[TRACKING STATIONS], 13887 byte(s).

Alaska 1976--1977
Gilmore Creek
Roger Lee

It was a wonderful flight from Seattle, Washington to Fairbanks, Alaska over the inland waterway and the mountain and the snow. We flew on Alaska Airlines over Canada and the high mountains. I have never seen such scenery. Monica, Connie and I were glued to the plane window the whole flight. The mountains were dressed for display with plenty of snow. They were magnificent reaching high toward us.

Previous, we stopped in Baltimore as scheduled. We spent two days there. We flew from there to Settle, Washington where we caught the Alaskan flight. We arrived in Fairbanks the first of February 1975. It was quite a change from the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain. From the sun and sand to a dark cold, -40 F degrees, with snow every where we looked. There was no one to meet us at the airport. We had reservation in a motel in Fairbanks. We walked outside into the cold. The first thing I noticed was the hair in my nostrils freezing. When I caught my breath again I caught a taxi. We were in the motel 40 minutes later. It was a two floor affair. We were in a room on the second floor. The entrance to the room opened to the outside balcony. They scraped the ice away from the door so that we could enter. The room was nice. I noticed that the door opened outward and wondered at the time what happened if we were iced in. I soon found out.

I got up the next day and couldn't open the door. I had to call the desk. They send sent a man with tools to remove the ice so that we could open the door. The warm air from the room went through a small crack under the door the room and hit the outside -40 degree air and caused a small glacier. The door was frozen solid. Connie stuffed a towel in the crack under the door after the man got rid of the ice. That took care of the problem.

I was picked up by one of the engineers that morning. He told me that a bus was available for every shift to the NASA Tracking Station which was called Gilmore Creek Site. It was located on Gilmore Creek five miles from Fairbanks. I found out later that people "panned" the creek and got a small amount of gold--at least enough to keep the tourists happy.

The people working at the Site were very upset. I could feel it in the air when I came in. I found out that all the technicians at the Site were working for the Teamsters Union and were very unhappy with Bendix. There were about 1000 grievances outstanding. Many of them had merit, a few were trifling. The engineers and lower level management at the station was not any happier. They did not make enough money, and were trying to join the union along with the technicians. The Senior Manager of the Site was in a bad way. He seemed to be alone. The people did not understand nor like him, and he could not make any changes without headquarters approval. Headquarters was so far from Alaska that they did not understand. I found out later that the Site had been under another contractor for a long time before that Bendix Field Engineering got the contract. Alaska was sort of a closed clan which did not take to strangers, meaning people from the lower United States, unless they were visitors. The NASA site and the other collocated NOAA Site were very good examples of this.

They were hiring for the pipeline while I was there and it was hard to find a place to live. About 10,000 more workers had moved into the Fairbanks area. They had even grabbed up the living quarters at the University of Alaska. They would register for classes and move into student quarters then take off for the far north and a job on the pipeline. The cost of everything was very high. It was high because Alaska got everything from the lower United States and the pipeline, one of the largest projects the US had every seen, put a strain on the whole infrastructure. A hundred dollar bill there was very common and bought about as much as thirty dollars in the lower US.

When I got my first check Connie saw it and said, "We can't live on that!"
Since I hadn't been there long enough to find a place to live I was still drawing per-diem and it still wasn't to hard making it. But I could see a hard time coming soon. It looked as though I would have to dip into my savings. We rented a place temporary while we were looking for a more permeate house. There were three families living in an apartment, and a small apartment, one-bed room, rented for $1000.00 a month.

I was sure that the company was going to have to raise the pay of the people at the Alaska Site, but anyway I started hunting for a part time job to hold me over. Part time jobs were not hard to find. I started working for a small place that sold electric organs. I was repairing them which was funny, since I could not play a note and was tone deaf beside.

We made a bargain with one of the technician who had to go down to the lower US to got his wife. He wanted us to live in his house while he was gone. It was a beautiful log house in the woods with squirrels living in the attic. We found the squirrels later after they frightened my wife making noise in the attic. We liked the log house it had a good modern heating system and a large fire place.

I bought a car after I found out about the modification that I needed to run it in Alaska. It had a 115 VAC cable and engine heater installed and the grease packed in the wheels had to be changed for a lighter type. The engine heater was plugged into a receptacle at every place you packed the car. Each parking place had a receptacle. If you forgot to plug the car in during the winter it froze up and would not start. You had to remember to put a pint of alcohol in your gas about once a week during the winter months to keep it from freezing in the small pipes that ran to the engine in the car. A lot of people would leave the car running when they were leaving for a very short time and leave it unplugged. This caused a problem that was called ice fog. The exhaust would make a cloud of ice fog when there was no wind to blow it away. Then you could not see for the exhaust in the parking lot. Fairbanks was in a very large bowl surrounded by the mountains and there was very little wind. You would get the ice fog on the roads which would reduce the visibility. Many times in the winter I would drive home in second gear it was so black and the ice fog was so thick. When it would clear up a little the cars would speed up to 60 miles an hour or more. We were driving on packed ice and snow and if you had to stop for any thing it seemed like a half-mile before you reached a complete stop. What saved the people driving on the roads was the lack of traffic. In the winter most of the people put on studded tires.

I bought a new house near the University of Alaska campus, in fact almost on the campus. It was a good place for me because I immediately started attending classes the University. Many Sundays we attended Catholic mass at the University. The University has a wonderful library with many books and tapes on most subjects. We did not have our furniture when we moved to the new house. We had to wait several months for the furniture to arrive. It was being shipped across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and up the West Coast to Alaska. Meanwhile we borrowed a few thing for the house, enough to live. We had left our beds in the apartment in Las Palmas so we bought new beds in Alaska. We slept on the floor in sleeping bags until we had the new beds.

All of the grievances were settled with the union and we got general across-the-board raise at the Site and which make it unnecessary for me to work at a part-time job. I was taking courses at the University in journalism (writing) which I really enjoyed. I wrote several articles for class and one for the local paper. I was keeping busy at the station working at several different management positions. I started working scheduled overtime. Working as the Shift Manager I would work 12 from 7 till 7 for 5 or 6 nights and then 7 till 7 o'clock for 5 or 6 days. It seemed like I just slept and worked. A lot of times I felt faint at the end of a 12 hour shift--my heart again.

Fairbanks was a frontier town with the extra people who came with the pipeline. There were more clubs and bars opening every day. The people on break were living It up and drinking every night before going back to the job. The extra people who came crowing in with the pipeline workers--prostitutes, gamblers, bartenders, and people selling all kinds of dope helped make it a frontier town and continued to drive the prices up.

Arriving when we did, in the middle of the winter, we learned fast what we had to do to survive in Alaska. We soon bought a set of skis for the three of us. And bought more warm clothes. We saw the ice growing up the windows, inside in the house, and found that this was normal at -40 F below. Just another example of building a glacier on a small scale. When it is this cold it is dry. The humidity was between 10 and 30 in the winter time. Some peoples had humidifiers in there houses. We found that if we let the temperature in the garage get above freezing the garage would sink in the ground. So we keep the temperate 30 F in the garage. Which seemed warm to us after a while in Fairbanks.

A wolf got our garbage one night and we saw a moose behind the house. It was a very nice place to live. Monica was in the Catholic school now, and she liked it. The buses ran on time and stayed in touch with the school with a mobile radio. When it was cold it was very important that the bus be on time. The children would not have to wait long in the cold.

I went ice fishing with a couple of guys. We drove out on the ice on the Tanana River, drilled through three feet of ice and started fishing through the hole. We caught three nice trout. I had one for dinner that night. We had a bottle of whisky in the truck, but had to warm it up before we drank any. It was in the back of the truck, and although the alcohol didn't freeze it was cold enough to freeze you inside.

Drinking was a problem at the Site. A lot of people drank too much. Alcohol was easy to get and living in Alaska seemed to encourage drinking. I had a couple of alcoholics working on shift on one of my shift teams. Sometimes they would not show up. You could not depend on them. We tried consulting, and finally had to fire one of them.

At the Site we had two vans fixed up as de-glaciers. There were heaters used for steam generators inside with hand held pipes to direct the steam where you wanted it. We used them to keep the creek running all winter. Otherwise it would freeze and glacier out across the road. Where ever it built a glacier the glacier would stay the year around and keep growing. Of course, we used the vans very often around the Site to get rid of other ice. Working on the outside antenna when is was -40 F was a learned art. We had heaters that put out a small spot of heat and you worked in this spot.

The spring was wonderful when it came. The sun came out for a longer time and the snow melted. The Alaskans or Sourdoughs called it breakup, when the river began to flow and the ground became mud. They had a pool on when it would occur and set an alarm clock along the river with a pole in the ice tied to stop the clock when it moved. When the river flowed that indicated breakup had started. The flowers bloomed and the trees budded. People put out a garden. But you had to plant it in a hurry or the plants would not have time to grow. I went into the woods behind the house and gathered a bunch of dead trees for firewood. I bought an ax and started chopping wood. I felt good. I was a kid, back on the farm splitting kindling. Not a 43 year old man. Its strange, I did not think about my age during this period.

The mosquitoes came out in droves. We had to buy mosquito repellent. They would stay just a meter from your face while the repellent was fresh. As the repellent wore off they would get closer until they were right in your face and eyes.

We took a boat trip on the Chena and Tanana Rivers. The boat was a sternwheeler-- not very maneuverable. When we reached the Tanana River we were moving fast for a narrow river. The pilot was very busy keeping the boat in a navigable stream. There sand bars and floating trees in the water that he had to watch for. You could tell that the river was never dredged. It was spring and the scenery was beautiful when one had the time to look at it.

We stopped at noon for a wiener roast and a walk around in the woods. The sternwheeler was set up for carrying people and we had around 40 people on board. We got back aboard and continued down the river.

The Athabascan Indians put on a show for us at end the end of the trip. We caught a train at Nenana for the return to Fairbanks. The sightseeing went on through the trip back to Fairbanks. The train had a two level coach and we went to the top for the best view of the forest and mountains.

We went berry and mushroom picking on weekends after putting on the mosquito repellent. When picking berries and looking for mushrooms we would make a lot of noise trying to keep the bears away. I did not carry a gun on the trips although a few of the guys carried a .357 Magnum when they were out in the woods. This was about the smallest handgun that would stop a bear.

We had an engineer working as a Nimbus Controller. The Nimbus was an experiment weather satellite. The Controller would monitor the satellite housekeeping parameters and sent commands as necessary to keep the Satellite going. The Controller had a son working on the pipeline in far north. He got crushed by pipes and was sent down south to the states for care. I took over the Controller job when he went south with his son. He was gone for more that month. I became proficient at the job of Controller. The Assigned Controller brought his son back to Alaska. His son was in a bad way. His lower extremities were crashed. He had to have one leg removed.

Winter was coming again, and I decided to go to a resort at the foot of Mt. McKinley for a few days. We really saw some of Alaska's beautiful scenery up close. They had waking paths all around the resort. Several train sleeper cars had been fixed up as a hotel. From the resort we went on to the city of Anchorage and spent a couple of days there. On the way back we were in a snow storm, but arrived at Fairbanks very happy to get there--almost hit a moose. Moose seem to pick out the correct time to go out into the highway to show up right in front of your car.

We wanted to get closer to the Arctic Circle and drove north to a small village called aptly Circle on a weekend. There was only two or three residents who lived there the year round. This was the end of the road and we turned back to Fairbanks.
We saw a marvelous display of the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) sweeping back and forth with the low hiss that accompanied them. They would cover the whole sky. After seeing the northern lights several times we sort of took them for granted. It is strange how adaptable humans are. If you find something is not harmful it just becomes another part of the scene.

We decided to fly across the arctic circle to Amsterdam, Holland and then to the Canary Islands, Spain, during the Alaska winter. We still had a apartment in Las Palmas and we were looking forward to getting out of Alaska and spending some time on the beach. It made the winter in Alaska shorter.

I started thinking of permanently getting out of Alaska. The 12 hour shifts were bad for my health, and I did not know how long I would be able to work them. A chance to get to Bendix Field Engineering Headquarters came up in April 1977 and I went. We packed up, shipped our furniture, and sold the house. I sold the car and bought a camper van. We were going to live in the camper van, drive the Alaska Highway to Haines, Alaska and then catch the boat down the inland water way. Then drive the camper van across the lower 48 states.

This was an adventure I looked forward to. We prepared the for the trip by buying extra gas containers and food. The camper van had a stove and a large heater inside. There was a small refrigerator, a wash basin, and three sleeping spaces.

We left Fairbanks by way of a picturesque village called North Pole where we stopped and took pictures. This is the home of Santa Claus. Monica was the right age to enjoy North Pole.

Our first night on the road was really cold. We crossed the Canadian border during the first day and found a wide place in the road overlooking Kluane Lake to park and spend the night. The scenery was beautiful. Connie fixed our dinner and then we crawled into our sleeping bags. When I woke up the next morning our drinking water had frozen solid. I turned over and turned on the heater. It was within reach of where I slept. I waited until the heat had warmed up the van above freezing and reluctantly crawled out of my sleeping bag. I woke Connie and Monica. They got up and started fixing breakfast. That was the pattern for our living in the van.

I drove through Whitehorse, Canada and turned off on the road to Hains, Alaska. We had an exciting trip across White Pass. It snowed so hard we could not see the road. There were tall poles on both sides of the road to mark it and I followed a truck over the pass. As we drove down into Hains the snow disappeared and the evergreen trees lined the road. We reached a river and saw fishermen standing in the water fishing for salmon or trout. Hains is where the road ended--we would catch a ferry from here to Prince Rupert, Canada. That was a wonderful part of the trip on the inland water ways. We had three days wait for the ferry in Hains. We parked the van and lived in it.

The ferry finally came and we drove on it with the van. A steward showed us to the room which was very nice with four beds. They were stacked one on top of one another. We started exploring the ship. The dinning room was the first place we found and next the bar. Both of them was on a top deck with a beautiful view through large picture windows. We went out on deck to watch the ship get under way. We were soon going down the inland water way.

It was a marvelous trip by Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell, and Ketchikan. We saw a glacier which seemed to alive shedding large chucks of ice all the time. Producing timber and fishing were very large Alaska industries. Almost all the small towns that we passed on the water had large rafts of logs sharing the water with fishing boats.

Finally we reached Prince Rupert, Canada where we got off the ferry. We spent another night in Canada before we reached the lower 48 states. We drove into the state of Washington on route 5 and continued on to Seattle. We stopped in a cafeteria in Seattle for a breakfast of blueberry hot cakes. It was a welcome change from breakfast in the camping van. In a way it welcomed us to the lower 48 states.

We pointed the van east and continued to drive. Crossing the Idaho pan handle into Montana. It looked like we had got out of mountains anyway, but it stared snowing. We drove across a large part of Montana in a blizzard. It was not a traffic stopper, but there was plenty of snow. I was proud of that van. We keep going in almost any kind of weather. We crossed into Wyoming and spent the night camping there. We were disturbed by a bunch of drunks. They looked like Indians. Anyway we drove on about 5 o'clock in the morning. It was spitting snow again. We crossed the border into South Dakota and drove into Rapid City where we stopped in a motel for a couple of days. This gave us a chance to take showers and baths. The van did not have a shower.

We were going to see Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, but the road was closed because of bad weather. We were sorry to miss the stone faces. We drove through Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. We stopped in West Virginia to see my mother and my brother and sister. We stayed there a couple of days and then stopped in a camping area in Pennsylvania. It started stowing again in Pennsylvania. The next day we went to a motel near Washington DC.

I reported to work at Bendix the next day.