Books

Book review: Fairbanks legend Merritt Helfferich’s memoir is a rollicking delight

“Some Days You Eat the Bears: An Alaskan Memoir”

By Merritt Helfferich. Edited and published by April Crosby. 248 pages. 2021. $28.95.

Merritt Helfferich was something of a legend around Fairbanks. Professionally he was known for his many years at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he rose to associate director before his 1994 retirement. He was also instrumental in bringing the International Arctic Research Center to fruition. Achievements like this in the world of science are no small things, but usually associated with people holding doctorates. Helfferich got there armed only with an English degree earned from UAF after flunking out of three previous universities.

This leads to the real reason he’s semi-legendary. Helfferich was willing to try just about anything, and would keep plowing ahead despite setbacks. He did this both at work and, through countless endeavors, in the broader community of Fairbanks, guided along the way by good senses of adventure, curiosity, determination, and perhaps most importantly, an unfailing sense of humor.

Late in life, Helfferich set about writing his memoirs with the same approach. Just do it and see what comes out. His passing in 2019 left the work unfinished. Knowing the value of the project, however, his wife, April Crosby, edited what was there and has published it in a volume titled “Some Days You Eat the Bears,” and it’s a delight.

The book opens with Helfferich’s arrival in Fairbanks in late summer of 1958, having driven a brand new Porsche Speedster convertible all the way from Connecticut via the almost entirely gravel and then recently constructed Alaska Highway. Having vowed to keep the top down as much as possible, he got slopped with rocks, mud and rain among other minor mishaps, but there were no major calamities and he doesn’t report any flat tires.

Helfferich provides a lively account of the drive in an era when the road and the North itself were much rougher, and not just along the edges. He notes that in Whitehorse, in the Yukon, a street banner for the local newspaper stated it was published “Every Thursday if the Staff is Sober.” Six hundred miles farther, he arrived in Fairbanks, pre-statehood and more than a decade before the pipeline boom, to find bars open until 5 a.m. every single night.

From there he backtracks to his childhood in New England and Pennsylvania. Helfferich descended from four generations of Reformed Church ministers, but his emotionally distant and increasingly physically absent father left a void in his own life that he turned to adventures to fill with something other than religion. He awkwardly stumbled through colleges, a variety of jobs, and some European travels, but lacked direction until he was accepted into UAF in what was probably his last chance at obtaining a degree.

By his own admission he was a mediocre student, but Helfferich finally earned his sheepskin, bought property and built a home atop Ester Dome, got married to his first wife, and had his first child. He needed a job, and was hired into the Geophysical Institute, tasked with setting up camera stations across Alaska and northern Canada to photograph the aurora as part of federal research into the ionosphere — the scientists loved their work, but it was national defense needs justifying funding. Here Helfferich found his true calling. Skilled with both his hands and his intellect, he developed a reputation as a jack-of-all-trades for scientists who needed technicians capable of turning their ideas into tools that worked in the field.

Helfferich had no end of adventures as a result. He was on hand for the creation of Poker Flat Rocket Research Range north of Fairbanks. Now a thriving facility, it was all but cobbled together under the tutelage of Neil Davis, later the Institute’s director. Things mostly ran smoothly, but the range did accidentally fire a rocket into Canada at one point.

Setting up camera boxes for the aurora led him to the South Pole, where he placed a camera to record images of the australis borealis, the southern lights. He also landed a spot onboard the tanker Manhattan when it was refurbished as an ice breaker and sent through and back across the Northwest Passage in 1969 to test the feasibility of using tankers to move the newly discovered oil in Prudhoe Bay to market; the proposed pipeline easily proved a more economic idea. Somewhat less work-related was his involvement in launching a hot air balloon from what was then Barrow in 1982. Helfferich errs in his claim that this was the northernmost such flight at the time; the doomed S. A. Andrée Arctic Balloon Expedition launched from Svalbard, at a higher latitude, in 1897.

Closer to home, Helfferich was involved in an endless stream of community building organizations and efforts, and more than a few high jinks, most famously co-founding the Great Tanana Raft Classic, which took place from 1968 to 1971. A non-motorized event, participants were required to build their own rafts for a river race from Fairbanks to Nenana. It ended after a pair of drownings.

Helferrich married Crosby in 1995, and the adventures kept rolling, in Alaska and across Europe. A story of he and April spending time on the Kongakut River counting the number of river travelers for USFWS has a zen quality to it, quickly reversed when, on their flight out, they get grounded in an abandoned DEW Line facility, at which point the mood turns post-apocalyptic.

Helfferich’s outlook was perfectly suited to the Geophysical Institute, where many of his adventures were born. “There was a creative freedom and a lot of mutual respect,” he writes, “with the expectation that we could do anything.”

This spirit permeates every page in this inspiring book that provides a nice glimpse of Fairbanks and UAF in a not-so-distant time, by a man who found himself in both and helped make both better. Quite the legacy for someone who kept flunking out of college. The subtitle of this book is “An Alaskan Memoir,” but “Alaskan Adventures” would better describe what’s found within.

All benefits from the sale of “Some Days You Eat the Bears” are being donated to the Interior Alaska Land Trust, which Helfferich helped found.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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