Friday, November 21, 2014

Birch seeds and catkin scales as miniature leaves for dioramas

So all you Northern types who live surrounded by birch trees--there are those winter days when the wind blows and the snow ends up with piles of birch seeds and birch catkin scales all over the place. Very pretty, but do you know what all those itty bitty birch bits are good for? I didn't until this week when something odd happened on my blog.

I did a blog post several years ago about a blustery winter day and posted photos of birch seeds and catkins strewn all about. In recent blog statistics I noticed multiple hits for that old blog posting--almost 50 hits coming from all over the world.

I finally tracked the hits to a link posted on a website for large-scale model builders who construct dioramas for their models. Turns out if you put down a thin layer of glue on your diorama and then sprinkle birch seeds and catkin scales liberally over the glue you end up with piles of just-the-right size autumn leaves! Here is a link tp that page.

The person posting the link evidently thought my piles of miniature leaves were good examples. The power of the internet! Here is a link to my original post.

Who knew?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Icy tree in the winter sun - Fairbanks in November

Had a friend  tell me about an ice-laden tree near the old library at the corner of 1st and Cowles here in Fairbanks. The tree stands beneath the downspout of the building's gutter and with the warm winter we have had so far many of the branches are coated in ice. The icy branches looks very interesting in the changing light conditions. Pick a different time of day and the tree will look different.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Rocks n' Snow - November 2014

We have had a paucity of snow so far this year. I took these photos several weeks ago in my front  yard. There was still some residual heat in the rocks so the snow melted where ever the rocks were. It is the middle of November now and the rocks are still uncovered.

"Sketches of Alaska" now appearing in "Last Frontier Magazine"

Last Frontier Magazine is a relatively new publication. Based out of Palmer, it is going into its second year of life. Produced by Alaskans for Alaskans, its web page states that the magazine's "goal is to provide individuals with stunning photography and insightful stories that celebrate the place we call home and the people in it."

Its a monthly magazine and the editors say as long as I keep feeding them material they will keep publishing it. Starting with this month's issue, the magazine will be reprinting some of my columns. This issue features my story and drawing about Constitution Hall.

Its a lovely little magazine--nicely produced. It has a print and on-line issue. You should check it out <> .

Friday, November 7, 2014

The early Richardson Highway and the Gibson stage line

The Richardson Highway stretches 368 miles from Valdez on Prince William Sound to Fairbanks in the Tanana River Valley. In its earliest form — the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail — it was the dominant overland route into Interior Alaska.

The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail also was called the Richardson Trail after Major Wilds P. Richardson, the first president of the Alaska Road Commission (ARC). The trail was blazed in about 1903 as an offshoot of the Valdez-Eagle Trail, After the ARC formed in 1904, improvement of the Richardson Trail became a priority. By 1910 it had been upgraded to an all-season wagon road (albeit a very primitive wagon road in places).

A few automobiles had already appeared in Fairbanks (freighted in on steamboats), and as the Richardson’s road conditions improved, adventurers began testing their vehicles against it. By 1909 autos could be driven as far as Birch Lake about 60 miles southeast of Fairbanks. According to the book, The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, some entrepreneurs teamed up with stage lines to take passengers part-way to-and-from Valdez via motor vehicles.

By 1912 road conditions improved enough that some dared think it might be possible to drive all the way between Fairbanks and Valdez. All the major streams and rivers except five had been bridged, and those five had ferry service across them.

Bobby Sheldon of Fairbanks was the first to succeed in driving the Richardson. He had been interested in motor vehicles even as a youth. While living is Skagway in 1905 he built the first automobile in Alaska. (That home-built vehicle is on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.)

In early 1913 he ordered a Ford Model T from Samson’s Hardware. It wasn’t long after its arrival in June that Bobby began toying with the idea of driving the car from Fairbanks to Valdez. With two burly passengers (who helped pull the little flivver out of mud holes and across flooded streams) Bobby made the groundbreaking trip between July 29 and Aug. 2.

His wasn’t the only vehicle to successfully make the trip that year, though. The ARC sent a truck out from Valdez on July 28 loaded with supplies for camps along the trail. It accomplished the same feat in a slightly longer time, arriving in Fairbanks on Aug. 6.

With motor vehicles having finally conquered the trail, auto usage picked up. In 1914 Bobby started an auto stage line, partnering with another Fairbanksan, Tom Gibson. The next year Gibson started his own line, “Gibson Auto Stage.”

According to a 1958 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, Gibson operated 23 vehicles, such as the 1916 Dodge Model 30-35 Touring car shown in the drawing. The Dodge, now owned by David Stone and Don and Ray Cameron and on loan to the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, was modified by Gibson for his business’s special needs. The fuel tank was originally at the back of the vehicle, but in order to make more room for luggage the tank was repositioned under the front seat. The frame was jacked up several inches, and a metal support bar was installed between the front fenders to keep them from rattling.

The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail was officially designated the Richardson Road in 1919. Between 1920 and 1927 the road was gradually improved to automobile standards, eventually becoming the Richardson Highway.

With the completion of the Glenn Highway in 1945 (linking Southcentral with the Interior’s road system) the Richardson became a conduit for drivers traveling between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Construction of the Parks Highway in the 1970s reduced traffic on the Richardson, but recent improvements to the Glenn and Richardson Highways have brought a resurgence in travel along the scenic roadway.


  • “Gibson ran early-day stage.” In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 7-18-1958

  • “History of the Valdez Trail.” Geoffrey Bleakley. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve web site. 2013

  • “Major Roads of Alaska.” National Park Service. 1944

  • Signage at Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

  • The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. Kenneth Marsh. Trapper Creek Museum. 2008

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Roald Amundsen cabin in Eagle - a link with bygone era of Polar exploration


The small frame house shown in the drawing, located in Eagle, Alaska, is where Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) spent several months during the winter of 1905-06. He had mushed to Eagle, 400 miles south of the Arctic Ocean where Amundsen’s iced-in boat lay anchored, to send a telegram announcing that he and his crew were the first explorers to successfully sail through the Northwest Passage, the fabled ocean route traversing the Canadian Archipelago.

In contrast to earlier unsuccessful expeditions that involved large ships, scores of men, and dependence on tons of supplies carried onboard, Amundsen sailed a small shallow-draft boat with an appropriately small crew, and as much as possible lived off the resources of the area. He and his hand-picked six-man crew set sail on June 16, 1903 from Christiana (Oslo), Norway aboard the 70’ sloop Gjoa.

Several months later he sailed into the Canadian Archipelago northwest of Hudson’s Bay, searching for a location to set up scientific instruments to study the North Magnetic Pole. Aided by a group of Netsilik Inuit who settled nearby, Amundsen spent two winters at a site he christened Gjoahavn, in a protected harbor on the southeastern coast of King William Island.

During that time his party conducted systematic magnetic and meteorological observations at Gjoahavn, and made numerous forays to map the local area and take observations closer to the magnetic pole. One of the important discoveries from the expedition was that the pole had shifted about 30 miles to the north since first being located in 1831.

After his second winter at Gjoahavn, Amundsen continued his quest to navigate the Northwest Passage. Guided part way by Inuit kayakers, the Gjoa inched through the shallow, island-dotted waters until finally reaching Herschel Island in the eastern Beaufort Sea.  Because of the all-too-short navigation season, Amundsen was forced to overwinter there, along with several whaling vessels which had been plying the Arctic Ocean near the Bering Straits.

A wrecked whaling schooner was beached at Point King, near where the Gjoa was anchored. According to the book, “Amundsen, the splendid Norseman,” the ship’s captain wanted to reach San Francisco to outfit another ship for the next whaling season and contracted with Inuit guides to take him by dog sled as far as Fort Yukon.

Amundsen agreed to accompany them on the trip. Being the good Norwegian he was, Amundsen skied much of the way, helping break trail for the sled dogs. Some accounts stress Amundsen’s desire to send word of his success back to Norway, but Elva Scott, in a 1996 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, wrote that he was also seeking medical assistance for an ill crew member.

Fort Yukon did not have the telegraph facility that Amundsen had hoped for, so he and the whaling captain decided to push on to Eagle while their Inuit guides waited for Amundsen’s return at Fort Yukon.

When Amundsen arrived in Eagle on December 5, 1905 the thermometer read -60 degrees F. Amundsen’s first stop was the Northern Commercial Company (NC Co.) store, where he was mistaken for just another bedraggled prospector until asking to send a telegram to Norway. Broke, he had to send the 3,000 word telegram collect.

While waiting for replies to his telegram and for funds to complete his voyage, Amundsen lived in Eagle as guest of the NC Company’s store manager, Frank Smith. The small gable-roofed cabin he stayed in, about 15’ square with a small shed-roofed rear extension, is located on what is now called Amundsen Street, behind the old NC. Co. store building.

Amundsen finally departed Eagle on February 3, 1906, skiing the 400 miles back to the Gjoa. Later that year he and his crew completed their historic voyage across the Arctic Ocean, arriving at Nome in the Bering Straits on September 1, 1906.


  • “Amundsen cabin.” Sandra Faulkner. Historic American Buildings Survey , National Park Service. 1986
  • Amundsen, the splendid Norseman. Bellamy Partridge. Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1929
  • “Arctic explorer leaves imprint in Eagle.” Elva Scott. In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 10-6-1996
  • The North West Passage; the ‘Gjöa’ expedition, 1903-1907. Roald Amundsen. E.  Dutton. 1908

  • The Last Viking, the life of Roald Amundsen. Stephen R. Brown. Da Capo Press. 2012

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Colorado Creek Roadhouse used to be a welcome respite half way to Chena Hot Springs

Barn at Colorado Creek Roadhouse in Fall 2012

Today, if you drive the 60 miles from Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs, the trip only takes an hour or so. However, during the first few decades of the 20th century, 15-20 miles a day was about the most a person could travel overland through rural Alaska, and a trip to the springs normally took several days.

For years the quickest and most reliable way to reach the springs was along a winter trail blazed on the north side of the river. Old maps show the trail running from Fairbanks south of the present location of Chena Hot Springs Road (CHSR) until reaching Pleasant Valley, about 27 miles from town. From there it ran along the base of the hills north of CHSR until reaching the springs.

To serve travelers headed to and from the hot springs, three roadhouses were built along the route: Little Chena Roadhouse (at about mile 14 CHSR), Colorado Creek Roadhouse (near mile 32) and Gregg’s Roadhouse (mile 48).

Little Chena Roadhouse has long since disappeared. The remains of Gregg’s Roadhouse are reportedly still standing but I have not visited them. I have been to Colorado Creek Roadhouse, though.

The roadhouse at Colorado Creek is located about one mile north of 31 Mile CHSR, just east of a usually shallow ford across Colorado Creek. (That ford wasn’t so shallow a couple of weeks ago when I hiked out there. Most years you can easily wade across, but I had to slog across the creek through frigid thigh-high water.)

According to the 1985 book, Historic Resources of the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Colorado Creek Roadhouse was in operation by 1908. I haven’t been able to establish who built the roadhouse, but its proprietors in the 1920s were Alexander Johnston and his wife. The field notes for the Johnsons’ 1928 homestead survey shows that they had quite an operation, with a large residence/roadhouse building, two barns (including the one shown in the drawing), a storage building, greenhouse, root cellar, and chicken coop. All of the buildings were constructed of logs. The Johnsons also had six fenced acres under cultivation.

            Chena Hot Springs Road was extended as far as Pleasant Valley by the 1950s, and in the 1960s eventually reached the springs. Don Hymer, who helped stake the road right-of-way during the winter of 1959-60 told me Colorado Creek Roadhouse was abandoned when his survey crew used it as a base camp that winter.

            By 1985 there were four buildings left in fairly good condition: the roadhouse, two-story barn, small log cabin, and an outhouse. Now everything is in ruins. The walls of the roadhouse have collapsed (although the roof is still more-or-less intact) and the roof of the barn has collapsed (although the walls are more-or-less intact). The small cabin is a pile of logs and moss, with the outhouse hidden by alders.

            The drawing shows the barn as it looked just a few years ago. Like the roadhouse, it was constructed of round unpeeled spruce logs (saddle-notched at the corners), and had a wood-shake roof.  Daylight shows between most of the logs and there is no sign of chinking. Fortunately, the lack of chinking gave me a good view of the pegs holding logs together around the doors and windows and on the gable end of the building.

            The barn has sunk about four feet into the soft ground, making it hard to tell the barn’s lower-level windows from doors. Their sills are somewhere below ground level and their tops are now tickled by summer grasses. It is only a matter of time before what is left of the roadhouse buildings collapses completely and merges back into the surrounding forest.

            The 239 acre homestead is part of the Chena River State Recreation Area, which was established in 1967. One of the largest undeveloped private inholdings with the recreation area, it was acquired by the State of Alaska through its Alaska Forest Legacy Program in 2004.  


  • Conversation with Don Hymer, member of party surveying Chena Hot Springs Road right-of-way in the winter of 1959-60
  • Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
  • “Field Notes of the survey of the Boundary and Meanders of U.S. Survey No. 1683 – Homestead Claim of Alexander J. Johnston.” Fred Dahlquist. U.S. Cadastal Survey. 1928
  • Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Janet Matheson & Bruce Haldeman, 1981
  • History of the Chena River State Recreation Area. Alaska Department of Natural Resources brochure, 2009