Mount Sutro: An Electronic Periodical

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The Passing Of A Talkeetna Legend

Storefronts for Nagley's Store, home of Stubbs the Cat (1997–2017), West Rib Pub and Grill and Talkeetna Air Taxi.

13650 East Main Street, Talkeetna, Alaska: 18 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Talkeetna album


Even though I had no expectations of it happening, I was hoping to see Stubbs the Cat at Nagley's Store during my visit to Talkeetna, a lunchtime stop on the drive from Denali to Anchorage on Sunday, 18 June 2017.

As expected, we were told that the twenty-year-old cat preferred to stay at home these days. We learned that Denali and his sister Aurora, both born in the summer of 2016, were assuming Stubbs' duties but we did not spot either of them. Not that I need an excuse to visit with kitties, but it was Stubbs' honorary title as mayor that, like for many others, drew us to seek him out.

The mythology of Stubbs' mayoral status is documented by the Alaska Dispatch News, but in short the legend says that the feline was "elected Talkeetna's mayor in a 1990s write-in bid mounted by voters unhappy with the human candidates." Of course, as an unincorporated community falling under the jurisdiction of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Talkeetna has no mayor and there was no write-in election. Nonetheless, the charming story spread and made headlines worldwide.

Patrolling and hanging out in the store and neighboring West Rib Pub and Grill, Stubbs received a lot of visitors and attention. The Spone Family, current owners who purchased the businesses including Stubbs in 2015, said that over seventy-five percent of visitors asked about the cat mayor during their first year of ownership. Even then, Stubbs was preferring the quiet of home away from the spotlight. He came out even less in 2016 and 2017, but still did so occasionally.

Sadly, Stubbs passed away in his sleep overnight between Thursday, 20 July and Friday, 21 July 2017 according to a touching history of and tribute to Stubbs PDF published by the Spones. He was twenty years and three months old.

The Sentinels Of Space

A hyrail truck and Alaska Railroad workers performing switch maintenance on a spur near the Clear Highway grade crossing just outside Clear Air Force Station.

Clear Highway at Alaska Railroad MP 392.9, Anderson, Alaska: 15 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Fairbanks to Denali album


A little over sixty percent of the way from Fairbanks to Denali National Park and Preserve on George Parks Highway is the road to Clear Air Force Station. Although obviously a restricted area, I decided that we should take a brief detour down Clear Highway to see what we could see.

Acquired by the United States Department of the Interior in 1949, the station's land was first used as a gunnery range for Ladd Air Force Base (now Ladd Army Airfield) in Fairbanks. In August 1958, the United States Air Force started building a new base to serve as a ballistic missile early warning site. Construction of the Clear Missile Early Warning Station was completed on Saturday, 01 July 1961 and the station became fully operational in November 1961.

The road to the station is also a segment on the way to Anderson, so there is a wooden welcome sign located at the intersection of George Parks Highway and Clear Highway. The prospering plants in front of the sign now partially obscure it.

I did not get a very good picture of the base's main entrance sign, but there is a street sign advertising it on Clear Highway not far from the George Parks Highway intersection.

Approaching the gate, the main entrance sign is to the right while a large white radome is visible at the left. With a diameter of 104 feet, the geodesic structure houses a tracking radar and is part of the original warning system.

Not visible from the roadway, a solid-state phased array radar system was added starting in April 1998. It replaced the legacy system upon going operational in January 2001.

We turned around and backtracked Clear Highway to resume our course to Denali. Not far from the gate is the rail crossing at Alaska Railroad Milepost 392.9. South of the roadway, the rail line splits adding two parallel spurs and also features a running track to Clear Air Force Station, which ends at the base power plant.

The Reason We Are Out Here

A Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) stops and looks at us from the brush alongside the Dalton Highway (AK 11) shortly after crossing the road southwest of Sukakpak Mountain.

MP 202.4 James W. Dalton Highway, Yukon-Koyukuk, Alaska: 24 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Wiseman to Prudhoe Bay album


It all happened so quickly, taking about one minute total.

We had left the excellently quaint village of Wiseman about forty-five minutes earlier to continue our journey to Prudhoe Bay northbound on the James W. Dalton Highway. This section of the road was paved and in relatively good condition, but I still kept my speed down because we were enjoying the drive, scenery and were always watching for animals. Shortly after passing Milepost 202 and coming over a small hill, an animal approached the roadway on the right side and then swiftly jogged across.

I immediately started slowing down and raised my camera to fire off several frames from the hip, looking not at my camera but focusing on driving safely. Mom was the one to guess what we had come across and the notion was rather exciting. I brought the car to a stop where the animal had left the roadway and entered the brush. Sure enough, darting away from us was a Canada lynx.

As they are known to be nocturnal, elusive and an avoider of human contact, it was awesome to see a lynx in the wilderness, let alone just before noon. Despite the name, Canada lynx inhabit forests in Canada and Alaska with additional populations in the lower forty-eight — where it is considered a threatened species — in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. Twice the size of a domestic cat, the Canada lynx sports hair tufts atop its ears, long lower cheek ruffles and a short, black-tipped tail.

Fortunately, the lynx stopped not too far away to check us out for a moment, staring with typical feline intensity.

Just as the lynx decided to retreat into the thicker forest and out of visual range, my attention was drawn to a sound from above. Circling overhead and screeching loudly was a northern harrier, a hawk that breeds in Alaska and Northern Canada.

Although it seemed quite upset by the big cat's presence, the northern harrier probably did not have much to worry about. Canada lynx in these northern regions feed almost exclusively on snowshoe hare, large rabbits that are white in the winter and then brown in the summer. Cyclical patterns in hare populations affect the lynx as well; as the number of hares increase and decrease, so does the number of lynx. From what we saw, the local hare population was on the rise.

Even though we could no longer see the lynx, we watched the northern harrier continue to circle and squawk in the sky, each circle moving further from the road as the cat continued away. We soon left as well, but were especially pleased with our good fortune. Two days later on the drive back to Fairbanks, we again stopped at the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfoot and told the rangers there of our various animal sightings in the area and up in Prudhoe Bay.

I saw so many kinds of animals during my Alaska adventure, several of them rather close, but the Canada lynx was certainly a rarer find and something I am fortunate to have seen.

The Passageway Underneath The Railroad

Facing south in the pedestrian tunnel (2000) built under Whittier Yard by the Alaska Railroad Corporation.

Near 1/4 West Camp Road, Whittier, Alaska: 21 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Whittier album


A small community of about 250 residents, the City of Whittier (incorporated 1969) was originally built by the United States Army as Camp Sullivan, an important deepwater port supporting operations during World War II. The railroad was extended to Whittier on Friday, 23 April 1943 upon completion of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel — 2.52 miles through Maynard Mountain and a journey I will later document — allowing Camp Sullivan to become "primary debarkation point for cargo, troops and dependents of the Alaska Command."

During the Whittier Access Project (1998–2000), the tunnel was upgraded to "transform the existing railroad tunnel into a one-lane, combination highway and railway tunnel that allows cars and trains to take turns traveling through." The Anton Anderson is likely what comes to mind when thinking about Whittier tunnels, but there is another, smaller-scale tunnel there that I also checked out during my visit.

Providing safe passage underneath the large Whittier Yard rail facility since June 2000, the Alaska Railroad Corporation pedestrian tunnel connects the northern waterfront area to the southern downtown area. Approximately 512 feet long, the pedestrian tunnel provides an alternative to walking to the Whittier Street grade crossing, which is blocked at times by trains, or dangerously crossing the expansive rail yard itself. As nearly all of Whittier's residents live in the Hodge Building (1957), now Begich Towers, the tunnel provides a safer and more direct route to the marina for those on foot.

Having learned about the pedestrian tunnel in our copy of The Milepost, I was eager to take a closer look as we explored the marina area. Each side of the tunnel is marked by a nice sign featuring a cool logo reminiscent of the tunnel's illuminated and ribbed interior. We approached from the northern side, passing the sign on a sidewalk that leads to an area covered by a metal roof. Once inside, the tunnel takes two sharp turns and then opens into a straight passageway underneath the railroad.

The Containers Down In Cargo Bay Three

Plastic industrial containers called overpack drums and metal barrels behind a chain link fence at North Slope Borough's Sanitation Services Shop III and thermal oxidation plant.

3490 Stevenson Street, Utqiaġvik, Alaska: 27 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Utqiaġvik album


"Wait, can we turn around for a second?"

Mom and I were exploring Utqiaġvik, stopping and checking things out along the way, so my request to double back was not unusual. I thought we had just past something that, while not unusual at industrial sites, was an object that I had only ever seen in the twenty-fourth century. Naturally, she asked why we were turning around. Not sure in the moment how to reply succinctly, I stalled on this question until I could confirm my suspicions.

As we pulled up and they came into view outside my open window, I chuckled to myself that it was in Utqiaġvik, at the top of the world of all places, where I would first run across industrial containers called overpack drums of the same type as those frequently seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994).

I took two photographs and then we continued exploring, while I explained why these containers — stacked in the yard of North Slope Borough's Sanitation Services Shop — were noteworthy. The yellow overpack drums, made of polyethylene and featuring a threaded lid, made their Starfleet debut in "Disaster", the fifth episode of The Next Generation's fifth season.

I am unable to establish what specific manufacturer's overpack drums appeared aboard the starship Enterprise, but several companies offer very similar products today. Of those present in Utqiaġvik, three appear to be of the same make, model and vintage as the props. Looking at the photograph atop this article and thinking of a spreadsheet, yellow drums A1, B2 and D2 match the subtle design features of those sourced for the show in 1991.

"Disaster" does a good job of showing off the then new props. In a cargo bay where Chief Engineer Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) and Chief Medical Officer Doctor Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) are trapped, the containers and their volatile contents are a plot point. Not just set dressing for the cargo bay, the two actors also get physical with the overpack drums.

La Forge and Crusher push an overpack drum across the cargo bay floor
Paramount Pictures

There are several shots of overpack drums clustered and stacked, one contemporary selling point of these containers.

La Forge watches as the cargo bay door opens with stacks of overpack drums behind
Paramount Pictures

As a bonus, the episode also shows versions of the overpack drums (plus other blue cargo drums) in miniature as they are jettisoned into space. Two of those miniatures went home with writer Ronald D. Moore; they were later auctioned.

Miniature overpack drums and other barrels are jettisonned from the cargo bay into space
Paramount Pictures

Yellow overpack drums with their red and white graphics continued to be used throughout the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, often appearing in the background but sometimes featured more prominently. One good example of the latter is the sixth episode of the sixth season — "True Q" — when the containers are given blue and white graphics to depict their use as medical cargo.

Medical-use overpack drums on the shuttlebay floor in front of shuttlecraft Fermi
Paramount Pictures

Following the end of the television show, the containers went on to reprise their roles, as it were, in the first motion picture featuring Picard and crew, Star Trek Generations (1994) seen at villain Tolian Soran's launcher on Veridian III and of course aboard Enterprise. The overpack drums were later repainted mostly black for use in Star Trek: Voyager (1995–2001).

Counselor Deanna Troi next to an overpack drum aboard USS Enterprise
Paramount Pictures

Okay, so maybe it is a little silly, but I find great enjoyment in appreciating the little things in life. Considering the dramatic flair of randomly encountering these overpack drums after twenty-five years, eight months and seven days in a place few people ever visit, it was obviously meant to be.