Alaska: Exploring the frontiier city of Fairbanks

2 Day Itinerary: Set in the middle of Alaska, Fairbanks is a “cool” destination. Especially in the winter!

As we leave the high peaks of the Alaska range and move deeper into the Interior the mountains are replaced by rolling hills. Fairbanks is the largest city in Alaska’s interior and the 2nd largest in the State after Anchorage, and was originally founded in 1901 as a trading centre. In 1902 gold was discovered in the area which resulted in an explosion in the population. Today Fairbanks has evolved from a gold rush town into a modern city – albeit somewhat sleepy. 

We had two days to enjoy the area and we packed in as much as we could. The long summer days made this all the easier.

Day One

  1. Visiting the Ice Museum in Fairbanks to watch ice carving.
  2. A journey back in time to the gold rush of Alaska at Gold Dredge 8.
  3. Wander through the reconstructed street of Old Fairbanks at the Pioneer Park and explore the S.S. Nenana paddle boat museum.

Day Two

  1. Visit the wonderful Museum of the North and get to grips with Alaskan culture and the first people
  2. Finding out more about the muskox and other the wildlife of Alaska and the Large Animal Research Station.
  3. A trip to North Pole to meet Santa and Mrs Claus.

Fairbanks Ice Museum

Location: Hours: Pricing:
500 2nd Ave
Fairbanks, Alaska 99701
​Phone: 907-451-8222
Opens in May.       Tours every hour – on the hour 10:00 am to 8:00 pm Ice Museum
Adults…………………$15.00
Kids (age 6-14)………$10.00
Groups (10+)…………$12.00
Aurora shows
Adults………………….$10.00
Kids (age 6-14)……….$8.00
Groups (10+)………….$8.00

Our first stop of the day was the Fairbanks Ice Museum, which is somewhat homespun but great fun. We are treated to a demonstration of ice carving using a combination of hand and electrical tools. After an amazingly short time the artist produces an ice fish statue. This museum used to be a cinema and they have retained the seating, but around the sides and the front of the theatre they have built glass panelled rooms. In these rooms, which are refrigerated, are the most fantastic ice sculptures of walruses, bears, Inuit Eskimos, musical instruments and many other creations. Going into these rooms was marvellous but rather chilly. The finale of our visit is a film about the World Ice Art Championships which takes place in Fairbanks every March. Teams of carvers from all around the world brave the cold March weather and using local ice hewn from frozen lakes (Fairbanks apparently has the best quality ice in the world) to create wonderful creations, some reaching two storeys high.

Gold Dredge 8

After experiencing the Ice Museum we headed north out of Fairbanks towards the artic circle to Gold Dredge 8. We hopped aboard a narrow-gauge train to start our two-hour tour of the Gold Mine to learn all about how 100,000 gold rushers fought the permafrost in their quest to get rich.

The tour began as we boarded the train and traveled to a historic, working gold mine that looked as it would have when gold fever first swept across America. Our conductor Earl Hughes played songs from days gone by and span yarns about early Alaska as we traveled below ground to a permafrost tunnel and met a gold miner. Further on we passed by several exhibits of prospector’s cabins and mining equipment.

Our final stop was a working gold camp where the real fun began. We met local miners Dexter and Yukon Yonda, a couple that have been operating small mines for more than 25 years, who taught us all about modern mining techniques. We then got to try our hand at gold panning, with success guaranteed. It was a short walk to the gift shop where we got our samples weighed. We decided to collect together our hard worked for gold dust and put into a necklace charm to give to Jack and Emily’s grandmother as a gift. The best thing about the end of this tour was the complimentary coffee and fresh-baked cookies.

Pioneer Park

Our day was not yet done and we head back to Fairbanks where we stopped at Pioneer Park. Here there are a number of historic buildings, including the Wickersham and the Kitty Hensley Houses, have been relocated from all around Fairbanks and the surrounds and set out in a series of quaint streets which are now set aside as shops.

One of the unmissable attractions at Pioneer Park if the S.S. Nenana, a large paddle boat that was designed and prefabricated in Seattle, and assembled in Nenana, Alaska.

Originally commissioned by the Alaska Railroad, she was designed to transport passengers and freight (38 passengers and 300 tons freight capacity).

At 237 feet long, with a 42-foot beam (width), this stern-wheeler is the largest ever built west of the Mississippi and the second largest wooden vessel in the USA.

DAY TWO

Museum of the North

Location: Hours: Admission:
1962 Yukon Drive
Fairbanks, Alaska 99775(907) 474-7505

WINTER HOURS
September 1 to May 31
Monday through Saturday
9 AM – 5 PM

SUMMER HOURS
June 1 to August 31
OPEN DAILY: 9 AM – 7 PM

Adult Admission (15+ yrs) $14
Youth Admission (5-14) $8

Today our first port of call was the impressive looking Museum of the North, based at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The museum is housed in a wonderfully modern edifice on a hill overlooking the City of Fairbanks. The main exhibition area is the Gallery of Alaska, which is divided into five regional galleries representing the major ecological regions of Alaska. Each gallery highlights the distinct natural and cultural history of these regions. The displays gives a wonderful insight in to the history of the Alaskan territory – both good and bad (including a moving tale of the forced evacuation and internment of Aleut Americans during World War II). In addition to the human stories of Alaska there were exhibits covering the ecology of this vast and diverse State. One of our favorite galleries contained many pieces of Native Alaskan art, both historical and present as well as exhibits of art work from local artists, including a highly ornate outhouse. Outhouses are still common place in the Alaska as the frigid temperatures and the hard, permafrost ground make plumbing a challenge. In fact outhouses are revered and often decorated, there is even a book celebrating the Alaskan outhouse and an annual outhouse race held through the streets of Anchorage. Something about the cold temperatures and constant winter darkness does affect the mind!!

Large Animal Research Station

Location: Hours: Admission:
2220 Yankovich Rd, Fairbanks, AK 99709

(907) 474-5724

Open May 28 to September 2, 2018

Everyday: 9:30 to 4:30
Our scheduled naturalist presentations are at 10am, 12pm, and 2pm. No pre-registration is required.

Cost: $10 for adults

$9 for Senior and Military

$6 for Students

Children 5 and under are free

After a morning of cultural overload we decided that we needed to follow this with a simpler form of entertainment. Our next stop was only a short drive away – the aptly named Large Animal Research Station. The main reason for coming here was to see muskoxen. These delightful creatures are more closely related to sheep and goats than to oxen, but are in their own genus, Ovibos. The muskox was a lot smaller than we had expected, even with the thick coats that protect them from the harsh winter weather. Muskox wool, or qiviut (an Inuit word), is highly prized for its softness, length, and insulative value. The Alaskan muskox story is a little-known conservation success, with the muskox reclaiming some of the ranges it inhabited over a century ago. Muskoxen disappeared from their last remaining strongholds in northern Alaska during the late 1800’s. Hunting by humans contributed to their decline. In 1930, the U.S. Congress provided funds to ship 34 muskoxen from Greenland to Alaska. From the first herd established on Nunivak Island, 71 animals were transplanted to the Seward Peninsula, during 1970 and 1981. So far, people have not hunted the reintroduced muskoxen, allowing them to increase at a rate of 15-20% annually. In April of 1992 the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service jointly conducted an aerial survey and found 706 muskox on the Seward Peninsula. Our visit coincided with the end of the breeding season and we were very lucky to see some of the calves born in the spring

As well as muskox the Research Station also studies caribou. These large, sub-arctic dwelling deer are still numerous in the interior and north of Alaska. One of the great sights of the animal kingdom is the vast migration herds, numbering 150,000 to 200,000 caribou, that follow a 400 mile route along Alaska’s Porcupine river every year from their winter feeding grounds in the south to the north Alaskan coastal plain where they calve. Along the migration route the caribou pass through the tundra of the Alaskan interior, where we heard they are molested by swarms of bugs, including mosquitoes and warble flies. The mosquitoes are simply after their blood, but the numbers of these insects are so high the poor caribou can loose pints of blood in a single day. More horrific are the warble flies, which lay their eggs in the skin of the caribou. The larvae hatch and eat their way out of the skin before the metamorphosis process into adulthood, causing a great amount of irritation to the animal. In some case the warble flies lay their eggs inside the nasal cavity – this can cause a great deal of distress (not surprisingly) to the caribou.

North Pole – Alaska

The day continues to go down hill culturally speaking as we round it off with a trip to the town of North Pole, Alaska, where the locals claim the “Spirit of Christmas lives year around”. If you hadn’t read this before visiting then the candy cane shaped lamp posts would have probably given the game away. The town itself is pretty much non-descript but our reason for the visit was to visit Santa Claus’ House. This is the place where you can get letters posted from Santa Claus, post-marked North Pole – cool eh! Sadly Santa Claus’ House is a store rather than a house (but there are reindeer parked out back) but sure enough Santa and Mrs Claus are faithfully on duty for photo-opportunities and to make mobile phone calls back to little Johnny down in Tampa Bay, Florida. After some coercion we did manage to get a reluctant Jack and Emily to pose with Santa whilst we did a video message for Laura back in England. Luckily as we’re travelling light we did not have the opportunity to spend money on seasonal tchatchke.

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