Fairbanks is the farthest northern city I’ve visited in the U.S, and the starting point of our Alaskan adventure. We’d spend a week touring on land followed by a 7-day cruise on Princess. I usually like planning our trips, but I’ve been busy so it seemed like a good idea to let someone else do it.
In Fairbanks I felt like I was traveling back in time to the gold rush, the early 1900’s. Mainstream downtown had an old-time feeling with dilapidated buildings, weathered men, and empty alleyways. It was drizzly and cold. We searched out a famed ice museum, finding it after circling the block a few times.
“This doesn’t look like the picture on the brochure.” I said to my husband as we ducked inside the small building.
We sat and listened to a ten minute documentary about ice carvings and then the lights dramatically came on to reveal life-sized carvings behind the screen. I bundled up and entered the 25° F room. We took a few pictures, grabbed a sled and slid down an ice slide. On our way out we met the chatty, very personable owner. We had a good conversation about the lifestyle of modern Alaskans, politics and business.
“Alaska has two seasons,” he said. “Winter, and preparing for winter.”
We laughed. I could imagine it as such. We also learned the brochure I was holding in my hand, the Aurora Ice Museum, was a forty minute drive outside of town. Who knew Fairbanks had two ice museums? At the Aurora we sat on ice stools at an ice bar, wearing big parkas while sipping apple martinis. It was a true piece of art with different carved rooms and statues reflecting a spectrum of light. Designed as an ice hotel, the fire department shut it down because it lacked smoke alarms and other safety requirements. Perhaps I’m naive, but I’m pretty sure big carved pieces of ice can’t catch on fire.
On our scenic drive back we visited a section of the massive Alaska oil pipeline. The oil flowing through the pipeline is about 140° F. My husband reached up to touch the pipeline but he couldn’t reach it. “Get on my shoulders and see if it’s hot?” He asked.
I shot him a dismissing look and then climbed on his large shoulders. I hesitated expecting to get burned, and then touched it with my index finger. “Ouch,” I screamed. “Just kidding, it’s cold.”
Our cottage sat along the Chena River where we spent evenings watching shimmering water flow under blue skies. The sun never really set, remaining light well past our bedtime. I set my alarm for 3 a.m. hoping to see the Aurora Borealis, but it didn’t happen. I learned that it’s sometimes spotted this time of year, but the cloud coverage and daylight always on the horizon make it difficult from Fairbanks.
Along with several hundred other tourists, we went on a large steamboat for a discovery cruise along the Chena River. Captioned by a fairly young woman and a strong energetic crew, they did an awesome job showing us some highlights of the local culture. A tour director narrated through a sound system and TV screens throughout the ship. Native demonstrations along the shore highlighted the importance of fishing and hunting for food, shelter and clothing.
I enjoyed the sled dog demonstration by David Monson, a famous musher and husband of famed four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher. He talked from a headset, his voiced echoing through the ship. He spoke about his dogs and shared his experience in the dog races. He jumped on an engine-less ATV used as a substitute for a sled. As the dogs pulled they quickly disappeared, reappeared in the background, disappeared and returned in the opposite direction all the while he narrated.
After a few nights in Fairbanks we joined an organized tour to explore Denali and a train ride to Anchorage where we’d board our ship. Princess owns their own buses, lodges and trains in Alaska. They do pretty well organizing the chaos of massive amounts of tourists on different itineraries, and they employ an interesting mix of young Americans looking to travel and make money in the process. I talked to quite of few of them and I was happy to see youngsters traveling while gaining experience in the process. Alaska tourism almost completely shuts down mid-September, so they travel to other tourists destinations in the winter. They lived in dorm-style housing in a neighboring town called Healy. I could imagine the drama that existed in that housing.
We had passed through Healy on our way to the lodge. The area gained attention in the early 1990’s when a non-fiction book and accompanying movie called Into the Wild gained popularity. The infamous bus currently sits on the side of the road, waiting to be moved back to its original location.
Denali park and Mount Denali, also known as McKinley, was beautiful. On our afternoon bus tour we spotted a few caribou and
several moose. One large male was really close to the road. I’ve always wanted to see a moose in the wild, such bulky, magnificent creatures with huge antlers. It reminded me of Bullwinkle.
We muddied through hills, creeks and crevices on an ATV with a local guide. He pointed out edible and medicinal plants.
He handed us a fresh picked berry. “Try this. It our version of watermelon.”
It was juicy, but a stretch to call it watermelon. He was a true local. A rough, seasoned mountain man with an honest opinion. When we returned to the lodge Mt. McKinley towered above, revealing its monumental size of 20,320 feet. Only 30% of travelers in the region get to view the often cloud-veiled mountain. We were some of the lucky ones.