(Disclaimer: This is a long post as we spent 4 days in Fairbanks that were jam-packed with activity. BUT, if you read nothing else, please take the time to read Art’s story of his trip to the Arctic Circle – that was really the highlight of the time in this area and its only the second letter in the acronym down!)
Fairbanks downtown walking tour
Really tasty salmon bake
Bentley’s, Packards, and Fords, oh my!
No luck finding gold
Fairbanks downtown walking tour
This is the furthest north our tour traveled. Population a bit over 32,000. Weather: Average high temperatures range from 1° in January to 73° in July. Average lows -17° in January to 52° in July. Precipitation averages 65 inches of snow and 11 inches of rain. Because it is so cold, the snow is very dry and thus, the poor children can’t even enjoy snowball fights or snowman building! When the Chena River freezes, the locals use it in the winter as a road not only for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and dog-sledding, but also for commuting to work in their 4 wheel drive vehicles!
What to do with a free day while camping in Fairbanks? How about a quick 250 mile jaunt up to the Arctic Circle? That’s exactly what I decided to do. My logic is, if you’re this close go all the way, right? There are a number of different excursion companies and modes of transportation from which to choose. You can drive your own car, you can rent a motorcycle, Jeep, or some such vehicle. You can fly into Coldfoot in a six seater single prop, or you can choose the bus. I chose the bus! The literature says to prepare for a ‘full’ day adventure leaving at 7:00am and returning at 10:00pm. What? Anyway, off we went.
The trip would traverse the interior Alaskan wilderness straight north from Fairbanks via the Steese & Dalton highways. Looking on the map you’ll notice these are the only highways north of Fairbanks. Oh and highways may not be the appropriate word, I’ll explain. The road system within the immediate Fairbanks vicinity is good. Paved roads and proper signage is the norm, just as you’d expect. Once you venture further out the road becomes dirt, (mud at times) narrow, and rough. While the road is maintained year round it is nonetheless primitive to put it bluntly. Certainly not up to highway standards in the lower 48. The Dalton is the main route to Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope and all of the major oil fields Alaska is famous for. It is a very busy road full of supersized tanker and freight trucks servicing the very important business they do up there. I was told the first few seasons of Ice Road Truckers used the Dalton in the show. But since it’s the only way to get to our destination we ventured on.
The Trans-Alaska pipeline uses the Dalton corridor as it makes its way south from the oil fields to the port of Valdez. It is an engineering marvel and an awe inspiring site as it twists and turns alongside the road, sometimes above ground, sometimes below. I learned a great deal about the pipeline’s construction and how the builders dealt with the permafrost. Not enough time to expound on that here but would encourage interested readers to study up, really great stuff.
Probably the most striking part of the trip for me was the change in topography as we headed out. The permafrost has everything to do with the landscape here. Dense forested areas down south include deciduous trees like quaking aspen and birch but that quickly changes as you head north. In Fairbanks, the ground does not stay permanently frozen which allows these trees to flourish. Heading north, the spruce become the dominant species as the permafrost becomes ‘continuous’. Go further north and the spruce become smaller and smaller as the latitude and temperatures become less favorable. Once you cross the Yukon River you are in the Alaskan Tundra. With little vegetation apart from tundra grasses, cranberry and blueberry bushes and some willow, the land opens up for miles and miles. We still have about 100 miles to go to the Arctic Circle and 400 to the Arctic Sea and there is plenty of land yet to see. For some perspective, I’m 2500 miles north of Seattle!
I will not be able to describe this portion of the trip adequately, I simply don’t know the words to use. Wilderness has different meaning to all of us. Maybe you think it means a day in the woods or a long hike down a trail you’ve not been on before or somewhere where the stars shine brighter for lack of city light. Wilderness here is enormous. Interior Alaska, where the latitude reaches 66.33 degrees north and the foothills of the Brooks Range are visible way off to the north and the valley I’m standing in seems to have no end while the sun goes round in a circle all day, this is wilderness like I’ve never seen.
I’ve heard there is a First Nation tale about the boy who tried to describe the land he saw around him to an elder. The elder quickly hushed the boy with these words: “Be quiet and say no more, for our words are too small”.
I didn’t expect this, but indeed, our words are too small.
Before and after photos of bus:
Fairbanks hosts the annual World Ice Art championships each March. This museum is devoted to the delicate task of taking blocks of ice and transforming them into magnificent sculptures. Great place to spend a warm day since the exhibits are housed in a freezer!
Really tasty salmon bake
All-you-can-eat buffet of salmon, cod, prime rib, assorted salads, potatoes and dessert. We ate on picnic tables outside under the trees before the rains came!
Bentleys, Packards and Fords, oh my!
The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is a wonderful collection of over 80 automobiles dating from the late 1800’s to the 1930’s. Most restored to their shining glory this museum was a great step back in time. The display also included several vintage pieces of clothing that were as stunning as the cars. Actually turned out to be quite a fun place!
A visit to an Athabascan Village along the Chena River allowed a glimpse of what life was like for these native Alaskans. Athabascans migrated with the seasons to fish, hunt and trap. The ingenuity of the native peoples in such a harsh environment was truly remarkable.
No luck finding gold!
Like so much of Alaska, Fairbanks sprang up during the gold rush in the early 1900’s. This dredge mined the area from 1927 – 1942 and visitors today can spend a few hours here learning all about the laborious process of gold mining. Given a bag of “pay dirt” we panned for the gold that sinks to the bottom because of its weight. Our take that day was $30. Wow.
Of the shows we have seen along this journey, this play at the Palace theater production was by far the most entertaining. Four actors doing various skits about the history of Fairbanks and life here today.
Instead of just touring a sternwheeler like we did while in Whitehorse, we actually rode one in Fairbanks! While taking a morning cruise along the Chena River we were regaled by our informative guide with stories about life in the Far North. We saw a float plane demonstration beside the boat, a performance by a dog sled team whose kennel fronts the river and enjoyed some time off the boat in the Athabascan Village mentioned above.
After Fairbanks we begin to make our way back south. We will finish the Alcan Highway and venture into new areas of the Yukon Territory and British Columbia with a couple of dips back into Alaska. Still lots to see, so hang in there!