Four Down Two Across: Coming Home From Alaska

Back home safe and sound in New York, where the sun rises and sets at “normal” times!

On my last night in Alaska, someone asked me what my favorite part of the trip had been. I thought hard … and couldn’t point out one day or thing above the rest. Robert had the same reaction. The whole trip was a blast – one of our best road trips ever.

Perhaps what we liked the most, though, was the people we met – gracious, interesting and incredibly hospitable. Maybe that’s because of the table tennis connection more than Alaska. But everyone we met, to a person, was intensely proud of their state, with a stronger sense of pride than I’ve experienced anywhere else. They say once you visit Alaska, you never come all the way back.

And now, after this trip, I can say I’ve been to all 50 states.

Regarding yesterday’s puzzle from the chancellor, the answer, not surprisingly, is Alaska – around July 15, give or take, depending on where exactly you are in Alaska. But how is it possible for the sun to set twice in the same place in one day?

Well, during the winter in northern Alaska, the sun actually sets after midnight (and rises a few hours later). Then after the summer solstice, around June 22, the sun starts setting earlier (and rising later) by a few minutes each day. On July 15 in Fairbanks, the sun sets at 12:01 a.m., and then sets again at 11:57 p.m. Voila! Two sunsets in one day.

Four Down Two Across: Fairbanks Alaska And The Journey Home

Our last day in Alaska turned out to be our busiest. Shortly before noon Diann Darnall met Robert and me at the Parrishes’ and drove us to the University of Alaska Fairbanks to have lunch with the chancellor, Brian Rogers, and his wife. Lunch conversation covered a lot of topics, but it ended, surprisingly, with an exchange of puzzles. Chancellor Rogers told us a good one that he said is original. I’ll share it with you in a moment.

After lunch Robert and I went to KUAC, Fairbanks’ public radio station, where Lori Neufeld interviewed us live.

Diann met us again and gave us a tour of the university’s Museum of the North, which is said to have more than a million artifacts from the Arctic — stuffed bears and other animals, Eskimo carvings, photos and memorabilia from the Alaska gold rush of the 1890s, Alaskan artwork (both native and otherwise), and lots more. I could have spent hours and hours there.

The last event of the trip was a public exhibition of table tennis back at the Patty Center, which over a hundred people attended. Robert and I put on a show, and members of the Fairbanks club played matches in singles and doubles, with both sponge rackets and hardbat. It was a good showing for the club.

Then it was back to the Parrishes to shower and pack for the flight home.

Regarding yesterday’s puzzle, my answer was McKinley, as in president William. If you thought of another answer that meets the conditions of the puzzle, let me know.

One last new brainteaser, courtesy of Chancellor Rogers: What is the only state in the U.S. in which the sun can set twice in the same day? Identify the state and how this can happen.

Follow Will and Robert’s Trip across Alaska through next week at “Four Down Two Across.”

Four Down Two Across: Fairbanks And Ping-Pong Shenanigans

The thing about Fairbanks at this time of year is that the sun sets for only a couple hours a day. Even after setting, the sun is just below the horizon, so it’s not really dark out. I feel like I have jet lag, even though I’m completely adjusted to Alaska time and am sleeping fine.

Robert and I started the day at the Mr. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge at the edge of Denali National Park. The previous evening, as we’d been driving up, we had tried to figure out, through the haze, which of the monstrously high peaks in the Alaska Range was Mt. McKinley. We’d finally settled on one, which seemed higher than all the others, even though it didn’t match the pictures we’d seen.

Well, in the morning, with a clear sky, we finally saw the real mountain, which is twice as tall as the one we’d previously picked out. It is unbelievably huge, taller than anything you’d imagine — awesome in every sense of the word.

From the lodge we continued north toward Fairbanks, arriving in a little under four hours. We’re staying at the home of Jamo and Jane Parrish, members of the Fairbanks Interior Table Tennis Club, who are a retired lawyer and retired mediator, respectively. They have converted the garage of their beautiful, modern home into — guess what? — a table tennis room, with an athletic floor and excellent lighting. The four of us played there for over an hour.

Next we went to an outdoor party at the home of Diann Darnall, who runs the Fairbanks club. About 20 club members were there. Besides the potluck dinner, Diann led everyone in a couple original ping-pong-related games — like matches played with a 5″ rubber ball on a 3’x8′ table using egg cartons as paddles. Robert beat me in the final, and he was on the winning team in another wacky game later. In each case he analyzed the game before playing, figured out a strategy, and then applied a deft touch to his play. It’s no surprise he’s so good at table tennis, too.

From 7:30-10:30we played real table tennis with the Fairbanks club at the Patty Center at the University of Alaska. More than 20 players took part, with everyone playing everyone else. It was good fun. We’ll do it again tomorrow, this time with the event open to the public.

Regarding yesterday’s puzzle, my answers were DENIAL, NAILED, and LEAD-IN.

Here’s a new teaser: Take the last name of a famous person in American history. It has 8 letters, all different. The vowel-consonant pattern of the name is cccvccvv. What name is it?

Follow Will and Robert’s Trip across Alaska through next week at “Four Down Two Across.”

Four Down Two Across: Eagle River, Wasilla And Mt. McKinley

Sunday is the 160th day of the year, and my 160th consecutive day playing table tennis — on my quest to play table tennis every day in 2013.

As I mentioned yesterday, Robert and I stayed overnight in Eagle River, at the home of Boyd and Shirley Bennett, who could not have been more hospitable hosts. Also, they happen to have a professional-quality table tennis facility above their garage. Players started arriving around 11:30 am, and we played nonstop, both singles and doubles, until 3:30. Karl Augestad, of the Anchorage club, took lots of pictures and video, some of which he’ll probably post at Boyd doesn’t play anymore, but he watched and conversed with us from the sidelines, smiling the whole time.

At one point Shirley brought out Boyd’s Golden Ulu, a gold medal he won in table tennis at the first Arctic International Games. An ulu is a curved Eskimo knife, a word I knew previously only from crosswords.

After a late lunch and a shower, Robert and I hit the road, heading north to Denali National Park, passing through Wasilla (Sarah Palin’s home) on the way. From the highway at least, Wasilla is just an undistinguished commercial strip.Around 7:30 we reached the edge of the park, where we’re staying at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. It’s on top of a mountain, facing Mt. McKinley — unfortunately obscured by clouds this evening. We hope to get a better view in the morning.

Regarding yesterday’s puzzle, there is an almost-answer in 4 steps — EAGLE, GLARE, GRAVE, GIVER, RIVER. However, the directions specified that there must be a rearrangement of letters at each step. So I think the best answer, in 5 steps, is EAGLE, GLARE, RAVEL, LOVER, VIREO RIVER. If you can do better, let me know.

Meanwhile, here’s an easy new teaser: Rearrange the letters of DENALI in three different ways to spell common, uncapitalized words. One of the three words is hyphenated. The other two are solid. I’m not counting ALINED as a common word. Can you do it?

Follow Will and Robert’s Trip across Alaska through next week at “Four Down Two Across.”

Four Down Two Across: Homer, Alaska

Saturday morning, at the Ocean Shores motel in Homer, I was sitting at the desk peering out the big window at the water. I saw splashing in the distance. I asked Robert, “Is that a whale?”

Indeed it was. In fact, it was one of four whales, swimming up the sound, their backs visible in the water. Over the next hour or so we saw probably 20 whales altogether. A beautiful start for the day.

After breakfast at McDonald’s, we drove to Soldotna, a town of 5,000 about 90 minutes north, to play with the Soldotna Table Tennis Club. During the academic year the club plays at a school, then breaks for the summer. Since school was now closed, and we still wanted to play, special arrangements were made at the Soldotna Elks Club, which has two tables in a gym in the basement. Most of the club members were away, but six of us (including two teens) showed up, playing from noon to 2:30. We had a good time and a great workout.

Back on the road, Robert and I stopped for lunch again at Suzie’s Cafe in Sterling. Robert had his favorite, a chickenburger, while I tried the hot open turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes and corn on the cob. This is the very definition of “comfort food.”A little after 6 pm we arrived in Eagle River, just north of Anchorage, at the home of Boyd and Shirley Bennett. Boyd, 84, is many-time table tennis champion of Alaska, the first table tennis champion of the Arctic International Games, the coach of many younger Alaskan players, and the first inductee (in 2005) into the Alaska Table Tennis Hall of Fame.

Now with a couple of titanium rods in his back, Boyd doesn’t play anymore, but he’s still enthusiastic about the game. Boyd and Shirley built a wing on their house to hold two table tennis tables. The lighting, flooring, and overall conditions are professional. An Eagle River Table Tennis Club used to play here. After dinner Robert and I played a best-of-seven match, with Boyd and Shirley watching from the side. Robert spotted me 8 points per 11-point game. I ended up winning 4 games to 2, but as the score suggests, it wasn’t easy. Conversation about table tennis and lots more ran late into the evening.

Regarding yesterday’s puzzle, my answer was HORSESHOER.

Here’s a new challenge: Take the word EAGLE. Change one letter in it and rearrange the result to make a new word. Then change one letter in that and rearrange the result to make another word. And so on. How many steps does it take to change EAGLE into RIVER? Only common, uncapitalized words are allowed.

Follow Will and Robert’s Trip across Alaska through next week at “Four Down Two Across.”