The heart of Merritt Helffeicrh’s memoir, “Some Days You Eat the Bears”, is a collection of tales about his life in Alaska. The arc of his story is a familiar one to many who came here right out of school, seeking adventure and purpose: “I just came up for a while to check it out and ended up staying for the rest of my life.”
Merritt was 23 years old when he drove his new 1958 red Porsche convertible up the Alaska-Canadian (Alcan) Highway to attend the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. The Alcan was a primitive road built by the Army during WWII. Just opened to the public in 1948, it would be tough in any vehicle, let alone a small sports car. Despite the dirt, dust and mud, Merritt was excited by this new chapter in his life and found himself grinning much of the way.
As a new student, he worked on campus as a volunteer fireman for room and board. Merritt married his high-school sweetheart, Carla Ostergren, and their first daughter was born. They filed for a homesite high on top of Ester Dome that had a spectacular view across the Tanana River valley to the Alaska Range. Building a house there required a herculean effort considering there was no road access and plenty of bears tearing holes in their wall tent. Thirteen years after arriving in Fairbanks, taking the time to travel, act in local theater and work as a surveyor and truck driver, Merritt graduated with a degree in English Literature.
Merritt is best known for his time at the Geophysical Institute. He started as a surveyor and field assistant installing and maintaining All-Sky Cameras that photographed the aurora. Soon he took on more responsibility, including stints at remote field sites like the ice Island T3 on the Arctic Ocean, at the South Pole and on the historic voyage through the Northwest Passage of the ice-breaking oil tanker, Manhattan.
Merritt worked with Dr. T. Neil Davis and others on the creation of the Poker Flat Rocket Range. He worked there as a “wind-weighter,” using the forecast wind speed and direction at various heights to help point the rockets mostly in the right direction. Later he became an assistant to Dr. Syun Akasofu, director of the Geophysical Institute. Among “other duties as assigned,” he helped to obtain the permissions and funding for construction of the IARC building.
In addition to, or perhaps as a part of the dedicated scientific work of the Geophysical Institute, there was an ethos of silliness or creative playfulness which well-suited Merritt’s thespian side. He recollects with evident relish, tales of spurious memos that purported to (and sometimes did) emanate from the director’s office. Or the time it rained on Dr. Gene Wescott’s rain dance from a wastepaper basket of water off the roof of the Institute. One of Gene’s quips was, “You will go to heaven or hell, but you’ll change planes in Seattle.” The best of all the shenanigans were the Christmas party skits of the Flying Fagoos.
The cast of the skits frequently starred Dr. Robert Hunsucker, a renowned radio physicist, Director T. Neil Davis, Kate Barr, from the GI business office, and Merritt. The costumes often featured well-worn, waffle-weave long-johns. Merritt describes the plots of the best productions in some detail (faces painted on bare torsos, falling from the false ceiling of the library, and “some stunningly inept dancing”) along with a few hilarious photos.
The skits included Whistling Bellybuttons, Perils of Pauline, Mexican Hat Dance, and Ballaine Lake, a knock-off of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Merritt observes that the willingness of the entire staff to engage in this kind of playfulness led to a camaraderie which contributed to the scientific productivity of the Geophysical Institute.
Merritt was dubbed “Admiral Helfferich” as one of the instigators of the Great Alaska Raft Race, a flotilla of hundreds of rafts made from empty oil barrels “racing” from Fairbanks to Nenana on the Tanana River. The race featured a Le Mans-style start, where the captains, at the sound of the gun, had to run across a parking lot and jump from the riverbank onto their rafts; some got soaked in the attempt. Further, there was a rule that the first ten rafts to cross the finish line at Nenana were disqualified for “trying.”
Merritt’s stories from this time show his willingness to accept new challenges. With hard work, lots of off-beat humor and good will, he was able to create an endlessly interesting and productive life for himself and his compatriots. He embodied the Yogi Berra quip: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” He volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters, The Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living, The Chena Riverfront Commission, and the Interior Alaska Land Trust.
There are many more stories, including helping his wife, April Crosby, gain accreditation for Ilisagvik College in Barrow, snow-birding in New Mexico, and hiking and biking in Europe after retirement. Merritt’s life was animated by finding humor in any adventure even if he was cold, wet, and short on rations. He counted it a victory if he could make you laugh while getting the job done.
With a twinkle in his eye, Merritt delivers in his memoir a quintessential Alaskan adventure tale. Those that knew him will hear his voice so clearly that they will find it hard to remember that he is not with us anymore. Both those who knew Merritt and those who didn’t will enjoy visiting with him in the pages of this book.