Are you missing winter? Look north to our neighbors in Fairbanks, who combine the northern lights, some good snow cover and a collection of colorful characters. Travelers from around the world are dropping in on charter flights from Japan, Korea and China.
Unlike foreign visitors who only have a week to explore the more-frozen north, Alaskans have the chance to check off one or two key attractions each time we pass through the Golden Heart City.
Every visitor to Fairbanks should make time to see the BP World Ice Art Championships. The ice park is located between downtown and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It starts on Feb. 22 and the park remains open through March 27. There's a kids' park with slides, a maze and kid-friendly sculptures. But the single-block and multi-block sculptures are wonders to behold. Go at night, when the sculptures are lit up with LED lights. If you like the ice carvings in downtown Anchorage, the event in Fairbanks is about 100 times as big, featuring carvers from around the world.
The Alaska Railroad adds midweek departures in addition to its weekly Saturday departures, starting on Tuesday, Feb. 23. If you have the time, the 12-hour ride north from Anchorage is a great way to decompress and enjoy some stunning winter scenery. The train stops completely so everyone can get a great shot of Denali (weather permitting), as well as the bridge over Hurricane Gulch.
Whether you arrive by plane, train or your own car, Fairbanks is easy to navigate. There are many sites and activities in and around town, including the Museum of the North at the university, which is open year-round. Depending on the time of day, I grab coffee at Alaska Coffee Roasting Co. or beer at HooDoo Brewing Co. Actually, the railroad depot, Hoodoo Brewing, the Ice Alaska park and Alaska Coffee Roasting all are located along the Johansen Expressway on the north side of town near the university.
It's not uncommon to see the northern lights big and bright in downtown Fairbanks. But to see more, you need to get out of town. There are several favorite locations around town. You can join a tour with 1st Alaska Outdoor School to Murphy Dome, an old Air Force station located 21 miles northwest of Fairbanks. The tour goes from 10 p.m.-3 a.m. and you can stay warm in the van while you wait for the display. The dome sits almost 3,000 feet high with a good view of the horizon. The cost is $95.
Another day trip (or night trip) from Fairbanks is available with Northern Alaska Tour Co. up to Joy, Alaska. You leave Fairbanks around 9 p.m. for a trip to the Arctic Circle Trading Post. Located at Mile 49 on the Elliott Highway, you can warm up in the cabin and sip on hot drinks while you wait for the aurora display. The cost is $89 per person. Call 800-474-1986.
Bernie and Connie Karl own Chena Hot Springs Resort and they've built quite a community, just 60 miles away from Fairbanks. In addition to northern lights tours from the lodge, there's the hot spring. It's a welcome respite from the cold Fairbanks weather. There's also a year-round ice museum, complete with carvings from Steve and Heather Brice, who also participate in the Ice Alaska competition.
One of the biggest stories about Chena Hot Springs, though, is how Bernie and his team have harnessed the thermal power of the hot spring and made the resort into a model of sustainable alternative energy. Check out the greenhouse, where they grow much of the produce for the restaurant. There's also a tour of the powerhouse, where you can see how the energy is harnessed and used to heat the resort — with the excess energy being sold back to the local electric company.
For a real wintertime adventure, though, take a road trip up the Dalton Highway. You don't have to be a real-life "Ice Road Trucker" to do this. Several companies offer tours from Fairbanks up to the Arctic Circle. Northern Alaska Tour Co. goes one step farther: a road trip up to Coldfoot. There, you're in a prime location to see the aurora borealis.
I've flown to Coldfoot before, but I hadn't done the wintertime road trip. It's worth it to take the 10-hour excursion, especially if you have an interesting driver like Northern Alaska's Joe Wagner. Joe worked on the pipeline in the 1970s and has many stories about Alaska oil exploration, oil field construction and the crazy atmosphere surrounding the project.
The days are getting longer, so if you go in March, you're going to be traveling during daylight hours well past the Arctic Circle.
Wagner drove us north in a big 25-passenger coach, with beefed-up heaters and suspension for a comfy ride on the Dalton Highway. The first stop after leaving home base was at the local Safeway store. Lunch isn't included on the winter trips, so people were encouraged to load up on drinks, snacks and sandwiches.
The first stop on the trip north was at Joy, where Fairbanksans and day trippers can come to see the northern lights. We just used the outhouses. Shortly after leaving Joy, the Elliott Highway veers to the left and we started our adventure on the Dalton Highway.
Most of the other travelers on the coach were from China: five from Shanghai and three from Chengdu. There was a couple from India and two young women from New York. My seatmate, Christine, was from Bethel. Everyone was looking forward to seeing the aurora borealis.
As we neared the Yukon River, moisture from the river formed clouds that drifted up and over the neighboring hills. All of the trees were coated with snow and ice. Wagner called this the "Enchanted Forest" because the snow-coated trees take on an otherworldly form. He knew the right spot to pull over so everyone can get some good photos without being run over by truckers going back and forth to Prudhoe Bay.
Wagner kept a CB radio tuned to Channel 19 to tell truckers when he was getting back on the road and when he passed key landmarks. That's because our coach ambled along at around 45 miles per hour. After all, it can be a rough road. The truckers, since most of them get paid by the load, tended to travel faster. Wagner was happy to point out some of the rules of the road when it comes to truckers.
Another high point of the trip is the stop at the Yukon River bridge. This bridge is the only one that crosses the Yukon in the state of Alaska. The bridge was built for the trans-Alaska pipeline — and since we were traveling on the Haul Road, you could see the pipeline most of the way between Fairbanks and Coldfoot.
At the Yukon River, Wagner stopped so everyone can go down on the frozen river. Local folks came out to meet the coach, offering furs, artwork and the occasional snowmachine ride.
Further up the road on the way to the Arctic Circle, Wagner pulled over where the pipeline was close to the road. There, visitors could see the structure of the pipeline, including the engineering allowing the pipeline to slide back and forth in case of an earthquake. Wagner talked about the pump stations, the need to heat up the oil for easier transport and how the volume of oil in the pipeline has decreased.
As we arrived at the Arctic Circle, Wagner got out a little red carpet and laid it by the big sign. Then, since the sun was setting, he lit up the sign with his headlights. Everyone got to take their pictures: first individuals, then groups, then more photos with Joe.
The parking lot at the Arctic Circle also acts as a transfer point, where the big coaches turn around and head back to Fairbanks. We continued north to Coldfoot in smaller vans.
By the time we got to Coldfoot, it was 8:30 p.m. Coldfoot is essentially a truck stop. There is a restaurant, a gas station, a post office, a bar and the old Alyeska camp, which has been renamed the Slate Creek Inn. There are crew quarters for Northern Alaska Tour Co. Across the highway is an Alaska Department of Transportation maintenance office, an Alaska State Troopers station and the airstrip.
The parking lot in front of the restaurant is huge, for the big trucks that come through, with drivers stopping for a cup of coffee and a sandwich. I got the hamburger — and it was good!
Two hours later, we traveled 14 miles up the road to the old mining village of Wiseman. I've been there before, but it's always great to visit with Jack Reakoff, who lives there year-round. He grew up there hunting and fishing, before a road was built in the early 1990s. Reakoff hosts aurora viewers in a small cabin with hot drinks while waiting for the aurora displays. While we wait, he goes through and checks to see that everyone's camera is set up correctly. He even has several tripods available.
Reakoff has many stories about Wiseman's early history, when prospectors had to hike upriver about 60 miles, with horses pulling flat-bottomed boats with supplies along the Koyukuk River. Reakoff keeps an eye on the fish, the wildlife, his garden and his family. His sister runs a bed-and-breakfast nearby. He and his wife have a 3-year-old daughter, and he takes her moose hunting. He uses solar panels in the summer, since fuel is very expensive.
The lights were ablaze when we were watching at about 1 a.m. There was a thin layer of clouds, which made the whole sky light up with a diffused green light. My photos from my handy point-and-shoot were pretty sketchy — and Reakoff told me to get a better camera!
After returning to Coldfoot around 2:45 a.m., I collapsed, sleeping in until around 11:15 a.m. Many of the other guests already had taken off on a road trip up to Atigun Pass. Others went up to the dog yard for a dog-mushing tour around the 3-mile loop they've carved out of the woods.
I opted for breakfast before catching a flight back to Fairbanks.
The northern lights is what draws people to Fairbanks and Interior Alaska during the winter. But for those of us who call Alaska home, the on-the-ground exploring of this country is a bonus. The train ride north to Fairbanks, the road trip in midwinter up the Dalton Highway and the late-night cabin chatter all adds up to a great Alaska adventure. By the way — one way on the road and the rail was enough for me. By the time I left Coldfoot, I was grateful for the Warbelow's Piper Navajo that flew me back to Fairbanks.
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing