Fairbanks Alaska, The Last Frontier With A Modern Twist
Story and Photos By Bob Nesoff
Alaska is huge. How Huge? Here’s an old story that makes it perfectly clear.
A Texan and an Alaskan were arguing about the relative merits of their home states. Getting nowhere, the Alaskan finally delivered the coup d’gras.
“If you keep this up,” he said to the Texan, “we’ll cut Alaska in half and make Texas the third largest state in the United States.”
And that is no exaggeration. Flying from one end of the state to the other by passenger jet can take several hours. Forget cars for much of the trip because many towns and cities can only be reached by boat or aircraft. And that’s in the warm weather months. Dog sled and snowmobile are common when the ground is covered in white stuff.
Small villages populated by indigenous people, trappers and hunters and those seeking to leave civilization behind, dot the landscape. But while these residents channeling “Call of the Wild” do exist, there are modern cities with the amenities of a modern civilization.
Fairbanks is the perfect example of the old melding with the new in a manner that both co-exist on a high plane of mutual respect and cooperation. The buildings in Fairbanks are as up to date as any in what they call “The Lower 48.” But while some segments may channel New York, the pace is infinitely slower. Things get done. Time is not wasted, but the pressure of the “Big City” is totally absent.
Visitors will find Fairbanks to be a very visitor friendly city. There are things to do there, but it is a great jumping off point for any variety of activities. And one of the most visited destinations is Denali National Park.
In the distance is Mt. Denali, once named Mt. McKinley in honor of President William McKinley. The name was changed to Denali, meaning “The High One,” in the local Athabascan language. The change was put through by then president, Barack Obama. Ohio, McKinley’s home state, had long opposed the change.
The majestic mountain rises 6,200 feet and, unfortunately, is often shrouded in mist. But the surrounding national park is a visual delight. Buses will transport visitors from the Visitor Center to various locations around the park. Lucky visitors may see moose, bear (brown, not polar) and an amazing variety of smaller wildlife. They can take in a dog sled location and see these amazing animals up close.
One word of caution. Mosquitos own the land, both here and at the Artic Circle. They are big and some people joked that when one is killed, the local Red Cross is called to collect the blood. But the problem is easily mitigated. Repellent spray works wonders. Before you leave your lodging, spread your clothes on the bed and thoroughly spray them. Keep the spray with you in case it’s needed again. That method proved quite successful in keeping the blood suckers at bay.
If you’ve come to Denali by car or motor coach, consider a return to Fairbanks via the Alaska Railway. There are several levels of tickets, but you might consider spending a bit more for the Gold section. It’s more comfortable, food is available and the views from the dome car are absolutely amazing. The trip back is very comfortable, and you can move around quite freely.
The other item on most bucket lists is a trip to the Arctic Circle. This one takes a bit more thought. There are two major ways to go. One is by a school-type bus that has been converted for comfort and provides a restroom. The other is by air.
Full disclosure…the distance from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle is more than 200 miles by road and 140 by air. But the odd thing is that the true North Pole is only 14 miles from Fairbanks. If you intend to drive, prepare yourself for an adventure. The Dalton Highway is a mainstay on the TV show, “Ice Road Truckers.”
The highway was built in the ‘70s to provide a way to bring workers and supplies up for construction of the Alaska pipeline. This is not the New York Thruway or the New Jersey Turnpike. It is a gravel road that simulates a washboard. The trip each way is from seven to eight hours with very little along the way. There is a stop several hours out that offers an outhouse. Further up is a trading post with better amenities.
You will know exactly when you reach the Arctic Circle because there is a huge sign that says, “Arctic Circle.” There is wildlife there, although not what you’d expect. There was a red squirrel, a ptarmigan (that’s a bird) and that’s about it. But you can now say you’ve been there and when you get back, you will be presented with a certificate attesting to the fact that you were there.
Next on the itinerary is the teeth-rattling journey back to Fairbanks. If you thought you’d see local villages and a lot of wildlife, well maybe. No villages, but if you are lucky, a bear or moose may wander across the road. A hint: before you leave stop in the local Safeway supermarket and pick up snacks and food for dinner. You’ll stop at the trading post on the way home with time for a leisurely meal.
Check back next week and visit one of the best tours in Fairbanks, a leisurely cruise on board a stern-wheeler, the riverboat Discovery, along the Chena (pronounced Cheena) River. You’ll see beautiful homes along the shore that seem out of place in the wilderness, dog sled training at the home of the late Susan Butcher, four-time winner of the grueling Iditarod race. There should be a stop at an Athabascan village, a sanctuary where there are moose and other animals and an amazing fish catching wheel.