Land of Ex­tremes

In a land of ex­tremes, Fair­banks of­fers the best of both whether vis­it­ing in the sum­mer or win­ter

Where Alaska - - Content - BY MOLLY DISCHNER

Fair­banks and De­nali Na­tional Park and Pre­serve of­fer ex­pe­ri­ences of a life­time and no short­age of ways to make a mem­ory.

Fair­banks is a place of ex­tremes. In the win­ter, the aver­age high ranges from 3 to 12 de­grees Fahren­heit. On the win­ter sol­stice, there is less than four hours of day­light. Fair­banks life slows down in the win­ter, but the North­ern Lights get ac­tive. Fe­bru­ary and March typ­i­cally have the fewest cloudy days, and the best op­por­tu­nity for catch­ing the Aurora. Hot springs and ski trails through­out the In­te­rior also beckon ad­ven­tur­ers all win­ter.

Come sum­mer, tem­per­a­tures spike, days seem un­end­ing, and the city comes alive.

For a cou­ple months each year, Fair­banks be­comes one of the warm­est places in Alaska, and res­i­dents and vis­i­tors try to soak up ev­ery ray of sun.

In June, July and Au­gust, the aver­age high jumps to the 60s and 70s, with tem­per­a­tures some­times reach­ing the 90s. Day­light lasts for more than 21 hours on sum­mer sol­stice.

I tried to cram ev­ery­thing fun into one sum­mer spent in Fair­banks — af­ter liv­ing there for four win­ters while at­tend­ing Univer­sity of Alaska Fair­banks — and de­spite the long days, it is an im­pos­si­ble task but well worth the ef­fort.

Around the sol­stice alone, there’s the tra­di­tional Alaska Base­ball League game that takes ad­van­tage of the Mid­night Sun and starts at 10:30 p.m., a fun run that starts at 10 p.m., and a fes­ti­val down­town at all hours of the day.

The rest of the sum­mer is equally busy. The Fair­banks Sum­mer Arts Fes­ti­val brings per­form­ers of all sorts to town and there are end­less out­door op­por­tu­ni­ties near town, from hik­ing in the White Moun­tains to boat­ing on area rivers and lakes. There’s also the rest of the In­te­rior to ex­plore. Be­yond day­light and weather, Fair­banks is de­fined by its ge­og­ra­phy. There are moun­tains in al­most ev­ery di­rec­tion, mak­ing Fair­banks rel­a­tively dry year round, and fire­prone in the sum­mer, and the city is sit­u­ated on the Chena River.

Sit­u­ated in the mid­dle of the state, and as the hub of In­te­rior Alaska, Fair­banks is called the Golden Heart city.

Fair­banks has long been a trans­porta­tion hub, al­though its lo­ca­tion was some­thing of an ac­ci­dent.

E. T. Bar­nette, a crook from Out­side who came north dur­ing the Klondike Gold Rush, was headed for Tananacross in 1901 to open a trad­ing post there, when the ship he was trav­el­ing on ran aground be­fore reach­ing its des­ti­na­tion. He opened his trad­ing post “Bar­nette’s Cache” in what be­came down­town Fair­banks in­stead, and in 1903 res­i­dents voted to in­cor­po­rate as a city.

The city’s growth was less ac­ci­den­tal. It was close to a va­ri­ety of re­sources — orig­i­nally the gold fields and rich soil and sun­light for agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion, later the Trans-Alaska Pipe­line Sys­tem was routed nearby and to­day there are coal and gold mines, and other re­source prospects, in the area.

The in-town stretch of the Chena River is per­fect for run­ning or bik­ing year round, or for a lazy float trip in the sum­mer with stops

to eat and drink.

Alaska’s first air­plane was shipped to Fair­banks in 1913, and city was con­sid­ered a strate­gic lo­ca­tion for commercial, mil­i­tary and pas­sen­ger flights through­out the state, and be­yond, par­tic­u­larly be­fore state­hood.

Fair­banks is also at the cen­ter of an ex­ten­sive road sys­tem, with con­nec­tions in nearly ev­ery di­rec­tion.

My fa­vorites are De­nali Na­tional Park, 120 miles south­west of town, and the agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity of Delta Junc­tion 95 miles south­west of town with the Alaska Range and Gran­ite Moun­tains tow­er­ing on ei­ther side.

A longer road trip — 500 miles — can take you out the El­liot High­way to the Dal­ton High­way, which goes north to the Yukon River, Brooks Range and Prud­hoe Bay. The Steese High­way trav­els east to Cir­cle, an­other Yukon River com­mu­nity.

Closer to town, Fox has the far­thest north brew­ery in Amer­ica, and the Chena River runs 99 miles from east of Fair­banks to its con­flu­ence with the Tanana on the west edge of town.

At the far end are pop­u­lar hot springs, most fa­mously at the Chena Hot Springs Re­sort owned by Alaska al­ter­na­tive en­ergy ad­vo­cate Bernie Karl that largely runs on geo­ther­mal power — in­clud­ing the green­houses that grow veg­eta­bles.

The in-town stretch is per­fect for run­ning and bik­ing along­side year round — or a lazy evening float trip in the sum­mer, with stops to eat or drink at wa­ter­front es­tab­lish­ments.

West of town, the river moves more quickly, re­quir­ing some ac­tual pad­dling around haz­ards, with a cou­ple of stretches that pro­vide a day of fun.

As an alum, I might be a lit­tle bi­ased — but the Univer­sity of Alaska Fair­banks is home to many of Fair­banks’ most fas­ci­nat­ing places.

Es­tab­lished in 1922, UAF is the state univer­sity sys­tem’s old­est school, and is perched on a hill above town. It houses a va­ri­ety of recre­ational op­por­tu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing cross coun­try ski trails and ice climb­ing in the win­ter, and a disc golf course in the sum­mer.

On a clear day, a stroll along Yukon Drive on up­per cam­pus of­fers the best views of Mt. McKin­ley, which Alaskans pre­fer to call De­nali, and the Alaska Range. A walk around the cam­pus also of­fers a les­son in Alaska his­tory. The state’s con­sti­tu­tion was signed at UAF in 1956 and sev­eral build­ings are named for im­por­tant fig­ures in the state’s his­tory — in­clud­ing the Eiel­son Build­ing, named for Carl Eiel­son, the “Arc­tic Lind­bergh” who played a sig­nif­i­cant role in Alaska’s avi­a­tion his­tory, and the Gru­en­ing Build­ing, named for Ernest Gru­en­ing (pro­nounced Green­ing), a ter­ri­to­rial gover­nor who helped with the push for state­hood.

See the side­bar for more in­for­ma­tion on the Univer­sity of Alaska Mu­seum of the North on the UAF cam­pus, where one of the new­est build­ings is a sci­ence fa­cil­ity named for Mar­garet Murie, a naturalist who helped cre­ate the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge.

Off-cam­pus, the Mor­ris Thomp­son Cul­tural and Vis­i­tors Cen­ter pre­sents ro­tat­ing art ex­hibits and a look at the his­tory of the area, par­tic­u­larly the indige­nous Athabas­can people.

For all the his­tory and cul­ture in Fair­banks, it’s eas­i­est to un­der­stand what drew the early set­tlers north, or why any­one stayed, when you go out­side. My fa­vorite parts of Fair­banks life (col­le­giate shenani­gans aside) were ski­ing un­der the Aurora in the White Moun­tains, pad­dling the Chena River, and watch­ing moose or mi­gra­tory birds at Creamer’s Field, depend­ing on the sea­son.

There’s an aver­age of 155 clear days per year in Fair­banks, more than most Alaska com­mu­ni­ties (al­though fewer than Nome), and if you’re there for even just one of them it’s hard to spend it in­side.

For me, Robert Ser­vice summed that up best, in “The Spell of the Yukon”: “Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m want­ing “So much as just find­ing the gold. “It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yon­der, “It’s the forests where si­lence has lease; “It’s the beauty that thrills me with won­der, “It’s the still­ness that fills me with peace.”

Float­ing the Chena River is a fine way to pass a warm sum­mer day in Fair­banks.

The 2014 Fair­banks Golden Days Fes­ti­val will be from July 16-20. De­nali Na­tional Park and Pre­serve of­fers amaz­ing vis­tas and wildlife view­ing.

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