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USA: Alaska: Anchorage, Fairbanks
Fairbanks, Alaska, USA: Welcome the wilderness
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Gateway to Alaska's vast Interior and expansive Arctic, Fairbanks is located in the central Tanana Valley, straddling the Chena River near its confluence with the Tanana River. Immediately north of the city is a chain of hills that rises gradually until it reaches the White Mountains and the Yukon River. The southern border of the city is the Tanana River. South of the river is the Tanana Flats, an area of marsh and bog that stretches for more than 100 miles (160 km) until it rises into the Alaska Range.
Fairbanks is one of the best places on earth for experiencing the beautiful and mysterious northern lights. Bright, energetic curtains of yellow, green, red or even purple light brighten the night skies regularly. Fairbanks is situated within a ring-shaped region around the North Pole called the auroral oval. This location provides a terrific balance of occurrence, frequency and activity. While the intensity varies, the most common yellow-green glow occurs heavily between late August and April. Prime viewing time is late evening through the wee hours of the morning.
Viewing the Northern Lights was high on agenda whilst opting for the FAM trip organised by Explore Fairbanks. I would be in Fairbanks for 4 days, let's say nights, since that would be more appropriate. Had it been summers, the equation would have changed though. We were a group of 11 tour operators and media. We were scheduled to depart Anchorage at 9AM by Ravn Alaska airlines. To my surprise, there was no TSA security check, which is quite mandatory at all US airports. I later learnt that since Ravn doesn't fly outside of the State of Alaska, they have done away with security. Beats me though. Since we are on the subject, Ravn the bird, is the only species that doesn't migrate south in winters. And sure enough, I could see many of them during my days in Fairbanks and the region.
Travel by boat or air are important means of transportation in Alaska where highways only cover about one-third of the state. 80,000 square miles of tundra comprise the Arctic, north of the Brooks Range. The flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks was just about an hour. We were received by Michael Wien of Explore Fairbanks. It was very thoughtful of him to keep the van's engine running and the interiors warm. It was freezing cold... at least for people like me who are used to living at 45C or about 113F. It was just below 0C. For locals, in February, this was strange... the winters should have been more severe. So be it.
Accompanying us was Ed Melan from Explore Fairbanks. A fine gentleman with great sense of humour. He would be our guide and driver for the days that we would be there. On occasions, I saw him walking around in just a T-shirt. That should tell you all about global warming, if there's any!
Our home and base camp in Fairbanks would be Pike's Waterfront Lodge. As the name suggests, the lodge is located right on the banks of Chena River. Pike's Waterfront Lodge offers comfortable rooms many with scenic views, a steam room, riverside decks, restaurant, a comfortable lounge and Aveda aromatherapy room amenities. Adjacent to the lodge is the famous Pike's Landing restaurant where we had our lunch. Absolutely succulent.
Post lunch, we had site inspection of Fairbanks Community Museum, Bouchard's International Dog Mushing Museum and Wedgewood Resort.
The two-story concrete building is a good example of a modernized Classical Revival design. The building was used as the Fairbanks City Hall until 1995 and for many years also housed the fire and police departments and town jail. The building now houses the Fairbanks Community Museum, administered by a local nonprofit organization and featuring Alaskana on loan from private collectors. This museum tells the history of Fairbanks and was founded to help revitalize the downtown area. It features interpretive displays, period artifacts, newspapers, archival photos, extensive dog mushing memorabilia, and the official Yukon Quest store.
The sport of dog sledding is a state pastime for folks in Alaska, and now, visitors can get a behind the scenes look of this local legacy on a visit to the Bouchard’s International Dog Mushing and Sled Museum. We were taken around the galleries by Kyia Bouchard, a musher herself, of this well-curated museum, which showcases handmade wooden sleds, photographs and plenty of regional history. Gain an appreciation for the unique challenges participants in this unique sport endure. Kyia explained how dogs are trained, sleds are built and how hearty racers (and their dogs) survive the epic Iditarod journey through the backcountry of this vast frozen state.
Wedgewood Resort is a sprawling hotel complex on 105 acres of land. The highlight of the property is the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. It's the owner's personal collection and I strongly suggest a visit especially for the car buffs.
A little rest was very much on the cards. For dinner we would visit The Pump House Restaurant and Saloon. After dinner, it will be a night out – Aurora hunting!
The Pump House was reconstructed in the spring of 1978. The purpose was to attempt to recreate the 1890's "Gold Rush" motif and the atmosphere which was associated with the "Rip Roaring" but still Victorian era in Fairbanks. Everywhere you look you will see relics from the rich and illustrious past. All the furnishings are authentic and very old. Most are genuine antiques and a few are over 150 years old. The food service is "Alaskan Style", which means the combination of the freshest products possible with their unique culinary heritage. Their sea-food platter / basket was a treasure to behold!
Our first night's Aurora viewing tour was organised by 1st Alaska Outdoor School, led by Ralf Dobrovolny. There are options to experience the aurora from a heated "aurorium" cabin or on an overnight sled dog trip or by snow cat tour to a panoramic vista or in a horse drawn sleigh or on a flight above the Arctic Circle, or simply walk outside and look up to see the captivating northern lights weave their way across the night sky.
We opted for the latter. Displays take place as low as 40 miles above the earth's surface, but usually begin about 68 miles above and extend hundreds of miles into space. Clear skies and darkness are essential to see the northern lights. If you stay 3 nights in Fairbanks, you have an 80% chance of seeing them. Well that's marketing. Thankfully, we were lucky. Could see the Northern Lights on all the nights! Albeit the intensity was varying. I remember my Aurora Hunt in Tromso, Norway. After driving around for more than 500 kms in 3 nights, I got to see the magic only on the second day, and that too for just 8 minutes! Fairbanks experience was indeed a feast.
I am told, Yellowknife in Canada has better chances of aurora viewing. Haven't been there but I guess Fairbanks would be a better option as the costs out here are lower than other similar places of the Arctic. We were back at the lodge at 3 in the morning.
Generally speaking, FAM trips begin quite early in the morning. That's the only way to cover maximum ground. But in this trip, mornings began late. And for obvious reasons. After a late breakfast, we were ready to roll at 11AM. Our first visit would be the Santa Claus House at North Pole... a village about 20-minute drive away from Fairbanks. Thereafter, we would go ice fishing on the frozen River Chena and then visit the Knotty Shop.
When Con and Nellie Miller arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1949, they had $1.40 in cash and two hungry kids. Determined to carve out a living in the new territory of Alaska, Con soon became a merchant and fur buyer in the surrounding villages. Donning an old red Santa suit each Christmas, Con earned celebrity status as Santa Claus in the eyes of the village children. By 1952, the Millers had decided to build a trading post thirteen miles south of Fairbanks, in an area newly dubbed "North Pole." One day, while hard at work on the new store, a young Alaskan boy recognized Con and asked, "Hello, Santa Claus! Are you building a new house?" Inspiration clicked, the new store would be called "Santa Claus House!"
In those early days, however, Santa Claus House offered more basic necessities than it did Christmas treasures. Situated between two military installations and right in the middle of developing North Pole, Santa Claus House became an impromptu gathering place for area residents. In addition to purchasing their groceries, locals could mingle at the soda fountain or pick up their daily mail, as Santa Claus House, under the direction of Postmistress Nellie Miller, was a mail contract station and served as North Pole's first Post Office for almost 20 years.
The years passed, and Santa Claus House saw the addition of a new wing - as well as a 42 foot tall, 900 pound, three-dimensional Santa Claus statue, perfectly placed just outside the store to welcome both the young and young-at-heart to Santa Claus House.
No winter experience is complete without a day of ice fishing! Enjoy a fantastic day of fishing for Rainbow Trout, Arctic Char or Silver Salmon on one of the Interior's frozen lakes. What a thrilling experience to catch fish through 4-5 feet of ice. Our host for the ice fishing tour was Joe Letarte of Alaska Wilderness Enterprises. Unfortunately, we were not lucky enough to get some catch. But like they say, the journey is equally exciting than the destination. The process of drilling hole in the ice, bait and wait was good enough in itself. One of our 'fishing neighbours' caught a few though.
The Knotty Shop is owned and operated by 6th generation Alaskans, whose great-great-great grandparents were early-day Yukon and Alaska pioneers, dating their northern adventures back to 1897. Two of these couples, the Beistlines and the Herings, are even represented on the "Wall of Pioneers" in Fairbanks. Today the Knotty Shop is filled with art, gifts and Alaskan-made handiwork that are as diverse as the stories adorning the Wease's family history. When visiting the shop in Salcha, Alaska, we saw moose and caribou antler carvings, ceramics and jewelry, mastodon ivory, fur and various burl gifts throughout the store.
At 5 we were back at the lodge for some rest. Dinner tonight was arranged at The Turtle Club – arguably the finest steak house and seafood restaurant in Fairbanks! One of their steaks, called the Miner’s, is a 24-ounce chunk with things on the side. History has it that very few people can finish it… some of it has to go back home!
Post dinner the aurora viewing for the night would be at North Pole and the host for the evening were Alaska Aurora Adventures. This, our second night, was quite fruitful – the best aurora views of our entire trip. It was 3AM by the time we reached our lodge.
The next morning, we will fly over the Arctic Circle to Coldfoot Camp and drive back to Fairbanks while searching for the Northern Lights.
For the day we would be with Northern Alaska Tour Company. After completing form-filling formalities, we were seated in a 9-seater, twin engine aircraft. Everybody had a window. A tip here. Try and be the last one to get in the plane. The last seat is right at the back and almost in the centre of the body… giving an option to lookout from the left as well as the right window. What else would a photographer ask for?
The flight was just about an hour to Coldfoot and the pilot warned us that it would be quite bumpy along, especially during landing. He was quite right. We took off at around 1PM, overflying some fantastic landscape and sites, especially the Dalton Highway, The Trans Alaska Pipeline, the mighty Yukon River, Stevens Village and the Arctic Circle.
Built in 1974 preceding the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline, the Dalton Highway or Haul Road cuts a 416 mile path through Alaska’s arctic.
The 800-mile-long Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) is one of the world's largest pipeline systems, an engineering icon that was the biggest privately funded construction project when constructed in the 1970s. Beginning in Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope, TAPS stretches through rugged and beautiful terrain to Valdez, the northernmost ice-free port in North America.
Since pipeline startup in 1977, Alyeska Pipeline - TAPS' operator - has successfully transported more than 16 billion barrels of oil and loaded more than 19,000 tankers at the Valdez Marine Terminal. More than half of the pipeline runs above ground – an engineering decision due to Alaska’s prevalent permafrost terrain. TAPS’ visibility as it crosses Alaska’s remarkable terrain has made it one of the world’s most photographed pipelines. There are over 124,000 heat pipes along the pipeline. These pipes transfer ground heat into the air to ensure soil remains stable and able to support the pipeline.
Flowing east to west, the Yukon River bisects the state of Alaska and drains the vast area between the Brooks Range and the Alaska Range. Throughout human history, the river has served as a lifeline providing fish and other game for those living along the shores. Seven months out of the year, from October to May, the river is frozen. The only bridge spanning the Yukon is on the Dalton Highway, which we would be crossing on our way back.
Stevens Village is one of many Koyukon Athabascan villages along the Koyukuk and central Yukon River valleys. The population of the village is just about 80.
The Arctic Circle is the imaginary line scribed around the earth at 66 degrees 33 seconds north latitude. It marks, in theory, the southernmost point from which, at sea level, the sun’s rays can be seen on the horizon at midnight of the longest day of the year (summer solstice; June 21 or 22). Conversely, it is also the southernmost point at which the sun’s rays cannot be seen at noon of the shortest day of the year (winter solstice December 21 or 22). On our way back, we would make a photo stop at the Arctic marker.
During the Koyukuk gold rush of 1898-1900, the town of Coldfoot arose along the banks of Alate Creek. It became the commercial centre for area miners. Gold discoveries to the north and west of Coldfoot in 1906 and 1907 depleted the town’s population. The town was essentially deserted until the 1970’s when Coldfoot came into second existence as a Pipeline camp.
At Coldfoot, we had a packed lunch and some time to explore around. One of the driver-guides offered us a ride up to Wisemen - located 12 miles north of Coldfoot. The village became home to many after large quantities of gold was discovered in the creeks in 1907. Unlike Coldfoot, the town of Wisemen has been continuously occupied throughout the years. Current residents are self-reliant and independent. They use traditional self-sufficiency skills to supply their basic needs off the land.
We drove back to Fairbanks with a stop at the Arctic marker, the bridge on the Yukon and for the Northern Lights. It was 3 in the morning when I hit the bed back at the lodge.
The next day we had site inspection of University of Alaska Museum of the North, George Horner Ice Park, Regency Fairbanks Hotel, Westmark Fairbanks Hotel and a few stores in Downtown Fairbanks. The lunch would be at Bobby’s Downtown and dinner at Lavelle’s Bistro. Post dinner, the aurora viewing was set up at Ski Land.
The museum, formerly known as the University Of Alaska Museum, was housed in what is now known as Signers' Hall for much of its history. It was mandated as part of the original legislation establishing the university in 1917.
The museum's mission is to acquire, conserve, investigate, and interpret specimens and collections relating to the natural, artistic, and cultural heritage of Alaska and the Circumpolar North. Through education, research, and public exhibits, the museum serves the state, national, and international science programs. The museum develops and uses botanical, geological, zoological, and cultural collections; these collections form the basis for understanding past and present issues unique to the North and meeting the challenges of the future.
Over time, the collections overflowed the space, and a capital campaign was begun in 1975 to build a new museum. The campaign was completed in 2001 and the new building opened to the public in late 2005, with some galleries opening in 2006.
The world Ice Art Championships are held annually in Fairbanks, Alaska. The event is attended by artists from the world over, who chisel and carve away at giant blocks of ice, fashioning remarkable creations that sometimes reach 25 feet high. Two competitions feature a small and large sculpture contest, performed outdoors in the beautiful Fairbanks winter weather. The quality of ice from the local ponds is favored by the artists due to both its thickness and clarity, the latter due to a lack of organisms in the water. Largely a volunteer event, visitors enjoy a park filled with ice creations displayed at night with colorful lights to accentuate their beauty.
We would leave Fairbanks the next evening. That gave us time to experience some dog mushing, enjoy a lovely lunch at Shogun Hibachi Japanese Steakhouse and a quick visit to the famous Pioneer Park.
Located along the Chena River, Trail Breaker Kennel was established in 1980 by the husband and wife team of David Monson (Yukon Quest champion) and Susan Butcher (four-time Iditarod champion). Both were avid mushers and longed to fulfill their dream of mushing full-time and raising a family. In 1993, David and Susan decided to share their love of sled dogs with the public and began operating tours from their home in Fairbanks. Trail Breaker Kennel is now one of the longest operating kennels in Fairbanks where visitors experience and enjoy an Alaskan mushing lifestyle. It was a thrilling experience to be pulled up by 16 huskies for about 20-minutes.
Pioneer Park is a 44-acre city park, run by the Fairbanks North Star Borough Department of Parks and Recreation. It was opened in 1967 as Alaska 67 Centennial Exposition to celebrate the centennial of the Alaska Purchase. After being given first to the state and then to the city, Mayor Red Boucher renamed the site Alaskaland. It was then changed to its present name in 2001 out of concern that the park could be mistaken for being primarily a theme park. There is no admission fee to enter the park, though many of the museums and attractions do charge an entrance fee.
Well, that brought to an end a fantastic trip to the Golden Heart City.
Fairbanks Image Gallery Photo viewer
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