The flight to Newtok took us across a vast expanse of seemingly endless white. As far as one could see, from one horizon to the other, nothing but white. Out here, the wind is an artist, leaving mesmerizing patterns in the snow. Even in the air with two other people, I could feel the grip of isolation.
Earlier in the month, four children became lost in blizzard conditions out here, when they went out on a snow machine. It was not hard to imagine losing your bearing, especially when the wind picked up. The kids were found, huddled around the youngest to keep him warm. They were flown to Bethel with severe hypothermia, but they were alive, against long odds.
Newtok through the windshield
That’s the village of Newtok, with the airstrip dead ahead. It’s located on a bend in the Ningaluk River. River erosion and the melting of the permafrost is taking a huge toll on the village, forcing a move to a new location.
I had the opportunity to travel out to Newtok, Alaska this month. Newtok is a Yup’ik village on the Ningaluk River, on Alaska’s southwestern coast.
I flew to Anchorage, only to have the Ravn Air flight cancelled due to mechanical issues. The next day, the flight did leave Anchorage for Bethel, but the flight to Newtok was called off due to heavy winds, and drifting snow across the Newtok airstrip. Day three proved to be the charm, as the Grant Aviation flight left Bethel for Newtok.
One of Grant Aviation’s aircraft waiting for the winds to die down.
Of the five of us, three went in the aircraft pictured above. I flew out in a much smaller Cessna with the pilot and one other passenger. I can’t say enough good things about the people with Grant Aviation. A class organization all the way through. Even though Bethel is not an inexpensive place to find oneself stranded, I had a good time there. Taxi rides are $5-8 per person, per ride, depending on distance, and take out food seems to dominate the options.
Our pilot getting ready to leave Bethel
The Cessna took a little less than an hour to get from Bethel to Newtok, flying 120 knots, at 2000 feet above the ground.
The temperature finally climbed above zero, reaching 9F on Monday. That breaks a streak of 34 days where the temp never went above 5 degrees. It’s the fourth longest streak of its nature, since recording began.
The longest such streak is 49 days, which happened in 1942-43.
Although this season’s streak was long, it wasn’t excessively cold. In 1975, a similar streak had several days reach -60F. The 2020 streak saw four days where the temperature dropped to -40.
Regardless, I was thrilled to be outside on Monday in single digit temps.
A musher and dog team take the Chena River out of Fairbanks
The Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race started on Saturday morning. Fifteen teams left Fairbanks, with the goal of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory in 9 days, give or take.
It was a rather chilly morning to be hanging out on the Chena River to cheer the teams on their way, but several hundred people turned out to do just that. It was -25F when I left the cabin, and it must have been -30 down on the river ice. Everyone, including the dogs, were bundled up.
The 1000 mile race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse first started in 1984. A 1983 bull-session in the Bull’s Eye Saloon in Fairbanks, led to the race’s creation. Twenty-six teams left Fairbanks that first year. The winner, Sonny Linder, made it to Whitehorse in just over 12 days.
The Quest follows the historic gold rush routes between the Yukon and Alaska’s Interior, traveling frozen rivers and crossing four mountain ranges. Dawson City, YT is the half-way point. In even years, the race starts in Fairbanks, and in odd years the race starts in Whitehorse.
There are ten checkpoints and four dog drops, where dogs can be dropped off, but not replaced. Sleds can not be replaced without a penalty. The record run happened in 2010, when Hans Gatt finished in 9 days, 26 minutes. The slowest time happened in 1988, when Ty Halvorson completed the race in 20 days, 8 hours, 29 minutes.
Rocket Launch at Poker Flat; Photo credit: NASA/Chris Perry
NASA and the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute teamed up with some scientists from Virginia Tech University to launch a sounding rocket over the weekend at the Poker Flat Research Range.
The Polar Night Nitric Oxide (PolarNOx) experiment saw a hang fire on the first night of their launch window, but the rocket was launched successfully on the second night.
The aurora borealis adds nitric oxide to the polar atmosphere, and levels increase in the winter months, but then dissipate in the summer months, with the increase of sunlight. Nitric oxide will destroy ozone under certain conditions. The sounding rocket was launched to collect data to better understand the build up of nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide exists between 53 – 93 miles altitude, with its peak concentration between 62 – 68 miles altitude. The sounding rocket rose to an apex of 161 miles above the earth’s surface, before coming back down to our very frozen Interior.
The landing pad; Photo credit: Poker Flat Research Range
For those who were up in the early morning hours to witness the launch, the rocket was seen from all over the area. I had planned on being out there, but I was forced to make a quick run to the border instead. At least I saw a lot of caribou.
Driving out to the border, the wildlife viewing was excellent as usual. I spotted several moose, flocks of grouse, and quite a few caribou. I stopped for these three caribou to cross in front of me, and watched them make their way down the roadway slope to a frozen creek below.
One solo caribou earlier in the day, had a harder time of it. The snow was over belly deep, and I watched the animal from a long distance, as it determinably struggled to reach the road. Once it did, it saw me coming, and I could feel its deflation, and hear its sigh of disgust.
The caribou went across the road, considered hopping into the snow there, but then turned to clop down the frozen pavement. I slowed down to a crawl, but still caught up with it. The caribou looked me over as I came to a stop, then resigned to its fate, it crossed back to the side of the road it came from, and went back into the snow. This caribou was stressed enough, so I didn’t take its picture, I just drove on, with the caribou buried well past its haunches in powder.
In my rear view mirror, I could see another truck coming up, and so did the caribou. I think it planned on coming back out onto the road once I left, but now it snowplowed its way back to the treeline where it came from when I first saw it.
No doubt, there are too many people in Alaska for that caribou’s liking. Can’t say that I entirely blame it either.
I had not heard the term Milwaukee Road in years. I came across a plaque honoring the rail line when I was looking around Union Station in Chicago.
The railroad started in 1847 as the Milwaukee & Waukesha. At the time, rail was needed between Milwaukee and the Mississippi River. Changes came and went, the railroad went into receivership in 1859 and was purchased by another railroad and then combined with still another. Out of the chaos emerged the Milwaukee and St Paul. In 1874, the line absorbed the Chicago and Pacific Railroad Company. The name changed once again to the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul: The Milwaukee Road.
The passenger train was the Hiawatha. My grandmother told me stories of riding the Hiawatha from St. Paul to Chicago. It must have been quite the ride for the details flowed smoothly.
By the mid 1930’s the Hiawatha added the famed “Beaver Tail” cars. The streamlined observation cars were a hit, and earned their nickname from the rail car’s shape.
Milwaukee Road plaque: Union Station, Chicago
Expansion would begin with the Olympian Hiawatha, which ran out to Puget Sound; the Midwest Hiawatha, which ran between Chicago & Omaha; and the Southwest Limited: Chicago-Milwaukee-Kansas City.
There was a burst of ridership after WWII, and the railroad came out of the bankruptcy caused by the Great Depression. Unfortunately, like much of the railroad industry, hard times returned again. Between 1971-1974, Milwaukee Road lost $100 million. After downsizing, selling of track and assets, Milwaukee Road was finally bought by two competitors: Soo Line and C&NW. By 1986, the Milwaukee Road was on the route to memories.
Today, much of the abandoned Milwaukee Road is now Rails to Trails.
The U.S. Census starts its official count today, January 21, in Toksook Bay, Alaska. Since 1960, the first census year after Alaska became a state, the census has started in Alaska.
With 80% of Alaska communities not on the road system, and with many villages without extensive internet service, the census starts early in Alaska. Getting around remote Alaska is much easier when the ground is frozen. Also, it is much more difficult to count people, after many residents of Bush Alaska head out to their fish camps.
Thus the mid-winter start to the counting in Alaska.
I have a friend who was assigned to Toksook Bay as she works for the Census Bureau this season. I hope she has a wonderful experience. The first person interviewed by the Census is always a village elder. That first village varies, with the Alaska Federation of Natives deciding which village will be initially enumerated.
Toksook Bay is a coastal village on the Bering Sea.
This will be the 24th Census taken in the United States, with the first taking place in 1790. The majority of the country will see census forms start to show up in March.