Friday, November 9, 2018

Fairbanks: Sled Pups and Sibling Smackdown

I'll talk more about Alaska now but likely will not have much time to do so -- the foster puppies are fixin' to do something awful soon, I'm sure of it, and I'm going to have to stop them. They've so far today peed on my pile of papers destined for the filing cabinet, chewed up a flip-flop, and ripped a hole in Lucien's jeans with their shark-like puppy teeth.

Atticus is off to live his new life
but I've got a newbie, Pickles the black lab, now
and still have Waffles the foxhound mix. 
Pickles and Waffles.
Who the hell is naming these dogs.

When I was last here talking about the road to Alaska (Chapter One here, Chapter Two here), we had crossed into Alaska "for real" and were heading towards Fairbanks. Driving through central Alaska is a strange thing. The isolation of the place is so palpable, you feel the most chilling sense of being all alone immediately after crossing the border at Port Alcan.

Port Alcan is not like our usual border crossing between Washington State and British Columbia where you can expect to sit in line anywhere between 10-1000 hours. There's nobody around at Port Alcan. You go through with no fuss after a nice chat with the border agent, who honestly seems a little desperate for company. Then the road stretches ahead of you into nothing, the surroundings so wild and expansive and still, it sometimes feels like nobody has ever been there, you are the first, you are a pioneer!

The rusted cars sitting alongside the road will eventually tell you otherwise. Sometimes those old abandoned cars are down in ditches or wedged between trees. Try hard not to think about how they got there. Just maybe slow down a bit.

One of the reasons those cars may have ended up there was ominously insinuated by the numerous "HIGH ELK COLLISION AREA" signs showing elk being gratuitously smacked down by vehicles. Those signs are unnerving. I pictured unassuming kindly elk coming at me from all sides, maybe not realizing what a car is since there are so few around, or maybe not paying attention to their surroundings due to a riveting elk conversation with a friend, when suddenly whammo. I did indeed slow down a bit. Or maybe a lot. At one point Coco asked, "Are we even still moving?" to which I replied, "Coco, the elk need you to be patient right now."

Our first day in Fairbanks was a catch-up day. Alex and I don't like catch-up days because we're itchers. We're fidgety and antsy to get out there and see all of the stuff that needs to be seen but sometimes laundry must be done and storage containers/label makers must be purchased to make more organized use of the space inside the Winnie. Even though living space is minimal inside the RV, maybe the size of your average walk-in closet, none of us can ever find anything. Sometimes even toothbrushes get lost in a bathroom that is the exact size of your body. Lucien lost a shoe in there somewhere and it still hasn't been found which makes no sense at all.

The Fairbanks Fred Meyer store is pretty nice, FYI, though they have way too many storage container options. We spent an obscene amount of hours in the aisles thinking hard and staring at storage containers and measuring them with our hands in a haze of indecision.

We watched a movie that first night in Fairbanks, cozy in the Winnie with fresh laundry hung outside for a final dry. During the movie, an overwhelming stench of sewer wafted into our space. It burned our eyes, it was so, so bad. Al and I opened the door and tumbled outside frantically, hoping and praying we didn't have a big problem on our hands. Thank the RV gods, it wasn't us. But somewhere in the campground, a row or two over, we heard angry shouting. Lots of swear words. Then people were running back and forth with buckets of water.

Somebody, somewhere in the campground pulled the wrong lever under their rig and paid for it dearly. It's a real downside to traveling with a container of poo strapped to your house. We watched the rest of the movie with scarves pulled up over our faces. A canister of Febreze was generously deployed yet we wished we had another.

The sun never goes down in parts of Alaska during the summer months. The further north you go, the more hours of sun you've got. It would set to a twilight-y level in Fairbanks and stay that way all night. We have blackout shades in the Winnie B so weren't much bothered by it sleepwise. In fact, I was bummed we weren't more bothered. I wanted to be bothered, to see it, to suffer it, wanted to experience what it's like to be in the middle of permanent day.

I set my phone alarm for 3:00 a.m. that first night but I didn't need it. My body was so excited to see light all the time I awoke every hour to peek out the window and giggle.

I took this picture out the window at 2:30 a.m. 
Delightful giddy stuff.
I'll see you in another hour, permanent day.

As for Fairbanks, I loved it. It's a sleepy city in the summer, not much going on, not many people walking around. We hear it comes alive during the winter when residents are out and about playing winter sports on the frozen Chena River in giant snowsuits, revving up their snow machines (that's what they call snowmobiles up there), plugging their car's engine block heaters into outlets posted in all the parking lots so car engines don't freeze and can start again after grocery runs, getting their sled dog teams in order, and generally trying to stay alive.

Unfortunately, unique of a place as it is, Fairbanks is where all hell broke loose sibling-wise. It was an outright sibling fight in downtown Fairbanks. It may have been too much constant togetherness in a confined space yet we weren't even half finished with our trip so....ohhh shit --

"Fight! Fight! Fight!"
(Alex and I were not yelling this,
though we may have been speaking it softly to each other
behind cupped hands.)
Get it all out, kids, we've got a couple weeks left to go.

Regarding this next part, I'm not going to debate the merits/cruelty of sled dog teams. I know I felt one way when I went to Alaska but felt another way when I came back. I suggest only that, if you've got an opinion on an issue that doesn't really effect your life, go talk to someone whose life it actually does. (Related... don't tell an Alaskan to give up their guns nor be a vegetarian. They will roll their eyes hard then stroll away to shoot animals to smoke and store for their long ass winters.) 

Sled dogs are breeds born to work, born to run, born to pull. These are working dogs, not pampered pets like my spoiled Natani and two foster puppies who are currently sleeping on top of the heater vent because they felt a slight breeze. Sled dog breeds are instinctively more ready to work hard than my posh doggies who are like, "Huh? Work? Does that mean I have to eat my own poop today because... -- okey dokey, actually I'll just do that, you don't gotta ask twice."

The above pups playing in the water are descendants of Susan Butcher's dogs at her home in Fairbanks, viewed from aboard the terribly touristy but ultimately awesome Riverboat Discovery tour. Susan Butcher is a famous victor of the Iditarod with a handful of wins and another handful of impressive records to her name. Besides her many Iditarod wins, she was also the first person to take a sled dog team to the summit of Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. I have no idea how she and her dogs did that. How did ya'll climb a mountain in a sled? I just.... I don't.... so much stuff I don't understand in this world.

Susan Butcher died of leukemia in 2006 but her husband and children carry on with raising and racing the descendants of her beloved team at their family home.

Below is a video of the sled dog running demonstration. Susan's widower, David, is doing the presentation via microphone on the ground and riding the four-wheeler behind the team. The dogs were ready to roll -- those who had not been chosen for the demo were circling in fits about being left out and those attached to the "sled" were anxious to get moving. 

(The tiny little dots back to the left behind that fence are puppies. I did not take one home. It was hard.) 

The dogs were happy and healthy and so breathtakingly strong, and I say this as an absolute dog lover, I was in awe of their drive and power and loved every single minute with them. 

It's a shaky dog video indeed

If you are still not a fan of sled dog teams, here's a picture for you depicting your feelings. It's a sled dog taking a poop in the middle of the demonstration --

We saw a handful of other demos from the Riverboat, too, one of them being a bush plane take-off and landing by a gray-bearded man who's been doing it his whole life, since he was a teenager. People in the more remote areas of Alaska depend on him to bring them supplies at any time of the year because as I mentioned, there are no dang roads out there. He can take off or land on whatever surface the season requires anywhere in the state -- land, water, snow -- he just changes the "feet" on his plane from wheels to floats to skis and lands soft as silk with one leg lightly skimming the surface first, then bringing the other one down gentle as a sigh to meet it.

I was like, "Man, I should stop complaining when there's a slight chill in the air and I can't get the first several spots next to the Safeway entrance." At least some dude doesn't have to bring me my groceries in a plane in subzero temperatures once a month.

But The Dude does have serious pilot skills

The best part of the Riverboat Discovery tour was listening to the tour guide describe what winter is like in Fairbanks. I hear it's harsh as hell with almost 24 hours of darkness and temps down to -40 degrees Fahrenheit yet also a rosy hunky dory example of the best of humanity coming together for a common goal (survival). He spoke at length about how everyone helps each other, stops for every stranded motorist with a broken down car no matter what because it's a life or death situation, shares their moose with their neighbor if their neighbor didn't bag a moose that year, and most importantly of all, "likes" all of their neighbors' Instagram photos.

He said, "In Fairbanks, we don't care who you're holding hands with, or what color your skin is, because all bodies freeze at the same temperature and we all need each other to get through the winter."

It kinda sounded like a place I wanted to be. I am a real sucker for humans being human to each other. I immediately set about dreaming of being there for a full winter some year. I can't wait to be one of those helpful people saving the lives of my neighbors on a regular basis, even if I scream in agony every time I step outside and see their confused expressions when, after I save their lives, I ask them where to find the tastiest quinoa bowl in town.

I may not be able to share my moose, though, because I don't even know how to go about getting one of those giant suckers home with me. At least I'll have the Northern Lights to keep me company on my fool's journey -- an earthly phenomenon that, alas, you cannot see in summer in Alaska because THE SUN NEVER F*CKING SETS.

We also panned for gold at an old gold dredge outside Fairbanks. We compiled the tiny gold flecks found in all of our pans and made them into a necklace for Coco instead of cashing them in to retire for maybe about thirty seconds --

And we visited the Ice Museum. Not much to look at from the outside but very cold fun inside. I was so cold, I often had to retreat through the insulated doors to the warmer heated part of the museum. This does not bode well for my future winter in Fairbanks.

Ice slide

We saw other sights in Fairbanks but that's enough, I think. My eyes are crossing from trying to locate all these pictures in my massive photo library. I may take too many pictures. 

Next Alaska chapter -- where Lucien's childhood went to die! (or so he says...)

I call them my "not-quite-ready-for-the-sled" dogs

Mush on, little doggies,