Friday, February 22, 2013

Fox tracks in the snow

I followed fox tracks through the fresh snow for probably 45 minutes yesterday morning. The fox had obviously been hunting and its tracks crisscrossed the woods behind my house, weaving back and forth over about an acre of open birch and spruce. I could see where it occasionally stopped to dig for voles in the snow (those photos didn't turn out). I even found where the fox stopped to take a pee.

  The fox exhibited some interesting behavior (at least in my opinion). It never crossed the snow hollows at the base of spruce trees, always walking around--sometimes making almost a complete circuit. Perhaps it was checking the shallow space at the bottom of the hollows for voles. The fox also entered and exited this particular little clump of woods at the same spot. It is probably part of its routine.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Late winter walk in the woods - hips, berries, leaves and cones

We have fresh snow and I went tramping through the woods today. Here are a few of my discoveries.

 Left - Rose hips 

Right - Highbush cranberries

Left - Alder leaf snow container

Right - Alder cones

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

White Seal Dock a reminder of Fairbanks early waterfront

White Seal Dock as it looked in Fall 2012

 According to the book, “Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey,” few of Fairbanks’ early commercial buildings remain. Most were destroyed by the numerous fires and floods that plagued early Fairbanks. Others were torn down to make way for newer structures. One of the survivors is the building known as the White Seal Dock. It originally stood on the Chena River waterfront but is now at the corner of 9th Avenue and Cowles Street. (The address is actually 821 8th Avenue.)

During the steamboat era in Fairbanks (up until about 1920) there were numerous docks along the waterfront. The two largest were the Northern Commercial Company Dock (in front of what is now the Key Bank parking lot) and the Pioneer Dock (in front of the present day Bridgewater Hotel). One of the smaller docks, the White Seal, was next in line, between Wickersham and Cowles streets.

The drawing shows the White Seal Dock as it looks now, which in layout is similar to how it was during its waterfront years. However, in old photographs it appears that only 1/3 of the building (to the right in the drawing) was enclosed, and the rest of the structure just provided covered storage. Apparently, after it was moved, that part of the building was also enclosed.

“White Seal” references the steamboat White Seal (named after a character in Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book”). The ship was launched from Fairbanks in 1905 and was the first registered vessel built along the Tanana River.

At 97 feet long, the White Seal was less than half the size of some steamboats plying the Yukon and Tanana rivers. However, these smaller steamboats were essential in reaching the shallow headwaters of the major rivers, and serving side rivers such as the Kantishna.

E.T. Barnette was prevented from reaching his intended destination, Tanana Crossing, when the 140-foot Lavelle Young couldn’t get past the Tanana River’s Bates Rapids (just upstream from the mouth of the Chena River). However, smaller sternwheelers routinely steamed up the Tanana much farther in later years. If Barnette had been aboard a smaller vessel, who knows what the history of the Tanana Valley would be now.

The White Seal’s name appeared in newspaper articles and government reports until about 1912, when it was apparently sidelined. Ownership was transferred to the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad in 1915 and to the Alaska Railroad in 1925, but it seems the vessel never operated again.
The Fairbanks waterfront changed dramatically after steamboating ended. The docks disappeared, and most of the associated building were torn down or recycled. Sometime in the 1920s the White Seal Dock building was moved down Cowles Street by Fred Musjerd, who owned the Blue Crystal Well water hauling business. Fred’s well house was between Eighth and Ninth avenues on Cowles Street, and he moved the White Seal Dock there to use as a garage.

The book “Historic Fairbanks, an Illustrated History” relates a story about Musjerd told by Tom Hering. In the early years of Musjerd’s business he hauled water by horse-drawn wagon. Musjerd bought a truck in the 1920s, and quickly became known as the worst driver in Fairbanks. Fred talked to his truck the same way he talked to his horses, and supposedly ran the truck through the end of the garage once because it wouldn’t stop when he called out, “Whoa!”

The property’s current owners, Cheryl and Michael Egan, told me that after Musjerd sold the business, Sig Wold used the garage for his freighting business. It is still in relatively good condition and a rare example of early warehouse construction in Fairbanks.


  • Conversation with Cheryl and Michael Egan, current owners
  • “Fairbanks, a City Historic Survey,” Janet Matheson, 1985, City of Fairbanks
  • “H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest,” Edited by Gordon Newell, 1966, Superior Publishing
  • “Historic Fairbanks, an Illustrated History,” Dermot Cole, 2002, Historic Publishing Network
  • “Steamboats on the Chena,” Basil Heddricks & Susan Savage, 1988, Epicenter Press
  • “Yukon River Steamboats,” Stan Cohen, 1982, Pictorial Histories Publishing

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Immaculate Conception Church on a brilliantly sunny (but frigidly cold) February day

Today was a beautiful sunny day. Of course, the temperature when I woke up this morning was 30 degrees below zero--oh well. Here is a photo of Immaculate Conception Church from across the new Barnette Street bridge. I wasn't a big fan of the bridge project, but it has opened up some nice vistas from both sides of the river.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Log cabin post office is about the only building left along historic Valdez Creek

Valdez Creek post office in the 1990s

The small log cabin shown in the drawing, built by miner Leburn Wickersham in the early 1900s, is one of the last buildings at the old mining settlement of Denali, located on Valdez Creek about 60 miles east of Cantwell off the Denali Highway. It served as Denali’s post office until 1942.

Valdez Creek is a tributary of the Susitna River and tumbles down out of the Clearwater Mountains. At the end of the 19th century, this region was one of the few Alaskan areas still unexplored by Westerners, but in 1897 a group of prospectors from Cook Inlet finally reached the Susitna’s headwaters. 

Working their their way upriver, they panned numerous creeks-- finding little gold until reaching present day Valdez Creek.  By then their eyes were so swollen from mosquito bites that they named the swiftly flowing stream “Swollen Creek.”  Gold appeared to be relatively abundant but they lacked equipment for serious development, and low supplies forced them to return to Cook Inlet. Word of their discovery spread but it wasn’t until 1903 that their creek was “re-discovered.”

In February of 1903 a party of men led by prospector Peter Monahan (veteran of both the Klondike and Nome gold rushes) left Valdez, mushing north over the Valdez Glacier Trail to prospect in Copper River country. They spent six months working along the eastern edge of the Talkeetna Mountains and eventually shifted westward into the Susitna River drainage.

In August Monahan’s party struck paydirt on the same creek the 1897 prospectors had discovered. They staked and worked claims until September, returning to Valdez with several hundred ounces of gold. Monahan re-named the stream, “Valdez Creek,” in honor of his homebase.

When Monahan and partners returned the next year, hundreds of eager gold seekers trailed them. Soon the majority of creeks in the area were staked, and a haphazard little settlement sprang up. Valdez Creek is in a remote and mountainous area, and most of the miners weren’t interested in toughing out the long harsh winters. Few permanent structures were erected, and those were scattered across the hills.

At first the settlement was called “Galina,” the English equivalent of an Ahtna Indian word meaning “a place where game abounds.”  Athna Indians had lived in the area for generations and Valdez Creek was one of their main hunting areas--the site of a seasonal hunting village.

The settlement was later called McKinley and eventually Denali. By the summer of 1908 there were 180 residents, but only about 20 lived there year-round. Actually, two settlements developed: the white community on the west bank of Valdez Creek, and an Ahtna village about a mile east. Natives provided fish and game for the miners and even worked in the mines.

Denali’s heyday (at least in terms of population) only lasted a few years. The really rich paystreaks were hundreds of feet underground and most miners moved on after a few years. Large companies later developed those deep deposits, but most of the settlement’s old buildings were demolished in the process.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Gnarled trees with no leaves under snowy eaves

I was out walking today taking photos of old buildings. These trees up against an old garage caught my eye. The photos are of the same group of trees from three different angles.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Moose tracks in the fresh snow

Usually, all we get coming through the neighborhood in winter is cow moose with calves. This morning a young bull moose hopped over our highbush cranberry hedge into the front yard. He breezed through the 3' deep snow and was gone into the woods behind our house before I could snap a picture. The only signs of his passing were tracks in the fresh snow.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Top hats for my fence posts

After our recent snowfall, all the front yard fence posts were sporting new white top hats.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Interior Sketches” book project featured in Alaska Historical Society newsletter

The most recent issue of the Alaska Historical Society’s newsletter, “Alaska History Notes,” had a half-page announcement about my upcoming book, put in compliments of the local Tanana-Yukon Historical Society. The announcement features my drawing of  Manley's Northern Commercial Company store.

We finished a successful Kickstarter campaign in December to raise funds for a small first edition. I’m busy working on maps right now. Look for the book this summer.

Page 10 of most recent AHS nesletter, featuring my book project

Monday, February 4, 2013

Bingle Memorial Camp namesake was indefatigable worker

Bingle camp lodge as it looked in 2001

Bingle Memorial Camp is set on a picturesque 66 acre heavily-wooded parcel along the south shore of Harding Lake, about 47 miles southeast of Fairbanks. It exists in large part because of the vision of Bert Bingle, a Presbyterian minister who spent most of his career building churches and church camps throughout Alaska, and traveling thousands of miles to reach his parishioners. Bert was indefatigable, and my wife, who knew the Bingle family, says the only time he slowed down was to get other people to speed up.

Bert and his wife, Mable, came to Alaska in 1928 to serve the residents of Cordova, on the south side of Prince William Sound. Cordova, a small fishing town, was also the terminus of the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad that brought copper to tidewater from the Kennicott copper mine 200 miles inland at McCarthy. In addition to holding services in Cordova, Bert road the train north once a month to conduct services for the miners. (a foretaste of Bert’s later railroad ministry).

In 1935, when the Matanuska Colony (a New Deal resettlement project) was established, the Bingles transferred to Palmer and were there to greet the first settlers. Bert did his best to help the colonists feel less isolated and far from home, setting up a short-wave radio for visitors to listen too, and publishing Palmer’s first newspaper of sorts—mimeographed sheets printed in the Bingles’ cramped tent.

By 1941 the Bingles were on the move again, this time to a railroad and highway ministry along the Alaska Railroad and the Richardson, Glenn and Steese Highways. Based out of their home in College, Bert rode the rails to hold services at Nenana, Healy, McKinley National Park (now Denali National Park and Preserve), and Curry. Referring to his railroad ministry, he liked to tell people that his church was the longest in the world, “225 miles long and six feet wide.” He also drove to Ester and Chatanika for services, and several points along the Richardson and Glenn Highways.

When World War II broke out Bert began acting as an unofficial chaplain for personnel located at the Big Delta Army Airfield (now Fort Greely).  As construction began on the Alaska Highway, Bert also volunteered to serve the construction camps between Big Delta in Alaska, and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.

It was probably on one of Bert’s innumerable trips along the Richardson highway that he began toying with the idea of establishing a youth camp at Harding Lake.  He had already helped build a youth camp at Kings Lake in the Matanuska Valley, as well as six churches scattered across South Central and Interior Alaska. Building was in his blood.

Bingle Memorial Camp is located about seven miles off the Richardson Highway, almost directly across the lake from the Harding Lake State Recreation Area. When the Presbyterian Church (with Bert in the lead) established the camp in 1953, there wasn’t even road access.  Bert was instrumental in getting a road punched out to the camp, and for many years that was as far as the road went.

During the 1950s and 60s many of the camp’s building were constructed, including the main lodge and residential cabins. One of my wife’s older brothers helped build some of the cabins during one summer.

All of these older buildings are of log construction. The camp still maintains its rustic charm, including most of the buildings being unplumbed and heated by wood stoves. The only exceptions are the main lodge (where the kitchen and dining hall are), a modern (fully plumbed) retreat center, and a modern (also fully plumbed) showerhouse.

Several hundred feet above Harding Lake, the lodge has a commanding view. It’s a wonderful place to watch the world go by. I have spent many pleasant days there. One year in late Fall I was the only person in camp, chopping wood for an upcoming event. Long Vees of sandhill cranes, brilliantly lit by the afternoon sun, flew overhead while down on the lake a raucous gathering of about 100 swans waited for their departure time.

Bingle Memorial Camp is owned by the Presbyterian Church USA, and managed by an inter-denominational board of directors. When camp is not being held, the facilities are available for rent. For more information about the camp check out its website at <>.


  • “Alaskan Missions, My 28 years in the Yukon Presbytery,” Rev. Bert Bingle, no date, College, Alaska
  • “Chaplains have been serving Alaska service members for years,” Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Ted McGovern, 2012, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson website
  • “Footprints, Sketches of 100 Yukon Presbyterians,” no author, 1998, Presbytery of the Yukon
  • Conversation with Claude Klaver, retired Presbyterian minister and long-time associate of Bingle Camp
  • Conversation with Betsy Bonnell, retired Bureau of Land Management realty specialist and family friend of the Bingles.