Camera: Widelux; Film: Kodak 35mm, Ektar 100
The North Slope village of Utqiagvik woke up to -20F degree temperatures on Wednesday morning. That was a record low for the day for the village. It was Utqiagvik’s first recording of a record low since 21 December 2007. During that same time span, the village had set or tied 112 record high temperatures.
Alaska has started to “reopen” businesses throughout the state, with everyone seemingly holding their breath as it happens. Travel restrictions into the state remain in place. Restaurants are now able to seat to within 25% of capacity, and members at a table are supposed to be from the same household.
The Fairbanks Borough had seen two weeks go by without a new case of Covid-19, but that ended on Sunday with a case in North Pole. Since then, North Pole has seen another diagnosed case. The State had six new cases on Tuesday, for a total of 351. 228 individuals have recovered from Covid-19, and nine Alaskans have died from the virus. Concerning, to me at least, is the first recorded cases in small, isolated, communities like Kodiak, Petersburg and Sitka after a long period of social distancing.
Fishing communities are still struggling with what to do for the summer season. Valdez has decided to allow fishermen into town without any quarantine, where several smaller communities are demanding a quarantine. The State of Alaska has agreed to allow fishermen to quarantine on their boats, although a realistic plan for that option remains elusive, considering most fly into these small communities, and air travel between towns not on the road system is off limits. Travel between communities on the road system is now being allowed.
Tourism is all but scrapped for the 2020 season. The two main cruise ship companies have written off Alaska for the year, and have even decided to keep their lodges and hotels closed until late spring 2021.
Denali National Park has now opened the Park Road to Mile 12. As spring takes a stronger grip on the land, the Park will continue to open up more of the road as conditions allow. Denali Park is also considering having additional road lotteries in 2020. The lottery, which allows permit holders to drive well into the Park, where usually only busses are allowed, takes place in September. Additional opportunities would be extremely welcome. I’m thrilled with the idea, since the State is all but closed to Outside tourists this year.
The Denali Highway, not to be confused with the Denali Park Road, is NOT open. Yet, people keep getting stuck on the road between Cantwell and Paxson. The Denali Highway, possibly the best drive in Alaska, is not maintained during the winter. It is also not paved, which keeps the riffraff numbers down. Or at least, the tour busses.
The temperature on Easter Sunday reached 56F degrees in Fairbanks. The last time we broke the 50 degree barrier was on September 30.
My daily hikes have been taking place in the morning now. Partly, because the day is usually wide open for interpretation, but mainly because the snowpack is still firm early in the day. Breaking trail gets old in a hurry. The mukluks will be retired any day now for the rubber breakup boots.
Our length of day has surpassed 15 hours. In fact, length of visible light, has gone over 17 hours. The northern lights have been out, but they are already faint, unless they put on a show around 2am. Soon, we will not see them again, until late August.
Rabbits can be seen morning & evening, bounding over the massive piles of snow with ease. Already, the new brown fur is mixing with the white of winter. An owl can be heard at night, hooting off in the distance, and I have seen the tracks of lynx, but the wary cat has evaded my camera traps. Neither the owl nor the lynx seem to have put much of a dent in the rabbit population. The frisky bunnies seem as numerous, if not more so, than last year.
Plow it, and they will land:
At the end of last week, the annual plowing of Creamer’s Field happened. The old dairy farm is now a migratory waterfowl refuge. The field is used to tempt waterfowl away from Fairbanks International Airport. Fairbanks has an annual lottery on when the first Canadian goose lands at Creamer’s. It’s not as widely bet on as the Nenana Ice Classic, but it may be as closely followed. Creamer’s saw its first arrival on Sunday the 12th. However, for only the second time since 1976, it wasn’t a Canadian honker that landed first, but a pair of trumpeter swans. When I was out there on Wednesday, the swans were off in the distance and ducks were flying in, and landing on the puddles. The woodchucks are also out and about at the refuge.
This is the first month of April that I have spent in Alaska since 2003! I always leave around the end of March, if not earlier, to get some traveling in, and head to the Frozen Four Hockey Championship, wherever that may be held. It’s a bit odd for me to be here to watch the snow melt.
With the above average snowfall this past season, and the quick upturn in temperature, we are in for a very messy breakup with winter.
The high temp in Fairbanks was 46F on Saturday. It was the first time we had hit 40 degrees since October 28.
When in Naknek, I spent as much time as I could down by the water. Hiking along the shore of the Naknek River was a favorite way to spend my off time. The ice pack was solid enough to keep me from sinking too much in my mukluks, so I hiked as far as time allowed.
The hiking was peaceful, with the slow movement of ice down the river, and the constant flying of ducks, as they skimmed just above the water, their beating wings making small ripples on the glass like surface.
It was an overcast morning when we crossed over the Naknek River for South Naknek. People were still using the ice road, but word was out that time was short. It would turn out that businesses were in a rush to get heavy equipment across ASAP.
The temperature had warmed up, but it was the tide that had the final word for the ice road. High tides had been increasing substantially, as the higher water pushes up against the ice, these huge pressure ridges grew. Some went right across the ice road, which limited access to anything without clearance. I saw no Subarus crossing with us.
Of my time spent in the region, I enjoyed my day in South Naknek the most. We picked up a couple of locals for guides, and we had an absolute blast exploring the southern side of the river. We were welcomed by everyone we met, and had more than one offer to help us out if we wanted to move to the area.
I would love to come back to the region in the summer, but I can honestly say I’d want to spend my time on the south side of the Naknek River. It’s a much more relaxed way of life here, and we were told that the huge influx of crowds to Naknek & King Salmon do not hit the southern side. One can still meander down the river’s edge, fishing as you go, enjoying the solitude that Alaska is suppose to be about.
The canneries have all closed up shop in South Naknek. The killing blow came when a road was built between King Salmon & Naknek. It no longer made financial sense to process salmon from the southern side. Grant Aviation still makes daily flights, weather permitting, to South Naknek, and they have a really nice airstrip.
The skies cleared well before noon, and we had absolutely beautiful weather as we traveled throughout South Naknek and the surrounding area. The Alaska days were already getting longer, and the sun had regained some of the power that we had been missing during the winter months.
Now that Covid-19 has us all hunkered down, it’s hard not to wonder if I should have taken that job offer I had after one day in South Naknek. Regardless, I can not wait for the rivers to open up, and for winter’s grip to be pried from the land.
By the way, it was -24F at the cabin on Monday morning. Not too hard to figure out why I’m getting a bit stir crazy, surrounded by nothing but snow. At 4pm, the temp had risen to +26F: A fifty degree swing. “Springtime” in Alaska.
Naknek sits along the shore of the Naknek River, where the river flows into Kvichak Arm of Bristol Bay.
Bristol Bay is Alaska’s famed salmon waters. It is the world’s most productive salmon fishery. Naknek is home to both Trident and Peter Pan Seafoods, among many others.
Naknek lies less than 20 road miles from King Salmon, which is also on the Naknek River. It’s definitely fishing country, with over 75% of the jobs in fisheries.
When we visited, the town had only begun to get ready for the fishing season. Many were worried about what the Corvid-19 virus was going to do to the industry. At the time, Alaska had no known cases of the virus, but Washington State was already a hotbed. Many summer workers come up from Washington every year. Concerns were rampant, and not unexpected.
The community was welcoming and open about their unique lifestyle on Bristol Bay. Naknek has a population of less than 600 in the winter months, but explodes to around 15,000 during the summer. I have always wanted to visit the area in the summer, it must be absolutely beautiful. The sockeye runs are a major temptation, but I simply could not imagine so many people in such a confined space as Naknek. There is a nearby alternative, but more on that in a future post.
Over the weekend, I was asked if I had been affected much by actions for the Coronavirus.
Up until now, I’ve been affected only mildly. I imagine that will change shortly.
I’ve had a project going lately, which has taken me out to a few remote Alaska villages. I’ve basically been doing the two week on, two week off schedule, and the virus really hit the fan when I was out in the Naknek region. I finished my assignment, came back to Fairbanks, and will not be going out again. The project has been put on hiatus, although I suspect it has really been cancelled, at least for the foreseeable future.
I had a construction project already lined up for my return. Materials were on site, the building empty, so I worked on that all week, and will finish probably today or tomorrow. Like most people I know who work construction up here, I have no work projects currently on the horizon.
Normally, this is the time of year when I escape and go Outside, thus avoiding the Interior Alaska Breakup Season. A group of us attend the Frozen Four hockey championships that take place every April, but this year they have been canceled. When in the Lower 48, I would check in on my Dad, as well as other family & friends about now, but traveling anywhere is beyond a bad idea, so I’m staying in Alaska. From up here, airplanes & airports seem like giant petri dishes, but to be honest, my greatest unease with travel right now is the thought that if I leave Alaska, I won’t be able to come back! That’s enough to give any cabin-dweller the shivers.
The shelves at the local grocery stores & Costco are looking pretty sparse, but I’m well-stocked anyway. It’s kind of an Alaskan thing, I suppose. When you live at the end of the road, having enough food to get you through a patch of bad weather, or a closing of the Alaska Highway, or a barge losing its load coming up from Seattle, is just something we do. Especially in the winter months. I have a freezer stocked with salmon, rock fish, halibut and other Alaska morsels, so I’m good to go there. I am a bit low on blueberries, but that’s par for the course this time of year.
A friend wanted me to stop by the other day on my way home from work. I declined the invite, saying I should probably partake in some social distancing. I was informed that this was hardly new for me, and the virus was just a convenient excuse. I had to chuckle, because if left to my own devices, I can be a notorious hermit. I have no problem retreating into my little world at the end of the road, and turning off the phone and computer. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, someone threatened to call out the dog sled teams to hunt for me, when I went off grid for barely a week.
I have books to read, letters to write, and LP’s to spin – inside; trails to walk, lakes to circle on snowshoes, and moose to try to capture on film – outside.
We can’t control the virus; all we can do is try our best not to catch it. I hope, and fully expect, to see all of you on the other side of this.
I was reminded of an Inuit saying when revisiting the documentary “Noatak: Return to the Arctic”.
“I think over again
My small adventures
Those small ones that seemed so big
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach
And yet there is only one great thing
To live and see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.”
Best wishes from Alaska.