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The Pilot Of The Storm Who Leaves No Trace

The 1600-foot length of the Talkeetna Village Airstrip [AK44] (1940) with two small aircraft including Piper PA-18 N1244A (1957) parked alongside near Second Street.

D Street at First Street, Talkeetna, Alaska: Sunday, 18 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Talkeetna album

One of the things that Mom wanted to see during our lunchtime stop in the small town of Talkeetna — first mentioned in "The Passing Of A Talkeetna Legend" — was the original village airstrip. Not unlike many air facilities throughout Alaska, the unattended Talkeetna Village Airstrip (AK44) on public land features an unmarked, unlit gravel and grass runway, few services and is "virtually unchanged since its construction" with "little to no modification except erosion" at the southern end.

The field, officially Runway 16/34, consists of one 1,600-foot long, thirty-foot wide rectangular field cut through the trees running north-south parallel to D Street. The northern half of the airstrip "passes between two areas of private residences where owners sometimes park their planes" while the southern half is "surrounded by wooded public lands with the Susitna River at its southernmost end." Jet fuel is available by truck only when arranged in advance and a local aviation business offers light repairs. It is possible to walk right up to the airstrip in several locations, so that is what we set out to do.

Walking south on C Street past the community ball park, we came to and turned east on Second Street. An unpaved and overgrown path connecting several residences, Second Street is one of two local roads bisected by the airstrip; the other is Third Street. At the end near where a Dodge B-Series Xplorer Camper Van (c. 1984) was parked, two signs warn people to keep themselves and their vehicles off of the active airstrip. This dead end is blocked by two wooden barricades set on both sides, an orange plastic mesh connected to each and spread across the path. Nearby, two small aircraft including Piper PA-18 N1244A (1957) were parked alongside the runway.

Wanting to get a better view of the airstrip, we doubled back our course, took the service road south of Main Street east to D Street and then headed south. The northern edge of the Talkeetna Village Airstrip is situated at the intersection of D Street and First Street, so it soon came into sight in front of us. Standing on the centerline just north of the small wooden fence delineating the property, you can see trees on an island in the Susitna River south of the airstrip. As on Second Street, there are two warning signs and a place to walk onto the field. Nearby, a small wooden pavilion has on display a propeller and an informational poster[1] from the Talkeetna Historical Society.

Once a remote area of Alaska, this region was difficult to access by early explorers and settlers who relied on hiking, boats, dog sled teams and horses. As gold prospectors started moving into the area in 1886, the Talkeetna settlement became a "major supply center" for miners, who at first received shipments via steamer and then by railroad following its arrival in 1920. Getting those supplies from Talkeetna to the mines was still a challenge as they had to be transported "overland on mired and rutted trails."

As early aviation arrived in Alaska, this novel form of transport was quickly adopted by settlers, explorers and miners. However, without any supporting infrastructure, initial flights ranged from risky to dangerous. Careful to avoid obstacles along the way, pilots had to land in open spaces or "on gravel bars along the rivers" as they first did in Talkeetna. Although an airstrip would be a significant safety improvement, Alaska pilots rightfully make their names being expert and daring in the face of the last frontier's unforgiving conditions.

The development of Talkeetna Village Airstrip was initiated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (1882–1945) Executive Order 7783 issued on Friday, 31 December 1937. The order, modifying Executive Order 1919½ of Tuesday, 21 April 1914, "[set] apart certain lands for the use of the Alaska Road Commission for aviation-field purposes" in the Talkeetna townsite. The 1939–1940 construction of the strip was conducted by the federal civil aviation agency — first the Civil Aeronautics Authority and later one of two agencies created by its split, the Civil Aeronautics Administration.

During its first decade of operation, the Talkeetna Village Airstrip "played an important role in Talkeetna's economic development and in the aviation history of south-central Alaska" by helping to open up "previously remote and inaccessible areas" to miners, hunters and later, mountain climbers. With its proximity to the railroad depot, it became convenient to bring supplies in by rail and transfer them to an aircraft for delivery to the surrounding backcountry. Soon, early "bush pilots such as Haakon Christensen, Cliff Hudson, Don Sheldon and others" started using the Talkeetna Village Airstrip as their primary base of operations.

One of these pilots, Don Sheldon, was originally part of the work crew that built the airstrip. Returning to Talkeetna in 1948 after serving and learning to fly in World War II, Sheldon started a "bush aviation business and earned a reputation as one of Alaska's best pioneer aviators." Among those passengers who hired Talkeetna bush pilots was Dr. Bradford Washburn, an employee of the National Geographic Society. Washburn began visiting Talkeetna in 1936 on a mission to photograph and map the Alaska Range.

The postwar era saw an increased number of mountain climbers drawn to the area by Denali, the awesome 20,310-foot mountain unequaled in North America, as well as other elevations within the Alaska Range. Washburn used the results of his previous mapping mission to pioneer the West Buttress route up Denali, which he climbed in 1951 along with Barry Bishop, Henry Buchtel, Jim Gale, Mel Griffiths, Bill Hackett and Jerry More. Accounting for over ninety percent of attempts today, West Buttress is "considered the least technical way to get to the summit" and is the most popular Denali route with "as many as 500 to 600 climbers on it during the peak of the climbing season."

As news of the West Buttress route spread, Talkeetna soon became "the major point of departure for mountain climbers attempting to ascend" Denali, who would be flown out to the Kahiltna Glacier to begin their climb. Pilots Christensen, Hudson and Sheldon were sought out by "mountaineers from around the world [who] arrived looking for experienced pilots" to "reach the icy flanks of North America's highest peak." This successful enterprise "ferrying climbers from Talkeetna to the Alaska Range" was and is an important economic contributor, but the 1950s also saw the airstrip's decline in favor of a newer, modern neighbor.

Under development from 1941 until March 1949, Talkeetna Airport (TKA/PATK) was constructed on land across the railroad tracks on the far east side of town. The airport has a 3,500-foot long, seventy-five-foot wide asphalt-paved runway designated 1/19 and features markings, lighting, ground support services and partial attendance. The opening of this facility led to the Talkeetna Village Airstrip's "period of significance" ending in 1951, although it continues to be used year-round by pilots and clients who prefer it to the busier state-run airport and by pilots flying ski-equipped aircraft during the winter. It is currently overseen by the Talkeetna Airmen's Association.

Based on the significance of its operations from 1940–1951, the Talkeetna Village Airstrip was added to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP 02000814) on Friday, 02 August 2002. It joined the adjacent Talkeetna Historic District — which includes thirteen buildings that "reflect Talkeetna's history as a small village" — itself added to the register (NRHP 93000321) on Monday, 26 April 1993.

Visit the Talkeetna album to see all ten photographs from our exploration of the Talkeetna Village Airstrip.

  1. I do not want to call out the Talkeetna Historical Society, but I am compelled to point out one thing while publishing a photograph of their informational sign. During my research for this article, I discovered several discrepancies between facts presented on the sign and my research sources. Most of the variations involved dates. Although I consider the sign a primary source and utilized it as such, I used the figures from my own research when the two differed.

The Final Line In His Mind

Trees and a scenic mountain vista surrounding the wooden Savage River Campground sign as a snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) dashes across Denali Park Road.

MP 12.8 Denali Park Road, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska: 17 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Denali National Park and Preserve album

Back in February 2017, while assembling a daily travel guide for my Alaska adventure in June, I came across a nice photograph to represent our Savage River Campground reservation in Denali National Park and Preserve. Taken by Sue Thomas and appearing on her Yukon Sights website, the photograph shows the campground's wooden sign among the surrounding trees and mountains. It was an image I knew I wanted to capture myself once there.

Late in the afternoon on our third day in Denali, we returned to the campground in order to hike the adjacent Mountain Vista Trail. As we approached the entrance, I noticed that the weather had finally cleared up enough to make the photograph I wanted possible. We pulled over and I ran to the sign, quickly shooting three frames. I thought that there was some brief movement but seeing nothing around, I returned to the truck and we continued on to our site and then the trail.

The movement that I detected turned out to be a snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) bolting across the road at the moment I took my pictures. The hare appears in the distance near a stop sign in the first two of three shots. Even though that third frame is slightly better, I developed the second instead. Considering my deliberate efforts to photograph wildlife, the good fortune of unintentionally capturing an animal is just too good to pass up.

I saw many snowshoe hares throughout Alaska, with the densest populations observed between Coldfoot and Wiseman along the Dalton Highway. Not coincidentally, this is the area where we spotted a Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis), whose diet primarily consists of snowshoe hare.

The Most Famous Reindeer Of All

A forty-two-foot tall, 900-pound fiberglass Santa Claus statue (1968) by Wes Stanley of Stanley Plastics, Enumclaw, Washington on display near the Santa Claus House (1952).

125 Saint Nicholas Drive, North Pole, Alaska: 14 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: North Pole album

Serving as a home base of sorts, Fairbanks was the first and last place I visited during my Alaska adventure. Following my first day of exploring the golden heart city, Mom suggested that we visit another nearby town before it got too late in the day. You may not have to worry about it getting dark at night during the summer, but businesses still do have normal hours of operation.

Situated by the Tanana River about fifteen miles southeast of Downtown Fairbanks, North Pole is the city "where the spirit of Christmas lives year round." The origins of the settlement that would become North Pole are tied to the arrival of Bon and Bernice Davis in Fairbanks on Friday, 07 April 1944. Driving from Fairbanks down the Richardson Highway, the Davises stopped at Milepost 15 to get out and walk around. Heading "several hundred yards" down the abandoned Richardson Trail, they decided that they had found the place of their new homestead, a 160-acre tract of land filled with scrub trees and brush.

Although not part of their original plan, a community formed around the Davises as they subdivided and sold off parcels of their land to other homesteaders. In 1948, the construction of a military railroad line through the area gave rise to the community's first name, Davis. This name was selected by the National Board of Geographic Names to designate a new railway switch built on Bon and Bernice's property. Over the next four years, continued growth and subdivisions eventually led the Dahl and Gaske Development Company to purchase the Davis subdivision and most of the homestead in February 1952.

It was Dahl and Gaske who thought renaming the community to "North Pole" would attract businesses such as toy manufacturers. Their petition to the United States District Court was heard by Judge Harry Pratt, who thought the "idea was far-fetched" but approved it nevertheless. Although not everyone was keen to incorporate, especially those residing in the Highway Park subdivision, residents of the Davis homestead and part of another voted to form the City of North Pole, officially established on Thursday, 15 January 1953.

Back in 1949, not long after Davis got its first name, Con B. Miller (1914–1996) and his wife Nellie Miller (1916–2008) moved to the Territory of Alaska with their two children and $1.40 to start a new life. Coming from the lower forty-eight where World War II veteran Con had "attempted to establish several businesses […] all of which faltered," the Millers first moved to Anchorage but, not caring for it there, relocated to Fairbanks. Con established himself as a merchant and fur buyer in Fairbanks and the surrounding villages, where he became well-known by local children for appearing in a red Santa suit each Christmas.

Borrowing $300 to get started, Con and Nellie decided in 1952 to move to North Pole and build a trading post selling general merchandise, groceries and pharmaceuticals. While working on the new store, a young boy recognized Con and said, "Hello, Santa Claus! Are you building a new house?" This interaction gave Con the inspiration to name the store Santa Claus House. Given its location in developing North Pole between Eielson Air Force Base and Ladd Air Force Base (now Fort Wainwright), Santa Claus House prospered as a general store, soda fountain and post office — "Santa Claus House was a mail contract station and served as North Pole's first post office for almost twenty years" with Nellie as postmaster.

Beyond the operation of Santa Claus House, the Millers also participated in the community's local government. When the City of North Pole was established in 1953, Con was one of five members of the first city council. He would go on to serve as city mayor for nineteen years, while Nellie "acted as marriage commissioner for the community, marrying thousands of couples inside Santa Claus House." The Millers' two sons would also go on to be politically involved. Terrence B. "Terry" Miller (1942–1989) served in the Alaska House of Representatives (1966–1969), Alaska Senate (1969–1977), as Lieutenant Governor (1978–1982) and on city and borough councils. Present-day Santa Claus House owner Mike W. Miller (1951–) also served on the North Pole City Council (1976–1980) as well as in the Alaska House (1983–1992) and Senate (1993–2000).

Following the 1972 realignment of the Richardson Highway, the Santa Claus House moved to its present location and as time went on became less of a trading post and more of a Christmas shop. Subsequent additions included the construction of a new wing and the installation of a forty-two-foot tall, 900-pound fiberglass Santa Claus statue. Originally made in 1968 by Wes Stanley of Stanley Plastics in Enumclaw, Washington, the "statue was the prototype for three giant Santa statues constructed that year." In 1978, Con Miller purchased it in Anchorage for $4,500, disassembled it into four pieces and then had it transported to North Pole by truck. Following a restoration and repair process, the statue was installed in 1983. It was moved about 140 feet just eight days after our visit "to make room for an expansion of the gift shop, as well as to relocate it away from the road for safety purposes."

Upon our arrival at Santa Claus House, we did something in June only possible here in North Pole… visit with Santa himself.

The entirety of the facility is dedicated to Christmas-themed retail of every sort imaginable plus a counter selling coffee and homemade fudge. There is also a large stuffed moose and polar bear waiting to pose with visitors in the original part of the building. Lining the wall of the corridor outside the restrooms is a large selection of humorous or touching letters from children sent to the store for Santa.

Returning outside, we walked next door to inspect the aforementioned Santa statue and painted wooden cut-outs of Santa in his sled being pulled by nine reindeer. The area behind was obviously once a campground, but was no longer in operation. Indeed, Santaland RV Park has been at this location since at least 1992. The eighty-five site campground was acquired by the Santa Claus House in 2000, managed by Mike Miller's daughter Teffonie Wyman and her husband Phillip. When the Wymans decided to move on after the 2010 season, Miller announced his intention to focus on their core business ("provide a unique and exciting shopping experience for Christmas lovers of all ages") and the Santaland RV Park did not reopen in 2011.

Inside what once was Santaland RV, we found a large fenced-in area that was home to a number of semi-domesticated caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) or reindeer. Reindeer have been kept here since at least 2001 and a formal exhibit called "Antler Academy of Flying and Reindeer Games" opened sometime between 2013 and 2016. Antler Academy, which did not seem to be open during our visit, allows visitors to feed and touch the reindeer while learning more about them from a tour guide. Instead, we watched them eat and move about from outside the fence.

Done visiting with the reindeer, we made our way back to Fairbanks for dinner along the Chena River at Pike's Landing. Although our time in North Pole was brief, Mom was correct in that it was someplace unique and worth visiting.

Visit the Fairbanks and North Pole albums to see all twenty-seven published photographs from my trip to North Pole.