I spent one day this week, out in the sun, finishing up a rope bridge that I was commissioned to build. The decking of the bridge had been completed last fall, and now I was back to add the rope-work for the “railings”.
I heard the moose munching on willows long before I saw it. They are not quiet eaters. A shrub or tree would move, but it took quite some time for the moose to show itself. Oddly enough, it was when I was out on the bridge weaving the manila rope into place that the moose reacted. It kept snorting at me.
At first, I was a bit offended, taking the snorts as commentary on my work. However, I came to the conclusion, that the moose simply did not like me hovering in the air, at a height allowing me to look down on the moose. As I continued to work, the snorts were then followed by hoof stomps and another snort. It really did not like me out there on the bridge. Eventually, the moose had enough of my bridge building, and I heard it splash about in the pond behind the house. It had gone for a swim. It was a warm 75F degrees, and I couldn’t blame it.
Unfortunately, the pictures are pretty poor, as I only had the cellphone with me on the job site, and I’m shooting into the sun on top of it. I watched it swim around, and splash about the pond for a good 15 minutes, before I had to force myself back to work.
After a month Outside, I recently returned home to Fairbanks. As much as I enjoyed my travels, its nice to be back in Alaska. The days are long once again, the trumpeter swans are back swimming in the pond, and a moose greeted me in the yard within 15 minutes of my return.
The Poker Flat Research Range had its 50th Anniversary party over the weekend, and Fairbanks residents showed up in droves to celebrate. I think it is safe to say that Fairbanks is quite proud of its far-north launch facility. I was amazed at how many people came out for the event.
Owned by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, Poker Flat is the world’s largest land-based rocket range. The 5132 acre site is located 30 miles from Fairbanks, just north of Chatanika, on the Steese Highway, where Poker Creek flows into the Chatanika River.
More than 300 major, high altitude rockets and 1800 meteorological rockets have been launched from Poker Flat to study the Earth’s atmosphere, and the interaction between that atmosphere and the space environment. The rockets launched are sounding rockets, which are designed to operate between the height that a weather ballon can reach, yet below satellites. Sounding rockets are relatively low cost, with a quick lead time, which is advantageous in the world of research.
NASA launches a sounding rocket at Poker Flat; Photo credit: PFRR
NASA, Wallops Flight Facility, the Department of Defense, and many universities world-wide, have launched rockets from Poker Flat.
A recovered payload from a March 2017 launch
One busy week at Poker Flat had four launches in 33 minutes during a night with high aurora activity. One mission saw two rockets launched to measure the turbulence in the upper atmosphere: was it two dimensional or three? Also measured were air density along the rocket’s parabola, which had an apex of 100 miles above northern Alaska. Also measured was the lowest reaches of where the aurora interacts with the upper atmosphere.
On the same night, two rockets from Clemson University launched. These rockets released a white vapor, trimethyl aluminum, so that researchers could visualize the turbulence 60 miles above the ground.
Not to be outdone, two nights later, a rocket launched for Utah State that released instruments to measure the voltages and currents in the aurora display over Kaktovik, Alaska.
Weather balloons ready to launch
I’m glad I arrived early, because I think turn out was greater than expected. After visiting the main offices, I walked down to where the shuttle busses were hauling people to the various sites. Poker Flat is fairly spread out, plus there was a cow moose and a calf wandering about, and officials seemed wary that someone could get stomped. Weather balloons were launched every 15 minutes or so, which I watched while waiting for a shuttle. Turns out there is an advantage to attending things like this solo. A University police officer offered rides to the upper facilities, and he had room for three. The first couple climbed in, and I seemed to be the only single paying attention, so I volunteered to climb in the back of the squad SUV.
Some NASA & PFRR “Rocketeers”
The facility is really quite impressive. I was able to talk to several NASA scientists, as well as some Poker Flat “rocketeers”. Everything was available to view, from the radar screens to the “catwalk” outside, and the green lidar beam, which is part laser and part radar, and is shot 50 miles into the sky. There wasn’t one person involved with the sounding rockets, that didn’t get excited talking about what they did, or what they had planned for next year. The representative from Wallops told me they were excited now to get down under to Australia to launch rockets next. It will be their winter soon, and they had some rockets designed that would open in the back with telescopes to get images of the southern sky.
A NASA launch as viewed by the Poker Flat Skycam; Image credit: PFRR
One thing about the aurora borealis that is not widely known, is that, due to the Earth’s magnetic field, what we see here in the northern hemisphere, the southern hemisphere sees the mirror image of. I have always found that fascinating.*
Early artwork of auroral display
The earliest written record of an auroral display was from 567 BC on a Babylonian clay tablet. The tablet describes a “red glow in the sky” lasting two hours. The red aurora was often thought of as an evil omen in medieval times. Nearly all northern native cultures associate the aurora with spirits of the dead.
Some statistics from PFRR:
First launch: March 1969
Heaviest rocket: Aries – 11 tons
Longest rocket: Black Brant XII – 85 feet
Heaviest payload: 2200 pounds
Highest altitude flown: 930 miles
Distance downrange: 1100 miles
Rocket acceleration: 17 Gs
Rocket speed: Mach 2
The view from a very bouncy squad SUV. The ride is not as comfortable as one might think.
The peak season for launches at Poker Flat is between January and March. Most often launches occur when the aurora is going, and the moon is down. Cleary Summit is a great place to watch and/or film a rocket launch. Poker Flat also streams launches live on its youtube channel.
The line for the shuttle bus, or the reason I took the police car; Image credit: PFRR
*See: Rockets Over Alaska: The Genesis of Poker Flat by Neil Davis
Located on the West Ridge of the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks, is the Museum of the North. The museum takes on the daunting task of introducing visitors to the vastness and diversity, that is Alaska.
Otto the Brown Bear
“Otto” has been greeting visitors to the museum since its inception. He stands, all 8’9″ of him, at the opening of the Gallery of Alaska. The gallery is divided into the five main geographic regions of the state: Southeast, Southcentral, Interior, Western Arctic Coast and Southwest. Originally from Herendeen Bay on the Alaska Peninsula, Otto weighed 1250 pounds at the time of his death.
Woolly Mammoth skull, with mastodon and mammoth jaw
Locked in the permafrost, mammoth skulls have often been found by miners, as they worked the frozen ground for gold. Thirty-one, known, species of Pleistocene mammals roamed Alaska’s ancient grasslands with the mammoth.
Southeast Alaska totem pole
Petroglyph, Alaskan style
Blue Babe is probably my favorite exhibit at the museum. An extinct, mummified, steppe bison, that was discovered in the permafrost by placer miners in 1979. The bison died around 36,000 years ago, killed by an American Lion. The claw and tooth marks can still be seen on the carcass. Shortly after the kill, just before winter, the bison was covered by silt. It was then entombed in cold earth and frozen until excavated.
There are only two other discoveries from the permafrost, that have been reconstructed and put on display like Blue Babe. One a juvenile mammoth and the other an adult mammoth, both are at the Zoological Museum in Leningrad.
Even today, Blue Babe has an American Lion looking over its shoulder
The skull of an American Lion, with one of a saber-toothed cat above and to the left
The American Lion, now extinct, was around 25% larger than the modern lion. They roamed North America in the Pleistocene epoch, 340,000 – 11,000 years ago.
The Antler Throne
Kayak and open boat
The museum is open every day in the summer, and slightly shorter hours M-Sat in the winter. Admission is $14 for adults.
Cannons from the Russian occupation. Included solely for The Curator
It is wise to never limit any one of your senses when hiking in Alaska.
This comic reminds me of a time I went for a walk with my dog after a miserable day at work. I was not far from town, but my mind was focused on the terrible day I had, and not on the trail.
My dog and I came around a corner, and spooked a large bull moose. It should never have happened, there was plenty of opportunity for me to spot the moose long before I did, but I wasn’t paying attention. The moose lowered his massive rack, and charged directly at me. I was within mere feet of that mighty bull, when my yellow lab charged the moose, barking up a storm. The bull turned his charge, and my dog sauntered over to a bush to lay down his scent. His job was done, disaster adverted, it was time for more important things.
The entire event lasted only seconds. The bull stood by the forest edge, giving me the stink-eye. My heart was pounding through my jacket, and my Labrador wanted to know why we were flushing moose and not grouse.
It was a lesson I never forgot. If you can’t keep your mind on the trail, stay home and burn your dinner instead.
There isn’t much left of the Cold War Era Air Force Station on the top of Murphy Dome, but in its heyday, it was an extensive site. Built in 1951, Murphy Dome AFS was a part of the 532nd Aircraft Control and Warning Group, Ladd AFB . Murphy Dome was one of ten radar sites across Alaska used for air defense and as a warning system against the Soviet Union.
There was a 4500′ gravel airstrip on the dome, along with a power plant, gymnasium, barracks, and other recreation areas. The station even had its own ski slope, complete with a tow rope. All buildings were accessible by tunnel, so one didn’t have to go outside. A tour at Murphy Dome lasted only one year due to the perceived “hardship” of the isolation.
Murphy Dome today
Today, the station consists of the one radar building, and whatever mysteries that lie underground. Rumors abound on that front. The control center station was closed at the site in 1983, and was designated a Long Range Radar under the Alaska Radar System. Today Murphy Dome is active, and is a part of the Alaska NORAD Region.
The Murphy Dome area today is a hotbed of outdoor activities for Fairbanks residents. The Chatanika River valley lies just to the north, and miles and miles of trails lead from the dome into Interior Alaska. Campers can be found in all seasons, blueberries cover the hillsides in late summer, and moose hunters search the trails in September. It’s a great place for ptarmigan too, but if you wound one and it flies too close to the fence, expect to be paid a visit from the watchers inside.