Friday, August 29, 2014

A Classic Supper Club Says Goodbye

One place I was looking forward to visiting on our recent Iowa road trip was the White Springs Supper Club outside of McGregor.  It was one of those out of the way spots where time, while not exactly standing still, at least moved at a slow pace.

Alas.


Parking lot empty.  Building shuttered.  Some kind of foreclosure notices posted.

This was the Klein Brewery back in the 1850s.  It was converted to a bar/supper club/dance hall in 1936 when Archie Fritz took it over.  It is said to be unclear whether what we see is new construction on the old foundations or in fact the original brewery building with a floor or two taken off.  What is known is that there was a connection from behind the bar to the storage caves in the hill side behind. Alas again, these were sealed off years ago.

The heydey of the White Springs was back in the 1950s.  Per this nostalgic account there were dances every Saturday night that were full house affairs.  It got awfully hot in this pre-air conditioning building so a fan system featuring an airplane propeller cooled the upstairs dance area.  The bar proper was cooled by a smaller fan that pulled cold air out of the brewery caves!

The story at the link above is worth the click.  Tales of honky tonk romance, of raccoon dinners, of the death of Shorty the owner in one of the booths....

Shorty's wife kept the place going for many years after his death but when she too passed the end was near for the Springs.  It closed its doors in 2006.

For a while things looked hopeful.  In late 2013 the space was reopened as an antique shop.  It had been renovated to some extent, at least a new roof and coat of paint to help slow down the ravages of time.

But when I drove by in August of 2014 there was no sign of life.  Apparently the ambitious plan to have "an extended estate auction" came up against harsh economic reality.

These are hard times in the antique business.  For those who are still interested in old things it is much easier to head to ebay than to seek out an obscure antique store down a poorly signed rural road.  And it seems as if interest in the world of the past, or even the real world of the modern day is lessening. People will, I am told, spend actual money to buy a Magic Jewel Hammer that gets them up to the 27th level of their smart phone based CandyQuest game.  But to go out of their way in hopes of walking across a creaking former dance floor, perhaps even to catch a glimpse of a long forgotten brewery cave system.  Eh, not so much.


Next time: the story of a dance hall with a happier ending.  And a cautionary tale involving lots of cement.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Alaska Odds and Ends - To Live and Die in Valdez

When you are in Alaska there is no question that you are living a little closer to the edge.  Crazy weather, large carnivores, just a whole lot of mountainous empty spaces.  Oh, its quite safe for sensible folks but there is a little bit of dark edge in places.

When we were in Valdez the silver salmon were....somewhere else.  The fish cleaning stations that should have been a humming center of fillet knife virtuosity looked like this:


From these tables there are stainless steel chutes for the leftover parts.  The gulls looked very despondent over the lean times.


They probably should have just flown across the bay.  One of the big local attractions is the Soloman Gulch Fish Hatchery.  Every year they release a ridiculous number of salmon fry, and those who don't end up getting netted or chomped on all try to stage a truly impressive homecoming.  The pink salmon were running when we visited.  You could almost walk across the inlet on their humpy backs.



This actually seems really cruel.  The stream they are trying to run up into to spawn is a stumpy little thing that pretty much ends at the Hatchery.  And even so it is blocked by the barrier you can see above.  A few real over achievers manage to leap up and die on the flat surface of the barrier.  Almost all the others just mill about getting weaker and more frustrated.  If they go against their nature and swim back out there is a gang of seal lions feeding on them.  If they keep churning forward the go up on the rocks and sea gulls peck at them.


But there is a small chute that a few lucky fish make it into.  They still have to go upstream through an obstacle course of baffles and barriers.  A very, very few of the lucky, smart and strong ones make it into the Hatchery.  Their reward is to have their juices squeezed out by fisheries workers.  Then they get made into dog food and fertilizer.  The life story of salmon is just plain tragic no matter how you look at it.  A few years of freedom of the seas, a frantic hormone fueled rush towards a real or imagined home.  Then they are food for somebody. Sobering.

Back in Valdez some other exuberant mating behaviour was on display.  It was Gold Rush Days and the local festivities seemed to prominently feature comely lasses done up in costumes that recalled dance hall floozies.  I had turned in for the night so missed some rather drunken sales pitches in which garters were sold to tourists to benefit scholarships for local kids.  Next morning the Klondike Kates seemed none the worse for wear.  Unless this was the second shift.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Alaska Odds and Ends - The Boneyard

Sure, visiting cemeteries when you travel is morbid.  But when one is in nice morning walk range I sometimes can't resist.  I did not, alas, find any examples of Tree Shaped Tombstones to add some far north specimen to my collection.  But there are always a few little historical teasers to be encountered.


For a major city Anchorage got a very late start.  It was a sprawling bunch of tents in 1915, pretty much on the same disgusting mud flats where we had our Last Chance Fishing success.  Soon they moved up the hill to a more sensible spot.  But they were still on their first Police Chief in 1921 when said individual a John "Black Jack" Sturgis was killed in the line of duty.  The internet has little to say on the matter, he seems to have been shot in the back with his own gun in an Anchorage hotel. Some claim he still haunts the place.


Something tragic happened here.  Two brothers aged 16 and 17 died on September 1st 1925.  The little lambs that top so many children's tombstones have been weathered off in less than a century.


A boneyard in a literal sense.  Whale ribs I think, marking the resting place of a fairly recently deceased Anchorage citizen.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Alaska Odds and Ends - Catching the Light

For the Alaska trip I got a new camera, one specifically designed to take abuse.  In this it succeeded well.  Kayaking and rafting got it a bit wet without issues.  I did not have to test bear chewing resistance, the only bruin we saw was at a distance and moving the other direction.

But my experience with the new toy was mixed.  I ended up taking a lot of snaps and the quality was mixed.

Partly I think it was the unusual conditions in Alaska.  Those long, long days come with some odd sun angles.  If what you want to photograph happens to be looking into that low riding but very powerful sun, good luck.


The intensity and the angle sometimes did weird things to colors also.  I took a half dozen pics of this kelp and mussels covered rock.  This was about the best I could do.


But sometimes by dumb luck everything lines up just right.  The harbor at Valdez, colorful kayaks waiting to be loaded.


So I am happy with the new camera, and it may become my primary one for travels.  I suppose it is just barely possible that things might go better if I actually take the time to read the manual.  Like all new gadgets it has a lot of functions and tricks.  For instance at the Anchorage airport getting ready to fly home I remembered that there was a "take photo through glass" option.  Just in time, as I was walking past one of my all time favorite bits of taxidermy...bear pounces on deer!


Friday, August 22, 2014

Last Chance Fishing

Our trip to Alaska had great luck regards weather, less so with fishing.  Hey, what ya gonna do? Salmon runs can be predicted but not down to the day.  We were a little late for the sockeye and a little early for the silver (coho).  So we made our return journey to Anchorage with but a single box of frozen fillets.  We had at least gotten some nice King salmon.

But my eldest son is not easily deterred.  He has invariably caught fish even when doing so seemed implausible.  We checked into our downtown Anchorage hotel the night before our flight out and he immediately went down to a small creek a block away.  He had to wander through an industrial park and along some railroad tracks but eventually he found a spot where salmon were running....and fishermen were catching them next to a pile of steel cargo containers.



Behold, the scenic beauty of Ship Creek, downtown Anchorage.  A little less majestic than Prince William Sound had been the day before.



The silver salmon were running well and the fishermen were lined up.

My son and his wife waded out through slimy tidal mud to try their luck.  She stuck it out for an hour and a half, showing impressive devotion to her spouse.  My son kept slogging away until he had his limit of silvers which he cleaned on the spot and brought back to the hotel.  Our other fish were in cold storage at the airport so we "McGyvered" some improvised transport with ziplocks, freezer bags, water bottles full of crushed hotel ice and an insulating layer of clothes!

The determined fisherman, muddy but successful.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

On The Shelf

At our local Target store, Hillary Clinton's writing and political careers in an inadvertent juxtaposition.


Thirty percent off your book is a little hard to take, but she at least can get shelf space.  Most authors never get a shot.  It helps to have friends.

As to the presumption that she is "The One and Only" option for the Democratic nomination and subsequent Presidency....that notion was even more widely accepted in the lead up to the 2004 election.  It turned out not to be true.

An interesting figure politically.  She will of course have to make her case based on her merits and accomplishments.  As to the notion that we should support her because it is "time" we had a female Commander in Chief.  I think it will happen in the next decade.  I am just not sure if it will be Kelly Ayotte or Susana Martinez.  Or heck, maybe Elizabeth Warren.  Political prognostication is a mug's game.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pragmatic Beauty, Valdez Alaska

When I travel abroad I seldom go out of my way to visit "Great" architecture.  Cathedrals are impressive but have a certain sameness to them.  Modern projects too often look like somebody's out of control Lego set.  But now and then something catches my eye and makes me smile.

Here is the dental office of D.A. Houseman, Valdez Alaska.


Wow.  Now it helps to know that Valdez is an interesting place.  It was a Gold Rush town tossed together very quickly in 1898 when steamship companies scammed prospectors into thinking this was a shortcut to the Yukon.  Valdez has always had a good port so the town never really died out, although the big earthquake in 1964 destroyed the original site and most of the buildings.  The construction of the Alaska pipeline in the 1970s and a boom in tourism has made it a rather busy place again.

The buildings in town are a mixture of a few old structures hauled over from the original site, along with a hodge podge of more recent construction.  All of it looks quite weathered and prematurely "old" due to the harsh climate.  It is a damp, foggy place that gets more snow than any other spot in America.  Like, 300 inches a year.

All of these factors come into play in the rambling structure shown above.  Note the square, boxy look to the various components? That's because it is made of square boxes.


The view from behind, majestic mountains in the background.  The entire complex appears to have been assembled by parking a series of metal shipping containers on the lot, then linking them together and partially framing some of them in with wood.  Maybe that big leaning sheet of plywood is work in progress.  Valdez is the busiest container port in Alaska so there are lots of shipping containers to be had.


Stop and ponder for a moment the potential problems of a flat roofed structure and 300 inches of snow per year.  Hmmm, start to see an issue?  I really love the solution shown here:


There is a stairway going up to the roof.  It is of course fully enclosed because who wants to shovel snow off the stairs that you are using to get up on the roof to shovel more snow.  And parked on the roof, year round we find.  Yes, a snow blower!

I like this building so much that I am going to borrow it.  I think it is a marvelous stand in for the mythical "Trowelsworthy Hall".


Monday, August 18, 2014

Hiding from Facebook

I resisted Facebook for a long time.  It seemed a superficial means of communication and besides, I hate trendy crap.  But eventually I gave in at least on a limited basis.  I have a minor presence there, one designed mostly to keep in touch with my far flung pals from the archaeology world.

But because I think it would be bad professionally to have patients in the ER waiting room look me up and see me, well, being me, I am using a pseudonym for Facebook.  I am for that purpose a certain Badger Trowelsworthy.

Facebook has sophisticated software that tries to figure you out.  Not that they really care about you they just want to fine tune ads to send your way. You can tell they are zeroing in on your position when they actually get a few things right.  When they for instance suggest sports teams I might want to follow they sometimes come close.

So I keep tweaking my profile to try and confuse them.  At this time Facebook suggests the following things that I might find of interest:

Sports Team:  Fennerbahce Spor Klubu.  This is a soccer (football) team from Istanbul.

Book:  Duck for President.  This is a children's book I had never heard of.  When looking at this I accidentally clicked on "I have read this".  I suppose political poultry content will come streaming towards me now.

Movie:  The Mortal Instruments.  Also never heard of it.  It is a 2013 "German-Canadian" film.

Music:  Shakira.  Well, I have at least heard of her.

I admit to messin' with Facebook a little.  I was not born on January 1st 1910, but if you want to send me birthday greetings it is "close enough" on the date.  I actually have worked as a Carney, and I think "Knight-Errant" is true on some level.  I have not - NSA are you paying attention here? - attended the Pyongyang University of Music and Dance, but given the choreography of North Korean military parades I am sure the curriculum would be impressive.  And no, I don't really live in Greenland.  But this does have the helpful effect of making a high percentage of the ads Facebook sends to me be in Danish.  This renders them all mildly charming but I am disappointed that the Facebots don't realize that the official language of Greenland has been "West Greenlandic" since 2009.

I am enjoying my anonymity.  In fact I am considering posting my own Wikipedia page to further it. Something along these lines:

Badger Trowelsworthy has variously been described as a fugitive financier or a delusional nutter. An emerging consensus suggests that he may be both.

Trowelsworthy was born on a whaling ship in the South Atlantic in 1910.  He attributes his youthful appearance and widely rumored physical prowess to a diet of Hostess Twinkies.  When pressed he will also admit that his birth certificate is an obvious forgery.

The traditional residence of his family, Trowelsworthy Hall, is of uncertain location.  What information there is on the structure comes from consistently negative comments in a variety of architectural journals.  Locations in Dorset, UK, or on a municipal landfill in British Columbia have been claimed, but these are both likely to be misinformation put out to prevent a rogue junior branch of the Trowelsworthy family from taking possession during one of Badger Trowelsworthy's extended holidays or occasional incarcerations.  A more recent report describes it as "a former dental office made of steel shipping containers".

Trowelsworthy Hall in 2012


Very little is known for certain about Mr. Trowelsworthy.  He is said to have  toured the American Midwest in a traveling carnival in the 1920s.  There he met and married his first wife, a hoochie-coochie dancer known only as "Babs". Trowelsworthy was sued in the Turkish equivalent of small claims court in 1957 on charges of offering insufficient bribes to public officials.  The nickname "Al-Baksheeshi" dates from this era.  


BAJIR AL-BAKSHEESHI Date of photo unknown
Although he is technically allowed to style himself "Lord Trowelsworthy" the circumstances under which the British monarchy were persuaded to grant him the unique title of DBE ("Dude of the British Empire") are the subject of much inconclusive speculation.  He uses his knighthood primarily as an excuse to refer to his current wife - a former Miss Iceland from the early 1980s - as Lady Trowelsworthy.

Badger Trowelsworthy currently resides in the tiny Greenlandic community of Arsuk.  Nobody there will admit to recognizing the name Trowelsworthy, but mail and email sent to his alter ego Dagmar Suarez is answered promptly.  If  you mention that name in Arsuk you will be politely but firmly asked to leave at once.


Arsuk is rather lovely at summer solstice








Sunday, August 17, 2014

Alaska Odds and Ends - Rivendell

I've been to Alaska four times now, and each time I have an identical thought when I round some bend in the road and see an awesome vista of mountains and glaciers and blue water.  Peter Jackson could have filmed Lord of the Rings here.  Alaska is basically Middle Earth.


The works of modern man are few and look to be just hanging on in the face of the harsh, majestic forces of nature.  They appear ancient after just a few years.  Here is a carved totem that would not be out of place in Gondor, if the parking lot and houses were photoshopped out.


Of course, I am not the only person who feels this way....

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Addendum:  the essential Roadside America site tells me that the large wooden figure is part of the Whispering Giants series of sculptures by an artist marvelously named Peter Wolf Toth.  One is to be found in all 50 states and in several Canadian provinces.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Kayaks on Prince William Sound

Prince William Sound is one of the prettiest places I have ever visited.  And there are lots of ways to see it.  You get a good look when out on fishing charters and even the ferry from Valdez to Whittier can have some spectacular views if the weather is clear. But to get an up close view you might consider sea kayaking.  We did this recently with an outfit called Anadyr Adventures.

You start out at Valdez, after donning some fairly ridiculous looking gear.


We were very lucky with the weather.  They told us they get about one sunny, warm, fog free day a month up there and this was it. So most of us were down to shirtsleeves and life jacket by noon.

You run out in a water taxi, basically a fishing boat with kayak carrying capacity.  Along the way you get some very nice scenery. Here is a small ice berg that had calved off the nearby Columbia glacier.


Once we debarked we proved to be a capable bunch of paddlers. The trip we were on more or less circumnavigated Glacier Island, so called for its views of the Columbia glacier across the bay.



All very pretty and on a perfect day.  We saw lots of marine birds, also a few of the silver salmon we had been fruitlessly hunting were insolent enough to jump around here and there.  There were a couple of particular highlights.  At noon we had lunch then climbed up a hill in the middle of the island.  Here with no photo tweaking at all is Alaska in full glory.


The other amazing sight was a sea lion colony.  A bit of explanation is in order.  The breeding grounds are on the other side of the Sound.  Over there the triumphant, successful males sit among their admiring harems.  The reject males, mostly corpulent old timers and frisky juveniles, come over here. They sit on the beach sullenly snapping at each other.  The noises from the colony are astounding. Imagine an auditorium of 3rd grade boys having a belching contest.


Not a happy bunch.  I have decided that although the human name for this place is Glacier Island, the sea lion name is probably "GaaRaaaaraaaGaaaaarGaaaaag" which translates loosely to "Loser's Beach".

As we paddled away a gang of the younger ones got either a little curious or a little territorial.  They swam out ahead of us, then turned and came charging right at us:


They were at one point right in among our kayaks, and I am not the only member of our party who swears you could smell their rank, fishy breath!

Better luck next breeding season, dudes.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Worst Political Campaign Slogan of 2014

Alaska has some very active political campaigns going on right now.  It tends to be a conservative state but one of their Senators is a Democrat and is up for re-election.  In a year when control of the US Senate - and the future makeup of the Supreme Court - could easily be determined by a handful of votes in some rural backwater, that makes for some high octane campaigning.  But on our recent trip it was actually the race for Alaska Governor that caught my eye.  There are three fellows running*.  The incumbent Republican, a Democratic challenger, and this guy:


We have here in Wisconsin another fellow named Scott Walker, he is the incumbent Republican Governor and an interesting figure in his own right.  But the Alaskan Walker is a guy named Bill, a lawyer and former mayor of Valdez.

I should be up front about my own politics, I generally lean in a conservative direction on matters of public policy but don't care much about what people do with their personal lives.  Bill Walker's campaign seems to be in line with this viewpoint, I rather like his website that goes on at length about how awful it is that the Governor's Mansion got a sweetheart bid 1.5 Million dollar paint job, and that the spare legislative offices in Anchorage have glass elevators and bathroom stalls with maple doors. So Bill, if you read this blog take what I have to say as the advice of a friend:  Fire your media consultant.

When I saw the first few signs of the type shown above I thought, hmmm, surely this was a slip up. They would never want to draw comparisons to Britain First, the recently emerging far right, anti-immigrant, close to neo-nazi organization in the UK?  (THIS is a partisan but fairly on target summary of the group).

Must have been a slip up, no?


Sigh.  You really have to be careful about this sort of thing.  You would not think well of a Liberal/Progressive candidate who had campaign signs reading "Fellow Citizens, We March Together to the Worker's Paradise!".

So Conservative candidates need to take a little time and try to avoid slogans that sound vaguely like right wing totalitarian nonsense.  I mean, what next, some three part slogan that has the toxic ring of "Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer"?**

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*This being Alaska there are a whole slug of minor and curiosity candidates.  There is a guy who was born on Kodiak island and went to school in a log cabin.  There is a gold miner.  There is a fellow described as an "inn keeper and frequent candidate".

**For the record, Bill Walker is NOT a neo-nazi and would properly regard any such suggestion as a grievous offense.  Everything I have read about him makes him sound like a stand up guy who would make a pretty good elected official.  Remember, this is friendly advice here.  You won't make it to the political big leagues with this kind of campaign decisions.....

Monday, August 11, 2014

White Water and Big Fish

One thing we did when staying in Copper Center was a white water rafting/king salmon fishing charter. We did this through Klutina Salmon Charters and they did a great job.  The trip was worth it for the scenery alone, but you do get occasional reminders that life in Alaska lacks a few of the built in safety features that we assume in day to day matters.

You bounce up and down on class II and III rapids.  Here our able guide Glenn mans the oars.  I was put in the back seat.  This could be because folks were being nice and this is the "splash free zone".  Or maybe they figured that if I were bounced off it would be a while before my absence was noticed....


And the rest of our intrepid crew.


From time to time you get off and fish.  As we are after King salmon this involves heavy tackle and a long day of casting.  But even the ladies showed excellent persistence and good technique all day.


The Klutina river runs through a deep valley, with steep crumbly hills on either side.  A decade or so back one of these hills just collapsed into the river, damming it off for about half an hour. Fortunately the flow was gradually able to sneak through otherwise Copper Center would have had a significant flood.  Oh, and the process of erosion is naturally ongoing.  This section of hillside fell in three days prior to this photo being taken.


Lets just take a closer look, shall we?


Notice those fresh looking fissues? I saw a few chunks still crumbling off this rock face as we floated by at short range.  When I showed these photos to one of my sons who had done the same trip the day before he observed that the collapsed area looked a lot bigger to him.  Fortunately we drifted uneventfully to our destination.  Had the river suddenly gone dry I was prepared to sprint to high ground....carrying the largest salmon I could quickly scoop up as it flopped in some shallow pool.

Ah yes, the fishing.  King salmon of course are fighting the swift current on their way upstream to spawn.  You fish for them with this:


It is a nylon bag filled with salmon eggs.  Nobody is really sure why the salmon bite at these.  The prevailing theory is that their urge to have their offspring live long and prosper makes them want to destroy any competition.  When it comes to bloodthirsty dynastic slaughter salmon are the Borgias of the fish world.

We had a tough day.  One bite the whole 8 hours.  But it came to my line and I did not miss.  This was a very determined fish.  It ran upstream pulling out line for as long as it could.  Tiring a bit it did what we did not want it to do at all, it ran downstream.  Now the fish had the power of the current helping it.  Line was running off the reel like mad.  I tried every trick Glen suggested to me and nothing seemed to be working.  Then he informed me that the fish had taken off all the heavy test line and that I was down to the flimsy monofilament line backing.  The next serious tug would break that stuff easily. So I figured, what the heck. And started slogging downstream as fast as I could in clunky waders, reeling back an inch or two each step.

It was an epic fight.  This is certainly the biggest fish I have ever caught and it is unlikely I will try to top it.  I was too tired to do the usual fisherman's cheat, holding the catch at arms length closer to the camera.


In the end our group of eight caught four Kings.  I wanted more of our Alaska first timers to have the experience but that was not to be.  Maybe four is about right though.  As a species King salmon are hitting a tough patch.  The Kenai river, long the world's premier King salmon fishery, had their season closed in 2014 due to low numbers of returning salmon.  There is some speculation that the closure will be for several years.  As to the four we took, well, our trip to Alaska helped support the economy in direct and indirect ways.  Alaska Fish and Game is a very hard working organization who take conservation seriously.  I hope the money we and other visitors send their way furthers the stocking and research efforts that will make this an experience future generations can continue to enjoy.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Mordor Bunnies of Alaska

On my first trip to Alaska 8 or 9 years ago my son and I had a long day of flying and then driving.  We pulled in late.  Late enough that even in June there was a twilight dimming of the endless sunshine. I was a little loopy and disoriented so when I saw by the side of the road a large black rabbit I figured I just needed a good night's sleep.

But over the course of our trip we saw these sinister looking bunny rabbits a few more times.  I started to worry a bit.  I have you see read Watership Down and remembered that The Black Rabbit of Inle' was the hippity hop equivalent of The Grim Reaper.

When I mentioned these sightings to other travelers they did not recall seeing such creatures.  My logical assumption of course was that these were simply summer coloration variants of Snowshoe Hares.  But they are usually more of a grey-brown.  Do rabbits and hares have color variation the way black/brown/cinnamon bears do?

That was on the Kenai Penninsula.  On a subsequent trip there and on a later trip to the Copper River region I saw neither hide nor Hare of such critters.

Then this August we pulled into Valdez Alaska, what passes for a metropolis up in these parts, and started seeing all kinds of odd rabbits.  The first we encountered hopping around in the wild was a plain old white rabbit with pink eyes.  Although this did have a sort of Alice in Wonderland effect on me it did not give me the disquieting feeling that the Black Rabbits had.  And then we started seeing more....


And even a few jet black ones....


In addition to the odd color variations there was another strange thing going on. These rabbits did not seem particularly "wild". They were sitting around in people's yards munching on what passes for grass like stuff.  When a couple of the younger, more high spirited members of our party tried to catch one it did not do the flat out sprint you would expect from a wild animal.  It sort of hopped and juked, always switching directions at the right moment but never really attempting to flee the area.  They almost seemed like domestic rabbits.

And they probably are.  My wife frequently talks to strangers and often learns interesting things from them.  She was advised that these actually were domestic rabbits that had been released into the wild. It was assumed that they would not last long there.

My theory is that the black rabbits I saw in both places - and they were separated by 265 road miles or an implausible assortment of mountains, glaciers and bays - were released domestic bunnies of the type called logically enough The Alaskan Rabbit.*  These actually were bred in Germany and were an attempt to replicate the color of the Alaskan Fox.  Intended therefor as a source of fur they never entirely caught on as domestic pets but they are still somewhat popular in Great Britain.  I could easily see folks in Alaska liking them just for their name.

And when you consider how many people come up to Alaska for just the summer or just until whatever wanderlust drove them there wears off, well, it makes sense.

As you pack for the long drive back to "The Lower 48" you have to make executive decisions.  What will come with you.  What is too much bother.  You look over at the bunny hutch and think: bother.

So Miss Muffin Flopears is taken out of her cage, pointed towards Freedom and told:

"Hop away!  Be Free!  Be Happy!  LOOK OUT!!!!!!"

But evidently enough of them avoid the eagles, foxes, bears, wolves etc to maintain little colonies of Mordor Bunnies near the protective shelter of human habitations.

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* or perhaps Havana rabbits but they have white around their eyes and besides, that is not as good a story.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Copper Center Alaska - When the Gold Rush went past

Copper Center is really not a very logical place to build a town.  But of course it was not built in logical times or for logical people.

In the mid to late 1890s Alaska and the adjacent Canadian Yukon region were the site of multiple Gold Rushes.  Many of these were transient or were entirely based on rumor.  But no matter, wherever the gold was thought to be a small army of prospectors would rush out to stake their claims.

In 1898 the golden rumors suggested that all you had to do was take a ship to Valdez Alaska, stroll inland and start picking up nuggets.  Wrong.  Fatally wrong in many cases.  After struggling up the Valdez glacier and trekking to Klutina Lake the miners had to build boats and run the rapids of the Klutina river to its confluence with the Copper river.  At this point some soldiered on to the still distant Klondike gold fields.  Others set up a base to explore the Copper/Klutina region.  This base, at first nothing more than a tent city, became Copper Center.

4000 miners went north in 1898.  Some went on, some went back defeated.  About 300 wintered over in Copper Center suffering through cold, malnutrition and disease.  As there was in fact no significant amount of gold in the area most left in the spring and Copper Center faded to a simple trading post.

But although it contracted it never went entirely "ghost".  The Richardson Highway was built in the late 1890s, at first as a pack trail, then as a proper road.  The glittering illusion of mining riches flickered elsewhere, further north, and Copper Center served its function as a road house and stopping point.  By the time automobile travel began in the 1920s it was an essential place.  Mules and miners can function without gasoline and repairs, Model Ts cannot.

Alaska was a busy place during World War II and the road networks were improved.  Post war people started coming to the interior as tourists.  A New Richardson Highway was constructed putting Copper Center a little more off the beaten track but it hung in there.  After all it had no significant competition.

Today it is a sleepy little place, actually several little clusters of buildings.  Off in the woods, usually beyond No Trespassing signs, you can see the ruins of log cabins.  It is hard to tell how old they really are, the climate of the Last Frontier is not kind to the works of Man.

A series of photos of Copper Center in the summer of 2014.


This is the equivalent of "Main Street".  At the end is the Copper Center Lodge under reconstruction. The cafe is on the right.  The garage on the left.  Empty space and random vehicles are here and there.


The garage.  I suspect that this log structure has repaired pretty much every model of car ever built in America.  The gas pump out front must not have been in service for a while, the price is frozen at 51 cents per gallon.  For my UK readers I should specify that would work out to approximately 60 pence per gallon.  Note that the gauge reads cents per gallon....the notion of a price over a dollar was not considered.


At first glance you would think the strange things in this photo were some sort of pontoon boats. Close but not quite.  They are "fish wheels".  Essentially these are fish traps that float on the rivers here.  The current drives a sort of paddle wheel.  Fish are scooped up and dumped into a submerged basket.  This seems both efficient and unsporting but it is allowed only on a limited basis and only for Native Alaskans.  (that is Native American Alaskans.  Alaskan natives refers to anybody who actually lives there full time as opposed the the more numerous summer visitors).


Our party had to split up for lodging.  The younger generation down at the campground by the river, my wife and I staying here:


This is the Copper Rail Depot Saloon.  An....interesting establishment.  It is in the middle of nowhere. The accommodations are basic.  But it has a fabulous juke box, a wide array of really great micro brews and the most elaborate model train set up I have ever laid eyes upon.  And in the parking lot there was a food trailer serving very acceptable Mexican fare.

Strolling around Copper Center you see all sorts of enigmatic sights.


In Alaska it is very easy to become disoriented.  In mid summer you have pretty much 24 hours of sunlight.  This makes it possible to grow some really outrageous Giant Vegetables.  I am not sure what they have growing here, looks like perhaps cabbages approaching shoulder height.  The fencing features barbed wire.  They don't have to worry about deer so I assume this is moose deterrent.  Or maybe not.  I promise to address the matter of the Mordor Bunnies in due course.

In addition to the Garage there is also a sort of blacksmith/machine shop.  Out front I saw these:



I think the owner of the car has given up waiting for the work to get done.  The second image shows the remains, one assumes, of a bush pilot crash.  The log structure next to it could either be a traditional hunter's food cache or more likely a house for a really, really large dog.


The far end of Copper Center has an out of business "Cash Store", an art gallery and surprisingly large and active Post Office and City Hall buildings.


If you have ever wondered how to make a fence post in a place where rock and permafrost renders post hole digging impractical, here you go.  You're welcome.

As to the future of Copper Center, well, who knows.  The fishing outfitters and campgrounds seem to be doing well.  And there will always be a need for local services on some level.  It is good to see the Lodge being rebuilt and I have to say the little cafe did a fine job on the two breakfasts we had there. (They serve yak burgers at lunch but alas I did not avail myself of this rare opportunity).

What money there is in the area seems to be up the hill where the Princess Cruise line has a very fancy resort.  Some of our party went up there to enjoy the fabulous views and to try unsuccessfully to pass themselves off as idle rich folks.  But this is money that does not trickle down the hill to the old Gold Rush town.  The Idle Rich arrive on a motor coach and leave on one.  Other than some business to the fishing guides they might as well be on another planet.  So Copper Center sleepwalks on.  Perhaps on some level the spirit of the place is still awaiting that Big Strike, that Golden Opportunity that will bring another wave of enterprising entrepreneurs and fortune seekers.

The wait may be a long one.