This summer I’ve had the opportunity to interview a boat-load of people. These opportunities have come through the University of Alaska Fairbanks Summer Sessions program and Michelle Bartlett. Unfortunately, the sometimes two interviews a week I’ve conducted for that program, which salutes the university’s centennial, stymied work on Northern Soundings. That said, I hope soon to post special episodes of Northern Soundings featuring many of my Summer Sessions interlocutors.
However, I’m pleased to post this discussion I had with Paul Heinzen. I originally met Paul when I was working for the Catholic Diocese of Fairbanks. Paul was volunteering, doing odd-jobs around the grounds of the chancery. As I came to know him, I learned he was a guy who marched to a different drummer. His main employment was working for NGOs, or Non-Government Organizations, in other countries. As a young man he found he loved to travel and began working for NGOs to continue his peripatetic lifestyle. That lifestyle brought challenges and rewards. When I finally sat down with Paul, he had just returned from Tajikistan.
It was only after I began to write the introduction that I realized this episode stands as a bookend, of sorts, to the last. If Eric Scott represents the spirit of someone smitten by Alaska, the late Jim Bell represents a composer who fed the more romantic side of the Alaska myth through song and humor.
I’ve always felt Fairbanks is blessed with a higher than average population of gifted actors, writers and musicians. Many of these artists perform in summer shows and concerts mounted for the enjoyment and edification of visitors. More than 30 years ago I was in one of these shows at the Palace Theater and Saloon featuring the songs of Jim Bell. It was called, TheGolden Heart Review, and its run at The Palace each summer must rival the decades-long run of Cats on Broadway. I mean to say, it’s still being performed. And if you went to The Palace this summer chances are good you’d see my guest in the cast. Sarah Mitchell grew up, not only with the show (her parents Gianna Drogheo and Steve Mitchell are Palace veterans) but also with the music of Jim Bell. As you’ll hear Jim was her godfather. Sadly Jim passed away a decade ago, but Sarah is releasing a tribute album of Jim’s music. I invited her into the studio to discuss the CD, and her memories of his personality and songs.
Its summer in Alaska and that means the tourist industry in high gear: campers and buses ply the roads, bands of visitors roam downtown areas, and cameras tilt and pan to find just the right photo opportunity. While I tend to grumble at the migrating hoards, my disposition has been tempered by Julie’s cousin by marriage, Eric Scott. Eric has taken to visiting us each spring. He’s a successful entrepreneur who started out poor and found magic and himself in Western Australia as a young man. Now in his 70s, he loves to roam the world and, after his first visit, he fell under Alaska’s spell. In honor of the tourist season I decided to talk with just one person who is smitten with our state. But, as you’ll hear, Eric isn’t one to follow a tour or even visit when the snow is gone. He comes in the spring and he has an uncanny ability to strike up conversations and make friends wherever he goes. I began our discussion with his early life.
Twenty years ago a young science writer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute took off on foot from Valdez, Alaska to follow the Trans-Alaska Pipeline north to Prudhoe Bay. Permission was late in coming. He received a permit from Alyeska Pipeline Service Company just days before his departure. For the next four months Ned Rozell forded steams, climbed mountains, avoided bears, braved swarms of mosquitoes and met a diverse and quirky series of individuals who had property near the pipeline corridor. He wasn’t alone. His sturdy Labrador Retriever Jane joined him on the journey. Periodically, friends and family would join the pair and walk a section of the 800 mile hike. His trek was captured at first in a series of columns and later in a book called, appropriately enough, Walking My Dog Jane.
In 1997 when that trek occurred, Ned was 34. In the intervening years he married Kristen and they have a 10 year old daughter named Anna. By all rights, Ned should be a comfortably settled middle-ager negotiating nothing more demanding than a recliner. Instead, earlier this month he took off to retrace his path up Alaska, this time joined by a new canine companion, 3-year old Cora, a Lab-heeler mix. Kristen and Anna are also planning to share some miles with the pair.
I spoke with Ned before he left. I wanted to know why he was hiking again a trek most of us wouldn’t tackle once.
Every year the University of Alaska Fairbanks Communication and Journalism Department draws journalists north to either occupy the Snedden Chair of Journalism for a year, or for a shorter stint as the Snedden Guest Lecturer. Dorothy Parvaz, an Iranian born reporter who works for Al Jazeera Media, was this year’s lecturer. Before Al Jazeera, Parvaz worked for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Times. At the Times she served on the editorial board and was a columnist.
However, it was her recent work on the global refugee crises that brought her to Fairbanks this winter. Last year, Parvaz reported on the nearly two million refugees caught in political limbo between Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as other regional and human rights issues.
Given the word “refugee” has become so politically freighted in the U.S. recently, I asked her about the term from her perspective as someone who has reported from the front lines of the crises.
John Estle (left), 1984 Chief of Competition, FIS World Cup Races, Birch Hill, Fairbanks
There are a series of distance national championship Nordic ski races taking place in Fairbanks this week as part of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Super Tour finals. The Chief of Competition is John Estle. Above you can see a picture of John fulfilling the same role in the World Cup races held here more than 30 years ago. It isn’t overstating things to say John is something of a legend in the Nordic Ski community. He has been inducted into the University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks Hall of Fame and he also served as the Cross Country Head Coach of the US Ski Team from 1990-93. His views on skiing and training are still sought after, and I began this episode by asking John what Fairbanks and the Nanooks were like when he began as a coach in 1982.
As regular listeners will know, I fell in love with cross country skiing late in life. Over the last six years I’ve made steady progress, but I have unique, if dubious, distinction. Not many skiers of my caliber can say they’ve made an impression on the celebrated former Nanooks ski coach John Estle. In my first 20K race I was approaching the stadium and the finish line when I saw a friend. I stopped and chatted with them for a few minutes. Then they asked if I was in the race and hadn’t I better finish. Well, when I actually crossed the finish line, dead last, I looked over to find dour-faced John Estle gazing out at me from the timing hut. He had been waiting to wrap things up and I’m sure he saw me chatting away. I’ve never had the courage to ask him what he was thinking at that moment.
From that unpromising start, I have gotten to know and become friends with John. And the more I learned about him, the more I knew I wanted to have him on the show. He was inducted into the University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks Hall of Fame five years ago. During his time as head cross country and skiing coach at UAF, he mentored two skiers to a combined three All-America honors. Also, much of our trail system in Fairbanks has seen his touch. He oversaw improvements to the UAF trails as well as creation of new trails. After UAF, John became the Cross Country Head Coach of the US Ski Team from 1990-93, which included the 1992 Olympics in France, and also served as the Chief of Stadium for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. John continues to play a role locally, nationally and internationally in races and with skiers.
As you’ll hear from our discussion, John approaches his skiers as individuals and as puzzles to be solved.
I want to point out, for any skiers in Fairbanks, there is still time to sign up for the Sonot Kkaazoot. Nifty hats are promised to the first 300 skiers who sign up. More information is at https://sonotkkaazoot.org/
In the summer, I enjoy biking with family and friends and some of those friends take pedaling pretty seriously. They will often bike 50 to 100 miles without thinking twice about it. My guest today is writer Daryl Farmer. His book Bicycling Beyond the Divide recounts a 5,000 mile trek he made, not once, but twice. It is a lyrical and engaging narrative that explores the American West as well as the author’s emotional geography. It won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award. Farmer also teaches creative writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and he has a recently published collection of short stories entitled Where We Land. The collection displays Farmer’s keen ear for dialogue, ability to conjure up arresting characters and deploy them in interesting stories.
Farmer recently received an Alaska Literary Award and an artist’s residency to write in Iceland. I asked him to begin our discussion by reading from his first book: Bicycling Beyond the Divide.
I first heard Ross Coen before I met him. This was years ago at KUAC. Ross was a volunteer host and I was immediately caught by his engaging on-air presence and terrific set of pipes. When I actually met him I was further impressed by his intelligence and great sense of humor. As so often happens at public radio stations, Ross moved on and I lost track of him. That was until about five years ago when I spotted a copy of his book The Long View on the shelves of a local book store. When I cracked the book open I found a wide selection of short essays on Alaska’s history, all of them informative and exhibiting the same engaging style as his on-air hosting.
Right now, Ross is finishing up a PhD in History from the University of Washington in Seattle, but he already has publication credits any tenured professor would envy. Besides academic articles he is the author of two other books: Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil, which charts the voyage of the oil tanker SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage, and Fu-go that explores high altitude balloon bombs the Japanese sent aloft towards the U.S. during World War Two. Fu-go also sparked a delightfulRadiolab episode that explores the story.
I caught up with Ross last month when he was giving a talk about who owns Alaska’s history. So I began by asking him if today there was a definitive historical narrative to own.