Whenever I’ve skied the 50K Sonot Kkaazoot, no matter the weather, I feel like it’s more a vision quest, than a race. Towards the end, as I’m limping down the Chena River towards the finish line, I expect to see a bison head materialize in front of me and offer some profound insight, something along the lines of “Don’t do this again.”
Endurance athlete Bad Bob Baker founded the race and for him 50K must seem like an appetizer before the main course. He’s skied more than a thousand miles several times: along the Iditarod Sled Dog Race trail and along the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race course.
But as you’ll hear, a recent heart attack has brought him a new found appreciation of life and the limits of endurance. I began our discussion by asking about how he met his wife Sharon, who can often be found skiing right alongside Bob and volunteering with him at ski and track events.
If you want more information about the Sonot Kkaazoot and “Bad Bob” go to sonotkkaazoot.org
I’m still fairly new to cross-country skiing, but one name I learned early on was that of endurance athlete Bob Baker. First I was told, he’s known as “Bad Bob.” Second, I learned for a long time he dominated endurance skiing events, such skiing the thousand mile courses of the Iditarod and Yukon Quest sled dog races. He is the founder and longtime organizer of the Sonot Kkaazoot, Fairbanks’ 50 kilometer spring time Nordic Ski event. Lastly, he’s participated in the grueling Equinox Marathon 38 times, this year most recently.
But this year was different. As you’ll hear, Bob suffered a massive heart attack running a different event three months before the Equinox. He collapsed without a pulse after finishing first in his heat in the Jim Loftus Mile. Luckily several physicians and a defibrillator were handy. After a successful bypass surgery, many thought he’d sit out the Equinox this year. But that isn’t how Bad Bob Baker rolls.
As I have come to know him in the last few years, I also discovered he’s tied into a remarkably tight knit network of friends. Many of those friendships were forged at Lathrop High School in the early 70s. On top of that foundation, he and his wife Sharon can be found volunteering at most of the youth track and ski events, encouraging new generations of athletes.
In this first of a two-part discussion, I began by asking Bad Bob about crossing the finish line at this year’s Equinox.
I learned this week that University of Alaska Fairbanks Summer Sessions posted the video of my conversation with Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
It was a remarkable event, and I feel quite honored I was part of it. While I was prepared for her to get up from her chair and wander the Davis Concert Hall, it was a first for me to lose a guest in the shadows. At some points I was casting questions into the void; at least that’s what it seemed, with the spotlights in my eyes and her having passed into the darker recesses of the auditorium. Nevertheless, Justice Sotomayor quite captivated the audience as she roamed up and down the aisles, shaking hands and exchanging a few words here and there. Her responses to questions were thoughtful, of course, but also delivered like a gentle rabbinic scholar combined with a wise aunt.
It is that combination of humanity and thoughtfulness her memoir My Beloved World exhibits. It proved so helpful to me in preparation for the interview. In it, Sotomayor displays a gift for drawing vivid portraits of family and friends and providing gripping descriptions of her hardscrabble childhood. Often many of her scenes put me in mind of passages from Dickens. I recommend it.
In any case, I’m glad the video is finally available. I hope you enjoy it.
Dancing into the Dark by Kesler Woodward. Used by permission.
If you recall, several episodes back I featured a collaborative project and discussion between the poet Peggy Shumaker and the painter Kesler Woodward. Today I talk with Kes about another collaboration: OneTree Alaska at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The program attempts to engage young people and adults to reflect on their ecological environment. To do that, it draws on a collection of disciplines including science, technology, engineering and math. Perhaps most importantly, for today’s show, the local group also draws on the arts; and this is where Kes comes in. The boreal forest is an obvious point of departure for OneTree Alaska, and Kes has a reputation as one of Alaska’s premier landscape painters. His portraits of birch trees are particularly prized. This Friday OneTree Alaska is hosting an open house featuring paintings by Kes. I thought the event offered a wonderful opportunity to talk with Kes about his work and OneTree Alaska.
Julie has a cousin from York, England. Eric loves traveling, and now in retirement he’s doing a lot of it. On a visit with us several years ago he fell in love with Alaska. He loves the snow, the cold, the dark and all the region’s rough edges. He has visited us twice and he’s joining us again early next year. In his Yorkshire accent, his eyes shining, he’ll tell you it’s brilliant.
I thought of Eric as I was putting this program together. Next time he’s is in town, I want to introduce him to Matthew Sturm. Like Eric, Matthew sought out adventure as a young man. And like Eric, he has boundless enthusiasm for “The North.” After a stint in the Coast Guard and running Zodiacs in Antarctica, Matthew returned to school and started a path in snow research that led to him being elected in 2009 a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, a rare honor. But his passion also led him to write an engaging celebration of the people and physical dynamics that have shaped and continue to shape the North American high latitudes. Finding the Arctic, recounts a 2500 mile snow-machine traverse he and some fellow researchers made from Fairbanks to Hudson Bay, Canada. He’s also the author of a wonderful children’s book: Apun: The Arctic Snow.
I first met Matthew years ago when I was working on a documentary on Climate Change. Our crew had flown to Barrow and we were to meet him outside of town. His team, in a line of snow-machines and what looked like a trailer on treads, emerged from a veil of blowing snow. Dressed in patched coveralls, a large worn parka, with sun goggles and a full beard, Mathew looked every inch the Arctic explorer. With this exception: he was neither grim nor taciturn. In gesture and word, he conveyed an unalloyed excitement about being in the field and to be explaining his work. As a producer I knew I had struck gold.
In this episode, I explore his scientific lineage, his love of history and how he came to study with Dr. Carl Benson, whose pioneering work on the Greenland Ice Sheet set the groundwork for decades of research to follow.
I’ve worked in broadcasting and media for most of my adult life. I count myself lucky that, for the most part, I’ve been allowed to follow my curiosity around and get paid for it. Yet, it’s hard for me to escape the impression the profession is in a profound period of upheaval. Newspapers are in free-fall as subscribers decline in number and advertisers find cheaper ways to reach potential clients. Network corporate owners constantly seek ways to trim the costliest item on their spreadsheet, the newsroom. And the public today can choose any number of ways to receive news: social media, web outlets, or, yes, podcasts.
All of this came to the fore when journalist and university professor Lynne Snifka announced on Facebook she was departing Fairbanks. I’ve known Lynne for 20 years. I met her when she took her first job in Alaska as a television director and producer at KUAC. Smart, funny and creative, she was a wonderful colleague to work with when radio and television combined forces for election coverage. She also produced engaging documentaries on topical issues and personalities around the state. Later, she when turned to print as a writer and editor, her pieces exhibited her characteristically sharp-eyed and smartly-written observations about the world around her.
Ten years ago, she accepted a post as a journalism professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, training a new generation of journalists. Even so, she found time to work as a freelance writer for magazines.
Lynne’s announcement she was leaving Alaska coincides with a fiscal quagmire the University is struggling to extract itself from. Many professors and researchers I know see their departments shrinking, merging or threatened with extinction.
All of which led me to invited Lynne on Northern Soundings.
I had two remarkable conversations last Sunday. In the afternoon, I spoke with and moderated a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Usually, I like to spend at least an hour or so with my interviewee, a few days before we record. Unfortunately, the justice’s schedule was so full, I only had about 15 minutes with her before we went on stage. Nevertheless, Justice Sotomayor was warm, engaging and absolutely authentic.
While we spoke, she took the opportunity to step off the stage and saunter up and down the aisles shaking hands with the audience members and even posing for pictures. That was a first for me. By making herself available to the people, and offering thoughtful responses to the questions, she charmed the audience. To be honest, she charmed me as well. I will be posting a link to the video of our conversation when the producers release it.
Today’s posting, however, is drawn from my first conversation last Sunday, and it also deals with an authentic woman. I first met Liz Lyke before she transitioned to her current gender. I’ve talked about a group of grizzled guys in their 60s who gather most Sundays to ski or bike together. They’re called the SCUM, a moniker that stands for Susan’s Class of Unteachable Men. One summer, a few years back, a younger biker showed up and starting riding with us. Since he was obviously several decades our junior and injury free, we began calling him “The Kid.” The Kid was really strong, fast and took the sport seriously. He was also good natured – he let us call him The Kid, after all.
A little more than a year ago he, or I should say she, wrote a heart-wrenchingly earnest and detailed email to the SCUM explaining why we wouldn’t be seeing him, or rather her, much in the near future. He was transitioning to a she. (I found myself slightly disoriented among the pronouns.) With that email, “The Kid” became Elizabeth, or Liz, and she thanked the SCUM for giving her an opportunity to ski and bike with us.
I found the email an incredibly courageous expression of what was obvious a very difficult process. Liz was the first transgender person, I’d ever met. I was only vaguely aware of the national drama playing out with Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn. When I started Northern Soundings I recognized I wanted very much to talk with Liz and learn more about what led up to, and what followed after, her email to the SCUM. This posting is that conversation.
More than a month ago I attended a fine event at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. It featured a collaborative project uniting Peggy Shumaker‘s poetry with Kesler Woodward‘s paintings. Far from an arbitrary pairing however, the project was very much a call and response between two friends. That evening celebrated an iteration of Kes and Peggy’s exchange captured in the Alaska Quarterly Review. I say iteration because, as you will hear, the current conversation took on a life of its own. Moreover, it isn’t the first time the two have worked together. AQR’s founder and editor Ronald Spatz had featured another collaborative project by Kes and Peggy in the review’s pages eleven years earlier.
However, the conversation that played out at the museum that evening included another writer’s voice, that of the late Eva Saulitis. Peggy and Kes knew her well and the Alaska Quarterly Review dedicated to Saulitis’ memory the issue the featured Peggy and Kes’ conversation. That’s fitting. As you’ll hear, Eva was very much on the minds of both artists as they creatively responded to each other.
I had hoped to have both Kes and Peggy in my studio to continue the conversation. But scheduling wouldn’t permit it. I’ll have them both back at some point, I’m sure. But we are fortunate they recorded a version of their conversation for Ron and AQR and granted me permission to use parts of it for this podcast.
I extend my thanks to Peggy, Kes, Ron Spatz, the Alaska Quarterly Review and Theresa Bakker from the Museum of the North for their help in making this program possible.
There is a traditional view of the writer as a solitary explorer of ideas, characters and incidents. The grand-daddy of the personal essay, Montaigne, serves as a good example. A member of the nobility, he had a dedicated room in his chateau where he would pen his observations in solitude. But most writers today have to work in order to serve their muse, and for many that means teaching, and thus engaging others routinely about ideas.
Frank Soos is now retired, but for many years he taught at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and he was good at it. As you’ll hear, several Alaskan literary lights had Frank as a professor. But he has also forged some lasting friendships and working relationships with fellow UAF Profs: Perhaps most importantly, with the painter and art historian Kesler Woodward. Kes and Frank attended Davidson College together, and Frank’s writing is deeply informed by the visual arts. Frank is also married to the visual artist Margo Klass and the two have exhibited together and co-created several books. Finally, it should be mentioned the poet Peggy Shumaker is another retired professor and friend from the UAF English Department who continues to collaborate with both Frank and Kes.
In this episode, I ask Frank about his educational background and collaborative projects.
Almost 30 years ago I found myself in a University of Alaska Fairbanks undergraduate creative writing class taught by Frank Soos. It’s hard to overestimate the effect the class had on me. Until then, only two teachers had radically changed the way I viewed the world. That fall, I found a third.
The thing is, looking at Frank you would never peg him as a prof. He’s tall, whipcord trim and sturdily framed, despite the height. He sports a mustache that vaguely suggests an outlaw in a John Ford Western. That changes when you see him teach. He’ll diffidently shuffle into class, cock his head as if trying to catch a phrase just out of earshot and address the students. Unfailingly polite, he then leads, prods, and draws forth from the class observations about the assignments you only dimly imagined.
All of which is to say, Frank is a gifted teacher. He is also a lyrical and intelligent writer. Like Frank’s appearance, his prose is deceptively casual, even conversational; but on reflection you discover his deep understanding of literature and culture. His collection of short stories Unified Field Theory won the Flannery O’Connor prize for short fiction. He currently serves as Alaska’s Writer Laureate, an honor that coincides with the publication of his latest collection of essays, Unpleasantries: Considerations of Difficult Questions. He has also collaborated on wonderful book projects with visual artists, his wife Margo Klass and longtime friend Kes Woodward.
More personally, Frank contributed reviews to KUAC’s Alaska Edition, a public radio show I helped produce. His range was impressive, besides casting a critical eye on literature, he also reviewed performances by basketball teams competing at the Top of the World tournament. Those reviews date back more than a decade. But here’s the thing, I still get people asking me when the station will bring them back.
So, I knew I wanted Frank as my inaugural guest for Northern Soundings. I hope you enjoy the interview