Part 1 of a 6-part series
A century and a half removed from the sale of the Alaska territory from Imperial Russia to the United States, still rather few Americans make the journey from the “Lower 48” up to the Last Frontier, which achieved territorial status on August 24, 1912, and finally entered the union as the 48th state January 3, 1959.
Accordingly, 2017 sees Alaska celebrating not only its sesquicentennial but also over a half-century since statehood (Hawaii would follow only seven months later), and the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks celebrating the centennial of its 1917 founding in the state’s Interior.
Given its remoteness and the relative difficultly of reaching the place about which John Muir said “To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world” — to say nothing of its relatively brief tourist season — it’s perhaps little wonder that Alaska retains an intrinsic fascination in the American psyche. Even more than the U.S.’ Pacific Island holdings, Alaska is uniquely frontier and removed, in a way that no other place in the American lexicon can boast.
It is also an incredibly large place, roughly three times the size of Texas. It would take years, if not decades, to explore it all and to take in all of the history from geological prehistoric to the first human inhabitants crossing the Bering Strait landbridge from Asia sometime between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago to Russian and American contact in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Alaska today honors its past, its present and its future. While it may be the Last Frontier, for travelers and explores, it remains surprisingly accessible.
Like a trailblazer and guide to treasures yet unknown, it beckons — its prominent place atop the map, adjacent to the Yukon and north British Columbia, Canada, and Russia’s extreme western frontier — inviting the intrepid, the adventurous, the wanderer and the merely curious.
Coincidentally enough, it also my 50th state, the final to-see on the list of half-hundred artificially demarcated dominions carved out by the U.S. government from 1776 until 1959.
Expansive. Wild. Wonderful. Extreme. Alaska is all of this and more.
Unsurprisingly, Fairbanks was founded on commerce. In the northern reaches of the frontier, traders of pelts, mineral ore (i.e., gold) and supplies crucial to taming the frontier settled here, with the new town of Fairbanks declared in 1903. While the city itself now hosts about 30,000 permanent residents, approximately 100,000 total live in the “greater” Fairbanks area, just 111 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
My initial impression is that this isn’t precisely what I thought Alaska “should” look like. While yes there are mountains and valleys, it doesn’t precisely jibe with the classic glacially carved tierra seen in Hollywood films and documentaries. I am told this we shall find further south.
But for now I am thrilled to explore the Hub of the Interior, as Fairbanks is so called. Not only a world-class research university is here, but also an Air Force Base and Army depot, making it the most bustling place north of Anchorage — indeed, the second-largest population center.
Mere steps from the front door of our hotel, Pike’s Waterfront Lodge (1850 Hoselton Rd., Fairbanks, Alaska, 99709, 877/774-2400), the annual Iditarod sled race has kicked off in years when the Anchorage snowfall has been lacking. It’s a 1,000-mile journey to Nome, with only the driver’s wits and his or her dogs to pull them over the weekslong course.
Also out our front door is where, in the winter, the ice bridge will carry cars across the Chena River until it melts in the spring.
After a fine buffet breakfast at Pike’s that includes reindeer sausage, Jerry Evans, public relations manager at Explore Fairbanks, picks us up to learn more about the Golden Heart City.
Our first stop is the University of Alaska Museum of the North (907 Yukon Dr. UAF campus, Fairbanks, Alaska, 99775, 907/474-7505), frequently voted the best museum in the state. Inside a Joan Soranno-designed edifice that seems slightly retro-futurist, we learn about Alaska’s geologic and natural histories as well as that since the coming of man to these parts millennia ago. Taxidermied and mockup denizens of these parts greet you, including wolves, moose, a brown bear and other creatures of the north.
Russians came across the Bering Strait in the late 18th century, bringing with them Orthodox Christianity and a desire to explore what was beyond the Empire’s landlocked borders. They met the native peoples, whose common ancestry had since splintered into various tribes such as the Tlingit, Haida, and “Eskimo,” or Inupiat. The Russian prospectors and explorers traded language, culture, resources, religions and intermarried — many of whose descendants still maintain some of that Russian influence even now.
The Empire sold the land to America in 1867, whereupon further exploration and mixing of cultures ensued. Judge James Wickersham moved to the territory from Washington state, and served as Alaska’s nonvoting member of Congress before making the first statehood push in 1916.
World War II saw the only instance of Japanese occupation of any American lands when Imperial forces raided Alaska’s west coast and took several natives as prisoners. At the same time, Alaska’s citizens of Japanese ancestry had their businesses burned and their people rounded up and sent to internment camps, just as in the Lower 48.
While here, make sure to hit the upper floor, where awesome local artwork is on display in the Gallery of Alaska.
Following this history and cultural lesson, Jerry takes us to the Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge (1300 College Rd., Fairbanks, Alaska, 99701, 907/459-7231). Jerry leads Victoria and I on a roundtrip walk about the property, where native birds squawk and take flight in groups. Bring a pair of binoculars for optimal viewing.
Who knew this part of the country would boast a wonderful automobile collection? But the proof is under the hood thanks to the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum (212 Wedgewood Dr., Fairbanks, Alaska, 99701, 907/450-2100) whose impressive collection of vintage horseless carriages goes back well over a century. A converted 1926 Fordson offers a view into early attempts at snowmobiling, while the yellow 1936 Packard must be seen to be believed. A true prize of engineering is a model that was the first automobile in Alaska, and was made by hand by an enterprising young man who wished to impress his sweetheart.
Victoria and I also don vintage clothing for a photo inside an oldster, which no doubt will be on our Christmas card.
Next stop with Jerry, the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center (101 Dunkel St. Suite 210, Fairbanks, Alaska, 99701, 907/459-3700), named in honor of a Koyukon Athabascan native of the Interior who was a prominent businessman, commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and civic leader. Here we learn more about Alaska’s native peoples, from pre-Western contact right up to the present. Native Alaskans fared somewhat better than the American Indians of the Lower 48 when it came to equality under U.S. laws, and the various peoples and tribes have thrived from Russian contact and on into becoming citizens of the United States.
Check out some of the great vintage photos here of four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher, the second woman to ever win the iconic dog sled derby. Sadly, she passed from cancer in 2001, but she is still memorialized each year on Susan Butcher Day.
For lunch Jerry takes us over to the lovely and happening Tanana Valley Farmers Market (2600 College Rd., Fairbanks, Alaska, 99701, 907/456-3276), where locally grown vegetables (during the brief harvesting window) are sold side by side with arts, crafts and, of course, food. Victoria and I saddle up to a Thai booth, where we enjoy hearty portions of chicken curry over rice and chicken Thai basil over rice. It’s a great place to just wander around if you have the time.
Alas, we have to get moving as, to quote the comedian Andy Samberg, we’re going on a boat tour thanks to the Riverboat Discovery (1975 Discovery Dr., Fairbanks, Alaska, 99709, 907/479-6673). Jerry leaves us riverside as Victoria and I board this paddlewheel vessel for a three-hour tour up the Chena River.
We pick up seats on the upper deck of the vessel, whose crew kindly offers complimentary blueberry donuts for the voyage. Narration from the bridge takes us through the history of moving cargo up and down this river over the decades in the short window between thaw and freeze. A seaplane cruising nearby demonstrates taking off and landing on the water, and the captain uses his radio to hail the pilot and pipe him into the onboard PA system.
A bit further upriver we hear some rather insistent barking on the port side. The captain hails David Monson, standing ashore at the kennels for the huskies employed for winter sled races. David is no stranger to this business, being the widower of Susan Butcher, the state’s most revered female sledder.
The doggies are in fine form today, nipping and barking and itching for a pull. David boards a four-wheeler sans engine, and at his command, the dog team takes off, pulling David and his four-wheeler. The team races around his property, with an older canine of the pack running in hot pursuit behind the team.
Returning to base, David unshackles the pups, each of whom jumps into the Chena for a quick dip before returning to kennel.
At the farthest point in our journey, the captain points out how, past a sandbar, the Chena joins with the Tanana River, which will eventually join with the Yukon River. We come about and then dock at the Chena Indian Village, an Athabascan enclave set up to educate visitors about their heritage. Lectures by youthful members of the tribe discuss how their ancestors survived in these harsh climes, moving constantly to follow the food supply, and never wasting a single part of the bodies of their kills. Pelts of various indigenous animals are also on display, which you can touch, and we also find our way back to an enclosure where several of David Monson’s huskies run in circles about the pen, and occasionally come up for a scratch behind the ears from visitors.
Along the shoreline, at “Fish Camp,” an Athabascan youngster demonstrates traditional ways of cleaning, preparing and smoking the salmon catch, many of which are pulled from the river by a “fish wheel.”
No sooner have Victoria and I re-embarked on the Discovery than the clouds suddenly open — dictating the necessity of being prepared for any weather in these parts. It’s a light rain, but the thunder is fearsome. Rain gear is always a good idea here in summer, both for warmth and to shield oneself from the elements.
After we dock back at port, we pop inside the shops at the Discovery Trading Post and run to the -40C Room, a foolish errand for anyone, but one I simply must do today to “find out” what it feels like to be in Fairbanks in the cold months. For no fee — because who would do so? — you too can step into a room refrigerated down to an ungodly -40 degrees.
This is what Fairbanks is like for several dark months, when even cars must be plugged in at night to keep the engine from freezing.
My thoughts: A) It’s not as bad as I thought it would be, seeing as how I’m wearing little more than a New Jersey Devils hoodie; and B) two minutes is plenty, as my mucous membranes seem to have nerve endings I never knew were there. This is the kind of cold that stays with you for minutes, and Jerry and Victoria enjoy watching me jump up and down in place trying to get my eyeball membranes back to warmth.
It’s an object lesson is how hardy these people of the second-largest city in the Last Frontier must be at all times of the year.
Next stop, the Ursa Major Distillery (2922 Parks Hwy, Fairbanks, Alaska, 99709, 907/457-1070) which is run by Rob and Tara Borland, who were fortunate enough to leave their day jobs to whip up 49th state concoctions full time. As with many other states, Alaska still had Prohibition-era laws on the books until entrepreneurs and lawmakers wisely started to bring them into the 21st century. Rob, who has been distilling since 2013, has been in this roadside location since 2015.
The Long Winter vodka is magnificent, with no burn at all. This is a perfect summer or winter vodka to be enjoyed neat or with one cube of ice. The Fairbanks Sourdough Rum is unique as all hell, incorporating that particular grain in lieu of the more traditional cane sugar utilized in Floridian rums (and somewhat hard to get ‘round these parts). The Summer Harvest Gin is very, very floral on the nose, and would make for an excellent base for a martini.
And from the I’ve-never-tried-it-before files, Ursa Major offers up the “Akavite,” an Alaskan take on the traditional aquavit liqueur of Scandinavia. Its profile is hefty with notes of anise and licorice, making it a fine aperitif for after-dinner in the vein of Sambuca.
It’s been a treasure to watch the American craft beer scene continue to expand since I came of drinking age, and I recall fondly my first Alaskan Amber Ale in college in Los Angeles. Much farther north from that Juneau-based brewery is the HooDoo Brewing Company (1951 Fox Ave., Fairbanks, Alaska, 99701, 907/459-2337), with its happening tasting room and a quote from “A. Schwarzenegger” pegged over the taps decreeing “Milk is for babies. When you grow up you have to drink beer.”
The Kolsch is light and summery, and the Weissbeir I find nicely refreshing. The winner is the Mosaic Pale, with its invigorating profile and mature, hoppy aftertaste.
If you’re feeling peckish, food trucks typically camp outside.
Vicky and I soon make our way back to the Pike’s and stop in for a cocktail and a brew at the next-door Pike’s Landing, where locals and tourists mingle over drinks.
Retiring next door, and pleasantly wiped from a tremendous first day in Alaska, I take a seat on the outdoor terrace to watch the “sunset” of 11 p.m. close out this amazing day. Jetlag mixes with amazement as the midnight sunshine dovetails into darkness.
The sun may be setting on Day 1, but our Alaska adventure has just begun.
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