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Week 14: The Finale

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Week 3: 80 Pounds of Butter?

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Jackpot! We arrived just in time to see the beginning of the annual Native Alaskan Arts Festival.
Watch Native Alaskan dance.
Date Posted: 03.06.06
Location: 64°8'N 147°7'W, Fairbanks, USA
Weather Conditions: Cloudy, flurries 15F / -9C

The beating of drums, beautiful outfits of seal and caribou skins with colorful patterns of sparkling beads, the air filling with voices singing Native songs, huge bears of ice and other fantastically whimsical ice sculptures carved by chainsaw, a castle made entirely of ice, and a town buzzing to get ready to send off 83 teams of little but “crazy-running” racing huskies in the Iditarod race this Monday. We are in Fairbanks, and turns out we got here just in time to experience the beginning of a busy couple of weeks as they kick-off a spectacular carnival celebrating the winter season; more on that later. First we just sat down, absorbing the realization that 3,700 miles later we are finally here!

We had a great drive – particularly coming up the Alaskan Highway, which is spectacularly beautiful. However, it is also a hard drive, with its twisty, needle-hair corners and steep mountainsides. It can, at times, be quite the experience to drive with Paul in the mountains. Not because he would in any way ever drive recklessly but being an ol’ world champion skier, Paul, to the rest of us mortals, can seem to enjoy rolling down that mountainside a little too much. That said, driving the mountains in the Yukon while carrying 25 Polar Huskies on the back of the truck, even Paul’s knuckles get white. Still, the amazing sights make up for the hard driving. The Polar Huskies enjoy the ride as well; whenever we would pass herds of animals – buffalo, elk and caribou – alongside the road, they would see and smell them too! Grand vistas on the Alaskan Highway.
Watch a huge herd of elk.
Watch the Buffalo grassing alongside the road.
On this expedition our computers will be mostly powered by solar energy. Aaron is working on the gel-cell battery that is powered by the solar panel and which we then plug our stuff into. There is no doubt the Polar Huskies were just as happy as the rest of the dog-truck crew to be pulling into Fairbanks. Since leaving Expedition Basecamp in southern Michigan more than two weeks earlier, we had been on the road for nine days, driving long hours from the bustle of jam-packed Chicago traffic to these wide-open vistas with hundreds and hundreds of miles between small towns; maybe seeing a car every hour or so. Driving down the road it sure felt gratifying to know that although we were burning diesel by the mile (and with 3,700 miles it ended up being about 410 gallons) the consumption had at least been off-set by our partners at Native Energy. They have sponsored this GoNorth! Expedition with enough CO2 that we are considered "carbon-net-zero." Actually we are the first expedition ever of this kind! None of us are into being “first” very much – but this feat is one we are proud of; a small but important effort to make a difference when it comes to curbing the amount of carbon we are releasing into the atmosphere!

Are you doing some “carbon curbing” in your school or at home? Make sure to join this week’s chat with Expedition team member, Dr. Henry Huntington, on Tuesday at 10:00 AM to discuss climate change and add your thoughts and ideas to theCLIMATE Zone!

We had one of the nicest treats along the drive as we pulled into Whitehorse, which is the capitol of the Yukon Territory in Canada. With 23,000 people living in Whitehorse, it is not a big city. But after you have been driving miles and miles through vast wilderness, downtown Whitehorse seems to be a cultural Mecca. Sitting on the banks of the Yukon River, it is a really cool place with lots of history and strong tradition, and it was more than busy when we arrived in the mist of the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous Days. Let’s just say it was buzzing – from slide & glide games, air shows, road hockey, hairy leg and bear growing competitions (!?), curling, log splitting, to an axe throwing contest. We have to admit some of the contests were a bit different, but as is northern tradition, the contests obviously relate to their way of life, finding a way to celebrate the season. This time of year is pretty much the kick-off of community festivals throughout the North. People travel from community to community to meet with family and friends and celebrate the season with Native games, traditional foods, dancing, and singing. An awesome snow carving in the making.
Watch the artist in action carving snow.
Watch the “human weight pull” contest!
The World Ice Art Championship – make sure to check out the many images in the Expedition Scrapbook.
Watch an artist and her chainsaw, beginning her sculpture.
Sure enough, this was just the beginning of it – March is the month of celebrations in Fairbanks! On Thursday we saw something we have never seen before when we went to The World Ice Art Championship. The ice in Fairbanks is apparently considered the best in the world for sculpting as it is said to be “so clear that a person can read a newspaper through a four-foot block of ice.” (!?) Apparently in most other places ice sculpting competitions are held using smaller blocks of “man-made ice.” But in Fairbanks they cut out naturally formed ice in the local ponds to get gigantic 3’x 8’3” blocks of ice that weigh more than five tons! Flying in from around the world, the sculptors then chainsaw, chip, and brush their amazing creations. Some of them are humongous; up to 25 feet in height and weighing more than 20 tons. The artists build the sculptures so big by gluing ice pieces together using a slushy mortar of ice chips and water. Of course they can build them in just a few days, unlike sculptures of wood or stone. But then, they don’t last as long either!
Because they are put together with many smaller pieces, some of the really large sculptures only last for a few days,. Most of the ones we saw were made of just one block of ice and they last for two-four weeks! A whole park, “The Ice Park,” is set up for this incredible show, and more than 45,000 people travel from around the world to see the forty-some sculptures, play in the playground made entirely of ice, and call from the world’s only “ice phone booth!” Paul called back to Education Basecamp to say he was off to the next exciting adventure – the Annual Alaskan Festival of Native Arts. With Native groups performing at the gathering from all over Alaska, and as far away as Japan and Russia, it was a really rare experience to be able to share in traditional singing and dancing into the late night hours.
Explore the “The Ice Park!”
Watch traditional Inupiaq dance.
Alaskan bush veterinarian, Eric Jayne, has Paul on the “school bench” for a day.
Watch Dr. Jayne in action.
Now, the week has been busy with things other than having fun touring around town; soaking up the sights. Actually, it has been insanely busy. Upon arriving we were kindly invited by the crew at VEKO to stay at their new facility – with the dogs. VEKO is the Arctic Logistics Provider for the National Science Foundation, with whom we are working to do our research in the field. This was really great because it gave us a perfect space to pull out the gear and finish up last tasks before we load the sled and take-off on the expedition. On Wednesday Paul was joined by Alaskan bush vet, Eric Jayne, who has generously provided sponsor support to GoNorth! Dr. Jayne will be on 24-hour call for the Polar Huskies while we are out on the expedition. So, if anything happens along the way that we do not know how to deal with – we can call Dr. Jayne. And, as if that is not enough, Dr. Jayne has also offered to take a day with the team to go through the tricks and traits of “Polar Husky first aid in the field.” From where Dr. Jayne lives, out in the bush with his family, he travels by plane into remote communities – sometimes even by his own dog team – to do veterinary work and teach the locals the vet basics as well.
Beyond sitting “on the bench to learn,” Paul has pretty much being going none-stop, wrapping up what seemed like an endless list of last-task items such as picking up the final permits to travel though the refuges along the expedition route, coordinating shipment of liquid nitrogen (to be used for the snow sampling research) to the communities where we will be dogsledding, weighing and arranging for the boxes of re-supplies to be shipped out, talking with reporters, picking up 4700 pounds of dog food and preparing it for shipping, filling fuel bottles …and cutting cheese and butter! Mike and Ginny hard at work filling fuel bottles.
The infamous 80 lbs. of butter – and 80 lbs. of cheese. Remember how we talked about the temperature swinging a lot and that we did not pack the butter and cheese in anticipation that it might get really warm on our way up here? Well, as it turned out it was -20°, -30°, and - 40° below on most of our drive. Now that we are in Fairbanks the weather has certainly turned on us. Yesterday was 30° Fahrenheit! Alaska is indeed the place in the Arctic that has been experiencing the most abrupt increases in average temperatures over the last decade. Hopefully other having to do with climate change, this is just one of those weather flukes and it will soon get cold again – so we will have a reason to eat all that butter and cheese to stay warm!
Iditarod dogs pull a sled of barely 150 pounds compared to the sled the Polar Huskies pull which weighs 1,000-1,400 pounds fully loaded. Comparing the Iditarod sled dogs to the Polar Husky sled dogs is sort of like comparing a formula-one race car with a dump truck! Even though we are comparing Polar Huskies to dump trucks doesn’t mean they are not athletic and fast too. This week’s other Polar Husky Superstar is Sami. At ninety-some-pounds Sami is an average size Polar Husky male. He is a very spirited and strong puller; very athletic and fast which is most likely a trait he inherited from his mother, Nazca. Sami has a gorgeous, thick, black coat and – like all of the black dogs – his biggest issue can actually be that he gets really hot in the late part of the season when we have 24-hour daylight and warmer days. Sami prefers it just like the forecast for the next couple of months: cold, windy, no trails, and wide-open spaces with lots of pulling to be done. He is ready to go and so are we! Sami earns the title as this week’s second Polar Husky Superstar.