You don't actually believe it until you see it, but there really is a midnight sun in Fairbanks in the summer, and it is strangely unsettling. For one thing, your internal clock goes haywire. With a bright sun overhead, I kept to a full schedule of sightseeing one day until almost 10 p.m. Then I headed for my hotel restaurant for dinner, and was honestly surprised that the place had closed for the night. I guess I figured everything would stay open as long as it remained light outside.
How do the local folks fall asleep with the sun gleaming through the window? I wondered. I couldn't.
Fairbanks is America's northernmost big city, just 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle. You might visit it as a geographical curiosity, which was my initial intent. Instead, I found a city of pioneers, building a solid community on the edge of a vast and empty landscape. In a way, Fairbanks is American history come to life -- a modern reenactment of the pioneering spirit of the past.
The word "big," however, is perhaps overstating things. Fairbanks is really not much more than a good-sized town, and a friendly one. I arrived in mid-June at the end of a journey up the Alaska Highway. For me, it was the end of the road. But to Alaskans, it is considered the gateway to the northern half of the state, a region of remote villages and an awesome and mostly unspoiled wilderness.
This woodsy setting -- straddling Alaska's more settled south and the wild north -- has given Fairbanks a curious dual personality. Decked out in modern dress though it may be, the city retains the rustic flavor of a frontier outpost. Downtown log cabins, by my unofficial count, outnumber high-rises by a long way.
At first glimpse, however, Fairbanks can be disappointing. The old central core is shabby and looks deserted, and several buildings are shut up tight. Nor does Fairbanks offer the spectacular mountain backdrop that impresses visitors to Juneau, the Alaskan capital, and Anchorage, the state's principal city. The only mountains to be seen are in the Alaska Range, rising above the flatlands to the far distant south.
The appeal of Fairbanks, I gradually came to realize, is not so much its outward appearance. Rather, it is in its remarkably self-sufficient residents who manage to make a life for themselves in a sometimes harsh and demanding environment. When the midnight sun finally sets, winter in Fairbanks arrives for a long, dark and cold stay.
I'd like to think I made this discovery on my own. But I had the help of an unusual guide firm, one of the most innovative I've encountered, that introduced me to a dozen or so willing Alaskans who each had an interesting story to tell. One thing they share is that they like living in Fairbanks. I came to understand they have good reason to. They are also eccentrics, but in the good sense of the word.
I met a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey who built his own log home and has turned it into an acclaimed example of energy efficiency. I discussed Alaska dogsled racing with a young couple who are international champions. They own 150 Alaskan huskies, who can howl in unison in a most unnerving way. And I learned a bit of woodcraft from a very practical Indian woman who prefers to sleep in the yard outside her home during the summer months.
The founder of the firm, called Van Go, is Patricia Walsh, a former Chicagoan who arrived in Alaska in 1977 to become the first woman customs inspector on the Yukon Territory border. Ten years ago she moved to Fairbanks, where she has worked as a designer. This summer she established her unique tour company, offering interested travelers a series of brief visits each day to the homes or businesses of Fairbanks residents. The tours qualify as a real insider's look at the community.
At the outset of our half-day excursion, Walsh whisked me off to a dense black spruce forest in the rolling hills on the outskirts of Fairbanks. She wanted me to experience first hand one of the area's most difficult challenges, an environmental one -- permafrost. Permafrost is a permanently frozen layer of subsoil that covers large areas of northern Alaska, including parts of Fairbanks. When a road or a house is built atop permafrost, as they sometimes were in the past, the permafrost melts. As a result, pavement buckles and buildings sink. The Alaska Highway, opened in 1942, suffers from this problem. And Walsh pointed out a large but abandoned home that had collapsed in the middle when it had sunk too far.
We trooped into a small corner of the forest that Walsh uses to illustrate her lesson. The topsoil was very spongy, and I felt like I was walking across the top of a water bed. Walsh reached down and pulled up a small chunk of the topsoil that she had dug on a previous tour. The ground a few inches beneath was frozen as solid as a rock. Some campers, she says, dig similar holes to store their beer. But even though the permafrost doubles as a handy ice chest, she does not recommend disturbing the land this way.
Though delighted by Fairbanks' sunny summer days, I was curious about those long dark winters and questioned a number of people during my stay. The most complete answer came in a short film titled "40 Below in Fairbanks," shown frequently at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in downtown Fairbanks. The center, an excellent resource, represents seven state and federal agencies, including the National Park Service, that offer tourist services. Information on wilderness camping is one of the center's specialties.
The film acknowledges, as others told me, that survival in a Fairbanks winter "takes a lot more skill, more effort and more dedication" than life in the mid-Atlantic. Getting to work at 40 below, it says succinctly, "is hard." Because of the long nights, the city's rate of depression is high. Many people sleep longer and they eat more, which can mean seasonal weight gain. On the other hand, all is not gloom. The aurora borealis -- the Northern Lights -- regularly puts on a glorious show, and snowfalls can be beautiful. Kelley Hegarty, who owns a delightful bed-and-breakfast lodging called Inn at the River's Edge, puts it poetically: "The snow crystals look like scattered glitter. It's magic."
In addition to Walsh's tour, I explored Fairbanks' more traditional sightseeing attractions on my own and found two that are particularly rewarding. One is the University of Alaska Museum, which is splendidly situated atop a grassy ridge overlooking the Tanana Valley toward the Alaska Range in the distance. Its theme is Alaska, and especially the state's natural history, which is presented geographically by region. At the entrance, you are greeted by a stuffed brown bear of the grizzly family that stands almost nine feet tall. He is terrifying.
The most famous object on display is Blue Babe, a 36,000-year-old Alaska steppe bison preserved fairly intact over the centuries by the local permafrost. It was dug up to public fanfare a few years back. Attacked by a lion, as claw marks and tooth punctures on the skin indicate, the hefty horned beast collapsed with its four feet tucked beneath it. And so it rests today.
Fairbanks' other big draw is an offbeat community park called Alaskaland on the banks of the Chena River. It offers a hokey but entertaining mix of local history, a couple of fun rides for the kids and good food. Several gold rush-era log cabins and other historical structures have been relocated from downtown Fairbanks to form Gold Rush Town, where local crafts and souvenirs are sold. The stern-wheeler Nenana, which once sailed Alaskan waterways, floats in a small pond now and can be toured. And there is a good replica of an Alaska native village, where an authentic fish-catching wheel propelled by the river current scoops up an occasional fish.
But best of all the park's attractions is the daily Alaska Salmon Bake, an outdoor picnic -- noon and evening -- serving the best meal I ate in the city. With paper plate in hand, I stood beside the grill while the chef cooked a huge fresh salmon steak over hot alder coals. Then I loaded up on coleslaw, sliced carrots, baked beans, hot rolls, fresh blueberry cobbler and an Alaskan beer and found a seat beneath towering evergreens. This aspect of life in Fairbanks I could learn to love.
The city of Fairbanks has had its boom times and its slack times since it was founded not so long ago in 1901. Gold gave the city its first big boost in the early years, and big money returned in the 1970s with the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline. The economy is slow right now, in large part because of the drop in international oil prices. The city hopes to build on its tourist industry -- and to lure visitors in winter as well as summer. The Japanese already have begun showing up off-season in impressive numbers specifically to watch the aurora borealis. Curiously, the pipeline, which skirts Fairbanks, seems to be on almost everybody's must-see list. Much of the pipe is buried underground, but it emerges on special stilts to cross fields of permafrost.
Fairbanks itself has a population of about 27,000 today, and there are about 45,000 more residents in outlying areas. The city core occupies the flatlands alongside both banks of the Chena River. Around it rise low hills draped in what appears to be a solid blanket of spruce and other trees. Wherever you look, the prevalent color is green in the widest range of shades. Overhead, the sky is a deep blue long into evening.
Tucked up hidden drives in these woods are many of Fairbanks' homes, and I might have missed them if I hadn't signed on to Walsh's tour. Although Fairbanks looks like a blue-collar kind of town, a substantial percentage of the population has a college degree, she says, and the community is very tolerant of eccentricities. Many residents put up with the discomforts of roughing it in the north country so they can live the lifestyle of their choice. These are some of the people she introduced me to.
As a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Larry Mayo's specialty is glaciers. But since 1962 he and his wife, Gail, also have sought a largely self-sustaining life on their 100-acre farm on the edge of town. Their philosophy, as they told a Fairbanks newspaper recently, is "to conserve resources and tred gently on this old Earth." In this pursuit, they built their home themselves, a large and elegant log structure; recently introduced solar power for much of their electrical needs and collect rain and snow melt for drinking water in large cisterns. They also raise sheep, chickens and ducks and grow a crop of hay. Gail Mayo's loom, on which she weaves regularly, fills much of one room. Not surprisingly, both were very active in this year's Earth Day observances.
Larry Mayo showed me his solar power system, which he mostly created himself, and afterward I got a tour of their practical but very comfortable house. At first, I felt a little embarrassed about sightseeing in somebody's home, but the Mayos -- and the other Alaskans I met on the tour -- treated me as a family friend. I stayed for about half hour, and I left impressed by the couple's resourcefulness. If I got stranded on a deserted island, I'd like them with me. I have no doubt we'd be survivors.
Dogsledding is a big sport in Alaska, where snow covers the ground much of the year. The region is laced with sledding trails. Two of the big names in sled racing are Rick and Kathy Swensen, who between them have won a wall full of trophies in international racing. Four times Rick Swensen has won Alaska's famed Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome. When they are not racing, they raise sled dogs to train for themselves and to sell to sledding enthusiasts. We arrived as the dogs were being fed, all 150 of them, each occupying an individual house. Suddenly, one began to howl, and then they all did in the most eerie of sounds.
"After they eat," said Kathy Swensen, "they like to have a little sing." The neighbors might complain, I suppose, but they all own sled dogs, too, I was told.
Kathy Swensen introduced me to "O.B." (for "Old Buddy"), a 17-year-old husky who led her husband's sled team during her husband's four Iditarod wins. She and I talked a bit about dog racing -- it takes three years to train a racer -- and she took me inside the couple's grand log-style home to see the trophies. A native of Miami, Swensen moved to the woodlands outside Fairbanks 13 years ago, because "this is the way I want to live."
Riba Crushank, mother of three, is an Athabascan Indian who spent much of her youth traveling with her parents to their hunting and fishing camps in northern Alaska. Today, she is an accomplished beadwork artist who still practices some of the old ways on her woodland property outside Fairbanks. She has set up a tent outside her winter home, where she enjoys sleeping during the summer. The floor was covered with evergreen branches -- to keep the sandy soil down, she said -- and a fungus stripped from a birch tree burned slowly to chase away the mosquitoes.
Crushank showed me the smokehouse where fish are preserved in the traditional manner, and explained a couple of simple animal traps she learned to make as a child. She is one of 14 brothers and sisters, she says, and "we trapped all our lives." The tent, the smoke house and the traps serve several purposes. They help her recall her youth, they are of interest to inquiring visitors such as myself, and they link her city-dwelling children to their ancient heritage.
The last stop on Walsh's tour was a visit to a smokehouse substantially more elaborate than Crushank's -- a commercial operation called Interior Alaska Fish Processors. "We make stuff out of salmon," said owner Janet McCormick, such goodies as salmon sausages smoked for several hours over alder wood. McCormick took me on a quick walk through the plant, where I watched the staff slicing up the latest catch. It was destined to become smoked lox. The samples of the finished product I tasted were delicious.
The smokehouse was an appropriately offbeat ending to an offbeat look at Fairbanks. I'm glad I got a chance to meet some of the local folks. For me, anyway, they are the city's real attraction.
WAYS AND MEANS
Fairbanks is the jumping-off point for tours of Alaska's interior, and it is well worth a stay of a couple of days in its own right. However, few travelers, I suspect, would want to make the trip all the way to Alaska simply to see Fairbanks, expect perhaps in the winter for a front-row view of the aurora borealis. Nature's colorful light show is generally visible evenings from September into April.
GETTING THERE: Both United and Delta fly to Fairbanks from Washington, but United appears to have the most convenient routing. United currently is quoting a round-trip fare of $741 per person, based on a 14-day advance purchase. Tickets at this price are nonrefundable, and you must stay overnight one Saturday.
WHERE TO STAY: Fairbanks has a couple of fairly expensive hotels, a few modest motels and several bed-and-breakfast lodgings.
The best of the hotels are the Westmark Fairbanks, which is located within walking distance of downtown Fairbanks, and the Sophie Station Hotel, which is on the outskirts of town near the airport and the Fairbanks campus of the University of Alaska.
A room for two at the Westmark is $156 a night. The hotel caters to numerous bus tours in the summer, so advance reservations are advised; for information: 1-800-544-0970. At the Sophie Station Hotel, a room for two is $145 a night; for information: (907) 479-3650.
An excellent, and less expensive, alternative is the Inn on the River's Edge, a three-bedroom bed-and- breakfast inn on a birch-shaded lot close to the city center. The inn occupies the restored white wood-frame cottage of a former Fairbanks publisher. The Chena River is just across the road. A room for two (with shared bath) is $40 to $60 a night. Owner Kelley Hegarty, a former Alaska state planning official, is a great source for local touring tips. For information: 204 Front St., Fairbanks, Alaska 99701, (907) 452-3343.
TOURS: I prefer to explore on my own, but I was intrigued by the escorted tours offered by Van Go, which showed me fascinating aspects of Fairbanks I might otherwise have missed. Van Go's specialty is introducing travelers to local folks for brief chats in their homes or business establishments. A four-hour tour by van is $40 per person. For the adventurous, Van Go can arrange visits to native villages, including an overnight stay at a native bed-and-breakfast inn. For information: P.O. Box 81914, Fairbanks, Alaska 99708, (907) 455-6499.
INFORMATION: Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau, 550 G3 First Ave., Fairbanks, Alaska 99701, 1-800-327-5774 and (907) 456-5774.