Keeping with Traditions: an inside look at Starvation Gulch

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UAF Chancellor Dana Thomas lights the last fire at Starvation Gulch on Sept. 25, 2016. Due to construction occupying the area where the fires would normally be held, only three fires were allowed this year. In previous years, the number has been closer to 5 or 6. Zayn Roohi/Sun Star

At 8:30 a.m last Saturday, Jerzy Ellanna, chair of the Nanook Traditions Board, was standing behind a table in the Nenana parking lot, supplying work gloves and hard hats to the 75 or so assembled students. Campus community members were gathered to start building the huge bonfires that would burn for hours that evening, the signature event of UAF’s yearly Starvation Gulch celebration.

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Jerzy Ellanna works the check-in table at Blacklight Ice Dodgeball, the night of Friday, September 23rd. Starvation Gulch events were scheduled from Thursday, Sept. 22nd until Sunday, Sept 25th. Ellamarie Quimby/Sun Star

In between sips of coffee, Ellanna, a third-year student in the art department, handed out waivers and protective equipment for most of the morning. As participants from the University Fire Department, the College of Engineering and Mines and a team consisting of members from both Residence Life and Chi Alpha, the university’s co-ed Christian fraternity, stacked pallet after pallet, Ellanna and her staff kept a watchful eye on safety and the clock.

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Team "Thunder Falcons" wait on the sidelines during the semi-finals of Black Light Ice Dodgeball at the Patty Center on Friday, September 23rd. Thunder Falcons finished the night as grand champions. Baxter Bond/ Sun Star

“Keep your hat on!” Ellanna said through a megaphone, directing her comment at a member of the Chi Alpha fraternity who stood atop a pile of pallets, head unprotected. Around 10:30 a.m. the Residence Life and Chi Alpha build was just beginning to take shape, while the fire department pallets laid stacked haphazardly in the far corner of the lot. The College of Engineering and Mines structure already stood at least two stories high.

“I don’t know what the firefighters are doing at the moment. [ResLife and Chi Alpha] are doing a boat, [the College of Engineering and Mines] had so much wood that this was the best structure we could come up with—it’s supposed to be a castle,” Ellanna said.

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Local CBS affiliate Tanana Valley Television interviews Jerzy Ellanna regarding the history of Nanook Traditions and Starvation Gulch. Ellamarie Quimby/Sun Star

The participating teams compete for any of three trophies: Biggest Flame, Most Creative and Longest Burning. Cody Rogers, associate director of Programming, will have various staff and students vote on which teams were deserving of each prize.

Ellanna took over as Chair of the Nanook Traditions Board in the Spring of 2016, from former chair Danni Atkins. As a third-year student, Ellanna says that part of the draw of the job is being involved in three of the biggest event weekends on campus.

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Jerzy Ellanna directs a truck full of sound and lighting equipment to a different part of the parking lot in order to set up the DJ stage and music for the Gulch bonfires. Ellamarie Quimby/Sun Star

“My freshman year I worked at the Women’s Center, which was under the Student Activities Office. When the person who was in charge of Traditions last year graduated, I interviewed for the position because I really wanted to be involved in all of this. This was the perfect job,” Ellanna said.

Traditions weekends exist as cornerstones of the University of Alaska Fairbanks experience. At a school that lacks in many customary aspects of a typical University, these three weekends stand in for events like Homecoming, March Madness and other typically American collegiate events. Ellanna’s role as Chair of the Traditions Board plays an essential part in many student’s social lives during the year.

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Students throw their hands up in the air as they dance during Starvation Gultch. DJ 50/50 spins fiery tunes throughout the night on Saturday, September 24th 2016. Baxter Bond/ Sun Star

As the long morning went on, Ellanna and other event staff helped the three teams problem solve, while continuing to set up for the rest of the event. Tents and tables went up on the far side of the parking lot for clubs and organizations, lighting and sound equipment got delivered, the crowd barricade got erected. Ellanna directed trucks, filed safety waivers and staked metal poles into the ground for the fence. Other staff present, like Mark Oldmixen, director of DRAW and the Wood Center, measured the height of the pallet piles and scrutinized protective gear.

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A UFD firefighter sits atop his truck and watches the fires burn low after a successful Starvation Gulch 2016. Zayn Roohi/Sun Star

“It’s a passing of knowledge,” Oldmixen said, about the Starvation Gulch traditions. “Historically, the Chancellor would light the first fire, and then the first year students, when there were only a dozen or so each year, would light torches off of the central fire, and carry them back to light their own. It’s a symbol of the older students and the administration passing their knowledge down to the new students as they start their college experience.”

It’s easy for Ellanna to say that she prefers Springfest, the Nanook Tradition held in late April, to Starvation Gulch, because of Springfest’s three full days of events. But Starvation Gulch holds a special place in her heart.

“Because it’s the first month that everyone is back, and not everyone knows everyone yet, and it’s such a big, distinctly Fairbanks event. No other university is going to give its students permission to light three gigantic fires on campus,” Ellanna said. “There’s at least a thousand people who come out to [Starvation Gulch] every year. It’s a really important community event. I love it.”

As Chair of the Traditions Board, Ellanna is responsible for a lot of the excecution of plans that go into all of the Starvation Gulch events. The Friday before the bonfires, she worked the check-in table for Blacklight Dodgeball, then spent the evening announcing for the event.

“The Traditions Board plays a huge role in running [Traditions] weekends, but it’s really a whole campus effort. We need everyone’s cooperation, and every year people surprise me with new ideas,” Ellanna said. “I couldn’t do any of this without Cody [Rogers]. She’s got everything on lockdown. I appreciate all of her planning ahead of time, and every year we work out more kinks, and it just gets better and better.”

The Traditions Board is made up of various representatives from different organizations around campus, and the Chair. ASUAF, Residence Life, Rural Student Services, Green Dot and Sigma Phi Epsilon all have a member on the Board, but other Board participants don’t have to work for a particular group.

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Chancellor Dana Thomas, senior Daniel Nero, Jerzy Ellanna and senior Shirlie Morin pose for a photograph after the bonfires are lit. Both Nero and Chancellor Thomas were able to light the fires on Saturday night. Ellamarie Quimby/Sun Star

“If a student comes to us and says they want to involved, they can be. We meet on a regular basis leading up to Traditions weekends, we do all the planning, [board members] all have a say in what the theme is each year, and in what gear we want to order. During the events, they make up a big part of the staff, and help make sure everything runs smoothly,” Ellanna said.

The Traditions Board was initially worried about this year’s downsized fires. Typically, there has been space for six participating groups to build fires, but due to construction equipment in the Nenana parking lot, this year’s Gulch featured only three.

“Every year we open up bonfire signups on a particular morning, and groups [that want to participate] have to show up, in person, in the Student Activities Office, on time. This year it was Monday, September 13 at 8 a.m. When I walked into the office, two of my fires were already waiting for me, and the University Fire Department showed up just a little later,” said Ellanna. “This year’s groups have done fires for the past couple of years. They’re such great organizations that always have everything planned out, and they’re always so cooperative with the build.”

As students and community members began arriving for the bonfires on Saturday evening, University Police briefed Ellanna on using their police radio in the case of an emergency. Clad in high-visibility vests, Student Activities Office, Residence Life and Wood Center staff manned the exits, entrances, fire barricades and Safety & Security booth. Ellanna said that the Board starts planning the Starvation Gulch bonfires about a month ahead of time, making calls to local vendors and ensuring the Fire and Police departments will be present at the event.

“Sometimes when I call the people we work with, I don’t even have to say anything. I tell them that I work with SAO, and they say, ‘Oh, Starvation Gulch, right? We’ve got you covered.’ We have a good system.” Ellanna said.

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As the fires burned low, students moved over to the DJ and began to dance. Zayn Roohi/Sun Star

As Nanook Diversity and Action Center representative to the Board Daniel Nero lit the first bonfire, Ellanna and senior Social Work major Shirlie Morin looked on. Ellanna had originally been slated to light the first fire, but decided against it.

“I can’t do it every year,” Ellanna said. “And I want to do it the last year that I’m here.”

Despite a handful of small concerns, the night ran smoothly and the event was a success. Ellanna did express some disappointment at the lack of an appearance of the Traditions stone- the 400-lb boulder routinely stolen by various campus organizations, which is meant to be present at every Traditions event.

“Someone called me three times this week in the Student Activities office, trying to figure out who had it. I told them Alpha Phi Omega, but someone else told me it was Sigma Phi Epsilon. I don’t think anyone knows right now.” Ellanna said.

As the fires began to burn down and most of the crowd dispersed, Ellanna and Morin stood at the entrance to the Nenana parking lot, holding traffic for the fire trucks and ambulances leaving the event. Ellanna laughed as she asked a University police officer to try his handcuffs. She and the rest of the event staff finished cleaning up the Nenana lot a little before 2 a.m., at which point the Frozen Fibers knitting club arrived to keep an eye on the fires as they burned down.

As soon as the Spring semester begins, Ellanna and the rest of the Nanook Traditions Board will begin planning for Winter Carnival, which will be held February 24 – 25, 2017.

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