Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Winter Chiaroscura--Fairbanks, Alaska

I took these photos yesterday after a light dusting of snow. They show the bluff at the base of College Hill at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The bluff overlooks the Chena River and Tanana River flatlands, and has been used for thousands of years as a lookout site for hunters. There is an archeological site (the Campus site, FAI 001) atop the bluff.


 I love the play of light and dark on the hillside and how the various layers of rock stand out.. Chiaroscura is an Italian term meaning “light-dark,” and in two-dimensional art refers to the use of different tonal values or shading to make an abject look three-dimensional. In general usage it has mainly come to be associated with strong contrasts between light and dark.

During the summer, the contrasts would mainly be between colors. Trees would be leafed out, and the grasses and juniper growing on the hillside would be much closer in value to the exposed rocks.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Leonhard Seppala's Chatanika cabin--a link to one of dog mushing's greats

Leonhard Seppala's cabin as it looked in the 1990s

Most people probably aren’t aware that Leonhard (Sepp) Seppala, who achieved fame during the 1925 diphtheria serum run to Nome and popularized the use of Siberian huskies in sled dog racing, lived at Chatanika, Alaska for almost 20 years. (His cabin is shown in the drawing.)

Sepp emigrated from Norway to Alaska in 1900 and began working for the Pioneer Mining Company (PMC) at Nome. It was at a PMC mess hall that Sepp met his future wife, Constance. (She was a waitress there and he was the camp’s mining foreman.) Eventually, Sepp become superintendent of the ditches vital for bringing water to the diggings.

Sepp was introduced to dog mushing when his employer grubstaked three other men and him to a winter prospecting trip in the Kougarok area north of Nome. They traveled by dogsled, and although the prospecting trip came to naught, Sepp fell in love with mushing.

It was probably inevitable that men began racing their sled dogs (especially when they could bet on the outcome), and one of the first recorded long-distance races started in Nome. The All-Alaska Sweepstakes was a 408-mile race from Nome (on the south side of the Seward Peninsula) to Candle (on the north side) and back.

It was held annually from 1908 until 1917, when World War I forced its demise. Sepp won the race three years straight — from 1915 to 1917. The first year he won, Constance was also crowned All-Alaska Sweepstakes queen.

PMC sold its operations to Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields Company in the 1920s, but Sepp continued working on the ditches. Hammon was eventually absorbed by U.S. Smelting, Mining and Refining Company (the parent company of Fairbanks Exploration Company). When the FE company began its Chatanika operations (about 30 road miles north of Fairbanks), Sepp transferred. He became superintendent of the Davidson Ditch in 1929.

For the first few years at Chatanika, Sepp worked on the Davidson Ditch in the summer and raced his Siberian huskies in the Eastern U.S. and Canada during the winter. About 1930 he quit racing in the Lower 48 and returned to Alaska as a year-round resident. One of his few forays into racing after that appears to have been the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid in New York. Sled dog racing was a demonstration event that year and Sepp took a silver medal.

He also stayed active mushing in the Fairbanks area, participating in local races and winter festivals. The Seppalas’ daughter, Sigrid, was crowned Miss Fairbanks during the 1937 winter festival.

According to “Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough,” the Seppalas built a small 16-by-16-foot log cabin in the early 1930s just east of the newly established FE Company camp at Chatanika. They expanded the cabin over time. Photos from the 1940s show the cabin with a shed addition to the rear, along with a white picket fence and a huge flower garden. Later another small cabin was tacked onto the addition’s east end.

The Steese Highway used to run right by the Seppalas’ cabin, but was relocated to the base of the hill in later years. The road that runs in front of the cabin is now called Old Chatanika Road.

Sepp retired from the FE Company in 1946 and moved to Seattle, where he died in 1967. The book, “Seppala’s Saga of the Sled Dog,” says Sepp once estimated that he had driven with his sled dogs more than a quarter of a million miles.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Winter's Wild Iris, Fairbanks, Alaska

I am slowly turning our front yard into a native species garden. Years ago I planted several clumps of wild Alaska iris (Iris setosa) and have found the plants to be just a beautiful in the middle of winter as in summer. Here are several photos I took today.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Quirky Eielson building at University of Alaska, Fairbanks, has an art deco history all its own

The University of Alaska (established in 1915 as the Alaska College of Agriculture and School of Mines) sits on a ridge with a commanding view of the Tanana and Chena River flats. People have been using the site since prehistoric times to scout for game on the floodplain, and there are several archeological sites on campus. The ridge, adjacent to the FairbanksAgricultural Experiment Station, was a natural choice for the university.

The first generation of campus buildings were all wood-frame, and no major structures survive from that time period. The second generation of campus buildings were reinforced-concrete structures. The Eielson Memorial Building (with a modified Art Deco design) and the adjacent Signers’ Hall (originally the university gymnasium) date from the mid-1930s.

The Eielson Building has a fascinating history to go along with its design. The building is named after Colonel Carl Ben Eielson, Fairbanks schoolteacher and pioneering aviator. In 1924 Eielson received the first air mail contract in Alaska, delivering mail from Fairbanks to McGrath. He is perhaps better known for flying the first airplane across the Arctic Ocean in 1928. Eielson and his mechanic were killed in 1929 when their airplane crashed during a flight to rescue the passengers and crew of  a three-masted schooner, the Nanuk, trapped by sea-ice off the coast of Siberia. (The Nanuk survived the winter and was later sold to MGM studios. It was used in "Mutiny on the Bounty," "Treausre Island" and other movies.)

According to university records, sentiment in Alaska quickly turned to establishing a permanent memorial for Eielson. A committee representing the fraternal and civic organization in Fairbanks decided that a concrete building, the "Colonel Carl Ben Eielson Building of Aeronautical Engineering" should be constructed at the University of Alaska.

The building, as originally designed, would have been an impressive structure: two stories plus daylight basement, 54 feet wide by 84 feet long, with Jacobian (17th Century English) embellishments and octagonal towers at the southwestern and northwestern corners. Construction began in 1934 but the building committee quickly ran into problems raising funds and by 1935 only the first floor had been completed. The designers then modified their plans,  simplified the building. When it was completed in 1940 it emerged as an Art Deco-style structure.

It is still an impressive building (the same size as that called for in the original plans), and one of my favorites in the Fairbanks area. The corner towers were never completed, but if you look closely the first floors of the towers are visible. The northwestern tower base is partially hidden by Siberian Peas and other shrubs, but the southwestern base (sheltered by a large choke-cherry tree) is plainly visible from Salcha Street. I'm also captivated by the decorative metalwork on the fire-escape at the southern end of the building.

Looking at the original architectural drawing, it appears the southwestern tower may have been planned as a stairwell. Now, the tower base is a large corner nook (housing the manager's small
library) in the university's Office of Multicultural Affairs and Diversity.

All-in-all it’s a quirky building with a quirky history, but I love it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Sagging snow sculpture outside my door

It was a beautiful day today--clear and about 25 degrees F. above zero (shirt-sleeve weather). I've been wanting to take photos of the snow on top of our arbor gate, and this was a perfect opportunity. It is amazing how much the snow can distort in this weather.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Fairbanks history--going, going, gone? What's different about these photos?

I love back yards. They show so much about the true character of the house's residents.

Both of these photos show the back yard of the house at 303 Illinois Street, here is Fairbanks. The house was built in 1930 by the Fairbanks Exploration Company for one of its managers. Sitting in the back yard is a 1940s era Army bus.

I  took the photo on the top about 15 years ago. The one on the bottom was taken last week. The more recent photo is missing an important historic structure. Can you spot it? It's the Fairbanks coal bunkers that I posted about recently.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Museum at Central, Alaska shows early dog sled development

Old freight-type toboggan sled in the Central museum as it would have looked in 1900. Kennels in the background are similar in design to early kennels used around the Interior in locations such as the ranger patrol cabins at Denali.

The Circle District Historical Society Museum in Central, Alaska houses several lovely old dog sleds, including some that would be familiar to most Alaskans—“basket” sleds with runners. But one different type of sled, what could be described as a flat-sterned snow-canoe, caught my eye. About 11 feet long and only 18 inches wide, it has an upturned front end like a toboggan, is flat-bottomed, has form-fitted canvas sides, a canvas covering over its prow, and a backboard with back-sweeping handles. The drawing shows this freight-style toboggan as it would have looked at the beginning of the 1900s.

This is what Canadian fur traders called a “cariole,” developed from the traditional Indian toboggan for the needs of the “voyageurs,” and businesses like the Hudson’s Bay Company. Toboggans, used by Indians throughout the boreal forest stretching across the northern regions of North America, were ideally suited for winter travel through deep powder snow. At their simplest, they were long narrow pieces of birch bark with wooden cross-pieces, lashed together with babiche (lacings made from sinew or rawhide), much as Jack London described in “White Fang.” The prow of the toboggan was curved back (to deflect snow) and lashed into place. Light in weight—these sleds essentially floated on top of the snow, and were narrow so they would fit within the track of a man on snowshoes.

As the sleds developed, wooden planks replaced the birch bark. Birch and ash were commonly used—the prows steamed and bent into shape. Early fur traders took the basic toboggan and refined the design to meet their needs, adding a backboard and rawhide or canvas sides so the sled could carry additional cargo, and introducing dogs to pull the sleds. In the more “civilized” areas of Canada a covering was often added to the front half of the cariole so passengers could ride more comfortably.

The Hudson’s Bay Company carried this sled design across Canada and into Alaska, establishing a trading post in 1846 at Fort Yukon. Throughout Canada, local inhabitants adapted the cariole design to their own needs.

Thomas Swan, a musher in Two Rivers, Alaska, and local authority on toboggan-style sleds, says it was here in Alaska that the two basic types of dogsleds: toboggans and basket sleds, began to influence each other.

The Russian-American Company had established a trading post at Nulato (on the Lower Yukon River) in 1839.  Its employees pushed further up the Yukon River on seasonal trading trips, and were well-aware of the British presence at Fort Yukon. The Russians used Siberian-influenced basket sleds for winter excursions, so it was there on the middle Yukon that the two sled-building traditions met.

However, it wasn’t until after the popularization of mushing by arctic explorers such as Fridtjof Nansen and Robert Peary (who used Inuit-influenced basket sleds) and the North American gold rushes at the end of the 19th century that basket sleds began to overtake toboggan-type sleds in popularity.

Westerners pushing into Interior Alaska and the Klondike established regular winter trails frequented by freighters and mail carriers. On these packed trails, sleds with runners were faster and could haul more than flat-bottomed toboggans. Soon people began racing basket sleds.

Toboggans were still superior off established trails and in deep snow, so remained useful. Hudson Stuck (Episcopal Archdeacon for Alaska) mentioned in his book “Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled,” that in the early 1900s many Indians still used toboggans. Toboggan-style sleds have seen resurgence in popularity by subsistence users and recreationists since the 1960s, although the cariole design is all but lost.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Old Sled dogs never quit--they just keep pulling for you

I have heard some people say that huskies were born to pull. I don't know whether that is true for all huskies, but the ones I have known that were trained to the harness certainly bear that out.

We have some friends who skijor, and one summer we took care of their oldest dog, a gentle husky named Panda. Panda was about 12 or 13 years old--with grizzled muzzle, arthritic hips, and failing hearing and eyesight. She wobbled when she walked, looked tired most of the time and spent a lot of time just resting.

Once or twice a day we took her for a walk, and the moment we snapped the lead on to her harness her demeanor changed. A gleam would come to her tired old eyes and she started to pull. She always started a bit hesitantly, but the farther we walked the stronger she pulled. Soon those husky endorphins would kick in and Panda was loping along like a dog half her age. She was usually pooped when the walk was over, but you could tell that she was happy.

Panda is gone now but I still remember her fondly. She was a gallant old lady.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Wind-sculpted Snow--Natural Art/Found Art?

There is no art in nature. “Natural art” is only an image from nature that we call art, and it is the image—not the object—that is art.  

It was a nice sunny day, about +25 degrees Fahrenheit, and I was walking along the Chena River. There were these marvelous wind-sculpted snow formations, but until I looked at them, photographed them and manipulated the images, they did not exist as art. 

When viewed this way, much of what we call nature art, whether it be photography, painting, collage or sculpture, is perhaps a form of found art. We find the image and mentally or physically transform it into art.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Fairbanks coal bunkers were the last of their kind in Alaska

Coal bunkers as they looked in 1994

Fairbanks was never a coal-mining town, but coal did help Fairbanks recover from the lean times of the late 1910s and early 1920s. In 1910 about 11,000 people lived in the Fairbanks area (the city had 3,541 residents) but after the drift mines were played out, most miners moved on. By 1920 the city had shrunk to about 1,100 residents and most mining camps were virtually deserted.

The opening of the Alaska Agricultural College and Schoolof Mines in 1922 began to revive Fairbanks. However, John Boswell, in his book on the history of the Fairbanks Exploration Company (F. E. Co.), shows that the company’s gold dredges (which began operating  in the late 1920s) were what really returned prosperity to the area. And the F.E. Company’s operations would not have been possible without the completion of the Alaska Railroad in 1923, coupled with the nearby and readily accessible coal mines at Suntrana (present-day Healy area).

Coal provided power for the dredges, but also found a ready market elsewhere in Fairbanks. Nearby hills had been denuded of trees to provide timbers for mines, lumber for construction, and cordwood to fire boilers and heat buildings. People readily converted to coal since wood was becoming scarce.

In 1932 the Fairbanks coal bunkers (shown in the drawing) were built at 270 Illinois Street by the Healy River Coal Corporation.  Of heavy timber-frame construction, the bunkers were 54 feet tall and over 180 feet long.  Originally, a long inclined wooden railroad trestle led up to the bunkers and a locomotive would push loaded coal cars up the rails to dump their loads inside the top shed. Storage bins were located beneath the top floor and there were 13 chutes on either side of the structure for dispensing coal.

During the early 1960s the trestle was replaced by a steel conveyor system. With that system, coal was dumped into a pit about 70 feet from the bunkers, and the conveyor lifted the coal to the bunkers’ top level. There it was transferred to a horizontal conveyor and dropped into storage bins.

Oil gradually replaced coal as the fuel of choice for most individuals and businesses, and by the 1990s the bunkers were selling little coal. The owners of OK Lumber (their store was beside the bunkers) bought the structure in 1996, planning to dismantle it to expand their store operation. In December of that year the last load of coal was sold.

Hearing of the plans to dismantle the bunkers, the “Friends of the Coal Bunkers” organized in an effort to save the structure. Randy Griffin (one of the group’s organizers) told me that unfortunately, even with the support of many Fairbanks residents, the group was unable to secure a place to move the bunkers to, or the funds necessary to save even a small portion of it. Eventually, most of the timbers were salvaged and used for other construction projects. A small section of the bunkers was donated to the owners of Gold Dredge No. 8 and now sits on its side at the gold dredge parking lot in Fox. Other bit and pieces of the bunkers, like the ventilators that used to sit atop the roof, are lying in people’s back yards.

Bunkers also used to be located in Anchorage, Cordova, Nenana and Skagway, but those disappeared years ago. The Fairbanks coal bunkers were the last of their kind in Alaska.