Dancing Lights in the Sky, Swirling Billowing Curtains … over Bettels AK Population 23

There was no brass band or buntings strung to welcome us to Bettles but a significant portion of the population was there to greet us 4 adventurers as we arrived on the non-tarmac Bettles Airstrip. You probably were unaware, until now, that you were eager to learn so much about the town of Bettels. Upon landing, nine “Bettelians” were there for the gala arrival. Calling up my math wizardry ,  I figure that was forty percent of the population of 23 residents (2020 census). One of Bettles’ claims to fame is being the smallest incorporated city in Alaska AND 2nd smallest city in the USA  only beaten out by the 9 McMullanians in McMullen Alabama or perhaps Marineland Florida with 11 (not sure  if they counted the porpoises).   Now the Gibertians in Gilbert Arkansas at 26 would also  like to claim it and the ghosts in Carbonate Colorado (a ghost town) don’t count,  as my tally is thus 0 population.  Of course, all of the above is irrelevant, as I don’t know which ones are cities, incorporated municipalities,  towns, or which official or non-official census data is being used. So I vote Bettels #1 incorporated city in Alaska and the USA. I hope it is better know for most anything else but it’s size. It is 30 miles north of the Artic Circle, with a sub-Artic climate.  This was of critical importance to this adventurer, as this means warm summers. I was banking on this fact for my September holiday.  Soon we were loaded in the van to transport us to the Aurora Lodge, which was somewhat confusing as we thought this was our final destination. After waiting patiently for our driver, we were driven maybe one tenth of a mile around the corner… Perhaps this is standard procedure , but we four, who are rather healthy appearing specimens, were perfectly capable of rolling our roller bags (even on the gravel) this distance.

Eric the owner provides a great options for a memorable experience. Additionally, he is  a jack-of-all trades (tour guide, cook, van driver, speed boat operator, mechanic, cook, husband, boss … ). If it needs doing he most likely does it. So naturally he was the “orientouring” guide. Despite the size (back to that again) our arrival orientation and city tour still took 1.5 hours.  This involved a gravel road of washboard quality necessitating a slow crawl about town and out to the floatplane lake and of course all the do’s and don’t’s: a stern warning not to point the bear spray cartridge towards oneself  vs. the bear when discharging it;  an advisory that the aircraft vs. hikers have the right-of-way on the gravel air strip; swimming is not advised in the float plane lake; and if canoeing on the float plane lake, paddle very fast if you see an aircraft approaching. The town area is rustic with buildings quite varied in appearance and a mixture of antiquity; metal hangers, shops and sheds; wooden plank sided house;  and original log cabin construction.  Also of note, there were  piles of  what I would consider objects and mounds of “junk, debris, dross, scrap, dreck” everywhere.  However I soon learned most “leftovers” are considered valuable resources with an eventual use. AND, Eric’s continual refrain was “a dollar a pound”  coming in or going out. Since everything gets transported by plane 10 months of the year for a substantial sum of earned dollars, not that much goes out regularly. In winter, a 20+ mile ice road is constructed out to the Dalton Highway to transport in and out heavy equipment and construction supplies. Can you find the old VW and the phone booth in posted photos?

The aurora is breathtaking, but what about colors?

While I was observing the aurora, or northern lights, on the first night  at Bettles I was awestruck and found it to be a  breathtaking experience. I saw “dancing lights” in the sky, spiking straight up starting off the ground akin to a spotlight. They began to wave a bit and then billow  like the wind in a curtain but stayed in basically confined to the same area. At first they seemed to be kind of a blur and the “spikes” were not very defined. There was occasionally a very slight green hue on the horizon and once or twice a bit of pink color. But I didn’t see any crazy red & magenta colors that so many of the photographs posted online and that I have seen in so many photo galleries. What I saw appeared to be white/grey “shafts and curtains” dancing along the black sky. The Aurora display ebbed and flowed and was constantly changing as it grew  bigger in the sky. BUT I have no photos of that because what I  was seeing was not what my camera recorded. In fact my camera (trusty iPhone) recorded nothing unless I used the Northern Lights App which has camera settings that didn’t have the same limitation as my eyes. So coupled with the long exposure times and high ISO settings it was  evident that the camera sensor has a much higher dynamic range of vision in the dark than I did.  The colors are yellowish and green because they are excited by the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere (more scientifically the excitation of oxygen). My photos below are what my beloved iPhone saw.

The show was totally magnificent in the first few minutes (from 11:49pm to 12:07am) and from that point on the denouement was more of a slow waltz and not a cha-cha, tango, or rock and roll. I was secretly hoping for a grand finale (think fireworks show) but finally called it a night with the fading aurora, chilly and exhausted at 12:49.

So the normally awestruck but deflated kid inside of me had to face facts. The aurora is not always what it is cracked unto be. The teacher in me had to review the rod and cone cell functions in my eye. I wondered: Can my cat, a horny owl, frogs and toads, bats, and some mammals like opossums and skunks see the true green of this aurora. They have great night vision. But the answer is NO. But they can see a whole lot better than we can in black and white at night. My “cones”  are high resolution and detect color in bright light and are used in daytime vision. My rod cells, concentrated in the periphery can, only detect much fainter light at night, and see it in black and white and shades of gray. So the aurora most often only appear to us in shades of gray because the light is too faint to be sensed by our color-detecting cone cells, though sometimes it can be visible in colors depending on latitude, oxygen, and location in the sky.

On subsequent nights the lights were mainly overhead with a fair amount blocked by cloud color, faint and broadly proliferated with no color. The “electric slide” of the first night was the BIG winner!

THINK TUNDRA:  An Artic Biome or Toyota Truck

ABOVE THE ARTIC CIRCLE

In preparation for my  visit to the Artic I decided to brush up on my 5th grade geography and read about the tundra. In this commercial culture thus, I was not so shocked to see that the Yahoo search engine listed several links to the Toyota Tundra Truck before any link to what the classic meaning of the tundra would be. I learned that  starting at minimally $35,950 I could have the toughest, most capable, advanced shining ToyTundra truck outfitted for a wide range of adventures but I doubted  the ToyTundra will get you very far out on the authentic naturally occurring Artic Tundra…Now dirty muddy big trucks are a staple in Alaska.  Just go to any Fred Meyer’s or Wall-Mart parking lot and you will find a massive number of big gas guzzling mud spattered trucks driven by lots of big bearded Alaskan men.

Now for the ToyTundra to tackle the true Alaska tundra, one would have to drive the Dalton Highway,  beginning north of Fairbanks, 414 miles to Deadhorse ( latitude 70 degrees) to Prudhoe Bay.  The Dalton remains about 75 percent gravel, with tire-puncturing rocks, at times a bumpy teeth jarring washboard surface , either dusty or icy,  slippery in wet weather… with services few and far between.This road is mainly used by heavy/huge trucks for oil transportation from the Arctic. NOW  I am quite sure a ToyTundra would relish this adventure winter or summer BUT,  it would be  driving on the graded terrain of the highway,  not the un-groomed tundra. If one thinks summer might provide a tundra drive or even a great hike, I became aware that much of the top layer of seasonally-frozen soil melts away above the Arctic surface allowing for a soggy soil and  the tundra is covered in marshes, lakes, bogs, and streams during these warmer months.

So I decided NOT to buy a ToyTundra to adventure into the Arctic but decided that traversing Alaska with its vast distances would best be negotiated by opting for air travel. So bush planes became the preferred mode of transportation of this self from Point A to Point B.

Besides it was the only choice to get up to Bettles. So after bidding farewell to the not-so-super Super 8,  the rental car was returned to the airport. Wright Aviation (our charter up to Bettles) was right across the Fairbanks main runway – but for obvious reasons we were forbidden to just hoof it over there across this runway…so a cab ride was in order.  So we popped into a very well used cab and I was about to find out that cab travel just might be more expensive than air travel  – as our very short ride rivaled any New York City cab fares. We arrived at Wright Aviation at the appointed hour of 11:00 AM for a 12:30 departure for the 1.5 hour flight.   Now below is a picture of the Wright Terminal and it behooves me to comprehend, given the size of this “terminal, ” the need for 1.5 hours window to departure. Now airlines get a bad rap for their long queues, mishandling of baggage, their no-so-on-time departures but … but really I doubt that would ever be an issue here … So I perched myself on a hard plastic chair, most definitely bemoaning the fact that I was unable to relish an extra hour at the not-so-super Super EightI NOT!

Of course the 12:30 departure hour came and went but I managed to keep myself  amused especially when I discovered a large moose rack peaking out from under a tarpaulin by the baggage loading area. Dared I look, as I certainly was hoping there was no carcass attached to the rack … there was not but just several plastic bags of moose meat and a swarm of flies. I was hoping that this cargo was not in the queue for loading on our flight. So finally about 1:15 we were ready to take off  on our 1 hour and 15 minute flight in our gaudy yellow-gold big bellied 208B Caravan. I then looked at the pilot and he appeared to be about 14 years old .  I began to wonder, since this was a holiday, if all of the seasoned pilots had the day off and this kid drew the short straw! But you can see I lived to tell this tale. Additional evidence of his youthfulness was watching him eat Oreo cookies  for his lunch in flight and not offering to share. No cabin service here! Soon we were tucked into out seats with no worries that our baggage would get lost since it was strapped right into the passenger seat next to us. 

Seems that when flights have cargo space, loads of supplies may get transported up to isolated villages. Supposedly direct, but now our not-so-direct flight went via Allakaket, mainly an Athabascan community on the Koyukuk River. As we approached the runway I realized that I now was going experience another FIRST…landing on a gravel runway. Hopefully it was not the bumpy teeth jarring washboard surface of the Dalton Highway. Fortunately our kid pilot handled it quite adroitly, so no worries for future landings which I anticipated would also be gravel. So after offloading much of the cargo we were again on our way.

I have discovered that the word “arctic” and “tundra” are quite loosely used to refer to the massive marsh and bog sighted below our relatively low bush plane … though actually I am the only one I have heard using it quit loosely. So, I again reviewed the lesson in the geography of the Artic. So skip ahead if you choose not to embrace this learning curve.

By definition the Tundra latitude is 71.2 degrees N and it features include permafrost where the soil is permanently frozen as well as a lack of trees due to the frozen soil. It is a major zone of treeless level or rolling ground. Bare rocks can support lichens and moss and certain varieties of berry. The southern limit of Arctic tundra follows the northern edge of the coniferous forest belt. In North America this line lies above latitude 60° N. The Artic Circle lies at 66 degrees north and our Bettles destination is at about the same latitude. Clearly that very circular/straight line of the map or globe is not an exact science…. YIKES!!!! I really AM BEGINNING TO SOUND LIKE MY 5TH GRADE GEOGRAPHY TEACHER!

Bear with me. This all leads up to the fact that most of what I was viewing down below (though magnificently beautiful) as well as the pictures below that I am posting was not all tundra but mostly taiga, also called boreal forest, a biome of vegetation composed primarily of cone-bearing needle-leaved evergreen trees, white and black spruce, birch, poplars. Thus, there was a brilliant palettes of fall’s golden colors winding its way progressively southward below us.J oin me on a flight-seeing tour of our path from Fairbanks to Bettles.

Fair-banks, Fairbanks , Not So Fair-Fairbanks

University of Alaska Museum of the North

I certainly can’t pinpoint when the “official” national park quest began … or that I would become a “park chaser” or “park collector,” but in the summer of 2016 several life events punched me in the gut and destined me to drive cross country to  Oregon for my annual visit with daughter Tasia.  In planning a route I decided on a diagonal course from Florida to Oregon and chose a mixture of historical sites and national parks.  So with my two dogs buckled in,  I headed to Hot Springs National Park via Little Rock AK  and then  to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park from Oklahoma City.  The  seed to be a National Park “collector” was planted. Though still employed as a professor at the University of South Florida,  I was fortunate enough to be teaching a class on-line that fall semester, so I had significant latitude as to my departure schedule from Oregon. So on September 13th I set off on a return journey  to Florida with the express intention of visiting and camping in several national parks. Using another somewhat diagonal route,  I “collected” Lassen Volcanic, Great Basin, Mesa Verde, Capitol Reef, Great Sand Dunes, Mammoth Cave, and Great Smokey Mountains National Parks. By now I was 100% INVESTED in visiting as many national parks as possible before an aging body says NO MORE sleeping on a rock strew tent pad, getting chilled to the bone in a tent much too large for myself and the two dogs to heat up, wondering what critter I might encounter on one of a couple of middle of the night adventures to a bathroom, or getting lost on wet, muddy under water hiking trails, being kicked in the butt and  exhausted by yet another 2000 feet of elevating… 

Since I live part time in Alaska it seemed like an economically wise and no brainer decision to focus on the national parks in the vast and amazing wilderness of the State of Alaska.    Given the size of this state and the location of many of the parks,  I quite accurately  anticipated that this would be an expensive undertaking.  At least living within a three hour drive from Anchorage I would not have the expense of a flight to this immense far up north state. So, “Why not start the farthest north, above the arctic circle?” and I opted to visit Gates of the Artic National Park and Kobuk Valley.  Adventures awaited… This above the Artic Circle Adventure began in Fairbanks.

As a kid, we drew igloos in school. Thus,  I was left with the impression that Alaska was all ice and snow year-round. This adult self knew otherwise … I read of the cold and hot extremes of temperatures in Fairbanks. But I somehow anticipated having a more unique experience (i.e.  “rough-and-ready)  in this northern most city. Despite the guidebooks that describe Fairbanks  brimming with shops, restaurants and attractions,  I mostly saw impoverished areas and the fast food establishments (Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Arby’s, McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Popeye’s , KFC… yes it has them all)  of the lower 48, lots of road construction… it could be almost any town USA in the summer. … The cost of living is very steep making  everything quite pricey. The friend I was traveling with had reserved a “less expensive” room at the Super Eight with a price tag of $204.12 for 1 night and the place was a dump! I am sure this has in someway affected my overall view of this city for this trip. This is what they promised vs below is what we got! The best part was the lamp without a shade and to Super Eight logo in the corner of the pictures above the bed.

Fairbanks, located in the Tanana Valley, straddles the Chena River near its confluence with the Tanana River   The Tanana Valley is crossed by many low streams and rivers that lace the Tanana Flats, an area of marsh and bog that stretches for more than 100 miles (160 km) until it rises into the Alaska Range. It is a marvelous sight  to see these pristine serpentine rivers and rivulets snaking their way across the tundra. Fairbanks is 198 road miles south of the arctic circle and I was shocked to discover Fairbanks rests only 446 ft above sea level. My vision of Alaska being a land of tall mountains (akin to Denali) has been shattered. Fairbanks is best known for viewing the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights from August to April but I had yet another disappointment, as the Aurora was not visible on either of the nights I was there due to cloud cover in the area.

To be fair I have only experienced a potion of what Fairbanks has to offer.  Though raised in suburbia and living proximate to larger cities, I am not a city girl at heart. I love the wilderness, woods and rivers, forest and wide open spaces so I am not the ideal individual to rate a city experience. We visited Pioneer Park, an historic village that features original buildings moved from downtown Fairbanks, as well as museums and a Gold Rush town street. It had potential but it was the end of the season for the shops and restaurants (some closed)  and the day was chilly so the experience was less than exhilarating. However, the real highlight of the visit to Fairbanks was a visit to the University of Alaska Museum of the North. It is a wonderful modern museum.  It is rich in Alaska Native cultures, Alaskan women settlers and settlement history and showcases the diversity of wildlife , an Arctic dinosaurs,  and a great collection of Alaskan art and crafts.  A visit to Creamer’s Field Migratory Fowl Refuge sighted a gaggle of geese strutting and waddling towards a small lake which I assume is their temporary home since this area is “advertised” for migratory fowl. I opted out of a hike deeper into the refuge due to the muckiness of the ground and the dinner hour approaching… I did not want to miss out on a meal at the local diner (right across the street from the decaying Super 8 with its deluxe prices and right next to a shuttered Denny’s.) One hears about how great diner food is –  at least some diner food- but the diner of choice threw me for a loop when I ordered a medium rare hamburger and was informed they couldn’t do that because the patties were already pre-cooked and well done. So much for a delicious juicy burger… after assuaging my appetite with some very mediocre food it was back to the less-than-super Super 8 and preparation for a flight to Bettles AK the next morning.  

Wrangell-St. Elias, a Loo with a View, and Onward to the Kenai Peninsula

IMG_6361Tuesday July 31, 2018

I had hoped to spend another night in the Wrangell-St. Elias  area, but I wasn’t about to spend a 2nd night overlooking the cable spools, cell tower and the yellow and brown port-o-let by my tent-site. Any other tent camping prospects were dismal due the contraindication because of bears in the area,, I broke camp with the intent of spending a half day in Wrangell St. Elias NP and then push the last 350 miles to Soldotna. It was a sunny clear morning and I headed out with great anticipation of another day of drop dead scenery and rugged glaciated land. The drive from Copper Center to Chitina – the gateway to the route to McCarthy/Kennicot was miles of feasting on the lofty summits, glacier sweeps, forests, lakes, and the braided Copper River east of the highway.

The town of Chitina is a classic AK town that has mostly gone bust with the closing of mines and demise of the railroads as the primary movers of freight. It is the gateway to Wrangell-St. Elias, marked by a very narrow rock cut entrance.

I anticipated another challenging 61 mile, minimally 2 hour upwards of 3 hour drive from Chitina to the Kenicott River just west of McCarthy Historic footbridge. I was not in the least disappointed. The area is so vast and with its remoteness, and there were very few other cars. So I merrily bumped along the gravel road, with my heart and soul singing. Numerous bridges cross the rivers and the old  Kuskulana River Railroad bridge build in 1910 is still is being traversed. 

With the road rapidly elevating, I was soon above the clouds, thus obscuring the meandering rivers in valley below but glimpses of the mountains looming above previewed the grandeur of these glaciated mountains.

The road abruptly ends at the Kennicot River –  icy cold silt laden water rushing powerfully off the fingers of the Kennicot and Root Glaciers. Before venturing across, we made our way towards the edge of the glacier with a brief stop at my #1 rated pit toilet on this trip. It was definitely a loo with a view.

The only public access to McCarthy was an open-grate footbridge which crossed the river to the old mining town of McCarthy. The campground I had briefly considered was definitely not conducive to tents or privacy. 

 I started to  meander over to McCarthy and though the grated bridge is quite safe, there was something unnerving about seeing the icy swirling water rushing below. Once my wobbly legs made it across the grating, Kili and Simba had their first ATV ride from a local worker who offered us a transport across a shallow tributary so we didn’t have to wade through the icy ankle deep water to get to McCarthy.

This was a quaint old mining town to explore, but knowing I still had many hours of driving left, I only stayed for an hour and then began the 61mile torturously slow, rocky, winding gravel road down back to Copper Falls.

The upside of the slow-mobile was better viewing of wildlife, the best of which was a bear running across the road  and further on down two moose grazing in an open meadow and adjacent slough.  The clouds had lifted so there we’re good views of the Copper River and its network of sandbars, islands and channels. 

My intent was to gas up in the town of Copper Center. For some irrational reason I expected this to be a cute quaint little town but was sorely disappointed in its offerings and was a tad nervous about fueling up at the rusted old gas pump.  I was in need of a restroom and asked the proprietor of this sparsely stocked store if there was one.  There was, but he very ungraciously gave me permission to use it.  Didn’t like the fact that so many visitors, upwards of 300 daily,  could be compromising his septic system and he would prefer if I used the port-a -john across the street. I opted for his restroom since I felt I was entitled to stress his septic system after filling up my gas tank for $45.00. Back on the road around 3:00 pm, 

I headed back through Glennallen and the straight out the Glenn Highway, Route #1, to Palmer. Once I hit Palmer, a sizable town, I felt I had left the remoteness and wilderness behind and was soon on a limited access highway to Anchorage. The scenery out of Anchorage  to the Kenai Peninsula continues to be stunning, but driving  along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook inlet and then on through Girdwood and Portage became tedious due to the high volume of traffic. It was still the height of the tourist and sport fishing season so traffic abounded. Before long, perhaps 2.5 hours, my little 650 square foot house with its Tyvek covering and my wonderful daughter were a welcome sight when arriving around 10:00 pm and having clocked 3370 miles of the most rugged and remote, yet exhilarating , driving I had ever done.