Been there, done that and just when you think you've seen it all
August 9, 2013
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - More than 25 years ago a young couple living in Los Angeles, working for Douglass-Boeing, the aerospace company, decided to flip a coin and move to greener pastures. Heads -- Alaska, tails -- Texas; that's when a 50-50 shot brought John Binder, mechanic for Outdoor Recreation, Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, to the Last Frontier.
"We got here just at the end of the pipeline boom, when there was lots of money flowing. You could break a $100 bill at the 7-Eleven without anyone blinking an eye," he said. "We moved into a little apartment near the Boatel Sleazy Waterfront Bar (in Fairbanks) and I would walk down there every day. After weeks of listening to me whine about no money, and no job, they just gave me $2000 out of the till." They told him to pay it back whenever he got job. "That's just the way Fairbanks was back then."
Binder picked up odd jobs shoveling snow, cleaning houses and doing custodial work around town. "That got us through the hard times," he said, "then we both found steady work and things got a whole lot better."
One of his best jobs ever, he said, was helping his father Howard with the restoration of the Harding Railroad Car and the S.S. Nenana at Alaskaland (now known as Pioneer Park). "It was a wonderful job for a couple of carpenters."
During that project though, Binder had an industrial accident and "lost a couple fingers," he said. "I had to start a new career." Binder worked for the Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Department operating a lawn mower during the day and was offered a position doing the same thing at Chena Bend Golf Course at night. "I basically started with a shovel and a rake."
He did the seasonal jobs for a couple years and then took an interest in the [newly purchased at the time] snow-making equipment at the Birch Hill Ski and Snowboard Area. "When they asked for FMWR employees to attend the training on this equipment, I was the only one that showed up." Binder did that part-time for a while and was eventually offered a full-time position. He was a lift-operator, groomer and snowmaker during the winter and groundskeeper during the summer.
When the "boat shop" [Outdoor Recreation] mechanic retired, Binder applied for the position and has been there more than 20 years.
"When I started here there weren't that many Soldiers," he said. "It was an open post and everyone I knew just used it [the post] as a short cut to North Pole instead of going down the Richardson."
Binder has watched the installation grow. "I've seen the Army change and become more Family oriented. We went from no programs or equipment to 36 boats, 15 snowmachines and trailers to haul anything and everyone."
Outdoor Recreation has the equipment and know-how to enhance anyone's Alaskan experience whether "you want to take the Family on a wilderness experience or do more of the touristy things," said Binder. "We can even hook you up if you're someone like Col. Johnson (United States Army Garrison Fort Wainwright commander]) who will take a peanut-butter sandwich and a bow and arrow and hike a hundred miles into the wilderness."
Although Binder is the person who keeps the equipment going and "turns wrenches," his favorite part of the job is meeting people and sharing his 30 years of Alaskan experiences. "I've taught Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rogers how to mush dogs and have had the opportunities to work with some amazing people on amazing adventures, occasionally rescuing FMWR equipment," he said. "We've been up the Yukon Quest trail digging out buried snowmachines, down tiny sloughs floating sunken boats with air bags and even once had to retrieve a boat that had frozen to the bottom of the Gulkana River." He said someone had taken a 20-foot boat with a 90-horsepower motor the wrong way down the Gulkana River, flipped it over in the water and sank it. "The water was so shallow that summer we had to raft to the boat. We managed to get it out of the water and up on the bank, planning to go back and get it when the river got high." That didn't happen. The water didn't rise like expected, so a decision was made to go back in the winter and drag it out with snowmachines.
"When the MEDDAC helicopter [on a routine run] spotted it," Binder said, "all that was poking out of the snow was the top of the motor and the console." He explained that since the river was so shallow the boat froze to the bottom, then overflow would run into the boat and freeze. "That continued until it froze as one big boat cube."
Binder and other FMWR employees traveled to Gulkana, snowmachined seven miles each way for three days with picks, shovels; chainsaws and weed burners and worked from dawn-to-dusk to break the boat free. "We we so happy when it popped off the bottom and were so exhausted," he said. "That next day we drug it out, loaded it on a trailer and brought it home."
With more than 20 years as Department of Defense DFMWR Outdoor Recreation employee, Binder tells everyone who uses the equipment that safety is the most important thing and whatever adventure they want is right out the back door. "Alaska is a great duty station and we at Outdoor Rec are here to help make that happen without breaking the bank. We understand things happen and all we ask is for them to be honest and replace a part if something gets broken." He said, "We just want to have the equipment available for the next Soldier or Family member who walks through the door."
For more information on what is available through the DFMWR Outdoor Recreation Department, call 361-6349.