Interior Alaska: Frontier Community

Interior Alaska can be a forbidding place. The region is largely wilderness, covered with expansive stretches of tundra and towering mountain ranges. Winters are long and dark, with just a few hours of sunlight on the shortest days and temperatures that often plunge to -50F. Because of its isolation and climate, the region has long attracted people drawn to the challenges and opportunities of a wild, remote place. In this episode of SOTRU, we’ll meet a number of athletes, journalists, scientists, and activists who embody the spirit of Interior Alaska through their grit, determination, and iconoclasm.


Episode Music

Expand Tracklist

E-RockShrink Ray
Sending Letters to the SeaShifting Structures
Chihei HatakeyamaBonfire on the Field
BiosphereDissolving Clouds
Four TetThis Unfolds
Four TetCircling
RoedeliusWenn Der Sudwind Weht
TapeWalden Dos
MountainsAdd Infinity
HauschkaBarfuss Durch Grass
HauschkaLong Walk
MountainsAdd Infinity
TapeBell Mountain
MountainsSheets Two

Dear Fairbanks Letters

  • Jennifer Brice

    Dear Fairbanks,

    Of course I had to leave you. I had to leave the way every girl has to leave her mother to see the possibilities for her own self.

    In the summer of ‘61, you were my mother’s magnetic north. She said good-bye to New York City, good-bye to nursing school, good-bye to the boy who’d taken back his ring.

    Two weeks later, she pulled into a gas station in her Plymouth Valiant and asked, “How do I get to Fairbanks from here?”

    “Lady,” the guy said, “you just drove through it.”

    It’s two years later, and my mother pushes a pram down Second Avenue. “Stay,” she says to the husky by her side, then steps inside the Co-Op. While she’s gone, the husky and I swap stories on the sidewalk.

    My first memory is from August 1967, the Chena River flood. Mom rouses me from sleep then swings me—Whoopsie Daisy!—into a stranger’s arms. The man paddles my family to safety. A year or so later, on a rainy day, a strange man offers me a ride home from kindergarten. Something about him reminds me of the man with the canoe. I say yes.

    With the trans-Alaska pipeline, you got a whole new lexicon–“haul road,” “crude oil,” “Deadhorse”—and one or two new jokes: “Happiness is 10,000 Texans heading south with an Okie under each arm.” It seemed like all the boys dropped out of high school at 16: why study economics when you could work for union scale?

    Then I was 16, and the boys were back. Dana Button and I cruised Airport Way in her orange Bug, blasting the Bee Gees, “Stayin’ Alive.” On prom night, it was 50 below, and the roads were dense with busted fan felts like a plague of black snakes. I wore pink chiffon and silver sandals because, hey, in Fairbanks, we dress for the occasion.

    Fast forward a few more years. The News-Miner carries a front-page story about Lori King, my best friend in sixth grade. Did I ever tell you that the stranger who picked me up in his Ford Granada all those years ago drove me straight home? Do I need to tell you that Lori King wasn’t so lucky?

    When I was young, I didn’t see you as beautiful. Like my mother, you just were. Winter nights, she’d wrap me in blankets and trundle me outside. “Look up,” she’d say, as roll after roll of ribbon unfurled across the sky. “The northern lights. Aren’t they wonderful?” But nothing seemed wonderful to me then—nothing, I should say, but the sight of my no-nonsense, loafers-wearing, public health nurse mother unmoored by beauty. For her sake, I looked up. And fell into the sky.

    Until soon,
    Jennifer Brice

  • Colleen Mondor

    Dear Fairbanks:

    Before we met, all I knew of aviation was the classroom, the endless practice of stalls and touch-and-gos, the politics of aircraft noise.

    From you I learned that flying was also a team of sled dogs restless on the ramp, pawing at the snow while waiting to be loaded and taken on to their next race. It was a five-tiered wedding cake carefully strapped down for a celebration in the village of Nulato. A standard cargo was 500 pounds of pumpkins for a Halloween party in Ruby, or the rifles, tents and boxes of food for a hunting party from Outside who saved for years to embark on their Alaskan trip of a lifetime.

    For you, flying was school kids traveling for basketball games, convicts enroute to prison in Nome and U.S. mail that included boxes of live chicks, fully assembled bicycles, truck tires and cases of pop and potato chips. One sad day, we loaded an ornate casket for Stevens Village, its occupant a dearly loved elder finally going home. On that day, aviation was the business of grief.

    I learned so much from you, Fairbanks, about how flying could make a wilderness seem like a small town.

    You taught me that 30 below zero is not too cold to fly, nor is 40 below nor, shockingly, is 50 below.

    You took me beyond Lindbergh and Earhart, introducing pilots whose exploits were absent from my textbooks. You gave me Ben Eielson, first to cross the Arctic Ocean, Joe Crosson, first to land on a glacier and Noel Wien, first to cover the Bering Strait. These were your pilots, your stories, your hometown heroes. At your university high on the hill, the library revealed them all to me along with dozens more. I learned that aviation’s coldest heart has always been yours, deep in the Interior, and while I scheduled flights along the Yukon River and monitored aircraft who flew deep into the towering Brooks Range, I was always mindful of the memories you hold dear.

    Aviation is a careful thing, you taught me; here with you it can be so dirty and dangerous and unforgiving. But also here, with Denali clear in the distance and rivers churning all around us, it can be like no place else on earth.

    Colleen Mondor

  • April

    Thank you for thoughtful and fair coverage of the Fairbanks four case!

  • cwaigl

    Thanks for this intelligent treatment of life in the Interior. It may sound a little grimmer than it really is, but you hit a lot of good points.

  • Bermondsey

    Who was the producer for the Fairbanks four. She sounded like someone from planet money. Or does everyone who make these sorts of stories have the same diction?

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