My Alaskan Education: Wood Stoves and Getting Stuck

Fall Semester at UAF 1995, Fairbanks, AK

I still remember arriving at the airport. I wanted something totally opposite of your typical semester in Athens, Ga. so I applied for the National Student Exchange program, and 1-2-3….I had moved to Fairbanks, AK for the fall.  Although I had just experienced this crazy small airport in Sitia, Greece, which basically consisted of a dirt road runway, I still chuckled at the size of the Fairbanks International Airport; its terminal was maybe half the size of one arm of a terminal in Atlanta. And then I stepped outside! I don’t remember what the temperature was, but I know that my skin screamed at me by busting its goose bumps out in large quantities, so quickly that it felt like it could control where I walked, and turn me right around, back into the airport. Defeat for my skin though because I was smiling, and nothing was going to change my mind from being in Fairbanks.

I lived it up and loved it deeply that semester, came back for a spring break vacation, and then returned immediately after graduating at UGA during the summer of 1996, and have never left the state. I massaged my love for that town on and off for about six years, and to this day, I still visit a couple of times a year to get my “Fairbanks Fix.”

While I did attend college there, much of my education rested in the deep crests of learning how to live in cold, long winters. For much of the time, this would come through my stupidity and some serious trials and errors.

Wood Stove Lovin’

My favorite wood stove

I really just mean that I learned how to fall in love with wood stoves, but one special stove in particular. I’m too lazy to scan all of the pictures I have of it in and this picture isn’t the greatest, but I spent countless hours in front of it.

I love wood stoves-always have, but have you ever chopped wood the old school way? With an ax and a splitting maul? I didn’t even know what a splitting maul was until I moved to Fairbanks-it’s the heavy ass wedge on a long wooden handle, but when I saw it for the first time, I questioned its purpose. In fact, a lot of my winter education stemmed from stupid southern questions such as that. Being from Georgia, we have loads of fires, for sure, but creating a camp fire is a completely different process compared to creating piles of wood to heat your home. You’re doing something in order to survive, and live more comfortably. At first, when I moved into my beautiful cabin back in the woods behind the university in Fairbanks, I was

A. Very naive

B. Romanticizing the concept

You see, it is a two-story, monstrous beauty that is also incredibly inefficient with leaky walls, very thin floors, and cracks around the doors and windows. The wood stove and its pipe have a relationship to the cabin that takes months to master. And because your roommate is in the opposite, open-walled loft, there is also an understanding of what needs to happen to keep warm throughout the night, even if you happen to have your partner resting next to you, in -30 weather or hell, even -10, that isn’t going to help. You are a slave to that wood stove and it’s laughing at you the entire time.

The agreement with whomever you live with is that there are going to be shifts and if you miss your shift, you hear grunts, profanity, and loads of moaning coming from across the cabin. It is clear that someone missed their shift because you can see your breath and your toes are about to fall off. The reality that it only takes a few minutes for the cabin to get cold, and a lot longer to heat up hits you with each of your turns because while you are warm in your bed, you face the chore of getting up, bundling up, getting the wood, and then sitting in front of the stove, stoking the fire until you are 100% sure it’s going to stay lit so that you won’t have to get up again until your next shift.

Keep in mind as well that these are college years, granted older college years, but we were always partying, having people over, going to shows, hiking around in the middle of the night to catch the Northern Lights, attending huge bonfires up on the hills, and on an on. Keeping our fire shifts after a night of debauchery was always a challenge.

Still, there was nothing like coming home to that cabin, especially when your roommate beat you home, and had the fire already going. I use to sit in front of that stove for hours, reflecting. There was this rickety old rocking chair that had upholstery from probably the 50s on it and you could ease back and forth on it, basking in the heat and rays of the fire.

I would end up living in that cabin for a few years,  and eventually, I moved to other cabins as well that I had stoves, but nothing would ever compare to my first one.

That cabin taught me how to love a stove, but the education I received from that cabin goes much deeper than my wood stove love affair.

View from Murphy Dome
View from Murphy Dome

Getting Stuck

I realize that driving a Buick in the winter is pretty stupid, but once you learn how to drive on the snowy/icy conditions, it isn’t really that bad, and because the temperature use to stay pretty consistent in Fairbanks, you rarely even had to pump your brakes like you do in Anchorage, in order to prevent a rear-end collision. While I have loads of stories of getting stuck in the Buick on the way to or from my cabin, you would think that most of them would involve snow, but in fact, they involve mud.

The “road” leading to my cabin in the woods was a narrow, pot-holed nightmare and in the winter, while it was tricky to navigate due to the lack of a shoulder, it didn’t compare to the summer because in the winter, the holes ceased to exist. You really just had to make sure to stay on the road and go fast enough to ensure you wouldn’t get stuck in the deep new flakes. Not really simple in a two-wheel drive Buick, but I got the hang of it after about maybe 3 tows/dig outs.

The summer. That was a completely different story.

Miller Hill Rd. intersects a turnoff that leads to three cabins, one of which was mine. During break-up, when the snow is melting, this “road” turns into the messiest thing you’ve ever seen, and at times, could appear to be canoable. Even after break-up, depending on the weather, the thing would simply not dry up, and driving around the potholes, avoiding the slippery spots was close to impossible. The owners of the land, maybe once, pitched in to get the road filled with gravel, but for the most part, it was not maintained. Sometimes, I would look at the road for a few minutes, to gauge whether I thought I could make it.

There is room off Miller Hill to park, and intelligent people would put their extra tuff boots in their cars, and proceed to walk it to get home. To this day, I don’t own a pair of extra tuff boots because when you where those plus some carhartts, you lack complete originality when it comes to attire; everyone there is dressed the same. It must work for the boys though because while I loathe carhartts, I still tend to take them as a good sign, most likely from my years spent in Fairbanks.

View from Murphy Dome
View from Murphy Dome

So no boots, but I would walk it on occasion, especially if I didn’t have much to carry. In the end though, it became a challenge, this gauging of whether or not I could make it without getting stuck. When you do get stuck in the mud, it isn’t like snow in that you can move it away, put twigs under your tire, and drive away. No, mud  just laughs at you when you attempt that method so digging yourself out is pure comedy. In addition, other cars that could help by pulling you out struggle with the resistance between the weight of the car and the combination of their car dealing with mud plus your car. Again, pure comedy. If you try to just keep driving, you’ll spin out, and at least one of your tires, if not more, will just go deeper, and you’ll be even more stuck. Sometimes, we’d get lucky and through it all, my roommates or whoever would be helping me that time never got upset with me. They just helped because that is what it was like being friends with an idiot from Georgia. Other times, we’d end up leaving it there and trying again later. One time I recall having a friend drive to town to call a tow truck so that I could actually pay because I couldn’t afford to get fired from my job. This was back before cell phones and we also refused to pay for a land line so it wasn’t exactly easy to make a phone call. The tower gave me this look of disgust, and clearly in my mind, I believe he was fuming internally about how these new transplants moving to Alaska just needed to stop. But, I eventually became a pseudo master at driving my Buick Century through the mud and pot holes. It became a game that I slowly began to win, and despite people teasing me about my Buick, it became a part of our lives, and living in that cabin.

Learning to live the harder way made me appreciate that place more and more because I felt like I was pretty close to being as off the grid as you can be while living a few miles from town: no t.v., no phone, no automatic dishwasher….nothing could get done the easy way. And despite my hatred for the mud, I never tired of making it home.

My education in Alaska continued via learning how to live without water, learning how to walk on ice, learning how to be in hot springs, and much more! To be continued…..

Thanks for stopping by!

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