on the second floor, and I look out on a lawn and trees, then a forested strip that separates a wildlife refuge. Hundreds and hundreds of sandhill cranes and Canadian geese are preparing and leaving for the south.
Although I have been here only a short time, I have already begun to venture into parts of the surrounding area, and have traveled as far north as the Yukon river, just 30 miles or so from the Arctic circle. This was on the "Haul road" as it is called locally, or the Dalton Highway, as it is officially known. Still unpaved, the road is quite an adventure, as it is undergoing constant construction, and efforts to bring it up to state highway requirements. Hills that are too steep, twists and turns, and potholes that jar--too many to be able to miss, give you an appreciation for the men who have traveled the road over the years when it was not in this "improved" state. And, if you travel with someone who knows it like the back of their hand, as I did, you quickly learn why Alaskans are so unique.
For starters, there are no towns north of Fairbanks until you nearly reach Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Ocean. This road was constructed in the 1970's to reach the oil fields in that area, and is still heavily used by trucks hauling supplies both ways, and keeping watch on the pipeline that the road follows.
The countryside is a series of rolling hills backed by mountain ranges at
the horizon, heavily forested up to the tree line, and at the road's edge is an
impenetrable wall. There are no trails or roads leading off, and to explore, trap, etc.,
you must cut a trail through extremely thick vegetation and trees, and then maintain it,
as the vegetation grows back at an alarming rate. The forest is made up of spruce, birch
and aspen mostly, with some poplar, and it is fascinating to see the patterns made, due to
the permafrost which lies beneath some of the area. The only thing that grows over the
permafrost is stunted black spruce, so the larger trees form patterns, seeking their way
around it, crawling like fingers in some areas. It is very interesting to see. In one area
we came upon un-forested hills with unusual rock outcroppings that they call
"Tors," just as the same type of hills are called in northern England and
Scotland. on hillside
So, here I was, zipping along a good gravel road trying to see all that was pointed out to me. He not only knew the names of every creek before we came to it, he knew its origin, its path to our location and beyond, he knew the history of it, and if there had been any gold exploration or production along it. Mining districts in the distance were pointed out to me (all I could see were forested hills upon forested hills to the mountains on the horizon). The road deteriorated as we progressed north, but since this was so well-known to my guide, his speed did not lessen, and as we'd fly over the top of a steep hill to begin hurtling down an even steeper descent around curves, sometimes just barely skimming the high spots on the road, he would not even be looking at the road, but gazing off into the distance, pointing across me, saying "See that ridge over there with the two humps? Well, I have a trapline from that point, to that point over there where it starts down..."
Trying to be polite, I was nodding and agreeing and attempting appropriate comments as I hung onto the strap above the window and prayed a large truck did not come around a curve as we flitted from side to side to avoid the worst potholes, the back end of the truck beginning to slip and slide from under us. But, I must say he was an excellent driver, never losing control for more than the instant it took to be aware of it. It was an adventure!
I had packed a picnic lunch that we ate beside one of the streams that was in floodstage. It was an absolutely beautiful day, but they have been having record rainfall here since I arrived (naturally), and all the creeks were very high. They are much different than what I am used to, for the most part. I have prospected in most of the western states, and areas have differed in some respects, making gold recovery a constant learning process. But here, I could see, it will be an entirely new ballgame. Many creeks meander slowly, had no gravels or boulders visible and no bedrock, just very dark red, almost brown-black, mud (in floodstage). This was not my first outing, and I was already familiar with the ever-watchful eyes that are constantly looking, and ears that are listening for bears. A gun is kept within reach at all times. It is very disconcerting at first, and quickly brings home the fact that you are intruding on a land that belongs to animals other than man. I felt a vulnerability I had never felt in the outdoors before.
The pipeline (and the road) crosses the Yukon in a canyon area, where it is compressed, and it is still a very big river. As I dipped my fingers in, and pulled out a quartz rock to examine, I wondered if this was the exact same drops of water I had seen at Whitehorse (Yukon Territory), two weeks earlier, when I went to see the famous Miles Canyon that had to be traversed by the men on their way to the goldfields there... it could have been.
At the small landing area several fishermen were preparing to go out in boats, and a tour boat was just pulling to shore, bringing back a load of tourists who had been out on the river. A gas station, the touring business, and a combination restaurant, motel and gift shop made up the tiny settlement there on the north bank of the Yukon. Stretching out in the distance, the dual ribbon of road and pipeline was visible as far as the eye could see as it wound its way northward over the hills and through the wilderness toward the top of the world. We pulled our eyes away and turned back toward civilization. We had a long drive back.
Even though the day was warm, the leaves up here were all beginning to turn... summer was over, and hunting season would begin in a few days. The coming weekend would be the last on which any prospecting could be done by many prospectors here. Snow had already fallen 100 miles north of Fairbanks. Winter was coming early this year to Alaska. The mornings had a distinct coolness, although we had not had frost yet. The red squirrels who lived outside my apartment were frantic in their haste, morning to nigh, gathering nuts and seeds; and I saw my first snowshoe hare (the only rabbits they have here)... these are the ones which turn white during winter. Large and plump, with lovely eyes, they are beautiful. He ventured onto the lawn outside to eat the few long-leafed weeds in the grass.
The days are still long, with sunrise at about 6:30 am and sunset at about 9:30 pm, but they are shorter by some 7 minutes each day since my arrival. I am told they will continue to shorten until December, when there will only be about 4 hours of daylight, and then they will begin to lengthen again.
Many people here tell me they like the winters better than the summers. The Aurora Borealis will soon be making its first appearance, and I am looking forward to many winter activities I have not had an opportunity to experience. Snow machines, sleigh rides, watching ice skaters (you'll notice I said "watching"), ice fishing, and others, as I gather the proper winter clothing for this area.
I am already gathering research materials (for prospecting) to go over during the winter, and will keep you informed as I have more outings.
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