“Growing up in Israel in hot weather, during the first Gulf War, when rockets were hitting my hometown Haifa, I spent a month with my grandparents in New York, where I saw snowflakes landing on my hand for the first time,” Eyal Saiet recalled. “This drew me towards winter.”
Saiet, a fixture in Fairbanks outdoors circles, said he got an early start on being active.
“Haifa is similar in some ways to San Francisco in terms of the climate, steep hills. It’s kind of cool because you have the Mediterranean Sea, which is beautiful, and if you continue uphill, you end up in pine forest. That’s how I started mountain biking. Before I had a driver’s license, I would leave my house at seven in the morning and head into the forest. Biking through Druze villages, no cell phone, age 13, that seems nuts.”
Saiet was born a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. His mother’s parents escaped Europe through Manila in the Philippines during the Holocaust. Arriving on America’s West Coast they went to New York City, where she was born. She immigrated to Israel as an adult. His father’s grandparents similarly fled anti-semitic violence, in their case the pogroms in Russia early in the 20th century. They settled in South Africa, but moved to Israel after it was established. Saiet grew up with English as his first language.
Saiet took an indirect journey to Alaska. After finishing his mandatory military service in Israel, he went to Mongolia, where he and a friend traveled by horseback and he got his first taste of the remote backcountry. Then he went to China, which he found too crowded. Recalling an article he’d read about dog handling in Alaska, he decided to give that a try. After a quick return home, he left for Anchorage in November 2006. On Thanksgiving Day he hitchhiked to Denali Park, where he had an opportunity to work for Iditarod champion Jeff King.
“It was 20 below in Willow, and I didn’t have any of the gear for that. A couple picked me up, and the guy owned a sea kayak company. During the two-hour drive they offered me summer work as a sea kayak guide in Seward.”
It turned out King had too many handlers, so Saiet headed first to Kasilof and then to Willow before landing a handling job in Shungnak on the Kobuk River. Getting there brought him through Fairbanks, where he stayed with a distant relative and found the city to his liking.
Come spring, he said, “I moved to Seward to be a sea kayak guide for summer. That started my love for sea kayaking. At the end of summer I moved back to Israel with plans to start school. But by then I had the Alaska virus. I was sick. So I moved back and started at UAF.”
Saiet majored in chemistry while spending his summers in Seward. Immediately after graduation, he was hired by the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, a job that has taken him all over the state, working with drones to gather information on glaciers, pack ice, landscapes, and more.
“My role is understanding the requirements of the scientists or clients and then infer from that what camera we need, turning that camera into a payload, flying it, and collecting the data,” he explained, adding, “Most of my day’s are in front of the computer.”
Outside of work hours, however, Saiet can usually be found outdoors. A dedicated fat biker, he’s raced the White Mountains 100 twice.
“The first time was Israeli style,” he said, laughing. “You have a lot of motivation, but not a lot of training. It’s still doable, but not elegantly.”
Saiet borrowed a bike the day before the race, stayed up almost all night preparing, and arrived at the starting line with little sleep and no training. He felt good for the first twenty miles, but started to get sore and slowed down after that. It was the year Elliot Wilson entered the race with a unicycle, which led to Saiet’s moment of reckoning.
“When a unicycle is passing you, things are not looking good,” he recalled. “That got me energized to start moving myself.”
Once he got past the midpoint at Windy Gap, which he described as “one of the most spectacular locations in Interior Alaska,” Saiet picked up steam and made it all the way to mile 80. There he slept for hours in the cabin before finishing the race. He was so tired at the start that, when he finished, race officials who had taken before and after photos “said I was the only person who looked better after the race than before.”
A self-described map geek, Saiet said he uses the Alaska Gazetteer to plan trips. After a winter race in Talkeetna last year, he decided to stop and explore the Petersville Road before coming home.
“It was gorgeous. That area is unbelievable. You have Moose’s Tooth, some of the best mountains in Alaska, Denali. Everything is glowing, and you’re getting closer and closer.”
In January, when many Alaskans are heading for warmer climes, Saiet goes sea kayaking in Seward, which he refers to as “my tropics.”
“It’s warmer than Fairbanks. The mountains are beautiful and covered in snow, the temperatures are only slightly cooler than summer.”
He’s also gone mountaineering with a group of European graduate students from UAF, takes lengthy summer kayak excursions, dipnets, hosts couch-surfing cyclists passing through town, goes on winter overnight trips to cabins and takes part in weekly winter saunas. He considers these activities and the close friendships he’s made through them crucial to his happiness here and to enjoying winters instead of being intimidated by them. “Definitely some friends and warmth in the winter are key.”
Having fully embraced Alaska and the outdoors life, Saiet said it now seems destined. “Something gravitated me towards snow and cold,” he concluded. “I don’t have a better explanation.”