Delta at Dawn – Delta Junction, Alaska, USA

Delta at Dawn

Delta Junction, Alaska, USA

The Alaka Range
The Alaka Range
While Delta has a different meaning to the southerners of the lower 48, Alaska has a Delta, too. In Alaska, this Delta is where the Alcan Highway ends. At this thriving junction about 840 folks set up housekeeping, businesses, and whatnot. The town of Delta Junction started in the late 60s and grew along with the Trans-Alaska pipeline. The pipeline began in 1975 and was completed in 1977 with a workforce total over the life of the project, (1969 startup) of approximately 70,000.

In 2001 a missile defense site was being erected at Fort Greely about eight miles south of Delta Junction. The area is gearing up to experience a boom. Like all booms, however, they do come and go. Although, for safety sake, I had thought this may be an appropriate location to visit and even buy property. One imaginative thought was, what if one of the missiles in the future misfires, and happens to land on the lower 48? Thus, my reason for hocking my Colorado property to buy in Alaska.

Many of the original homesteaders and their lineage are still there, like Diehl’s Hardware, and the folks that own the Northern Lights Dairy. Ah, yes, and at dawn, which is around 10:30 a.m. in the winter, it is breathtakingly beautiful. All of Alaska has awesome sights that to my eyes were like candy. I couldn’t get enough.

The Alaska Range unfolds to the west of the property. The road to it south out of Fairbanks was best taken during the six-hour window of light. It was treacherous and icy when the winds blew. My focus would drift to the scenery making the drive even worse. The black spruce trees acted as spooky specters trying to pluck me from my seat along the dark roadways. Their haggard, bent bodies lean this way and that from the bitter cold and strong winds that beat them year after year. They are tall and thin spruce that get around from Newfoundland to Alaska, south to British Columbia, Minnesota, and east to Rhode Island and Massachusetts. But here they looked weary, dry and old as they guarded the roadsides. My eyes played tricks on me as I rounded bends so the drive was a slow go.

The area has a lot of history. At the ‘Y’ of the Alcan, the delta, the southwest road heads to Valdez and Anchorage. It is also known as the Richardson Highway, named after Fort Richardson army base, which still operates. The route of the Richardson passes through the traditional territories of several Athapaskan-speaking Indian groups. On a night drive I could almost hear the spirits of those long since past whispering and when the fog came out rolling over the Tanana, a chill crept over me, not from temps thirty-five below, but from eerie, frightful spirits.

Night Shots
Night Shots
One hundred and seven years before I drove these roads (1897-1898) the Klondike stampede began. One hundered and one years ago gold was finally found (1904), in Fairbanks. Rika’s Roadhouse, a State Park (1986), sits four miles north of my place and is 95 years old. It was built by a man named John Hajdukovitch and sits on the Tanana on the east side of the Richardson. Mr. Hajdukovitch hired Rika Wallen in 1917 and sold the property to her in 1923 for $10.00. The road was well traveled by hoards of people panning for gold. She had two young children, but managed well in those days lodging gold seekers and cooking for them for $1.50 a day. A pulley ferry was used on the river then. The river is wide and bridges didn’t exist. Men would be on either side of the river and use ropes anchored to the ferry to tug it across.

Thirty years before the gold rush the District of Alaska was created and purchased from Russia. The U.S.-Russian boundary extends through the Bering Strait that links the Arctic Ocean with the Bering Sea and separates the continents of Asia and North America (Alaska and Siberia) at their closest point. The strait averages 98 to 164 ft (30 to 50 m) in depth and at its narrowest is about 53 mi (85 km) wide.

There are many Russians there today, living as they would in Siberia or the Ukraine, but perhaps with a lot more freedom and closer to food supply. They continue to speak their native tongue, and live in unfinished cabins, houses, or trailers. I met a family that had eight children; the oldest, named Annetta, was fourteen. She was the only family member who spoke English. I asked Annetta when they came here. She was the sole translator for her entire family.

The Homestead Act of 1897 gave citizens the right to settle on 160 acres of unoccupied public land, which provided many a free place to live. That act closed in 1986. According to Annetta she and her family homesteaded the land since 1985. I wondered about that. Were Annetta’s family citizens when they came?

I didn’t put the question to Annetta, because I didn’t speak Russian and she was only fourteen. I remained satisfied with her story and fascinated with the Russian way of life there. I called Annetta and asked them over, because I had some foodstuff to give them and some dogs to give away if they were interested. They were. It was the dead of winter and temps were reaching 65 below. When they arrived her father was dressed in a traditional Russian hat and fur boots. They were grateful to take all that offered.

Well, I stayed there alone for three months, but ran out food, fuel, and worst of all, money. I was fortunate that I didn’t freeze. Every night I stood outside at three a.m. to watch the aurora borealis. The skies weren’t all that dark, they were almost green and swirls of lighter green light cascaded, curtained, fell, and just played until the suns rays began to fade its omninous power. The light would leap to the ground, travel through me and disappear in the sky only to reform and bath me again. The green flecks were hypnotic as they danced with streaks of pink, silver and gold.

Delta at Dawn
Delta at Dawn
Not much happened while I was there, except things that unnerved me. There were unexplainable noises in the dark of night that filtered in and an occasional momma moose and calf that roamed on the property. I am told they could become a nuisance in the summer if I had a crop, or two. Eight foot fences would be needed and an electric wire; just another unnerving element. The neighbor’s arguments wafted in the air in the vast, empty, and most of the time, noiseless wilderness. Dogs barked and fought amongst themselves to gain their territorial ground. I never knew if the paw prints in the snow were wandering dogs, or wild wolves, perhaps even, wolverines. The faint tick, tick, tick of worms or termites sucking on wood crept in every now and then. Who knows what it really was, but my imagination went wild during my bout with cabin fever.

In the town itself, there are no streetlights, only stop signs. No public transportation, only school buses operated by Laidlaw. Some locals started a Fairbanks shuttle (taxi) service, but it was not set up to go any time one got a hankering.

Horns don’t honk there. People don’t signal and few stop at stop signs due to the ice on the road. The roads are all higher than the businesses. When the huge snow blowers come along it lands in the trenches. I was snow bound and my car doors frozen shut most of the time. Some neon signs hang on cabins serving as make-shift businesses that sell and rent videos, two liquor stores, one bar, one steakhouse, an Italian restaurant, and more neon flashing at two of the three laundry houses. Smoke clouds from wood stove stacks smudge the horizon here and there, when anyone is home.

That winter, the sky filled with golden streaks and pink clouds on a background of baby blue when the sun would break in the morning, and come full-blown around 10:30 a.m. It made its way across the horizon and faded out like a candle flame in the sky around 3:30 p.m., which marked the day’s end.

I worked for time at Northern Lights Dairy and was told that the locals actually prefer the winter even though it can reach 65 below and did. They curse the lack of sleep they get during the summer when darkness can rarely be found; so much for the endurance of some living in the last frontier. The people work extra hard, even to get sleep. For those six months they don’t relish the dawn, because they just came off a six-month shift with not much sleep in the six-hours of night.