Sunday, 30 September 2012

SCHOLARSHIP: Excursion Notice

Just to let you know I'm off on an excursion to the Arctic Circle today and so my blog of days 32 and 33 will be published together on Monday night.

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 31: Nearly Naked Fun Run, Ice Hockey and a Bonfire Party

Most of the day's main action was happening in the late afternoon/early evening so I had the morning free to move all my luggage from one side of the hostel to another room. I knew this was coming; basically, the room I've been staying in these last two weeks is going to be occupied in October by a new group. My new room is smaller, and I'm sharing with two other people, but they leave in a couple of weeks and I should have the room for myself.

Fairbanks is certainly getting colder; it's a very gradual but still noticeable change, and I'm finding that my three layers are keeping me warm. Having said that, whilst my efforts today were dedicated to making myself warmer, for some of the Fairbanks University community, it was a very different story. There was a 'Nearly Naked Fun Run' being held, where students could strip their unwanted clothing, give it to charity and run a mile around the university. I was very curious as to how many people would actually be brave enough to do this, and I have to admit, I was quite surprised as to how many students turned out. There must have been about 25 or so, and maybe slightly more men than women. Participants were left to decide how 'naked' they would become; some took it to extremes whilst the freezing temperatures got the better of others.

For the sporting community of Fairbanks, Ice Hockey was to become the 'Sport of the Day', and from 4:00pm, the Patty Centre showcased the best of what the university has to offer- which I thought was pretty good. The Fairbanks Ice Hockey team, the Alaska Nanooks, were to play at 7:00pm but their afternoon was spent in this gym; meeting the public and showing them some of their skills. The hockey sticks are made out of wood, and the round disc they play with is called a tuck. Young children were encouraged to shoot the tucks through holes, or play on the bouncy castle, whilst the parents (and I) were encouraged to buy a raffle ticket. The prize was $3000, but the tickets were $50, and I fought against any persuasion the gentleman on the desk gave me.

Outside the sports centre, was the most incredible sunset. What makes it so good though: the sun or the clouds? I stood thinking about it, for a while, before heading in to watch the ice hockey game.

I've never watched an ice hockey game before. I've been ice skating and that was quite an embarrassment. The Alaska Nannocks white team were playing against the blue team, and they certainly could ice skate.  Very well, indeed. The game, like football, was split into two halves; each 20 minutes long, with a small interval for those wishing to get free food. Not wishing to lose my great viewing spot, I stood by. The game moves incredibly quickly; the tuck zooms around everywhere, and the final result was 2-1 to the blues. (The white team managed to get one in the last minute, which seems to happen in every great game, no matter which sport you're watching!)

The ice hockey finished just after 8:30pm, by which time I left the building to greet -2 degree temperatures. The last item on the itenary was the bonfire party, on the Taku Parking Lot. All day, seven teams had the task to build the biggest bonfire, and at 10:00pm the fires would be lit. Although I was now conditioned to these very low temperatures, I found it very hard to keep warm without walking around. The long queue to the free burgers didn't help though, and by the time I got to the serving area, my bread bun was pretty much frozen. As the 10:00pm hour approached, fire engines, ambulances and police cars were getting prepared, and the crowds of people -and there were several hundred by this point- were lining up behind the safety tape. Once the fires were lit, ironically I went from being too cold to too hot. Convection is a wonderful thing! One by one, each bonfire was covered in petrol and set alight, and it must have been one of the best bonfires I've ever seen in my life.

Eventually, I arrived back at the hostel, and greeted a group who had just returned from a road trip to and from Anchorage. They showed me a fish they found, in whole, on a roadside, and invited me to try it. With onions and potatoes, seasoned in garlic and oils, this fish- a salmon they saw on the edge of a highway- was very tasty, even if it was 1:00am in the morning!

Saturday, 29 September 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 30: Bear Gallery, Fairbanks Musuem, and meeting Jessica Cox; the girl who can fly a plane without arms!

The great thing about Fairbanks, and probably most of Alaska, is that people know how to occupy their time in the long, cold and dark winters. Staying indoors can offer a multitude of possibilities. For students, it's the perfect excuse to read that extra book that's been collecting dust on the shelf all year. For interior painters and decorators, it's the perfect time to work on that wall that never quite looked right. For baking enthusiasts, it's the perfect opportunity to try out the dishes you've been dying to try.

For a majority of the Fairbanks community, it's the perfect time for art and crafts, and indeed I'm beginning to see a lot more advertisements for 'craft fairs' and 'showcase galleries'. The first item on my itenary today was to go to one of these galleries called the 'Bear Gallery', over in Pioneer Park. The park is experiencing a lot of construction work at present, as workers rush to get it all done before the snow arrives. I'm not sure what exactly they are doing; I had heard they were working on fixing a roof, but most of them were digging up the ground nearby, so I'm none the wiser.

There was a time that I thought the 'Bear Gallery' would hold a vast collection of paintings including a bear of some description, but the name of the room turned out to be unrelated to what was inside it. I was quite surprised as to the lack of art that was on display; the room might perhaps have been too large for the event, although the lady on the desk, Stephanie, told me that it was 'intake day' where people bring their works of art. It just so happened that the construction work taking place has had a negative impact on the gallery. Stephanie was a lovely lady, and was really helpful with regard to telling me about the winter curling championships that are taking place. She's even given me a phone number just in case I wanted to join the curling club! I'm not sure putting me on the team would be a tactical move!

My next stop off was the Fairbanks Community Musuem; I can't believe it's two weeks into my Fairbanks stay and I haven't visited it until today! It's actually bigger than you think, with quite a few rooms full of artefacts. The first room was dedicated to the theme: 'Winter in Fairbanks'. In it were lots of photos and old newspaper articles about historic winters in the city, and 101 things that one should do in the winter time, some of which are probably not appropiate or legal!

Down in the south, by Seward and Homer and even to some extent Girdwood, the 1964 earthquake was very much the centre of many of the musuems. That earthquake didn't have a large impact on the Fairbanks community, but the 1967 floods did. The Chena River was responsible for this event, which flooded most of the city quite extensively. Since 1981 though, the Chena has put in place a check dam-like those in San Francisco, which has protected the city from three other high discharge events.

One thing I did come across were two aerial photographs showing the urbanisation taken place. The top photo shows Fairbanks in the 1940s. I don't know how clear the photo has turned out, but if you look carefully, one can spot evidence of typical 1940s suburbinisation, and the 'ribbon developments' occuring. Ribbon Developments, basically, are where houses grow out of the town along main roads. Those studying the Burgess Model might also recognise other features in these two aerial photographs.

From the musuem, I made my way to the university to go to the 'event of the day'. Meeting Jessica Cox. Jessica is an inspiration. Born without arms, she has learnt to do all the mundane day to day tasks like opening soda cans and typing, with her feet. Amongst that, she has learnt to drive a car without in built modifications, scuba diving, skydiving, martial arts, and she is in the Guiness World Records for being the first person ever the fly a plane with her feet. Nowadays, she goes around the world giving motivational talks, and her one tonight was extremely motivational.

At the end, I got the opportunity to speak to her personally, and she even signed a poster for me, in her own 'unique' way.

Returning back to the hostel, I remembered that I had forgotten to stop by for dinner, but the lovely Sarah and Bill were on the case, sharing some of their moose and mushroom stew, and if that wasn't enough, they even offered me some of their real strawberry icecream. Given my limited cooking skills, I wouldn't say "no" to another night like this!

Friday, 28 September 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 29: Awkward meeting, Music at One, and the missing DVD

Indoor cultural pursuits are very much part of a traveller's winter itenary, and so it's no surprise to see more inside events on my schledule every week. Today was no exception, and for this reason, today would also mark the first day in my whole scholarship where I didn't even take one photograph. Believe me, my eyes were peeled as ever in attempt to find something beyond the mundane to comment on!

My day started very early; earlier than the usual anyway, but I was scheduled to have another permafrost meeting with yet two more permafrost experts at 9:00am: Yuri Shur and Mikhail Kanevskiy. Making pancakes at 7:30am, with one eye half open, was not the most enjoyable activity, but it had to be done, and I made my way out of the hostel, and proceeded to Yuri's office in 4 degree temperatures. By the time I had reached the office, as usual, I had warmed up considerably and the beanie hat and the overcoat weren't required.

Having been the chief sports journalist for my high school for many years, I am no stranger to awkward interviews, and I have to admit one occured with Yuri and Mikhail this morning. The chat started with me receiving a load of scientific papers to read and from then on, whatever question I asked, the answer would always be "read the papers; the answers will be in there." Quite possibly, and I will certainly read them. Yuri and Mikhail study permafrost features, such as ice wedges and thaw bulbs, and I was interested in how climate change would affect these features; it seems that these two professors give no regard to climate change whatsoever and Yuri made it quite clear he wasn't interested in predicting what might happen.

I walked out the meeting, carrying what seemed like a whole library on permafrost, and not a very full dictaphone. Having said that, I will transcribe the conversation and put it up with the others. I returned to the hostel, and started to read the mountain of papers that I had just been given; some of which made very interesting reading.

At 1:00pm, the university was holding the first in a series of weekly free music concerts. The great thing about these is you don't know what is on the programme. I arrived just before 1:00pm, in the Charles Davis Concert Hall; an audience was building and on the stage was a vibraphone and a mirimba, so I knew we were in for some tuned percussion to start off with. I was quite right, in fact, the first performance was an atonal performance on the vibraphone. From GCSE music, I guessed it was serialism, but it's been ages since I've studied it, and I could be wrong. The second performance on marimba was much more pleasing on the ear, and it reminded me of one of my favourite contemporary pieces ever: Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. (Simply wonderful!) Flute and Piano were next, followed by three operatic performances: two female sopranos and one male tenor. All in all, a very mixed performance; I look forward to hearing more as the weeks go on.

The last item on my itenary today was to see a film called 23 degrees, and it was being held in the visitor centre. From my understanding, it would document how some people in Alaska live simply, using basic sustainable resources. I got to the visitor centre, only to find out that they had actually lost the DVD! In return, they asked me what interested me, to which I replied "I'm a geographer" and he said he'd find something. Well, he most certainly found something geographical for me to watch, but unfortuately it was the 'Wrangell St Elias National Park' documentary I had watched the other day. Well, it might have been my second viewing, but it still captivated me, demonstrating the true power of a good documentary.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 28: Water water everywhere!

The title of today's post might suggest Fairbanks, like a lot of northern England, has flooded. Well, I can confirm that my toes are comfortably dry, and the title actually refers to a lecture I attended today, at the university. Oh yes, my morning was dedicated to the wonderful world of permafrost, which I'm really getting into now. (Not literally, of course!)

Larry Hinzman from the International Arctic Research Centre was presenting a lecture about Alaska's water, which truth be told, I wasn't supposed to be attending. Officially, this was a lecture for undergraduates/postgraduates and professors of hydrological processes, and I felt slightly awkward when the 'signing in' register reached me. Subtle moves on my part were required and I think I handled the situation pretty well!

The lecture was actually very useful and informative, providing me information not just on hydrological processes, but permafrost phenomena. According to a study, there is a forecast of higher intensified precipitation events for Alaska in the next 100 years and it's intense rain that causes what are known in the field as retrogressive thaw slumps (basically like a landslide.) So, what all that means is that Alaska should expect more 'landslide-like' events throughout the next century which could potentially pose threats to engineering, particularly roads, railways, and buildings.

The big mid-day event that everyone was talking about at the hostel was the 'Value Village' Half Price Sale. With time to spare, I headed down there. The shop looks like a charity shop, but only bigger. Books are not ordered alphabetically or by type, so 'History of Alaska' could be placed next to 'How to care for your cat'. There are electrical assessories scattered here and there, along with odd household items, but the clothing really does dominate the store. Some clothes at a pretty reasonable price. In need of a couple more pairs of socks, I hunted for the best value ($2.99 each is not bad) and so I made my purchase.

Incidentally, I apologise for the lack of photos so far, but as you can imagine today's itenary didn't offer many photo stops. Having said this, after my Dad asked me about the roofs of buildings here in Alaska on Skype last night, I decided to conduct a study on them on the way back from downtown to the hostel.

It seems that Alaska has adopted two roofing systems. In areas that expect high snow fall, the roofs have to be sloped at a considerable angle so the snow slides off. But here in Fairbanks, the city doesn't typically have astronomically high snow fall, and so roofs are either flat concrete, or angled very shallow. I've found this 'flat' system nearly everywhere so far on my travels around Alaska and it differs a lot to the UK.

As to the the actual materials, metal is most often used, especially on recently constructed housing. But for the older, smaller housing, it's a tar/gravel based roof with advanced sealants and adhesives. (I have been doing my research.) I was lucky to find the two together. Metal on the left; tar/gravel on the right.

So now you know! The final event on my itenary today was another lecture, but a completely different topic; not even permafrost related! Kellie Tilton, from Library Sciences, was going to give a talk on the art of researching, and as my whole career probably will involve some research of a varying degree, I thought I'd pop along. On the way to the Bunnel Building, where the presentation was going to take place, I saw a man holding three posters for the forthcoming Fairbanks Mayor Election. Three posters for three separate people, which I thought quite odd, but he was obviously demonstrating his neutrality!

Just outside the lecture theatre was a stack of free books and hundreds of free National Geographic Magazines. Well, I would like to add to my 500+ collection, but getting them home would prove quite difficult. But I'm currently investigating postage possibilities!

The lecture, to be perfectly honest, was very painful in places, as I didn't think it was suitable for the target audience. Too many "yays" and "woos" for me, and an over-use on the word "awesome". From doing public speaking for many years now, I know one of the most important things to consider is audience. Critical though I am, I was quite interested in the statistic that 42% of books in libraries are never took down from the shelf, except by librarians. That's just under half of the library. I left, taking advantage of free biscuits, and proceeded back to the hostel.  

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 27: All things bright and beautiful!

Diurnal changes in the weather are becoming very much the norm here in Fairbanks; after a cold start yesterday, I woke up to somewhat mild conditions today. It seems overnight I have made the local press; well, I'm featured in a photo that was taken yesterday on the 'Paint the Pipes' walking tour. I have cut it out, and will bring it home, but for now, settle with this! (I'm the one in the red coat.)

I spent the morning transcribing the conversation I had with Vladimir Romanovsky, yesterday. Listening back, I'm even more impressed by the professor's knowledge around the subject of permafrost and I'm very glad I met him. You can now read our conversation by clicking the link in the right hand column of this blog; geographers and people interested in permafrost or climate change should certainly give it a read.

By the time I had done that, and had what I suppose one would call brunch, the time had flown by. Eating my self-made pancakes, I got chatting to Sarah and Bill; two very experienced backpackers that have gone all over the world, and have seen some wonderful things. They remarked on their experiences with the Greyhound Coaches, saying that they are nothing to fear, although having said this, they did comment on the time that a drug squad came onto the bus. I have now heard two different opinions regarding the Greyhound transport, but when I do eventually travel down the US west coast, I will have to make my mind up for myself.

So, the day was zooming by, and I still hadn't got out. In glorious sunshine, I finally left the hostel (at about 2pm) and went straight to speak to Ronald Daanen, a professor in the Water and Environmental Research Centre. Being a geographer, you would have thought I would have had  no problems finding his office, but the task proved too challenging and I was walking around, down stairs, up stairs, in lifts and through corridors. Throughout my search, I stumbled upon a group of students having a small buffet. The whole set up was most strange; a couple of tables set up in the middle of a corridor. Thinking I was a student in the Electrical Engineering Department, they asked me if I wanted either a coffee or a fruit punch. Well, it's not everyday you get offered fruit punch, so I did take up the offer. I must admit to enjoying it a little too much, and kindly asked for a refill. It's not the first time, and certainly won't be the last time, that I am thought of as a University of Fairbanks student, and offered these 'student advantages'.

I did finally find Ronald Daanen's office. Ronald is providing me with a fieldwork opportunity in a couple of weeks time, in the Brook's Range. I'll tell you more about it in a few days, but I'm going to be going away for a weekend with a crew of hydrologists and taking slope-related measurements. It will be, I reckon, an experience of a lifetime. More on that, as I say, later on.

The rest of the day I decided to take fairly easy, and so I wandered down to the University Botanical Gardens. What a lovely place for tranquility. It's set in a valley, next to several fields. Tractor wheel marks suggest these fields are used for cultivation, although there's not much evidence of production here at the moment. Some of the gardens are lovely; there's not too much in the way of landscaping, although there are many walkways, timber bridges and an arch decorated with climbers, none of which I could identify myself.

There was obviously some bare soil, where annual flowers that had come to the end of their yearly life, had been dug up. Having said that, some perrenials were thriving; bees and wasps were present, even a butterfly.

As-well as the plants, the trees- especially the Maples- were in fine colour, and were attracting an array of different kinds of birds. Squirrels perched on branches, chomping away, and I even saw an English Oak.

I had heard these gardens hadn't received adequate funding, and so heavily rely on volunteers. Although I did see wheelbarrows being wheeled here and there, there was a lot of deadheading to be done. I spoke to a groundskeeper who stated that there was a strong army of very willing volunteers helping with the day to day tasks, but I have to admit to having reservations.

Can you spot the squirrel?

The journey back to the hostel was a lovely one, in the low afternoon sun. I even treated myself to a pizza; the 'Neopolitan' which despite being one of the cheapest, was actually very nice indeed.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 26: World Permafrost Expert meeting, Downtown Pipe Tour, and Segwaying!

Yesterday, I commented on the inevitable arrival of winter soon, and today I think I can announce it's arrived in Fairbanks. I walked out the hostel to confront the 40 degree F temperatures; that's about 4 degrees C and by far the coldest since I arrived in Alaska. The drop in temperature has been almost instant, and took me by surprise; so much so that I had to return to put another layer on. It's remained around freezing point all day, although most of us here in the hostel agree that the bright blue skies and the sunshine made it bearable.

For a day that I didn't expect to be extremely busy, it actually has been one of the most interesting. My first item on the itinerary was to have a meeting with Dr Vladimir Romanovsky; a world expert on all things permafrost. If you want to study cold environments, he is your man, by far, though he's very modest. The Doctor and Professor of Geophysics has been studying permafrost for at least 30 years, so this for me was always going to be a fascinating meeting. He didn't let me down; like I expected, he was extremely knowledgeable about his field, and we discussed a great deal. I will upload a full transcript of the conversation tomorrow, for those interested in exactly what we talked about. I will just say that he has offered me a chance to do some field work later on in the week, specifically measuring surface temperature at many different sites around the area.

His office is just one of the many offices in the Geophysical Institute at the university. Finding him on the fourth floor meant I had a good chance to look around at the previous three floors, and what a place! It's a geographer's heaven with labs on every branch of the subject that you could imagine.

I walked back to the hostel, very much in need of a hot drink! It seems I've become accustomed to Lipton Tea and Ovaltine; two drinks I never used to have in England. My arrival back at Billie's was in time to see a few of the hostelers varnishing the fence. Kirk asked me to take photo evidence of him hard at work; the job, to me, didn't look that taxing but in the current temperatures, I wouldn't like to have been him!

The rest of the day was devoted to going downtown, to what would be the final downtown market. Unlike last Monday, it was heaving with certainly more stalls and consequently more of the public. I went around several of them, firstly- and not surprisingly- the free food stall, where small samples were being prepared. I spoke to 'Chef Tim', a title he was proud to be wearing on his hat, and he works nearby at the Westgate Hotel. I tried his tarte; greek yogurt and honey and although crumby, very nice! Adjacent to his stall was Tundra Walker Studios; a stall just stacked with different types of honey. I particularly liked some of the containers!

As it happens, I got speaking to a gentleman at another honey stall, and asked him whether he preferred honey or maple syrup on his pancakes. To my surprise, he said maple syrup; ironic, as he wasn't selling any maple syrup on his stall. Having said that, he would certainly go for Buckwheat honey on anything; it has a deep brown colour and a strong taste. Over on the other side of the market place, in the Golden Plaza, was a photo opportunity. The moose is a mascot for Fairbanks First; a non profit organisation that aims at strengthening the local community. Non profit maybe, but their T-Shirts were slightly high on the price side!

I didn't just go downtown to see the market, but to go on the free 'Paint the Pipes' Tour. As I've been commenting most of the last two weeks, Fairbanks city is heated using an underground pipe system, that releases the heat through about 20 pipes. Most of these pipes are about twice my height, and it's extremely hard to walk through downtown without seeing one. That is especially the case now as the 'Downtown Fairbanks Association' created a project called Mission Fairbanks (I know, original isn't it) and it was a project that would allow a team of about 13 local artists to paint a pipe each. Like my scholarship, being selected to paint pipe, was a very prestigious opportunity. Today, all 13 pipes were unveiled in a special tour.

Each pipe's design is so very different and it was great to see some of the artists there, beside their creation, talking about their inspirations. To choose a favourite is tricky, but I particularly liked Dan Kennedy's pipe design, (pictured), no not because of his name, but because his pipe was very geographically themed. From a distance, the pipe looks abstract; it's only when you get closer, that you can start to pick out the smallest of details. A Dipper perches on a boulder, next to a torrent of water; eagles fly overhead and a moose observes a brown bear attempting to catch salmon. If Alaska had to be depicted on a pipe, I reckon this would be it!

The tour finished upon the beginning of an amazing sunset, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time (for once!) Big Ben came to mind...

Talking of being in the right place, at the right time, I noticed that Segway City Tours were being offered for FREE as part of the Paint the Pipes exhibition. Normally these would cost quite a bit, so I had really been quite lucky. I can't describe Segwaying that well, but do google it if you're not sure. I haven't 'segwayed' since I was with friends in Thetford Forest, but I obviously hadn't forgotten the techniques, and I was away in no time. I must say segwaying in the forest is different to segwaying in the city; you certainly go a lot faster on pavements and you do have the added hazard of walkers, cyclists and automobiles to think about! My group did have a couple of stops when people fell off, but I'm happy to say I stayed upright all way round! It was a fantastic end to what had actually been a great day!

Monday, 24 September 2012

DANIEL'S WEEKLY VIDEO DIARIES: Fairbanks, Alaska on 24/9/2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 25: The Reindeer and the Tipi

Sometimes, you just know that winter is fast approaching. Maybe it's the first frost, or your first Robin sighting. For some, it's digging that old woolen scarf from under the bed, and for others, it's having to use your car lights on the way to work.

Today, I didn't wake up to a frost, and I didn't see a Robin. I haven't got a scarf and I wasn't on the way to work, but nevertheless, I just got that feeling that the final season of 2012 was making it's visit to Alaska very soon. Even some of the university trees are prepared for colder weather!

For about a year, a Sunday would mean a few hours of waitering at my local village restaurant, which wasn't always the most relaxing way to end the week, so it's been nice within the last few weeks to lie in on a Sunday, and take it easy. Today, I decided to dedicate the morning to the admin work that's been piling up recently; emails to reply to, next week to plan, permafrost papers to read, so I wasn't surprised that I only made it out the hostel at about midday. I had anticipated to use the hostel bike today, and venture further out into suburban Fairbanks, but with the bike already loaned, it was another day of walking for me. Not that I was disappointed; walking the trails has really been rewarding over the last week, especially because of the wonderful golden leaves that have been slowly but surely floating down to the ground.

My sense that winter was fast approaching really started when I got onto the first forested trail. All of the golden leaves destined to fall, have fallen, leaving the forest understory quite bare. The montonous lack of autumn leaves sometimes gets punctuated by an evergreen spruce or fir, but apart from that, the landscape is one of the native Betula papyrifera (Paper Birch), that as shown below, is currently flaking its thin exterior layer.

Berries are now becoming quite frequently seen on these forest trails. I can't identify them all, but the range of different shapes and sizes of berries has really been quite vast. Most of these berries provide food for the Red Squirrel and many birds, and it seems humans too, as I passed a lady today with a large bowl of red coloured berries. Last night, I had a blueberry muffin, but I doubt they were handpicked from Fairbanks, athough having said that, North America is famous for growing them, so you never know!

I had planned a walk that would take me through the forest to begin with, up to Miller Hill, offering fine views of the city, and back around the western range of the university campus; a walk, I felt whilst planning it last night, would take me through a variety of different landscapes. This was certainly the case, and in fact, even different segments of the forest were quite contrasting. Furthemore, I started the walk through mostly unmanaged forest; fallen timber had not been cleared, and the forest floor was a disorganised mess (but then why should nature be organised?) The second half of the forested trail on my walk, further North, was noticeably more governed. Trails were wider, allowing for possibly more extravagant sports such as skiing and cycling, and it was obvious that trees had been pruned, forming this ladder-like feature on many trunks.

I exited the forest and a short little road-walk brought me to the 'Northern Lights Memorial Park' which reminded me a bit like the city cemetry I saw in Anchorage. What separates these from the graveyards I see all the time in England (Norfolk especially) is the absence of tall lichen-covered tombstones. Here, potted flowers seemed like the tallest object at each burial site, and the more poignant memorials such as the WW2 memorial used more smooth stone that looked like it was regularly cleaned. Indeed, I did spot two people also surveying the courtyard, and I wasn't surprised; it's a tranquil location.

The Northern Lights Memorial Park is located at the crest of Miller Hill; by any means, it isn't the highest point in Fairbanks (I'm yet to do Ester Dome.) From the top though, I got a lovely view of the lower elevations including the boreal forest I had walked through at the beginning of the walk. Not only that, but I could also make out the Denali Mountain Range in the distance, and all of this before yet another dramatic skyline.

As I made my way down the hill, I passed what looked like the other side of Smith Lake that I had visited a couple of days ago. Today's viewing of it didn't seem as picturesque as my first, perhaps because of the clouds or perhaps because from this angle, you don't get the mountain ranges behind the trees. My walk continued, passing several smaller lakes in fact, and there were many opportunities for me to enter the forest and continue onto another trail. Forested-out though for one day, I decided to continue along the road, and gladly so, as I eventually approached a relatively large farm of Reindeer. This farm contains, I would say, 10 or so Reindeer, and about three to every pen. They all seemed to be the same size, but there was some colouration differences; some brown and some more white. I'm reliably informed that Reindeer from the north are more white than those from the south.

The Reindeer visit was a great way to end the walk, and I made my way back to the hostel. If you've been an avid reader of 'Geography with Dan' over the last week or so, you would know that a fellow Hosteller, Joe, has been constructing a tipi. Don't ask me why! Well, I can now reveal that it is complete, although he hasn't got an entrance at the moment. As I said in the beginning of this post, winter is fast approaching, but it seems- for some hostellers, anyway- that minus 40 degree temperatures are no obstacle!

Sunday, 23 September 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 24: RecFest, Market and Invisible Dogs! (Read on!)

An early start was called for today, as I wanted to watch the 5km RecFest Off-Road Cycle Race this morning, and like the Equinox Marathon last Saturday, it started quite early, at 9:00am. That may not sound that early, but consider I had to allow 40 minutes to get there, and a further 20 minutes to get ready, and the fact I didn't get into bed until past 1:00am last night! Why do sporting events happen so early? Anyway, the RecFest Cycle Race is organised in conjunction with the university, although it seemed that community members of Fairbanks could take part if they wanted. The walk through the elevated campus grounds gave me views of a lovely sunrise. Throughout most of the day, altostratus opacus dominated, always with a high pressure front moving in.

I was surprised that there weren't as many competitors as I thought might have turned out, but maybe they're still recovering from last week's equinox marathon! Nevertheless, some didn't miss the opportunity to dress to impress. One man, for instance, dressed up like a bunny; each to their own, as they say!

The race started promptly and off they went, through the forests on the North Campus, using some of the trails I walked on yesterday, towards Ballaine Lake, and back through the campus towards the finish line, outside the Student Recreation Centre which is under a considerable amount of construction work at present. By the time I managed to walk from the start to the finish line, some of the fastest cyclists had biked 5.6km, and were approaching the finish tape practically as I was. The fastest, a guy called Ben, managed it in about 27 minutes. Here he is, and like Eric Strabel who won the Equinox Marathon last week, Ben was not out of breath at all! In fact, I think I was huffing and puffing more than he was!

So, the fastest came in with Ben at about 27 minutes, and the slower cyclists approached the finish at about 40 minutes. Not a considerable range at all, when you compare it to last week's marathon. Talking of marathons, unbeknown to me, there was another sporting event occuring today, also taking full advantage of the university campus. This was a running event, with a subtle Indian theme. I got the feeling that this event attracted more women than men, and I suppose the contrary can be said about the cycling race. At the finish line, there was a music tent and several people were making Indian rhythms, although it's fair to say, this seemed like the only Indian thing about the whole event!

Aware that I had been up for at least two hours without food, I made my way to Sam's Sourdough Cafe, fully expecting there to be a queue. Indeed, there was, but it wasn't as tedious as last week's, and I found an available table soon enough. The next event schleduled was to see the Dog Pulling. Dogs pulling weights isn't something that would usually interest me, but this was suggested to be quite entertaining by Sarah, a fellow hosteller, and so I made an effort to go and see it. Apparently, it was taking place on the retail park on the edge of the city, near Walmart and Bentley Mall. Air temperature was only rising, so for the first time ever, I left without my outer coat and hat. A big mistake that turned out to be! Not only couldn't I find the dog pulling, and no-one I asked had the faintest idea of what I was talking about, but it started to rain. I should have realised that alto-stratus can form nimbo-stratus relatively quickly and without warning! I wasn't in the best of moods, now having spent at least an hour walking around a retail park, but I was quick to hop onto the next bus, and get back to the hostel.

I arrived back at the hostel just as Kirk, Chris and Miranda (fellow hostellers and university students) were leaving for the Tanana Valley Farming Market, and demotivated from the failure to see the dog pulling, I joined them. The Tanana Valley Market, like a lot of weekly events, is on its last weekend now, before weather conditions prove too adverse for hardy market traders. From weaving in and out different stalls, it soon became apparent that some stalls I had actually seen on Monday's Downtown Market! Food stalls dominated the exterior section of this event, and fruit and vegetables stalls especially were popular! We approached one and on display was a large 11 and a half pound Kohlrabi. I've never seen this before, I don't recall, but apparently it's popular in salads and in sautes, and you can also put it in cheese based sauces too! Chris suggested I put my hand next to it to demonstrate the size!

Inside the wooden farmhouse were more stalls, this time more dominated with craft items. Nothing that I fancied though, although Chris quite liked this large wooden soup bowl, but at $150, I reckon he'll make do with the cermamic one for the time being. We all eventually parted; Miranda and Kirk going to Fred Meyers (a supermarket) and Chris back to the hostel, whilst I hopped on the bus to go downtown. Today would be my last opportunity to see a particular documentary, that I saw scheduled in the local newspaper, about the Wrangell St Elias National Park. It's Northern America's biggest national park; it has glaciers as long as Rhode Island, it's 6x bigger than Yellowstone, and includes some fascinating geology. The documentary was especially good because the narrator made it very personal, referring to childhood memories of walking with his late Father through it, and acknowledging that walking through it now enabled him to rediscover him. Set along with a lovely music score, the whole experience was very well worth seeing.

I am aware of the amount of 'sky' images I'm posting, but my trip through Alaska has really been fascinating, especially when it comes to different cloud types. I slowly walked back to the hostel, being observed by these pockets! I don't think it is mammatus, but if there are cloud experts out there who can confirm it, then please do!

Saturday, 22 September 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 23: Forests, Moose and quite literally All That Jazz!

From my bed, I can see out of the hostel window, and can to a reasonable degree judge the weather, which usually determines whether I get jump out of the covers into my clothes, or whether I have "five more minutes" (which usually means 15!) Today, the sun was beaming through the windows and through the glass panes in the door, and so I was up and ready for action. The walk down to breakfast was a warm one, and I was in a positive mood. The good mood was only augmented by a lovely hot chocolate and a stack of pancakes.

I left the cafe, and the day was still young, so I decided to take full advantage of the sunshine and get some hiking under my belt. Equipped with a forest trail map, I mapped out a route, and got underway. The Boreal forest is a lovely place to be, I reckon, at any time of the year, but today it was particularly special; once again, the forest floor was carpeted with crisp golden leaves, birds tweeted their tunes, squirrels knawed on nuts, bars of sunlight were streaming through the gaps between the Birch trees, lighting the way and making every angle worth a photo.

My walk was not guided with an information sheet, so I was left to spot the geographical phenomena myself; some of which was very interesting. I came across evidence of ground subsidance; tree trunks slanting at about a 45 degree angle clearly suggests subsidance from permafrost thaw, and sinkholes were scattered around too. A steep incline at one point actually revealed a soil profile (well, the overlying humus and A horizon which was composed of loess silty deposits, deposited after the last ice age by aeolian processes.)

I reached the first lake of the walk; the Ballaine Lake, that over the winter freezes and allows for a daring ski crossing. Observing the surface, and it's quite clear this lake is bubbling with Methane, very much in the same way that Katey Walker Anthony was talking about in her lecture a couple of nights ago. Methane is released from permafrost out of lake (via bubbles) and into the atmosphere.

The route I wanted to take was closed off, for a process called 'grooming'; this involves laying artificial bark and matting down to aid skiing, in preparation for the winter. I quickly re-routed and decided to take a trail that was, on my map, called 'Narrow Winter Walking Trail' but I reckon even a contortionist would have had difficulties. You see, I didn't actually expect it to be that narrow, and in some parts I wondered whether it was a trail at all. The forest was less dense though and the ground had changed from a dense humus mulch to a saturated bog. Moss of all sorts of of colours (Sphagnum was vibrant) and there were many others that I couldn't identify. I have to say dodging the puddles along some parts was quite difficult, but my trusty shoes were keeping my feet nice and dry! The day of shoe-shopping was well worth it!

It was at this point that the heat overwhelmed me, and I had to take not only my outer-core rain coat, but also my mid layer off- yes, it was that hot! A funny sounding chirping sound was coming from the trees and my short little stop revealed another squirrel; they really do seem to be in their numbers around these parts and that's great to see, as in other parts of Alaska, squirrels are commonly hunted by bears. My route soon opened out onto Smith Lake; another lake that is often monitored by the ecological and hydrological departments of the university. For me, I was just monitoring the views, and what views this little opening provided. Here you could see Dragonflies and Bulrushes and a whole variety of different grasses were evident on the periphery.

My experience was slightly tarnished when I realised I was missing my hat, and figured I must have dropped it on the way. So far, I have been able to keep hold of ALL of my equipment, and I didn't want this to ruin my record. From re-tracing my steps, I eventually found it; alone amongst the leafy foliage on the forest floor. I continued on with my self-designed trail, and reached a clearing known as the T Field. It homes several aerials, most probably managed by remote at the university, and six acres of it has been recently cordened off for new tree growth. I was making my way very happily around the field, when suddenly in the distance, I spotted a moose. From where I was standing, it looked as big as a pinhead, but I guess it was about the same height as the one I saw in Anchorage. It disappeared into the trees, and I decided to turn around and make a long trek back to the hostel.

To end what had been a beautiful day hiking through the forest, I treated myself to an evening out, to see the US Army Band perform at the university concert hall. They were magnificant, and I couldn't believe the event was free! The US Army Band tours both nationally and internationally every year, and this concert would mark the end of their spell here in Alaska. A strong audience turned out, with a vast age range; some community members, some students, some former army personnel had even joined the crowd. I even recognised a few of the tunes they played: 'Lament', 'April in Paris', 'Alfie' were among my favourites. It would mark the first music performance I have been to, since I arrived here in Alaska, and I hope for many more to come! 

Friday, 21 September 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 22: Permafrost meeting with Budding Biologist and Passionate Pedologist- Professor David McGuire

Today would mark the start of a series of meetings I have scheduled with many different professors at the University of Fairbanks, regarding permafrost. The day's format, therefore, was very different to the last couple of weeks where cultural exploration has been the theme.

Even if I hadn't had the meeting, I suspect I wouldn't have done much in the way of exploration anyway; today's weather mirrored yesterdays in being wet, cloudy and whilst it wasn't necessarily cold (because nimbo-stratus clouds are good insulators) the day was very gloomy and traffic had their lights on nearly the whole day.

Over the course of the morning, a lot of the hostellers have left, and continued on with their travels, but their beds haven't been empty for long, as we've just had a wave of people asking for a night's stay within the last hour or so. Billie's hostel really doesn't reflect the norm, in that usually at this time of the year, tourists find the climate inhospitable, but Billie's keeps welcoming newcomers in.

Perhaps this post is the best one to address the 'shaver plug problem'. Over the last couple of weeks, I have noticed that american bathrooms have a typical US socket, which my UK shaver charging two pin plug doesn't fit into. I went into 'RadioShack' (an electrical shop nearby) and asked them for an adaptor, to which the reply from the young shopkeeper was one of uncertainty, rather than solution. No-one has any ideas at the hostel, so this morning, I found the necessary adaptor on Amazon. It should be here by the 28th September, but you never know do you?

My breakfast experience at Sam's Sourdough Cafe keeps getting better, maybe because they know I mention them in my blog everyday! Today, the pancakes were the thickest I've had, and lots of maple syrup was called for. On a wet morning like it was this morning, it seems pancakes will only do!

Onto the permafrost then, and my first meeting discussing the issue was with Professor David McGuire, who studies and teaches ecology at the University of Fairbanks. Below is a photo of the Irving building, where the biological sciences are mainly taught, although it is having extensive revampment work at the present, along to the east of the block. He has had 30 years working with the cryosphere (cold environments) and typically has focused on pedology (soil science), as well as different ecosystems that live in this environment. I have to admit, once again, I learnt quite a lot, and was very grateful for the detail he went into, although I feel some of it might be post-graduate standard! I won't mention everything we discussed here, as it isn't appropiate, but I will write up notes from the meeting and make a separate posting on this blog. (If you're into that kind of thing.) His overall feeling, however, on managing permafrost is that we can only reduce the rate of permafrost thaw rather than prevent it completely. He is also surprised as to the slow progress of climate change work since Kyoto. I can see where he is coming from; there maybe are natonal efforts that are being successful, but as an Alaskan photographer told me the other day, it's the small things that matter; localised efforts in dealing with climate change will go a long way to contributing to a national success.

I have, in the meantime, bought and started reading a book called The Melting Edge: Alaska at the Frontier of Climate Change by Michael Collier. It features quite a lengthy section on permafrost, and names crop up like Tom Osterkemp and Vladimir Romanovsky- both of whom I'm meeting with this month. I was really pleasantly surprised to see Katey Walker Anthony on a two page spread, about the issues she was dealing with yesterday, in the lecture.

At last, I can report success in the pancake making! Last week I failed miserably, but tonight I had a go, and finally made three successful pancakes. You must think that I don't eat anything else! I'm not quite up to the cafe standard yet, but I'm getting there!

Thursday, 20 September 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 21: Aurora Explained and Methane bubbling in lakes

"Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get." Mark Twain

Fairbanks expects a dry climate, and since I arrived here exactly a week ago, I have been blessed with some very dry days. Today, the Fairbanks' population woke up to the pitter patter of raindrops. I thought perhaps after my morning shower, (pun intended!!) it would clear up, but my theory was wrong, and so I dressed for what would be an annoyingly consistently wet day. Despite the weather, I still made my trip down to the cafe and had what I thought were the best stack of pancakes since I arrived last Wednesday.

Billie's Hostel lies on the northern part of Westwood Way, and since I flew into Fairbanks, I haven't found the opportunity to explore the southern stretch. Trying to make the best out of the miserable day, I thought I would investigate. The road extends for a reasonable distance, with wooden huts-some two storey wooden apartments- and a school occupies the final portion of Westwood Way, opposite a photography shop. From there there is a woodland trail, and with time to spare, I went down it. The small woodland was clearly once part of the Boreal Forest that covered most of Fairbanks; you could tell just by looking at the vegetation. There they were, the typical spruce, the typical white birch, the typical fir. I must admit, the trail wasn't managed as the one I had walked yesterday; it was much narrower and occasionally, I had to duck under branches. Once again, tree roots uprooted through the humus, and the reason is most certainly attributed to permafrost.

At the end of the trail, was what locals call a slough. Hydrologists call these pond-like features 'sloughs'. They're alkaline, and support a variety of flora and fauna, although grasses were the only species living here. This slough's water volume is controlled by the local Chena river. When the Chena is full, some water overspills into areas such as this. Last night's (and today's) wet weather clearly affected the Chena's volume and turned this -what was, yesterday, a dry habitat- into a fully functional slough.

I headed into downtown in the early afternoon, and took full advantage of the 'Free Visitor Centre Documentaries'.  What better way to get dry, than to learn while you're doing it?! The film I watched was called 'Aurora Explained', and basically enlightened me about the science of what I saw a couple of night's ago. Whilst the information was very good, it was an old video made in 1992, and camera footage of the aurora wasn't as clear as some I've seen (particularly that film I watched a few weeks ago, in Anchorage.) The calming music that accompanied footage of the aurora sent one man to sleep at the back of the theatre and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a state trooper come in and send him out. I was then very careful not to fall asleep myself, as you can imagine!

Billie's hostel, by the way, offers complimentary hot chocolate but it's all gone, and I hate to admit, largely because of my over indulgence these days! My quest for some more in Fairbanks, you would have thought, would have been easy. The CBD typically has these convenience stores at the end of streets; scattered here and there for the public and the visiting tourists. But not Fairbank's, and I returned to the hostel without the mix. Having said that, Chris -a friendly hosteller and medical school student- has bought some tonight, and we now have a supply. It might just last for the rest of this week!

My unsuccessful search for hot chocolate wasn't all that much of a fail. I didn't have the packet to take back to the hostel, but I did treat myself to a 'grande'. Believe me, it was quite large, but well worth the couple of dollars I put towards it.

I was quite looking forward to the late afternoon, today. A lecture - in fact, my first lecture - on permafrost. Specifically, it was about methane trapped by permafrost. Basically, and trust me this is a very simplified version, methane gas is trapped in taliks (unfrozen zone of the permafrost) and when they come into contact with water, in lakes for example, they form gas hydrates, which are then released into the atmosphere through bubbles. (For 'Permafrost-specialists' who might be reading this, I have left out the complicated terminology.) Dr Katey Walker Anthony gave a very informative talk about it, and I must admit, I have learned an awful much! She was asking for willing volunteers to go out 'in the field' as it were to study this face up, and my name is on the list! You never know!

I must just close this post with a little News Flash, on one of the hosteller's latest projects. Joe is building a tipi outside in the garden, and he hopes to move in, on Sunday. I must say I have trepidations about how he is going to survive the winter in it, but he assures us that it is going to work out brilliantly. Here it is, with work very much in progress!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


It's been, for many years, my dream to see the Aurora Borelais (the Northern Lights,) and finally last night, that dream became a reality.

Yesterday's long and eventful day really required a good night's sleep, but a fellow hosteller, Joe, was offering to take quite a few of us staying at Billie's Hostel, to the Aurora Mountain. It's a sight famous for great views of the aurora, although the 'aurora web-forecast' reported a quiet night; in other words, there wouldn't be much activity worth going to see. Despite the forecast, the offer of a free-trip to the aurora mountain was too tempting to deny, and so off we went, just before midnight.

It's impossible to predict when the aurora will happen, and for how long it will last, so when we reached the viewing point, it might have been a few minutes wait, or a few hours. To make the experience more grilling, the temperature was about -5 degrees C; I wore three layers, gloves and a beanie hat, and still I was chilly! I kept reminding myself though that it was all part of the experience. There were quite a few of us in our group, and the night's tranquility was further withdrawn by three campervans. At least one thing was in our favour- the night's sky was perfectly clear; astronomers would have had a field-trip!

After about 1/2 an hour- although it seemed like 1/2 a day- a faint glimmer of green light emerged from the sky, and I could hear professional photographers unpack their equipment; cameras were being turned on, tripod legs were being extended, buttons were being frantically pressed- everyone in anticipation to see these faint glimmering lights become more strong and electrifying. And there was I, with my little Lumix Panasonic. I was having problems, though, in adjusting the shutter speed. To achieve a half-decent image, the shutter speed I am told needs to be set for about a minute. Unfortunately, my efforts on adjusting this vital function were not successful and with my gloves off, all I was doing was getting more and more cold.

I can't decribe just how bright the lights were, and no words can really do justice in explaining the spellbinding patterns that the aurora provided. It was like someone was spraypainting the sky green; I realised I was experiencing one of the seven natural wonders of the Earth. Others in my group were getting some lovely photos; these are the best in my collection. (Since last night, I have worked out how to adjust the shutter speed and I am ready for next time!)

These really don't do it justice. But you get the idea.

We all arrived back at the hostel, as Del Griffiths said in 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles', "bushed". Many of the group retired to bed, but my adrenaline was pumping, and I stayed up until 4:00am, before finally making my way under the covers.

Waking up at 10am by noises of hostellers coming and going, zipping bags, and brushing teeth, I opted for an easy day in Fairbanks and decided to explore some of the university and the woodland trails that lay beyond it. The university sits at quite a high elevation in comparison with the rest of the city, and therefore, provides fine views of the boreal forest. I found that walking in and amongst the students at the university, I seemed to 'fit in' but I assumed my age probably helped a lot with this. Finding myself a seat in what looked like the main hub of the university, I observed Alaska students going about their university life; not once did someone question why I was there and what I was doing. Some were puzzling at their textbooks; some were staring deep into space, probably working out perplexing mathematical problems. Some were just chatting with friends, either face to face, or on the phone; some were queuing up for what looked like a free BBQ. My success with blending in made me consider queuing myself, but the people serving were in army uniforms and I wondered just what fate would lie for me if I was caught.

My walk around the university was a pleasant experience. The buildings actually are reasonably close together, unlike some universities in England that I have visited. Unlike Cambridge and Oxford, most of the university campus lies on the edge of the city. Although I suppose it's handy for students to be close to the CBD for weekly shopping, having a campus in the suburbs offers a more peaceful and relaxed study experience. Some of my Oxbridge friends are probably closing this internet tab about now! The periphery of the campus is actually having extensive construction work; this sign caught my eye, and made me chuckle.

I decided to do a few of the woodland trails through the boreal forest that lies behind the campus. In the winter, most of these trails are 'groomed' for skiing, and a sport called 'power-rolling'. In the summer, dog walkers and cyclists can use them for recreation. Today, I didn't pass anyone, which ultimately made my experience much more magical. The trails are well maintained, and you can use the carpet of golden crisp leaves as a guide, but deeper into the forest, branches have fallen (sometimes whole trees are down) and there is a sense of nature in control here.

Sometimes permafrost can make the top layer of unconsolidated soil very unstable, and can slide, literally ripping trees out of the ground. Trees fall on trees causing more destruction and soon the forest floor is blanketed by not just the 'herb layer' but also these fallen trunks. I noticed 'sheets' of white birch (which is probably why it is sometimes called 'Paper Birch', and cones from spruce, pine and fir trees.

To round off my walk, I spotted a squirrel in the understory. At first, it was alarmed I think to see a large bright red coat making its way through the greens and the browns of the forest; I sat down and we stared at each other for some time; not one of us moved an inch, not one of us made a noise; we both enjoyed the boreal forest together.