Sunday, April 25, 2010

Chena Hot Springs

After a week in southern Arizona, it felt good to back in Alaska scrambling to get as much done in Fairbanks as I could before heading for Chicken with 5,000 lbs or more of supplies for the rapidly approaching season. During the day, I connected with Bernie Karl and was invited out to Chena Hot Springs for the evening to have dinner and see Bernie's latest developments, so I left a few items on the list for Sunday morning and headed up up to Chena on a beautiful spring afternoon. The 60 mile drive from Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs is a delightful drive through mature birch and white spruce stands along the Chena River and it's various tributaries with sporadic views of the surrounding alpine heights and distant Alaska Range. The river and streams are just breaking up with the runoff from rapidly disappearing winter's snow pack and dotted with arriving ducks and a few geese and cranes checking out the newly open waters.

The small lakes and ponds interspersed between the meandering bends of the river are still ice covered with a few preserved moose tracks frozen in time.


After 30 miles of travel through the Chena River State Recreation area, an area rich in offerings for outdoor enthusiasts, the road ends at Chena Hot Springs (CHS),


Besides being a great destination for guests wishing to soak in the "healing waters", visit the Aurora Ice Museum (the only year round ice built palace on the globe) and relax in the oldest resort in Alaska, there are a number of research projects in agriculture and alternative energy, mostly tied to the geothermal presence.                        

I did not have time to tour the geothermal power plant, or the absorption chiller used to keep the Ice Museum frozen, but did spend some time with Bernie in the greenhouses and checked out his work on LEDs and solar tubes.  

After exploring the incredible green production in the geothermally heated and LED lit greenhoues, I had no choice but to order one of the super salads for dinner. Exquisite! A little over 10 years ago, when I first met Bernie shortly after he and his wife Connie first bought CHS, Bernie  would expound upon his vision for a self-sufficient resort entirely driven by the geothermal local activity. They have come a long way since then not only in direct geothermal applications, but also solar, wind, hydrogen, energy storage and LED research and manufacturing and a few other yet to be revealed pilot projects.
There are not many people who have gone as far out on a visionary limb as Bernie and made it all happen within a decade. Hat's off to you sir!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Welcome Home!

Ten pm (Alaska time), somewhere halfway between Seattle and Alaska the feeling of “going home” grabs me. I first made this flight to Alaska in 1972 and have made many since, mostly during the winter months. But I don’t think I have ever made the trip north in late April and never to Fairbanks. Leaving drizzle-foggy Seattle at 9 pm, the sky is dark in every direction, but now, halfway home, the northern horizon is beginning to show a dusky twilight as if we were headed east into a new dawn.

I love to travel and I am comfortable calling almost anywhere a temporary home. This particular trip, I am headed home from southern Arizona after visiting my mother in Tucson. Lou and I have made many trips to southern Arizona's Santa Cruz River watershed over the past 25 years. We have always been comfortable here in mid-winter and have often dreamed of making a winter home somewhere in the area. The last few winters, we have spent months camping in the various "islands in the sky" mountain ranges of southeastern Arizona and occasionally peruse the real estate market, particularly around Patagonia and Tubac. Last winter we got a little more serious about finding a spot to be more permanent than a camper in the mesquite, but after submitting an offer for a respectable deal and wading part way through the paperwork, it was not meant to be.

This winter, for various reasons, we didn’t make the journey south, but we continued to keep abreast of new real estate listings via the internet, which I now know, does not present a necessarily accurate picture of places for sale. I promised my mother that we, or at least I, would pay her a visit before spring, so after procrastinating all winter, I finally made the trip this week. The timing may have been perfect for various reasons...spring snowstorm in Chicken, desert flowers in southern Arizona and a possible connection with a potential winter retreat; we’ll have to wait to see. I spent some time checking listed properties and one, a foreclosed home on 5 acres in the Tumacacori mountains, felt like the right fit (and maybe the right price). After making a “steal it from the banks" offer,  I have spent the past few days enamored with the thought of a new winter place to visit and explore, even a mystical arch in the Tumacacori Mtns that reportedly provides entrance into another world, but even so, the feeling of my real home will probably always apply only to Alaska. Now, about a half hour after starting this scribbling (I’m a slow writer), the northern horizon is growing brighter with a layer of burnt umber topped by a light shade of yellow-green and then shades of bluish-turquoise before rapidly fading into the darkness overhead (you northern travelers will know what I mean); the light beckons, calling me to the only place I have ever felt was truly home. 

Now, another half hour has past as I have gazed out the window into the increasing light and dimly lit mountainous landscape passing beneath us. It is after 11pm and the light continues to grow; another happy homecoming. Welcome home! I never feel like a stranger in this place called Alaska.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A perfect night...almost


A perfect night! Absolutely transparent after several days of spring bloggy weather. Shining sliver of a moon is keeping Venus company in the fading twilight of the spring arctic sky. It's 10:30 and the afterglow of the sun setting over 2 hours ago is now more northerly than westerly as we move rapidly closer to the suns summer dominion over the north country. It's so so good to be here in this place! Not that this place has much of what most people desire; it's partly what it doesn't have that makes it a place that I am happy to call home.

This place called "Chicken" doesn't have a Home Depot or Walmart with or without a bomb scare in the parking lot; it doesn't have a swat team, police squad, not even a policeman. We almost never hear a siren of an ambulance or trooper and never from the fire department...we are too distant. We don't have a utility company; no water, gas, telephone or electricity and no monthly utility bills. We're off the grid...all the way off and I have no complaints. We each provide our own utilities, if we want them. We don't have a mayor, no city council and no city manager; we don't have local politics. Not missing anything there! No dog catcher, no attorneys, no bankers. We don't have a traffic light and never will. We don't have sidewalks, bike trails, golf carts lanes...don't need them. We don't have j-walking laws, parking authorities, speeding tickets; can't speed, the one and only road isn't good enough. We don't have pan-handlers or homeless shelters; nobody is homeless that doesn't want to be. No TV and no talk radio (unless you want to subscribe to a satellite provider); no Katie Couric, no Bill O'Reilly, no Diane Sawyer, no Ed Schultz and no Rush Limbaugh. No long commutes to work, so need to listen to the liberal-conservative yin-yang. And because we don't have or need any of these things, we don't have taxes; no sales tax, property tax, no income tax, at least not State. Sure, we still get our annual bill from Uncle Sam, but no where, not even Chicken, is perfect.

Some of the things that we do have, most people don't want. I try, but I know I can never put into words the feeling of living so far away in an ever encroaching zoo of humanity. It's not that I am anti-social; actually the opposite. I just prefer to have my space, my solitude and time to enjoy the natural world without the blemishes imparted by a busy man-world. I play my part in the operations of the State, the U.S. and the world as I'm sure all of the 10 or so residents of Chicken do. But I like the concept of being able to turn it all off when I want and at the same time being an integral part of the working whole...from a safe distance. Certainly technology enables us to be here, at a distance, and yet participate out there. And it provides ways to live off the grid comfortably and inexpensively. So to those of you "out there", it sure is an almost perfect night here.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A "town trip"...

For those of us who live in "the bush", or at least not in any community of any size, going to town, which for me means Tok at 78 miles away or in most cases, Fairbanks at 300 miles away, is generally an eventful ordeal. But yesterday's trip gave new meaning to "eventful". A town trip usually precipitates from one or two items on a growing list that is compiled continuously, that finally "tips the scale" in favor of making the trip now rather than tomorrow or next week. In yesterday's case, it was a few items that we were following on Craigslist or Alaskaslist that necessitated immediate response. So I left for town on a beautiful spring morning with every intention of enjoying the drive through Alaska's springtime magnificent scenery and returning the same day. The 78 miles coursing through the southern Fortymile and upper Tanana country was pretty breathtaking, even for someone who drives this road on a very regular basis. A brilliant, blue-sky morning of clearing weather from the previous day's snow squalls revealed crisp, freshly snow-capped mountains and numerous bands of caribou from the Fortymile herd grazing mostly on the higher slopes and showing no intention of making their way west and north which is normal for this time of year. Continuing on to Fairbanks from Tok, brought more incredible spring scenery which I pretty much had to myself. It is ironic, that the northern roads this time of year, when I consider Alaska and the Yukon to be at one of the peaks of annual beauty (the other being in Sept/Oct), are mostly empty and during the summer, the roads are busy with Rv's, campers, boaters and other travelers who come to see the scenery, all sharing a view of the back of the rig in front of them.

But the reason for the trip is not to sight see and I finally arrive at my destination. On this particular trip, I encounter the frustration of a dis-functional cell phone, which means that my normal 6 to 8 hours of eliminating items from "the list" is going to be more difficult and time consuming and in addition, time will have to be taken to visit AT&T to hopefully get the phone fixed (I don't have a lot of patience and understanding for digital equipment so would rather hand it to the experts even if that means that I totally underscore my ignorance). The largest bulk of my load was to be plywood, so I began tackling the list at Home Depot. As I approached the area in which Home Depot is located, the congestion was way beyond any I had previously experienced in Fairbanks but it wasn't until I had parked and had entered HD, that I learned of the reason. Some wacko gunman had been seen on foot in the vicinity, so the entire Fairbanks police squad descended upon the area and set up headquarters in the Home Depot parking lot. Of course, we went into a "lock down" mode and I was stuck for a few hours and stuck without a working cell phone. Consequently, my 600 mile one day round trip turned into a two day trip.

Fortunately, the weather and scenery were almost equally as beautiful on the return leg to Chicken so my frayed nerves were soothed by the time I arrived back home in "the bush". I have no misgivings as to why I live here....

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Just another mountain...

Having played road warrior last week with two trips from Anchorage to Chicken, I had the opportunity to snap a few pictures of the Chugach, Wrangell and Alaska mountain ranges. I made frequent stops, which is not my normal routine, and took a lot of pictures. It's easy to make the 400 mile trip and focus on the road and my thoughts, but not so easy to drive a fully loaded truck pulling a fully loaded trailer over windy, mountainous, frost heave roads while trying to take in every bit of scenery that is offered. Fortunately, there is not too much traffic this time of year, so I didn't cause any road rage playing tourist. I have driven this stretch of road with its incredible mountain vistas over 100 times, but rarely stopped more than a few times each trip. Last week I must have made nearly 100 stops as I had that many photos when I got home. It's a pretty incredible drive and even more so when one takes the time to really take it in....

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Silence before Spring

Of the time that we spend in Chicken, late March and early April is my favorite. The Taylor Highway, which has been closed all winter, is very quiet in the first month after it is plowed open. There are really no visitors and the number of people residing in the area can be counted on a hand or two. The silence of the country has not yet been broken with the songs of returning birds and waterfowl. The caribou, though beginning their migration to the summer calving grounds, are seen but seldom heard. The river and streams, still frozen. yield no sound. No leaves are there to flutter in a breeze which seldom stirs until later in the spring. The squirrels and other resident creatures, have not yet started their courtship chatter. The ruffed grouse will not start drumming for several more weeks.

 There are very few planes, no trains, only an occasional car or truck on the one and only road and no constant buzz or distant murmur from the machinery of man. The stillness is at once soothing, but also a bit haunting. We seem to grow accustom to a constant background noise in the all too civilized world to the point that removal from the buzz to a complete silence, or nearly such, at first creates somewhat of a light ringing in your ears as if there is some leftover noise in your head. It seems that you can actually listen to the silence or I find myself trying to anyway. The quiet landscape gives up a few barely audible sounds that would be hidden in most urban and even rural places: a few drips from the afternoon melting snow, a distant call from one of the few resident species of birds such as the grey jay, raven or chickadee and once in a while, the momentary stir of a light breeze, but other than that, almost "deathly" quiet.

With no TV, no radio, no phone, no dishwasher or washing machine, none of the sounds of civilized "on the grid" living filling the inner space of our home, it too is silent other than the crackling of the fire burning in the woodstove and the light tapping of my fingers on this noisy keyboard. We are not without a few electric tools and toys that require the occasional charging of batteries by a silence-breaking generator, but our use is light and short-lived. No doubt tomorrow at some point, I'll spoil it all with the running of some necessary contraption, but when I turn whatever it is off, the Silence will return, but only for a few brief weeks before the frenzy of returning birds and travelers, the croaking frogs, shrill drumming snipe and quacking ducks dim the silence until its return next fall.