Social Distancing in the Last Frontier

Interesting times to be certain. Myriad thoughts on the current situation, which is surely the same here as most elsewhere, many of those ideas derived from conversations with friends and family members. For one, turns out these past months I’ve spent primarily in my own company, I’ve simply been being proactive in my social distancing. Who knew? Other topics concern the role of media and politics in escalating crisis, as well as the role of citizens in their response to the same; the dubious actions of certain individuals; and the importance of living your best life in order to stave off the fear of death, which awaits us all.

Yes, the situation is real. A previously unknown strain of virus makes its way across the world at a rapid pace; people fear for their lives. Is there malicious intent involved on the part of the virus? Doubtful. It simply does as humans and every other animated organism, or in this case particle (apparently it’s debatable whether or not a virus is ‘alive’) on Earth does, it propagates to max capacity, sometimes at the peril of other life forms. This particular virus has been successful due to the successfulness of our own species in spreading across the globe and moving willy-nilly across its surface. It thrives because we do. In most cases, the virus does not kill its host; in certain cases, it does. To watch the news, to believe the incessant high-pitched fervor of media sources in our society, however, is to know that it is out to get us all. Depending on which ‘unbiased’ source you trend towards, Democrats or Republicans are to blame for its continued spread. You may easily stumble across related conspiracy theories concerning foreign governments, or our own, as well.

What you will not see will be a rational comparison of the probability of dying from the coronavirus vs. dying from causes due to smoking (480,000 deaths in US annually), obesity (280,000), gun deaths (35,000+), texting and driving (4,500), etc., or any mention of how the country (or we as individuals, for that matter) are addressing any of these issues. Personal responsibility is incredibly boring. We need something scarier. Something from which the only protection can be fear, isolation, hoarding, panic buying, and of course, hand sanitizer. Turns out, there is a big market for this type of reporting, and hordes of people almost hoping for the worst.

Here, as elsewhere, delusional preppers take to the internet to indulge in apocalyptic fantasies in which they thrive as ultimate survivalists in the wake of civilization’s downfall. As long as there’s enough toilet paper to go around, of course. They will use their stocked weapons to forcibly take that which they desire, and to right the injustices of their previously unrecognized potential. They dream of a world beyond decorum and communal consideration in which only the strong survive. They fail to realistically imagine the skills beyond shooting which might be required, or what the absence of civic services might look like. Rather than putting forth effort right now to create a dream life for themselves and a greater community, they dream of a life far beyond the failures of their present day existence. Somehow this will be the world worth living in.

Mark Oliver Everett of the Eels sings, “If you’re scared to die, you better not be scared to live.” How true that life is a precious gift, but only if we regard it accordingly. There may be many takeaways from this pandemic, but above all: the future is unknown. Two months ago it would have seemed a highly unlikely prediction to announce that we would be living as we are currently. It simply didn’t seem like a realistic scenario. The vacant streets, the shutdown businesses, the empty shelves and freezers. But we do know this, and we always have: we are born to die. The whys of this may be forever a mystery, but the truth of it is with us always. It is up to the individual to determine how to exist under the shadow of this certainty. If you are reading this, you are alive right now. It is up to you to take action or not. Up to you to rid your future of regrets. To live your best life. To compile a bucket list for some far off future, or journal about the adventures you bestir in the present. To toil for money or live for something greater. To appreciate those that love you. To love those that appreciate you. To acknowledge all that you have. To live life rather than cling to it. For those who can claim to live in this manner, death is not to be feared.

Cases of COVID-19 are growing in Alaska, and stringent measures are in effect to slow its spreading. Schools and restaurants are closed. All public events have been cancelled or postponed. We have been asked to distance ourselves from others. People here, as most everywhere else, seem willing to accept these temporary actions, but are often loathe to completely give up their exercise, access to the outdoors, or freedom to recreate. Each day must still be lived.

The good news is, social distancing has never been easier than in Alaska, where outside of population centers one is unlikely to be within (at least) hundreds of feet from the nearest individual. I’d already been planning on writing something about a few of the winter sporting options here, so when I heard a man putting his skis on at the UAF trails proclaim ‘Ah, my favorite form of social distancing,’ I knew he was on to something. All these silly words then were really just leading up to an overview of a few of the ways to enjoy both life and winter in the Interior.

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Cross Country Skiing. Perhaps my own favorite form of social distancing in the winter as well. Two skis, two poles, a pair of boots. Kick, glide, kick, glide. Like canoes and kayaks, the stylistic simplicity of ski travel has been around for centuries, millennia even. No need for improvement. Additionally, the they say this is one of the best forms of cardio available as proper technique requires full body effort. It’s also an incredibly peaceful way to cruise around for miles on packed snow trails. There is nothing more serene than quietly traversing through lightly falling snow in the winter woods. There are more groomed areas in the borough than I can count, and many that I haven’t yet visited or discovered. There’s no telling how many hundreds of miles are accessible throughout the state.

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Downtown Fairbanks and the Frozen Chena River

Snowshoeing. In my opinion, snowshoes are not the most effective manner of traveling in most conditions, though they certainly have their place, and can be fun for a couple hours of walking around in the woods. A half-day of snowshoeing is generally a must for the winter tourist, as using them is as easy as strapping them to one’s feet and going for a duck-footed walk. They are quieter than skis, and allow one to trod through deeper snow. Can be good exercise if you’re breaking trail, and no designated trails are required. Explore at will.

Ice Climbing. I’m new to the sport of ice climbing. It’s something I never imagined enjoying before, as I pictured standing at the shaded base of a frigid wall of ice stamping my frostbitten feet while belaying. Being miserable, in other words, and bored both. But it’s actually quite fun and clearly spectacular to get to work one’s way up a frozen waterfall. I’m still very much a novice, but would like to do some more exploring in winters to come.

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Dragonfly Falls across from Denali NP

Fat Biking. So named due to the girth of the tires, which enable one to ride in winter conditions. Fat bikes are increasingly popular these days, and a great way to travel for miles on packed winter trails. Its pre-corona popularity as a group activity in Fairbanks was evident in weekly community rides and multiple races throughout the season. From my limited experience, fat biking can be as fun as any other sort of trail biking, or brutally challenging due to snow conditions. If you don’t have any set goals, however, even struggling through powder can be an amusing endeavor. Just don’t expect to go anywhere fast. Or straight.

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Downhill Skiing and Snowboarding. Unfortunately, the local areas prematurely closed for the year due to social distancing measures, but thought I’d mention what the potential for resort riding is up this way. There aren’t any huge developed mountains or big resorts in the Interior. Really, there’s only one in the state, and that’s Alyeska way down by Seward (awesome if you ever get the chance to go as the base of the mountain reaches the shore of the Cook Inlet—it’s like riding down into the ocean). But there are a few areas with enough elevation and trails to keep the locals entertained each year, each with transport to the top of the hill from the bottom, and open on the weekends and holidays when temperatures are warm enough to ride. There are three main spots: Ft. Wainwright, Moose Mountain, and Ski Land, and we even have a little T-Bar where I work which I’ve started up the past few weekends. Ski Land is the ‘Farthest North Chairlift’ in the US, and features an incredible view from the lodge. Moose Mountain is the local’s favorite, and utilizes a fleet of ‘variable capacity charged terrestrial trams’ (school buses) to shuttle folks from run to run. And Wainwright is actually on the Army base but generally open to the public and boasts the ‘best terrain park in the state.’

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T-Bar laps facilitate proper distancing.

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The view from Ski Land looking north.

Snow Machining. I don’t get too excited about two-stroke engines noisily spewing exhaust across the wilderness, but it would be unfair not to include this ever popular Alaskan activity, as well as to not inform you that saying ‘snowmobile’ up here will quickly identify you as an outsider. ‘We’ use snow machines, thank you. And I’ve definitely been on a few this season, as the population I work with seems to prefer motorized to exercise. Personal preferences and prejudices aside, snow machines can be a lot of fun, and are certainly useful tools and a valid means of transportation in remote areas. They’re also used to groom a lot of those awesome ski and bike trails, so I duly give them thanks and appreciation for that contribution.

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Big Sid ducks the Alaskan Pipeline

Everything Else. There are certainly all sorts of other ways to enjoy winter up here. Dog sledding, skijoring, ice fishing, trail running, winter camping, aurora chasing, ice sculpture carving, snow people making, hot springs soaking, or even just sitting in your house alone watching the spring snow accumulate outside the window and enjoying thoughts of extended winter adventures, as I’m doing right now. Social distancing at its finest.

Interior Monologue

It’s been two years now since I started this site. Not being a user of social media, I initially wanted to have a small presence on the web in order to demonstrate a modicum of technical proficiency and feigned interest in the digital world should an employer inquire. I also wanted to motivate myself to write a little bit, thinking there could be no harm in contributing my own minute inanity to some infinitesimal portion of the internet. Additionally, I created it so that family members, and a few friends, might peruse photos and descriptions if interested, rather than being subjected to hours of pictures and effusive trip details each visit. It’s worked for all of those things, and even if only a handful of people check in on a regular basis, it’s been rewarding to see how the posts have developed, and to revisit them myself from time to time.

But truth be told, it’s not something I‘m wholeheartedly committed to. I won’t bother to detail personal perspectives on the ills prevalent in the creation of idealized internet personas—fashioned to make us look our best, to make others jealous, to mask unlimited insecurities. I won’t bother to do that because we’re all aware of those realities, even if we have collectively agreed somehow to embrace them. It’s not always like that, I know, some people just like to share information, advice, recipes, photos, artwork, etc., but often, even then, ego plays a part, along with a need to feel needed. I get it for sure, and am not immune to those desires, but I suppose I care most about finding fulfillment closer in, whether it’s feeling comfortable with solitude, or sharing physical experiences with people I value.

All of this to say that I was considering the cessation of the site for multiple reasons, but when it suddenly, and kind of shadily, I might add, ‘auto-renewed’ a couple of weeks ago (while the goal of many bloggers is to monetize their sites, I actually pay to keep ads off of this one) I decided to keep at it for a few more months. And those months will most probably be focused on Alaska, my home for the time being. After that, perhaps I’ll be hoping for real friends in place of faceless followers, and getting my likes and thumbs-up in person or not at all. Until then, however, thanks for reading.

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Chena Hot Springs

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2020: A succession of flights beginning in Amarillo, Texas on January 1st landed me in Fairbanks around midnight on the 2nd. The convenience of air travel makes distance obsolete, and creates mental disparity in attempting to reconcile the abrupt relocation from one reality to another. Some believe it takes the soul several days to catch up to one’s body. I have flown to Alaska several times in the past, and driven multiple others. I’ve often made the near 4,000 mile overland trip from Texas to Alaska, or back down, stretch out over a couple of months; the quickest I’ve ever done it took a week of long tedious days of extended driving. It’s much easier to comprehend the distance between the two when one serves witness to the immense expanse of land which separates one location from the other. A slower pace allows both body and mind to adjust accordingly.

When I walked out the doors of the airport at one in the morning I imagined my first thought would be: ‘What in the f*ck am I doing moving to Alaska in the middle of winter, or at all?’ But it wasn’t really like that. I simply noted the intensity of the -20 air mingled with a cloud of lingering exhaust fumes, put my bags in a taxi, and rode off into the icy darkness.

The next day was a whirlwind of logistics and preparation for the near future. The one I’m living in now. Up until about three months ago I hadn’t remotely considered the idea of living in Interior Alaska as a possibility in my life, yet sometimes options are not mandated by the person left to choose between them. Forces beyond our control—the decisions of others, failed or functioning relationships, available and desirable work opportunities, etc.—leave one to reorganize priorities and outcomes, to accept circumstances with a mix of resignation and hopeful optimism. By the end of that first day, I had found a place to live and a vehicle to purchase, and was well on my way to becoming an Alaskan resident.

I’ve now been here almost a month, and continue to operate motivated by that same combination of acquiescence and forced positivity. Just trying to figure it all out. As mentioned in previous writings, my thoughts on Alaska are often convoluted. I still feel as if there’s unfinished business here, so much to see and do, infinite possibilities, yet often question whether or not I am capable of accessing that potential. Queries of self-efficacy guide honest assessments of character and circumstance. There is also the fact that throughout its recent history, the past 300 years or so, Alaska has drawn those who care only to see how much they can take from the land. An ethos of extraction prevails, and that can be difficult to negotiate.

For now, however, rather than dwelling on dilemma, I will simply share some impressions, and save the day to day for another time.

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Tanana Lakes

Years ago, I was in the military. My last year in, my team flew up to Alaska in mid-December to conduct training exercises in a cold weather environment. We arrived to the Anchorage area, several hundred miles south of where I am now, in time for the winter solstice. I remember watching the sun make a quick arc across the sky each day, appearing around 10 a.m. and disappearing quickly thereafter, at around two in the afternoon. It was a particularly frigid winter, with no snow, and temps around -20 with a wicked wind steadily blowing throughout our time there. The ground was covered in hoar frost, and as part of the training I spent several days and nights trying to stay warm and survive in ‘the field.’ I feared most for my toes, which passed hours without feeling. At the end of those two weeks, I never wanted to go back.

The Army being the Army, however, and me being a single soldier tasked with following orders as they came down, I found myself in the same exact location only weeks later. Attached to another team, we flew up from Washington State in a cargo plane with the heater set to about 80 for the entirety of the flight. When the time came, we parachuted out the side doors and I found myself crashing to the ground soon thereafter on the same landing zone I’d jumped into weeks before. Due to the adrenaline, and my overheated core from the plane ride, as I started rolling up my parachute I looked around thinking to myself ‘This isn’t so bad.’ About two minutes later all that internal heat was gone with the wind, and the cold set in hard. I cursed my luck knowing that I was going to be there for a couple of months this time around, and imagined nothing but misery for the duration.

The first couple of days proved to be exactly that. More wind, more cold, lots of ice around the base and several people almost breaking bones because of it… On day three, however, a shift occurred in the weather. It suddenly warmed up enough to snow (extremely cold air generally signifies a high pressure system with little moisture), and the wind died down significantly. From that time on, it was one of the best deployments I had in the military. We spent the first ten days ‘training’ at Alyeska Resort—a local’s nightmare—300 camoflauged Gore-Tex clad yahoos on Army skis destroying runs of beautiful fresh powder with the ugliest turns you’ve ever seen. The next several weeks we tent camped and did survival training and rode snowmobiles and cross country skied and even had our own little biathlon. It was awesome. The experience culminated with a mock scenario which found us one midnight flying several hours up north in Chinook helicopters. Just before they landed we started up our snowmobiles and revved them off the ramp, James Bond style, flying off the tailgate and onto the packed snow beneath. We spent the next three days doing our thing, the entire time the sky above us lit up with every color of aurora possible.

That whole experience changed my perspective of Alaska completely, though I still never imagined myself living here full time. I made it back many years later as a guide, and spent my first summer here near Denali National Park taking clients down the Nenana River. Most of the people working up here in the summer only come for the season, but there are a few that stay year round, and even a couple who actually grew up here. I’ve worked in the state four summer seasons total, and would always inquire as to how life was in the winter, not because I was interested in living through one, but because I wasn’t. Watching the seasons’ quick change each fall, and noting the darkness descend (miffed in late August because of a 10 p.m. sunset), my thoughts turned quickly to the desert. Descriptions of -40 temps and the minimal daylight hours convinced me of the correct nature of those notions.

There was no love in the desert this year, though for this reason I may report that Alaska in the winter is much more beautiful than I ever imagined or remembered. It would be difficult to describe, but sometimes it almost hurts to look around, a weighing of the heart the soul what have you, to be surrounded by beauty of such intensity—to be the engaged observer, to take part in the realization of fleeting reality. To be here in the winter is not to admire the landscapes, but to be absorbed into them. There is darkness, to be sure, for many hours of each day. But the light, for the hours the sun sits on the horizon, is otherworldly. It is a physical presence, palpable around you, the snow, below you on the ground and above you in the trees, never white but warm shades of pink and gold. The sky, for hours and hours, cobalt and blues deeper than you knew existed in the world, and purple and pink and red. To be here is to live inside of a suspended sunset, rather than watch it on a distant horizon—from passive onlooker to full participant.

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As for the cold, it’s also not as most would imagine, though I’ve come to realize most would also not believe that to hear it. From many perspectives, temperatures dropping past 40 degrees above zero are cold enough, let alone even imagining -20, or -30, or -40 below. You will simply have to believe me or not when I say, so far, I’ve been a lot colder in a lot of other places. Places like the Texas Panhandle for instance, and definitely in lots of deserts, and for sure in Leadville, Colorado, the last wintry place I lived. There are two reasons for that, the most relevant being the wind, which, right here, rarely blows at all. I think the best analogy would be (maybe not even an analogy, as it’s kind of the same thing) stepping outside here is a lot like stepping into a walk-in freezer, like the kind found in most restaurants. It is so still that it takes a minute for the cold to set in. Once you realize that it’s cold, you also realize it’s definitely the kind of cold that could kill you if you continued to hang out in a t-shirt and shorts for much longer. But it’s not the kind of cold that makes your face chafe instantly and causes you to turn away from it quick like. It’s not the cold that comes ripping at you from hundreds of miles away, the kind of cold you encounter when climbing mountains in the fall or kayaking in the spring. It’s not that ferocious surprise cold that makes your eyes tear up; it’s a slow almost imperceptible cold, one that likes to take its time, but also the kind of cold that skips the shivering stage. The second reason it’s not so bad is that, unlike in those other environments where wind and wetness can create unexpected distress dangerously quick, you know it’s going to be cold when you go out, and you know what it’s going to be like. As such, it’s not that hard to be able to adequately prepare for it, up to the point where it’s also not difficult to be able to enjoy being outside without discomfort. For those willing to do so, that is. A small number indeed.

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X-country skiing at -25. Expelled moisture freezes quick. Good times.

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Trails Everywhere!

The hardest part then, for now, is trying to face it alone. The starting over again. The being surrounded by all this beauty and intensity and endless potential. It’s knowing that there are a few people out there doing these awesome things, creating these amazing epic adventures only possible in this sprawling wilderness, but having no real idea how to become aligned with them.

I’ve done a lot of solo traveling, including several multi-day trips in Alaska, and am sure I will continue to do so. Sometimes because I really wanted to go alone, and a lot of times simply because there wasn’t anyone else around willing and prepared to make things happen. There is a tenuous line, however, between voluntary solitude, and something far different. There is also the fact that Alaska truly is on a much different scale than anywhere else, in terms of both splendor and consequence. In an abandoned school bus not too far from here, Christopher McCandless penned a line in a book margin, ‘Happiness is only real when shared.’ I do not agree completely, yet fully understand the sentiment. Especially in a place like this.

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