Fairbanks is the second largest city in Alaska and is pretty much right in the geographic centre of the state. It’s a fairly nondescript city of about 100,000 people. Summer temperatures can get up as high as 30C and in winter it’s a very cold -40C (coincidentally, this is also -40F). While we have been here, the temperature has been a very comfortable 18 – 20C every day.
We spent our first morning here picking up our car for our driving trip over the next three weeks. We have booked our travel and car from a tour company based here called GoNorth. They are one of the few companies that will let us take a car on a one-way trip into Canada and they have done a very nice job of organising our accommodation, ferry and tours etc along the way.
Our car is a relatively new white Jeep Cherokee is very comfortable and nice to drive. GoNorth give all their cars a name and ours is called Hedwig. This was the name of Harry Potter’s pet owl. I had to use Google to find out that Hedwig is actually a girl’s name. All the cars here have a short length of power cord protruding from the front grill so the they can be plugged into one of the posts in every parking lot to prevent the engine from freezing while parked. GoNorth have provided us with a safety kit including flares, jumper leads, tow rope and first aid kit.
Near Fairbanks is the community of North Pole. The obvious attraction there is the Santa Claus House. There’s nothing else at all in the town that would ever entice you to go there. The lamp posts are painted in red and white candy stripes but that is very superficial. They get thousands of letters each year addressed to Santa, at the North Pole. While we were there, Santa was on a break and I couldn’t tell him that I had been a good boy. It may not have helped, as there is a lot more of the year to go before Christms and things might just change. However, we couldn’t resist buying another ornament for our Christmas Tree from North Pole.
We spent the remainder of our first day looking around Fairbanks but there is nothing very outstanding to see even though this place is billed as the ‘Gateway to the Arctic’. Some of the participants of the Iditarod live here. One of the most famous was Susan Butcher, who won the race four times. The Iditarod is a long distance dog-sled race (approx 1800 km) from Anchorage to Nome. It follows some of the the old Athebascan Indian trails and is held in early March (right in the middle of the coldest time of the year). Susan Butcher, sadly, died of cancer some years ago. I met her daughter today and she told me that the dog teams travel up to 160 km per day. That’s much further than you would ride a horse in the same time!. We found a museum to the ‘Mushers’ in the downtown area.
We also took some time to do some shopping. Tomorrow, we head north to the tiny settlement of Wiseman, along the ‘Haul Road’. (This is the same road that is featured in the Discovery Channel’s show, ‘Ice Truckers Highway’). We need to take some food and other supplies with us because our accommodation is a long way from the nearest town. We have stocked up on food and mosquito repellant as well as some wine, of course, to last us for the next three days. We will be ‘off the air’ for this time, and I will be unable to post any more travel news until we are back in Fairbanks. I’m also making sure that we have all our batteries charged up, as there will not be any power there either.
One of the most interesting places we saw in Fairbanks was the local University of Alaska. I think that their buildings are very modern and impressive. One of them was the science facility where they study the northern lights. Outside was a signpost showing international places with which they have a working relationship. Among these were Melbourne, Adelaide and Mawson. I realised just how far we are away from home when I saw that the sign on the top of the post showed that Melbourne was 12,778 kilometres away.
Today, we enjoyed a riverboat trip up the Chena River. In the old days, around nine riverboats navigated this river carrying supplies and trading goods. It’s not very deep but it freezes to a thickness of 1 metre in winter. It was a good three-hour trip, quite expensive but well worth the money.
We passed Susan Butcher’s home, with its dog kennels, and had a quick demonstration of the way that sled dogs are trained. At our furthest point, we came to a replica Athabaskan Indian settlement which allowed us to learn something about their life and culture. I’m generally fairly sceptical about these reconstructed tourist places, but this was very interesting. One of the things I learned is that Rendeer and Caribou are really the same animal. Reindeer is the name given to the domesticated Caribou. I was rather interested to see this native fish wheel. It revolves in the water and flicks out the salmon it picks top into a bin. Then they are filleted and smoked. Other places in this village showed how animal skins were used for clothing and protection against the weather.
We met a Native American this morning as we were having breakfast. He didn’t like being in the ‘big city’ of Fairbanks and was much happier in his home village which is an hour’s flight to the west of here. Most of western Alaska is only accessible by plane. He told us how his people hunted moose and shaped cedar into a form from which they could make a toboggan. I thought that it would be easier to buy one from the store but he didn’t understand my sense of humour. He was in town to start his summer job of fighting forest fires. Most of these are started by lightning and take a lot of work to control.
Jill is a little nervous about our travel up the Dalton Highway tomorrow, but I’m sure that it will be OK and we’ll report back in a few days.