Monthly Archives: May 2021
In the weeds
Camera: Polaroid 600 Land Camera; Film: Polaroid B&W 600
The return of the Malemute
The world famous Malemute Saloon is set to reopen today. The historic bar, located in Ester, Alaska, has been basically closed for the past 11 years. It would open for a month every summer to keep its liquor license, but otherwise, the Ester institution has kept its bat doors shuttered.
New ownership is gearing the Malemute and the adjacent Ester Gold Camp towards the locals, and tourists who are looking to get off the beaten path and not arrive by tour bus. Live music by local musicians and shows by other local artists are expected to be scheduled for daily events throughout the summer.
Ester is a uniquely Interior Alaskan community, and it is a trip back in time. Once a thriving gold camp, now it’s a very laid back community reveling in the Alaskan lifestyle. The Malemute, made famous in the poetry of Robert Service, has kept the memories of the gold rush era alive. When my Dad would visit, the Malemute was one of his favorite places to go.
Ester City traces its history back to the early 1900’s serving the small local mining claims. The Fairbanks Exploration Company moved in and enlarged the footprint, building the gold camp in 1936. Large scale mining ended in the Ester area in the 1950’s, but small claims are still being worked today in the area.
The gold camp then became a tourist resort and the Malemute Saloon was opened. The bar in the saloon was obtained from the Royal Alexandria Hotel in Dawson City. The building itself dates back to 1906.
As a local resident, I have to admit, I’m thrilled to see the Malemute and Gold Camp reopening.
An Alaska through-hike
The idea has been proposed for years: a thru hike from Fairbanks in the Alaskan Interior to Seward on Alaska’s southern coast. The nonprofit, Alaska Trails, really started to push the idea last year, and now the State of Alaska seems interested.
Maybe after the pandemic, Alaska leaders have realized we have put most of our tourist eggs in one cruise ship sized basket. At any rate, support for the 500 mile all-Alaska trail is gaining traction in Juneau.
Most of the proposed trail already exists within the trail system, but there are at least two sections where there is no connection. Money is being earmarked in the state budget to complete those connections.
Personally, I’m in favor of the idea, and not just because it will motivate me to get back in shape to hike the 500 miles. Thru hikes bring in tourism, as the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Coast Trail can attest to, but those tourists are not the cruise ship/tourist bus type of people. It’s a separate subsection that Alaska ironically has never really actively gone after. Our attitude is, “Well, it’s Alaska, and they will come”.
Might as well plant that seed early, and give it some water now and then.
On May 16th, Fairbanks entered its 72 day period of 24 hours of daylight or civil twilight. I do love this 72 day window!
Great Fairbanks Fire of 1906
The fire started in a dentist’s office at 3pm on May 22, 1906. The source of the blaze has always been disputed: one theory was a candle started the fire, and another has a breeze blowing through an open window, sending a curtain over the flame of a bunsen burner.
Fairbanks was only a couple of years old in 1906, but due to the discovery of gold nearby, it had become a thriving community. The buildings were all constructed out of local lumber, so by the time the horse drawn fire department wagons were on the scene, the blaze was well underway.
The Northern Commercial Company had installed some fire hydrants in Fairbanks, powered by steam from their plant. Many of those hydrants were positioned to protect NCC property, although they charged the city $600 per month for the hydrants. Firehoses were located in small structures next to the hydrants. In 1906, Fairbanks had six full time firefighters, who were paid $100 per month.
Citizens from the town turned out in droves to help the small fire fighting force. Many manned fire hoses, others tried to save merchandise from businesses and possessions from homes in the fire’s path. Residents hung wet, wool blankets over doors, walls and even the sternwheelers, in an attempt to keep the fire at bay. That effort probably saved the Fairbanks Banking Company.
With the size of the fire, and the sheer number of fire hoses, the NC Co plant struggled to keep water pressure up. The steam driven fire pump was kept at pressure by wood fired boilers. NCC store manager, Volney Richmond, came up with the unique idea to add slabs of bacon to the boilers. The idea worked, and water pressure was increased. By the time the fire was under control, over 2000 pounds of slab bacon was burned in the boilers.
By 7pm, the fire was mostly under control, which meant that much of the city was now a field of burning embers. Over 70 buildings were destroyed in the fire.
“With the exception of the Fairbanks Banking Company’s building and the warehouse in the rear nothing is left standing in the four great blocks which comprised the commercial heart of Fairbanks.” – Fairbanks Times
In 1906, merchandise was brought into Fairbanks mostly by boat. Ships traveled up the Inside Passage from Seattle and San Francisco, their loads then came up the Yukon, Tanana and Chena Rivers to Fairbanks by sternwheeler. The process of ordering supplies started right away, including over 1500 feet of firehose lost in the fire. The rebuilding of Fairbanks began immediately. Local lore has the owner of the Senate Saloon contracting a crew by 6:30pm that night, with work beginning on clearing the site of his lost business the next morning.
Photos from the University of Alaska Archives; Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks, Retired Fairbanks Fire Captain Jack Hillman
Buckland under water
The village of Buckland, which is located in Northwest Alaska, started to see the water rise on May 12, due to an ice dam on the Buckland River. As one can see from the image, the village was quickly flooded out, with over five feet of water throughout the community, cutting the villagers off from the airstrip.
A disaster was declared by the governor on Monday, and water started to recede on Tuesday. The damage will be extensive, but details won’t be known until the water drops further.
Buckland, or Nunatchiaq in Iñupiaq, is an Inupiat village of approximately 416 people. Residents have lived at different points along the Buckland River over the centuries, but relocated to the current location in the 1920’s due to the villages reindeer herd. The community was incorporated in 1966.
It is mainly a subsistence lifestyle in Buckland, with residents relying on hunting, fishing and trade for survival. Caribou, beluga whale and seal are a major source of food. The reindeer herd of 2000 provides some jobs, where the payment is made in the form of meat. There are also some jobs through the school, city and health clinic.
Photos credit: The State of Alaska; additional source information courtesy of the Native Village of Buckland
Cruising the Inside Passage
The cruise ship industry has been arguably the hardest hit industry in Alaska. 2020 saw no cruise ships dock at state ports, and 2021 is shaping up to see limited options.
One business based out of Seattle, Un-Cruise, will bring ships through the Inside Passage with passenger numbers of less than 100 people. They hope to have six ships sailing into the Alaska market, bringing some 6000 passengers to coastal communities like Juneau.
Due to the pandemic, Un-Cruise already had to reshuffle when a scheduled stop in Ketchikan was skipped due to a spike in the town of Covid-19 cases.
I’ve traveled the Inside Passage once, although not on a cruise. It is a remarkable experience, and one I thoroughly enjoyed. Personally, I can see the smaller cruise ships as being far more enjoyable for this experience than the large ones.
The Passenger Service Vessels Act states that no foreign ship can carry passengers only between U.S. ports. Since the fleet of large cruise ships are foreign owned, a cruise ship from Seattle will stop at a Canadian port before getting to Alaska. With the pandemic, Canada has closed its ports to the large cruise ships, leaving Alaska high and dry. This situation left an opening for the smaller companies like Un-Cruise.
The United States Senate voted last week to temporarily bypass the act for the remainder of the 2021 season. That bill now goes to the U.S. House. If passed, it would allow some large cruise ships to return to Alaska ports this summer.
For an industry that really plans things out long in advance, I’m not sure how much of a boost this will be for Alaska’s coastal communities, although I imagine they are grateful for anything they can get at this point. There will be a scramble for employees and inventory if/when the bill passes. At any rate, it appears that some large cruise ships will be seen at Alaska ports in the second half of July.
Photos credit: Un-Cruise Adventures