Looking for a sunny vacation spot as an escape from the Washington area cold? Don't go to Fairbanks. This winter's tale should make you feel better, even if you can't afford to fly south. And spring in Alaska will find tour operators busy.
As the Alaskan Airlines plane came in for a landing, the pilot announced:
"Well, here we are, folks. It's 37 below zero in Fairbanks. Welcome to America's coldest city."
Fairbanks, the nation's northern-most city, lives up to its reputation as Nature's Icebox. The average temperature for 25 consecutive days from Dec. 6 through Dec. 30 was 34 degrees below zero in downtown Fairbanks. In many nearby communities, the daily average for the same period was 50 below, with the thermostat dropping as low as 70 below.
Most of the 20,000 persons living in Fairbanks and the 20,000 others in the suburbs of Alaska's second largest city were huddled around television sets, dreaming and drooling as they watched the sun-bathed Rose Parade.
"It was worth getting up early New Year's Day just to get a glimpse of the warm," sighed Connie Evans, a nurse at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.
It takes a particularly hearty individual to make it through a Fairbanks winter. December was miserable, and January holds the promise of even colder days. Many newcomers -- they are called Chee Chakos -- are unable to cope, and chuck thier high-paying jobs to flee to the Lower 48 this time of year.
Winter is never easy in Fairbanks, even for the "sourdoughs" who have spent their lives here. A couple of weeks ago, the cold finally caught up with Irene (Packsack Annie) Sherman, possibly Fairbanks' most colorful character. Sherman, known as the "Queen of the Whole Bunch," was born in a Fairbanks log cabin 70 years ago. She has been a trapper, gold miner and has run her own dogsled teams.
"Ain't this a helluva note?" she lamented during an interview at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, where she is recovering from severe frostbite. The oil heaters in her shack failed in the middle of the night.
"Us Alaskans live fast and we live wild and sometimes it catches up with us. Hell's fire," she snorted, "I wear eight pairs of socks, four britches, several shirts, sweaters and scarves when I'm outside to keep the cold away. But I guess I didn't have enough covers on the bed."
Before the winter is out, at least a dozen Fairbanks residents will lose fingers or toes from frostbite, and several other Alaskans will freeze to death -- stranded in cars or in the bush, far away from possible help.
Bus drivers in recent days have been distributing leaflets asking passengers to urge the city fathers to do something about inadequate heating on buses.
"It never gets warmer than 15 above in the driver's seat," complained Jim Simpson, a driver.
Fairbanks also has a severe smog problem -- but here it is ice smog. The sun which is above the horizon about four hours a day, has hardly been seen since early December. It is obscured by the dense layer of ice smog, sometimes growing so severe that the airport must be shut down.
The unusual pollution is caused by thick clouds of exhaust pouring from vehicles in the extreme cold and smoke from wood and oil fires swirling skyward from homes and commercial buildings. Visibility has been as little as three to 10 feet. Accidents on the icy, snow-covered streets are commonplace but the traffic crawls so slowly that collisions are usually minor.
Abondoned vehicles cause another traffic problem. Service stations are booked up two to three weeks in advance to thaw out the frozen cars and trucks with giant master heaters. Electrical outlets line curbs and shopping center parking lots. Cords hang from the fronts of cars to be plugged into outlets connecting with under-the-hood heaters that percolate radiator water. Some drivers park too long in lots without the outlets and the car engines freeze. Others have their cars running while they do errands.
Few venture outside more than a few minutes at a time and even then they are bundled to the hilt. The unlucky few who are forced to face the elements -- policemen on foot patrols, telephone linemen and mail carriers -- duck inside buildings at least once every five minutes.
The two cemeteries in town, Northern Light, and Birch Hill, have special "winter" mausoleums where bodies are held from October until late May, when the ground finally thaws.
Fires are common, the result of electrical shorts and constant use of heaters and furnaces.
"When we fight fires in 20- to 27-below temperatures, spray from hoses covers us and freezes instantly. We don't mind because the ice sheeting helps keep us warm," said fire department Lt. Bob Hirn, 55, a Fairbanks fireman since 1949. "Then we have to be thawed free by firemen pouring water over our clothes. The water in our lines and water in lines throughout the city is kept at 50-degree temperatures so pipes and hoses don't freeze up."
Asked why anyone would want to live in a place with such extreme cold, Hirn, like other old-timers, speaks of a great love for Alaska's far north.
"The friendliest people on earth live in Fairbanks. We're brought closer together because of the cold. We help one another out when people have problems with the weather. If a person in Fairbanks is outside and gets cold, he goes to the nearest house and people automatically let that person inside to get warm.
"It's the wilderness up here. The great hunting and fishing. Everytime you see the aurora borealis, it's like seeing it for the first time. Spring comes with a crash so beautiful, the summers are so gorgeous, it's worth toughing out the horrible winters we get.
"Our cost of living is higher here than any other city in America, but we have the highest wages as well," he added.
It is so cold here that doghouses are heated, as are outhouses on the outskirts of town. It is so cold that people put their freezers outside in winter to save electricity. Oil heating bills in the average house runs from $300 to $400 a month.
It is so cold that the popular pastime of hockey is played inside at the unheated Big Dipper arena, where spectators watch the game at 10 and 15 below zero -- the temperature in the city park arena.
"You can't just sit at home and stare at the four walls. You got to keep active doing things to keep your sanity," said Eleanor Gutierrez as she sat on the sidelines with her husband watching their son, Phillip, play. The Gutierrezes moved here from San Bernardino, Calif., eight years ago.
"We love it. People either love it or hate it. Those that can't cope leave right away," said Al Gutierrez.
Inner tubes, a thing of the past in the other states, are a must on Fairbanks cars. Tubeless tires go flat in the cold. School never closes, no matter how cold it gets.
"If the schools were to close because of the cold, the kids would never get educated," one woman said.