Alaska: Fairbanks. Caribou masks from Anaktuvuk Pass
Alaska: Fairbanks. Caribou masks from Anaktuvuk Pass
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Fairbanks Alaska – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

A trip to Fairbanks takes you to the interior of Alaska, a landscape far more severe than the temperate coastal areas of Anchorage or Juneau-Skagway-Sitka.

At Fairbanks the winters are cold and dark, with temperatures dropping commonly to 45 degrees Fahrenheit below, without considering the wind chill factor. Such conditions can provoke introspective self knowledge or cabin fever approaching madness, depending on your temperament. A sobering detail at the University of Alaska campus is that all the parking lot stalls have electric sockets where you plug in the heater cables on your engine to keep the motor from freezing up while you attend classes. The electrical cost to keep a car plugged in overnight, producing enough heat to save the engine, is about $5. In Fairbanks, you need to be tough to survive.

Summer in Fairbanks, when most visitors come, offers a more hospitable environment. It is light so long during the day that a famous midnight baseball game played on June 21 requires no electric lights. Parents allow their children to play outside long after the usual bedtime, well aware of the need for humans, as well as plants, to absorb as much sunlight as possible in the luxurious but brief sun time.

The winters of Fairbanks engender a sense of community in those who remain. The cold months are so severe that mutual help is crucial for survival. Fairbanks’ citizens tend to look after each other, as they must. As an example of the daily challenge of winter life here, the house in which President Ronald Reagan stayed during his 1983 visit, while he rested for the China trip and met with the Pope, had no running water. On the night before his arrival, cold burst the water pipes.

Fairbanks is not always that cold, however. While the thermometer may plunge for a spell, the statisticians insist that the average January temperature is indeed 12 degrees Fahrenheit above zero. Adding to the darkness and cold is a condition called “ice fog,” in which liquid in the air crystallizes, forming a white haze in the brief daily sunlight hours of winter. If you tend toward depression, a sedentary lifestyle, and the comforts of alcohol, Fairbanks is not what the doctor ordered. To survive here, you must be spirited and resourceful.

One consolation in winter, however, is the sport of dog mushing, the official state sport. Dog mushing becomes an international competition in February. Mushers come from all over Alaska, Canada, and from the northeast U.S. as well. The popularity of this sport is increasing and the practical use of dogs in Alaska is growing. If you forget to plug in your car or snowmobile during a Fairbanks cold spell, the engine will freeze up and be useless. Dogs don’t exhibit such behavior. Dogs, however, require about a salmon a day or substantial amounts of commercial dog food to survive. The Musher’s Museum in Fairbanks, an interesting touring stop, celebrates this dog heritage. The famous annual races, the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, test the ultimate in dog and human performance.

In Fairbanks, the observant eye can’t help but be amused by details of life that indicate the traveler has entered another realm. For example, there is a golf course in Fairbanks. In fact, it is the most northerly USGA-rated course in the US. But it had no greens (until recently). The “greens” were called “greys.” Greys were grey-sand greens. When your ball landed on the grey, you were permitted to dig it out of the sand. You were then permitted to take a roller, a kind of sod roller present on every green, and carefully roll out a pathway across the sand between your ball and the cup. Eventually, however, green astroturf replaced the traditional sand.

Fairbanks considers itself the Golden Heart of Alaska because of the substantial gold discoveries here, in the middle of the country, in September 1900.

Typically for Alaska, Fairbanks has been a boom and bust town. If anything, tourism may ultimately reduce more transient cycles in the community. The booms occurred when gold was discovered in 1902, when attention focused on Alaska as a defense post in World War II, and when pipeline employees were cashing their $30/hour paychecks during the building of the 800-mile pipe 1973-1977.

Getting to Fairbanks

As with any Alaska trip, transportation and lodging must be assured in advance because both are limited, especially in the summer.

After arriving at Anchorage, you can fly to Fairbanks. You can also take the train or, if you wish, rent a car for the drive there. The drive is long and the roads are poor. The Westmark Fairbanks is one of the dependable lodgings. There are also a few classy restaurants, such as the Bear’n Seal or the Pump House, which situates you over the river. Try the regional specialty, reindeer sausage.

Three interesting details of the Fairbanks airport should be noted. The motif in the lobby is an heroic early-day bush plane. A sign as you boarded your flight, in the pre 9-11 era, was an only-in-Alaska phenomenon. The sign read, “Before boarding, please check your ulus.” Ulus, popular souvenirs, are the bone (later steel) knives used by Athabascan women to scrape moose hides and perform other tasks. The runways include one long watery landing strip in which float planes, used by the bush pilots, line up wing to wing.

If you drive or train to Fairbanks, you’ll pass the town of Nenana, which boasts a special annual celebration. Each winter a huge tripod is placed on the ice at the middle of the Nenana River. A long cord attaches the tripod to the prominent town clock. The locals (and interested citizens statewide) place sizable numbers of $2 bets on the exact minute in spring when the ice in the river will break up, the tripod will fall, the clock will stop, and a blow-out celebration to end winter cabin fever will begin. Each year the winner takes home a cash prize over $100,000. All participants do their best during the celebration to banish memories of darkness and the long winter.

History of Fairbanks

For the last 30,000 years Athabascan Indian people have survived here, putting most of their energy into the search for food. They ate salmon and game, especially moose, that they learned to kill with stone spears at great risk to themselves. They had a hard life, with an average life expectancy of 25-30 years, living in small extended-family groups, the maximum population numbers that their hunting and gathering skills could support.

Only in relatively recent years, at the turn of the century, did the first white men penetrate the region. Boats of traders came as part of the Gold Rush in the Yukon. Missionaries soon followed the Gold Rushers. Flu and smallpox wiped out many of the Indians.

One of the interesting experiences available to the traveler here acquaints you with both the Indians and the riverboat world of the Gold Rush traders, a kind of Mark Twain world of the north.

The outing takes place on a sternwheeler named Riverboat Discovery. The tour is run by the Binkley family, which has been operating riverboats here since 1898. Only in the last two decades have these trade and postal boats become tourism boats. The trip takes you down the spring-fed Cheena River and up the glacial Tanana River. Glacial rivers are full of pulverized rock, called “rock flour,” ground up by the weight and friction of the slipping ice. Like the Missouri, this kind of river water is “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.”

Rivers were the roads of commerce during the great Gold Rushes of Alaska. Near Fairbanks, the Cripple Creek strike was worth $100 million in gold then, which would be $1 billion now.

You disembark at a riverbank habitation simulating an Athabascan Indian village. There you see how king and chum salmon were caught in fish wheels and dried or smoked. The salmon fed not only the Athabascans, but their sled dogs, on which they relied for winter transportation. You see how food was stored in high caches, small storage houses placed on poles out of the reach of bears and other mammals. Several young Athabascan women give talks and demonstrations during the trip.

How hard life was for the Athabascans becomes apparent as you visit the area. The lushness of summer growth is deceptive because it is so brief. Life was a continual struggle for the Athabascans, who spent almost all of their time searching for food. The moose, especially, was a great prize because it might yield 1,300 pounds of meat. Athabascans ate salmon during the seasonal runs. Berries were abundant, briefly, in summer.

Athabascans were the last group to make the migration from Russia across the Bering Sea ice bridge. The Apaches and Navajos of the American southwest are an extension of the tribe, based on a shared language structure. More Indians living today speak varieties of Athabascan than any other Indian language.

Main Attractions of Fairbanks

Orient yourself in Fairbanks by stopping at the downtown Log Cabin Information Center and its adjacent Pioneer Park, noted for a bronze statue of a pioneer family and the engraved names of all the original families who settled the area. As in Anchorage, a log cabin has been chosen as the building for visitor information. Throughout the state you’ll see a surprising number of modern log cabins as standard houses. The downtown Fairbanks log cabin is a particularly handsome example. The logs are massive white spruce from the panhandle area around Sitka. The basalt stones of the fireplace are from Denali. The sod roof on the cabin is a frequent practice, providing added insulation. Some people even grow vegetables and flowers on their roofs. Next to the log cabin you’ll find a swiveling signpost marker indicating the distances to various places in the U.S. and around the globe. Fairbanks is as far north as most travelers get, except for the dedicated few who take a charter flight beyond the Arctic Circle.

Alaska: Fairbanks. Caribou masks from Anaktuvuk Pass
Alaska: Fairbanks. Caribou masks from Anaktuvuk Pass

At the Information Center you can get brochures for a walking tour of Fairbanks. You can also get information on a city tour, if you aren’t already booked for one. The distances to places like the University and the pipeline, two prime stops, are such that you will need some transportation to get there. Public transportation won’t do, so either use your own vehicle, take a tour, or plan to pay a taxi the high rates commanded in Alaska for all services. A tour is the most economical and efficient approach for most travelers.

A downtown walk can take you from the Information Center along the Cheena River bank to see remnants of homes and buildings from the era when trader E. T. Barnette, gold discoverer Felix Pedro, and legal arranger Judge James J. Wickersham founded the town. Wickersham asked Barnette to name the town, when the post office was established, after Wickersham’s friend, Senator Charles Fairbanks from Indiana.

I once had the pleasure of walking through the old Fairbanks area with author Stan Patty, who was born here. Stan’s father founded the university and served as a mine manager. Stan showed me the spacious log house that his father built here in the 1930s, complete with a room for Stan’s mother’s grand piano. Even on the ragged edge of the Alaska tundra, there was a thirst for culture. The small town had an excellent library, which sparked Patty’s long and distinguished literary career. To repeat our walk, wander in the rectangle formed by 8th, Cowles, Front, and Noble Streets. The typical housing pattern here was to add on new rooms to the small, original structures.

Although the river may be flowing generously during the summer melt and flooding is possible, the Fairbanks area is relatively arid, getting only 12 inches a year rainfall, compared with the 50-150 inches common in southeast Alaska.

Aside from the Riverboat Discovery, be sure to see the Alaska Museum at the University of Alaska. All of the state is divided into sections in the museum, with each section represented by the genius of its lifestyle and crafts. A huge Kodiak brown bear greets you in the foyer. One of the unusual exhibits is an ox-like animal that was attacked and killed by lions, then frozen in the tundra some 60,000 years ago, preserving its carcass as if in a supermarket freezer. Now the carcass is restored to its moment of death.

At the University, you can tour the agricultural experiment station, which attempts to breed selected forms of grains and vegetables suitable for Alaska. Wheat of high protein content has been one of the successes. Research on musk ox and caribou helps document the astonishing skills of these animals at surviving in one of the harshest climates known to mammals.

A city tour of Fairbanks is recommended as an efficient way in which to comprehend the diverse pleasures of the region. Inquire about the city tours at your motel. On the two-hour tour, you’ll see the defining symbol of modern life in Alaska, the 800-mile pipeline that brings oil from Prudoe Bay in the Arctic down to Valdez, the ice-free port east of Anchorage.

Seeing the pipeline is a little like seeing grizzly bears or glacial ice up close. These are monumental Alaskan experiences. At one stop along the pipeline, you can stick your hand through a hole in the outer pipe, past the fiberglass insulation, to feel the 140-degree Fahrenheit warmth of the interior pipe and flowing oil. The oil is kept warm because of the friction created from pumping it at high speed through the pipe. In order that the permafrost will not be damaged by the warmth, about half of the pipe is elevated, wherever permafrost occurs. The warmth of the oil is crucial for the oil to flow rather than congeal at times of extreme cold. Major oil fields were discovered in 1968 and the pipeline was finally built, 1973-1977, after numerous safeguards were assured to reduce its environmental impact. The pipeline actually takes up only 14 square miles of land in its route and can be disassembled at a later date, if and when its usefulness has been exhausted. About 20,000 people worked on the pipeline during the boom years of construction. They earned $1000 per week, but living expenses in Fairbanks were also astronomical. Workers traded a guarantee of high wages for a no strike clause in their contract. Today the pipeline transmits about 1.5 million barrels of oil a day, 365 days a year.

In the evening, savor the Alaskaland salmon bake, an excellent meal, and then watch the entertainment offered at the Eskimo-Indian Olympics, a test of practical physical feats needed to survive in the far north. The remarkable feature of these Olympics is that cooperation, rather than competition, is required for survival, as it is in real life in the tough Alaskan outdoor environment. After the Olympics show, walk over to the Palace Theater and Saloon show, a musical revue that celebrates the spirit of Alaska from the Russian period to the oil era.

After you have visited Fairbanks, the full impact of the Alaskan state flag begins to register. The flag consists of a golden Big Dipper and North Star on a blue background. The blue stands for the blue of the state’s sea, sky, lakes and rivers, and state flower, the forget-me-not. The gold stars reflect the dreams of the gold rushers and the bright stars of the night sky. Alaska is seen as the North Star in the Union, a star with a strong and steady light.

Side Trips from Fairbanks

Casual side trips from Fairbanks are not a plausible prospect. There are few roads and no facilities beyond the outskirts of the town. Air flights, however, can take you from here to the Arctic or to the Yukon. One of the best such trips is a bush plane ride to the Eskimo village at Anaktuvuk Pass. Again, the distances are vast and confirmed modes of travel, as well as confirmed lodging, are crucial.

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Fairbanks: If You Go

Further information on Fairbanks comes from the Fairbanks Convention and Visitor Bureau at http://www.explorefairbanks.com.

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