John Davies came to Alaska in 1967 to study geophysics and climb mountains. Twenty-five years later he was making laws in the Legislature. Along the way he’s faced floods, volcanic eruptions, and a battle over state income taxes, learning a lot about the tectonic plates and the people who have shaped Alaska. Molly Rettig talked to John Davies for this series about life in Fairbanks before the pipeline boom.
John Davies spent his first summer in Fairbanks on the upper Chena River, using satellite dishes to record radio emissions from the sun. On August 11, it rained 3-and-a-half inches.
“It was just raining like crazy. The water was coming up,” Davies said.
At 11 a.m. his partner called from the research site a quarter mile away, stranded by flood water. John jumped in the only available vehicle – a front end loader – to go rescue him.
“The water was over the tires. It was 6 feet deep,” Davies said. “Fortunately the bunkhouse was high and dry but there was water everywhere around us.”
The Great Flood of ‘67 nailed Fairbanks the next day, flooding the power plant, wiping out the hospital and displacing 8,000 people. The bridges washed out and the two grad students were stuck there for weeks. Luckily they had a generator, an electric oven and all the ingredients for cake. The next day was the caretaker’s birthday.
“Then we made a raft out of oil drums and poled across this flooded area and delivered this birthday cake to her,” Davies said.
Then came the first winter.
“Fifty-below seemed like I was on the other side of the moon,” John’s wife, Linda Schandelmeier, said, laughing. “It just seemed like a completely different thing.”
She moved up the same year from a homestead in Anchorage. She says the ice fog was way worse than it is today, thanks to lower temperatures and dirtier car engines.
“You’d be at an intersection and you could barely see that the lights were red,” she said. “When they turn green you just had to go on a wing and a prayer. I guess I’ll turn left but I hope nobody else is out there. You really couldn’t tell.”
John had summit fever. In 1970, he attempted a first ascent of Mt. Kimball in the Alaska Range, skiing 40 miles in on the Canwell Glacier. But when they reached the final steep, icy pitch, they ran out of ice screws. They were climbing back down, roped together, when one member of his group vanished.
“It was a fairly narrow crevasse and the sound doesn’t travel very far,” John said. “We were concerned that he was unconscious.”
His friend was uninjured when they pulled him 50 feet up and over the lip of the crevasse, but it was the last peak John tried to bag. Fieldwork was an adventure too, especially before GPS and satellite phones. Linda spent one summer living in a wall tent near Bristol Bay studying cormorants. Once a month someone from Bethel would fly out to check in on her.
“We essentially had no communication,” John said. “They wouldn’t let you do that now. Are you kidding? What if you got hurt? The nearest village was 25 miles away.”
John spent many summers installing seismic stations in the Aleutians, cruising around islands in a fishing boat and climbing craggy hillsides.
“I mean, you first look at it and you think it’s a God-forsaken patch of grass out there in the middle of the ocean, and it’s just cold and windy, and it is a lot of the time,” John said. “But it’s also just an enormously beautiful place, and very, very rich in sea life.”
One time he hitched a ride with a fishing boat from Sand Point to Nagai Island. When the cannery called to say they desperately needed product, John ended up spraying shrimp with a fire hose all day rather than setting up seismometers.
“And fished for about 10 or 12 hours and we caught over 100,000 pounds of shrimp – that is a lot of freakin’ shrimp,” John said. “The guy who was sort of the chef fried up some of the shrimp for us. These were almost like prawns, they were really, really good.”
In 1993 he headed for the next summit: the state Legislature. Alaska’s oil revenues were cut in half that decade, as oil prices and production dropped. John, a House Democrat, proposed a state income tax to balance the budget.
“It was a crazy tax, but it had the advantage of being deductible from your federal income taxes,” John said. “It would actually save people in Alaska about $100 million over the course of a year.”
It passed the House but was crucified in the Republican-controlled Senate. Then his opponent used it to beat him in the next election.
“They ran an ad with a woman in her kitchen saying she just didn’t understand why that John Davies wanted to take $3,000 away from her,” he said.
In the past five decades, John has learned a lot about the physics, the resources and the people that make Alaska tick. Now he’d like to see the state invest in renewable energy for the future. Having lived here in the 60s, it’s not that hard for him to imagine life in Alaska without oil.