Thursday, November 29, 2012

Found Art - Iron and Snow

I'm always on the look-out for the broken or forgotten implement, that by its juxtaposition in the natural world makes a statement to me.

I found this whatchamacallit next to the power plant downtown. I've passed it dozens of times, but today, with its covering of snow,  it called out to me.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

And now for something completely different - Boreal Dragons

Boreal Dragons are friendly, especially if you share your food with them
This is a drawing I made for my son when he was about six years old. I was going to do a whole series on reptiles of Alaska: Boreal Dragons, Stellar Sea Dragons, Bering Sea Serpents, Snow Snakes, etc.. Maybe someday I'll get back to it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Frozen thorns in failing light - November in Fairbanks

Went for a walk at noon today. This is Alaska, and although it was mid-day, the sun was just above the horizon. The slanting sun cast a warm glow over everything, including the prickly rose bushes i was walking past. I love the ice crystals on the thorns.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Drawing of Kolmakovskly Redount at University of Alaska

Several months ago I did a post on the reconstructed Kolmakovsky Redoubt (a structure from the Russian=Ameican era of Alaska history. I recently did a drawing of the blockhouse and revised and expanded the original post for a newspaper column. The drawing is above. The revised post is below.

Last year the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North put the finishing touches on a re-built Russian blockhouse near the woods behind the museum. The eight-sided blockhouse was built in 1841 by the Russian-American Company at its Kolmakovsky Redoubt (fort) on the Kuskokwim River Delta near Aniak, and is one of the oldest Russian-era structures in Alaska. 

The 17-foot diameter redoubt is constructed of squared timbers. According to a Museum of the North report, the fort’s builders determined how thick the redoubt’s walls had to be by firing a musket point-blank into a log. They measured the musket ball’s penetration and then doubled that, coming up with a wall thickness of about seven inches.

After Russia sold Alaska to the United States, the Kolmakovsky trading post was taken over by the Alaska Commercial Company, which acquired all of the Russian-American Company’s assets. The blockhouse was eventually donated to the University of Alaska, and in 1929, was taken apart and shipped to Fairbanks, where it sat in storage for over 50 years. In 1982 it was re-constructed behind the university museum, but even with preservation work done on it over the years, time and weather took their toll. 

A grant from the federal “Save America’s Treasures” program allowed the Museum of the North, beginning in 2010, to install a concrete pad for the blockhouse to rest on, replace some damaged logs, stabilize the walls, and replace the sod roof. Click here for photos of the reconstruction taken by University of the North staff.

It’s a fascinating structure made of spruce logs with interlocking dovetail notches. A defensive structure, it has no windows—only three small musket slots. The front door (the only door!) is small, probably deliberately so that anyone entering would have to stoop, making themselves easy targets. There is now a metal grate covering the doorway, but originally the redoubt had a wooden door. Imagine how dark the interior must have been with the only daylight being filtered through the gun slots on the sides and back of the redoubt. (As an aside, the Russians found the natives in the area friendly and the redoubt was never used for its intended purpose. Instead it was used, among other things, as a fish cache and later a gold rush era jail.

The sod roof is also interesting. According to an October 2, 2011 "Fairbanks Daily News-Miner" article, article, most Russian blockhouses had plank roofs, and the Kolmakovsky Redoubt is apparently the only one ever found with a sod roof. I thought it was ingenious how the exposed top edges of the roof timbers have been protected by birch bark strips.

Although the Kolmakovsky Redoubt is from the Kuskokwim River drainage, that doesn’t mean the Russian-American Company did not have a presence along the Yukon River. In 1837 the first Russian trading post in Interior Alaska was built at Ikogmiut (now called Russian Mission). Two years later the Russian explorer Malakov built a trading post at Nulato, near the confluence of the Yukon and Koyukuk Rivers.

Nulato was the Russian-American Company’s farthest inland permanent trading post, but Russians did come much closer to Fairbanks on a seasonal basis. At the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon Rivers, across the Yukon from the present city of Tanana, was a seasonal trading site called Nuklukayet. This was neutral ground where Yukon, Koyukuk, and Tanana River Athabascans would come in the spring to trade.

Beginning in 1861, Russian traders began attending these trade fairs. Again, after the Russian-American Company departed Alaska, the Alaska Commercial Company moved in, establishing a trading post in the area. Missionaries and the U.S. Army followed, and the town of Tanana was born.



“Alaska’s Past – Regional Perspectives: Interior Alaska, 1800-1869, The Russians and English meet,” Alaska Humanities Forum, 2012

“Historic Russian blockhouse nears the end of its restoration on the UAF campus,” Suzanna Caldwell, October 2, 2011, “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner”

“Kolmakovsky Redoubt Conservation Project,” Angela Linn, 2011, University of Alaska Museum of the North

“Russian Cultural Change/Stability in Russian America: Examining Kolmakovsky Redoubt, Part II,” Timothy Dilliplane, 2010, paper given at the 2010 International Conference on Russian America

“Trading Posts along the Yukon River,” Thomas Turck & Diane Turck, in “Arctic,” Volume 45, No. 1 (March 1992)

 “Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Customary Trade of Subsistence Harvested Salmon on the Yukon River,” Catherine Moncrieff, 2007, Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Drawing of raven tree along College Road

There is an ancient birch tree along College Road near the fairgrounds here in Fairbanks. The top of the tree long ago broke off, and the lowest branches are missing. (The lower branch in the foreground with the raven on it is now gone as well.)

However, the tree still survives, and the ravens seem to enjoy congregating there. Within reason, whatever ravens like I like as well. (I'm not too fond of rancid french fries or roadkill or pecking frozen McDonalds food wrappers off of frozen streets)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"Interior Sketches" guide to Interior Alaska historic sites - A Kickstarter project

For the past year, readers of my newspaper column (which appears in my blog as the pen and ink drawings and historical essays) have been urging me to publish a book. I have checked around with publishers, and the only way this will happen is if I self-publish. 

And the only way I can self-publish is with the financial backing of my readers—in essence selling my book by subscription. (This is actually an old idea. Before the modern publishing industry, many authors, including Mark Train, sold their books this way.)

Help me publish an artistic guide to historic sites in Interior Alaska. The book, entitled “Interior Sketches,” will be about 120 pages in length, with over 50 drawings of historic sites, plus maps and additional drawings of Alaskan scenes.

I have initiated a Kickstarter project to help fund the publishing costs. (For those of you not familiar with Kickstarter, it is an internet site for group funding of creative projects.)

Please check out my “Interior Sketches Kickstarter project. There are some neat rewards for pledges at $5.00 and above. Pledge if you can (minimum pledge is $1.00) and tell all your friends about it. The only way  my project will succeed is by spreading the word about it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Falcon Joslin House stands out as a Fairbanks icon

The Falcon Joslin House, 413 Cowles St., stands as testament to the determination of Falcon Joslin, the builder of the Tanana Valley Railroad and one of the earliest promoters of the Tanana Valley. It also marks the evolution of Fairbanks from a possibly temporary mining camp to a permanent community.

Falcon Joslin was born in Belleview, Tenn., in 1866, graduated from Vanderbilt University, and for a time practiced law in Seattle. When word of the Klondike gold strike reached Seattle, he joined the throngs of gold seekers headed north. In Dawson City, he organized the Dawson Electric and Power Co., and helped build the Coal Creek railroad — a narrow-gauge railroad from the coal deposits on Coal Creek to the Yukon River (The power plant in Dawson City ran on coal).

As mining activity in the Klondike wound down, Joslin joined the exodus of miners to the Tanana Valley. Recognizing the need for reliable transportation between mining camps and the riverboat docks along the Chena River, he built (with American and English backing) the Tanana Mines Railroad — later called the Tanana Valley Railroad (TVRR).

Shortly after moving to Fairbanks in 1904, Joslin commissioned construction of a two-and-a-half-story wood frame house — one of the first wood frame houses in Fairbanks, and probably the oldest wood frame house still at its original location. Construction began in 1904 and was completed in 1905.

He built the large house to entice his wife and children to live in Fairbanks. However, for most of the time that he resided here, Joslin’s family lived in Seattle and he rambled about the large house by himself.

Joslin’s home is an example of “square built” houses found throughout the Midwest during that time period. Square built houses, also called foursquare or prairie square houses, were typically built on a square or nearly square floor plan, were usually at least two stories tall, had pyramidal or hipped roofs, large porches, dormers, and simple ornamentation. The Joslin house, with its shiplap siding, fulfills all these requirements.

Anywhere in the Lower 48, it might have fit in unobtrusively. In Fairbanks in 1905, the Joslin house stood in startling contrast to the temporary tents and simple log cabins that made up most of Fairbanks. But it, along with other houses such as that of Judge James Wickersham (also built in 1904), reflected the settling down of the city.

The changing nature of Fairbanks did not bring peace to Falcon Joslin, however. The TVRR prospered as long as gold production remained high, but after 1909, as drift mines closed and the area’s population dwindled, the railroad suffered.

Joslin saw the potential for agricultural development in the Tanana Valley and he labored to expand the area’s economic base to make up for the declining mining activity. Unfortunately, his efforts did not save his railroad. The Fairbanks area’s improving road system and competing trucking businesses eventually led to the railroad’s demise. The Alaska Engineering Commission, which was building the Alaska Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks, acquired the TVRR in 1917. The year before that, Joslin sold his Fairbanks house and joined his family in Seattle. He died there in 1928.

The Fairbanks Exploration Co. bought the Joslin house in 1923 to use as employee housing and added the single-room hipped roof addition on the north side of the house. Except for that and a garage addition at the rear of the house, the home is still remarkably close to its original condition. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.


  • “Buildings of Alaska,” Alison Hoagland, 1993, Oxford University Press
  • “Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey,” Janet Matheson, 1985, City of Fairbanks
  • “Tanana Valley Railroad, the Gold Dust Line, Nicholas Deely, 1996, Denali Designs
  • “National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form,” Robert Betts, 1979, National  Park Service
  • Fairbanks North Star Borough Land Records

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

More old Fairbanks houses in the way of progress

 The two cabins shown in the photographs are located at the corner of Third Street and the Steese Expressway here in Fairbanks. The first cabin is nothing special--made with milled logs. The second cabin is is a lovely building however, erected in the 1940s and made from hand-hewn logs. There is a similarly constructed garage behind it.

 Both of the buildings have been acquired by the State of Alaska for a future project to widen Third Street. Which means that both cabins have to go. Hopefully someone will buy and move them. Yay, progress!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Patterns on my snowy deck

We got fresh snow yesterday. I like how the new snow hides the blemishes in my DIY project and unifies everything. Almost makes it artistic.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Black-capped Chickadee drawing - fun birds to watch

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadees  (Poecile atricapillus),  and Boreal Chickadees  (Poecile hudsonicus) are two of the few bird species  that call Fairbanks home during the winter (for that matter year-round).  It is amazing how they can stay active even on frigidly cold days. They are inquisitive, and seemingly unafraid of people. I love watching them.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

New tranportation routes bring life--and death--to Doyle's and other Alaska Roadhouses

The Richardson Highway, like many roads in Alaska, has been rerouted many times. Its predecessor, the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, experienced the same growing pains. Soon after the Valdez-Eagle Trail (the Trans-Alaska Military Road) was blazed (between 1899-1901), prospectors heading for the Tanana Valley pushed through a winter trail to Fairbanks that took off from the Military Road north of Gulkana. However, the first segment of the winter trail to the Tanana did not follow the Richardson’s present route.

The original route took off from the village of Gakona, two miles east of Gakona Junction at the confluence of the Gakona and Copper rivers. Ahtna Indians have lived in the Copper River valley for thousands of years, and there was a seasonal fish camp located here. (This later became a permanent village.) The trail to Fairbanks climbed along the Gakona River toward Isabell Pass, and then descended along the Delta and Tanana rivers.

A telegraph station on the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and TelegraphSystem (WAMCATS) was built at Gakona, and in 1902 Jim Doyle staked a homestead nearby. Doyle built a single-story sod-roofed roadhouse in 1904 to serve the miner’s and other travelers headed for Fairbanks. It was known as Doyle’s Roadhouse or Doyle’s Ranch.

According to “The Trail: The Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail,” the Valdez Transportation Company took over management of the roadhouse the next winter, changing the name to Gakona Roadhouse. The VTC expanded the building by adding a second story and attached lean-to.

The Gakona Roadhouse saw a bustling business in the early years of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, even hosting Judge James Wickersham in February 1905. Wickersham wrote in his book, “Old Yukon,” “We found a good roadhouse at the mouth of the Gakona River, a tributary of the Copper coming down from the great snowy range of mountains in the north towards which we were traveling and over which we had to make our way.”

Gakona’s prosperity was not to last, though. The early Valdez-Fairbanks Trail was a winter-only trail, and Interior Alaska residents quickly began demanding year-round access. The Alaska Road Commission completed an all-season wagon road to Fairbanks in 1910, but the new route took off toward Fairbanks from Gulkana, bypassing Gakona (and three other roadhouses north of the Gakona Roadhouse). The new segment (about 84 miles long) rejoined the existing trail near Summit Lake.

Travelers bound for Fairbanks had made up the bulk of the Gakona Roadhouse’s business. (The Klondike gold rush died down about the time the boom in Fairbanks began, so few travelers took the Valdez-Eagle trail all the way to Eagle.) Gakona roadhouse saw an almost immediate drop in business, and for a number of years it existed mainly as a trading post. The three roadhouses north of Gakona faded back into the wilderness.

Gold mining did bring the Gakona roadhouse back to life however. The ARC improved the road from Gakona Junction northeast to Slana in the 1920s to serve new gold mining activity at Nabesna. This brought sufficient business to the area to warrant a new, larger roadhouse being built in 1929. The new roadhouse is still in business as the Gakona Lodge.

Doyle’s Roadhouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, and the Gakona Historic District (including the present lodge, ice house, barn, and storage buildings) was added to the National Register in 2001.

The old roadhouse, located several hundred yards from the newer Gakona Lodge, is now empty and deteriorating. If you are interested in roadhouses, go see it quick before it too disappears. 

·         “Alaska’s Heritage, Chapter 4-10: Road Transportation,” Alaska Humanities Forum, 2012
·         “History of Gakona Lodge,” Greg Marshall, 2011, Gakona Lodge website
·         “Old Yukon: Tales, Trails and Trials,” James Wickersham, 1938,Washington Law Book Company
·         “Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway,” Walter Phillips, 1985, Alaska Historical Commission
·         “The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail,” Kenneth Marsh, 2008, Trapper Creek