50@50 Fairbanks AL
Start a discussion on Alaska, and people think of glaciers, cold, Eskimos, the gold rush and the oil spill. While it is all of those things, the culture embodies so much more. How Alaskans transform their experiences in this environment into works of art is truly unique. The very idea of exploring Alaska without the cocoon of a total guided package is intimidating – the sheer size, the wildness, the climate not to mention the remoteness. A fellow composer was dropped off on a glacier in Gates of the Arctic by himself with his camping equipment; he watched as the helicopter flew away. Most would probably agree we want our glacial exploration to be guided, or to at least have back up.
Alaska tourism focuses on the coast and the train to Denali. I took the train myself – the rail journey via Alaska Railroa is an iconic part of the Alaska visitor experience and provides an experiential transition from the lowlands of its largest city to the mountains, and to some rural Alaskans, the only link to the outside world. Interior Alaska is close to the size of Texas with fewer road miles than Rhode Island. The first highway linking the lower 48 to Fairbanks Alaska opened in 1948, and the main north/south road, the George Parks Highway was only completed 1971.
The arctic and subarctic areas of Alaska have been inhabited for thousands of years by the Athabaskans. Living in small matrilineal clans with many distinct languages, their homeland encompasses the area that is now Fairbanks, and the watersheds of the Yukon, Tanana, Susitna, Kuskokwim, and Copper Rivers,and Alaska’s highest mountains, including Denali. For the semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers, their staple food sources included caribou, river fish, and moose. While some have migrated to urban environments, Athabaskan people today are growing in population, Contemporary Native Alaskans make up about 15% of the entire state’s population; in many rural areas, the indigenous population is over 50%.
The discovery of Gold in the late 19th century changed everything. The Klondike gold rush of the 1890s brought 100,000 people to Alaska; very few ever found anything significant. Many of the disillusioned moved northwest, spilling along the Yukon River. By the turn of the 20thcentury, seven towns lined the river between Eagle and Circle. Dredges, machines that scoop up the earth, sift and sort the gold, and defecate the remains, were invented in the early 20th century and made the work of extracting the gold much easier. Today, most of the area is within the Yukon Charley National Preserve. Outside of Fairbanks, the Fort Knox mine continues operation, sorting through 40,000 tons of rock daily extracting nearly 1000 ounces daily.
In 1968, a huge oil reserve was discovered near Prudhoe Bay, about 400 miles north of Fairbanks inside the Arctic Circle. Attempts to transport the oil out of the field failed, so the oil companies proposed building a pipeline. The project was about to move forward when legal challenges stopped the project in 1970. Besides objections by conservationists, a major challenge was levied by Native Alaskan groups whose communities were in the pathway of the pipeline. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed in 1971, creating Alaska Native corporations to manage the distributions under the Act, including federal mineral lease revenue. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act passed in 1973, paving the way for the pipeline’s construction.
So why so much about politics and oil in a blog about culture? Because oil is still the leading economic industry in the state. The tug-of-war between mineral extraction and wilderness ecology continues to be a major aspect of the culture. Subsistence living, fishing, hunting and gathering is a way of life for nearly 20% of the population. Alaska is the only state where subsistence is given the highest-priority for use. Most of the state has no roads at all, so the ability to use natural resources for water, to feed, clothe, provide shelter and warmth, and to transport one’s family is vital. Even among urban Alaskans the idea and value of gathering for one’s family and creating something out of what is found in nature is part of a shared culture.
Incredibly surprising is the numbers of people in Fairbanks and other towns in the interior do not have indoor plumbing. The region can get quite hot in summer, and is dangerously cold in the winter; 40-50° below zero is routine. Pipes freeze and burst easily. Outhouses are so common, an entire art form is dedicated to their decoration! Countless rural areas have no infrastructure for plumbing at all.
Conversely, the University of Alaska Fairbanks is sleek and modern. The Museum of the North, featuring Alaskan history and art is the home of John Luther Adams’ installation, “The Place Where You Go To Listen”. Understanding the all the geophysical and meteorological inputs, the panels of transforming color and complex sounds overwhelm and underwhelm all at once. Continuous change is the only constant, and a 10-minute experience in the room is minute of the huge piece.
Hiking and exploring in Alaska’s interior is incredibly rewarding and Fairbanks has numerous hikes close by. We hiked four days in Denali NP with guides with backgrounds in Biology, Geology and other natural fields who offered up-close insight to what we were looking at. One lesson I learned was to hone in on my power of observation to interpret the landscape more accurately. This expansive panorama appears as a big green carpet capped with rock and ice; in fact, the terrain is made up of thousands of small, even tiny, tundra and creek side plants. The view from the road simply cannot capture the true beauty of this detail.
Heading northeast, we traveled to Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve. Accessible only by water or by small plane, only a few hundred people each year visit the park. Many stay at public use cabins available on a first come basis. The Yukon River is the highway here. The borders of the river ebb and flow as mere suggestion to the border of its invisible banks. The ground sediment forms sandy beaches. The visitor center and mess hall is located at Coal Creek Camp, a restored gold dredging camp built in the 1930s. The dredge itself looks rusty and stuck in place, but we were assured it could be fired up anytime.
There are no maintained trails; this is truly wilderness and off trail exploring is the norm. Old native and mining trails provide access beyond the camp, but I felt somewhat isolated at Coal Creek. Armed with bear spray and a mosquito shirt, We explored our surroundings. After three days, we flew back to Fairbanks in a four-seater gliding westward above the Yukon River; the plane ride really gave me a great perspective of my Alaska’s interior.
Central Alaska’s landscape challenges its inhabitants. Ninety percent of the population has only arrived in the last 75 years. Alaska requires that people adapt or perish. Native Alaskans have adapted in incredible ways. Contemporary Alaskans share a culture of self- reliance, ingenuity, perseverance, and sustainability, reflected in their beliefs and their art. A lifetime could be spent in Alaska’s interior to truly understand its culture; many come and never leave.