“I was quite worried sometimes,” Till Baumann said about coming to Fairbanks for his doctorate studies. “I thought, if it sucks, and I’m committing for a Ph.D., I’m throwing away all my youth.”
For the 27-year-old Baumann, who leaves this week for Finland after four years in Alaska, it turned out to be the best possible way to spend his youth.
Baumann was born in Germany, but moved with his parents at age 7 to the tiny village of Neidingen, in the German-speaking region of eastern Belgium. He described it as “a little Catholic village, with a little school, classes one to six in one room. Seventeen children, and I had one classmate in my level.”
Baumann attended middle and high school in the nearby town of St. Vith where, he said, “I discovered I liked windsurfing. I decided to study something that had to do with the ocean so I could go windsurfing.”
This led him to Kiel University on Germany’s Baltic coast. Studying in the school’s oceanographic institute, he earned his B.S. in physics of the earth system and his master’s in climate physics. The master’s involved a lot of time on research vessels.
“I started out on a research cruise in the tropics on the Atlantic, which was so nice. And then the next cruise was around South Africa which was also super nice. Then I went to the north Atlantic which got colder. And for some reason I went further north still.”
In 2015, Baumann spied a Ph.D. position at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and applied. “It started out with a two month cruise on a Russian icebreaker in the Arctic. I thought, ‘Sounds interesting’.”
He was still on a ship in the north Atlantic when he learned he’d been accepted to UAF and had to scramble. “I had two weeks to get my American visa, a Russian visa, and stop my life in Germany.”
He added with a laugh, “I did the American visa first so they didn’t have to see my Russian visa.”
Stopping in Iceland before the cruise, he went for a hike, something he’d never done before. “I realized at the top of the hill I could look around 360 degrees and see nothing man-made. That was the first time in my life I had seen that.”
The ship traversed the Russian side of the Arctic Ocean. “It was my first time in the ice, and it was super fun,” he said. Baumann was part of a team studying how the flow of Atlantic waters into the Arctic Ocean is causing sea ice to melt from the underside. He described his research focus as “Trying to figure out the baseline of the Arctic Ocean and how it’s changed in recent years.”
Aboard the ship he met another UAF student who offered him use of her cabin and car when he got to Fairbanks. Upon arrival, “I ended up crashing her car into a moose in the first two weeks. That was the first moose I’d ever seen in my life. I only saw legs.”
Despite this incident, he said, “We became friends. She’s super outdoorsy.” She helped him gear up to be active.
Baumann found a cabin next to Birch Hill. “I looked at this cross-country skiing thing. I couldn’t imagine this is any fun. I grew up downhill skiing and thought, ‘Why would you do cross-country skiing?’”
Still, he bought skis and boots and gave it a go. “I dressed in my usual downhill skiing gear with all the layers, big pants, a puffy jacket and goggles. I went to the bottom of the warmup loop and put my skis down and tried to skate. I didn’t make it up to the stadium. I did a loop of about a hundred meters and was totally spent.”
After watching an older woman scoot past him, he went home and watched YouTube tutorials. “The next day I dispensed with the goggles, and the third day I made it up to the stadium. Then I started doing laps of the stadium.” Soon he was skiing daily in winters.
Meanwhile, on a trip to Lake Tahoe, he discovered another new passion. “We ended up doing a mountain bike ride, which was completely out of my fitness zone. It started with a 3,000-foot climb, and I was in no shape whatsoever. I almost fainted on the way up. But it was so much fun going down.”
This led him to buy a bike and join the Fairbanks Cycle Club, where he’s become a regular at the Tuesday night summer trail rides and Sunday winter rides. “There are hundreds and hundreds of miles of trail that you can just frolic on,” he marveled.
Baumann was inspired by the people he met. “There are all these old guys that are surprisingly fit. Especially in the beginning I was very impressed with how they just go on forever. And then I did the Sonot Kkaazoot preparation class and there was the equivalent with women. All these older ladies skiing like hell. There’s nothing like being passed uphill by a 60-plus woman saying, ‘Oh good job.’ And I’m supposed to be in my prime.”
He added, “There are all these bad-assed people, and they don’t even know how bad-ass they are. It’s very humbling for me to see that.”
As he prepares to leave and finish his Ph.D. in Europe, he’s unsure about his future. He’s looking at postdoc options, but nothing is firm yet. He does know one thing for certain, though. “I very much hope that I stay active.”
Reflecting on his decision to come to Fairbanks, Baumann said, “I’ve never once regretted it.” Even during patches when studies were a struggle, he’d think, “Well, at least I’m in Alaska.” He said he’s known the entire time he’s been here that he could always get outdoors in the evening and “vent my brain, and that’s been worth so much to me.”
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Becoming Alaskan is an ongoing series documenting the lives of immigrants in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.