15 December 2009

Anchored down in Anchorage...

Was delayed flying out of Saskatoon which meant I missed my connection from Minneapolis to Anchorage. After a brief discussion as to whether I should be shipped via Houston, which is about as far as you can go in the wrong direction, they finally sent me to Seattle where I once again missed my connection. Seattle has the most ridiculous communication system with three separate train lines, and a smorgasbord of terminals – its really not that big.

Eventually got to Anchorage which was dark and foggy. Was collected and dropped at a hotel in the center of town. The hotel is apparently “historic” which means it is reminiscent of somewhere in mid Wales, which is neither good nor bad, just different to the drab uniformity of the Holiday Inn etc. Went for a quick walk around the block and by the time I got back they had upgraded me to a suite – very nice!

Next morning it was still foggy, Ken, my host turned up and took me to the talk venue. Talk went fine, lots of interest, then it back to the hotel, where I did a bit of work and then headed to the museum, which was large and only half built. The bit that was open was good and I realized how little I knew about Alaskan, geology or history. From there I headed back to the hotel. Apparently you can see 6 mountain ranges from Anchorage, I saw nothing except fog the whole time I was there. Almost everyone I meet told me how great the view is.

Ken invited me and a few of his friends over to his house to eat and help him drink wine. He is very keen on wine tasting and by the end of the evening we were all rather worse for wear. The food, wine and company were excellent and I realized that the hospitality and friendless had got progressively better, the further north I had gone. From the “make your own way to the hotel, no entertainment” of Bakersfield, through the quick meal out at Boulder, to the longer meal in Canada, culminating in dinner at some ones house. How could Fairbanks be any better? Dancing girls and a limo?

The evening ended with Ken announcing that his driveway was too steep and dangerous to walk down to the waiting taxi so he would drive us. Despite our instance that it was not necessary, he did indeed dribe , all 50 m. It was one of those evening.

Up at 4.30 the next morning for another taxi and a flight up to Fairbanks, 64° north, that’s the same as Trondheim. It was still dark when I arrived and I was met by Doug, a geophysicist who told me that he didn’t really understand what sedimentologists did. He was from Utah and knew the Book Cliffs well, he couldn’t understand that there was anything interesting to do there, “it’s all so layer cake”. But he was friendly enough and took me for a coffee and then drove me around, in fact it seemed like anything to avoid going to work.

The university in Fairbanks is pretty amazing. It was cold, -20° and there was a dusting of snow. The university is a series of very modern buildings with lots of large satellite dishes and other bits of kit that give an air of serious science. Science crossed with the lair of an evil genius, James Bond villain. Dr No’s winter retreat sits on a hill overlooking the town, with the Alsaka range and Denali in the far distance. When the sun came up for its brief appearance there was an amazing golden red light. I went to a PhD defense which was interesting, followed by lunch with some students. Its always fun to meet students and I am drawn to people who opt to spend years of their life in these extreme places. They were very hospitable. Then the talk, followed by the pub. It was one of these old school deals were the entire geology department all head to the pub on a Friday night. There was plenty of beer going down and everyone was friendly and we were having a good time, then things got a bit weird.

I was under the impression that we were all going for food, so I followed Doug, who still had my bags in his car. Doug was very pleased with himself for being able to start his car remotely. Apparently that’s a big deal when its -30! Anyway out at the car we started driving and I realized that we were not going with the others, we were heading to his Korean wife’s restaurant. I guess everyone else had gone elsewhere so it was too late to complain. The restaurant was a bit of a road house in an industrial estate. We sat at the bar while he told me his life story, about how he was set to be a bachelor and then he met his wife who ran various businesses and who generally didn’t come home until 3am. Not surprisingly they had no kids. I was getting fairly drunk by this point and having a few problems keeping with the plot, but the food was good and his wife came over and said hello. You got the sense that she didn’t have a whole lot of respect for academics and scientist but the food was good and she was very hospitable.

He dropped me back at the hotel and I had now lost all of my new found friends from the department, so I went to bed. Next morning I went and hired a car and headed out to the one thing that everyone seemed to think was worth doing. Chenna hotsprings. This has been suggested by pretty much everyone I had met so it must be a good suggestion. Just after my talk the secretary from the department had hand me a piece of paper and said “when you get there, ask for Bernie!”

So I drove for an hour on long straight roads through frozen forest with the off cabin. When the road ended I was at the hotsprings, so I asked for Bernie. Bernie turned out to be the larger than life character who owned the place. He bought me lunch and then gave me a guided tour. Bernie was actually pretty amazing. A big guy with a beard and a huge personality. He talked pretty non stop, typically about how great he was. But the interesting thing was, it was true! He had bought a failing hot spring business in the arese end of nowhere and turned it into a very profitable spa, but then things got really interesting. He had also developed technology for generating power from the hot water, had built green houses for growing fruit (64°N and down to -50°c in winter) and was working on algal biofuels. All with no formal science background. He had also built an ice palace and hotel with some amazing ice carving and he took great pleasure in telling us about the Playboy photo shoot that had taken place there while serving me vodka in a glass made of ice. He was obviously taking on the hospitality vs latitude challenge without even realizing it.

After he had finished with me I headed to the outdoor spa. The water was a perfect temperature, which was good because the air was -20° so that your hair froze once it was wet.

Feeling relaxed I headed back to town, had food and another early night, getting ready for another 5am start and the journey back to Norway. Now sat on the plane heading home. Its been an interesting 10 days.

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