Look out the window in June at midnight and you would swear that the sun never sets in Fairbanks this time of the year.
Technically, the longest day of the year, on summer solstice (June 21st) there is 21 hours and 49 minutes of official daylight. But it remains pretty much light all day and night through the first half of July.
The summer solstice celebrations in Fairbanks Alaska are a sight to behold. Imagine a party to celebrate the sun and the longest day of the year – including a Midnight Sun Festival, midnight baseball game and the Midnight Sun 10k run. The Alaskans here really know how to enjoy the 24 hours of daylight and certainly appreciate the sun after months of winter darkness.
“Each solstice is a domain of experience unto itself. At the Summer Solstice, all is green and growing, potential coming into being, the miracle of manifestation painted large on the canvas of awareness. At the Winter Solstice, the wind is cold, trees are bare and all lies in stillness beneath blankets of snow.” – Gary Zukav
On the advice of other travelers and folks that have lived in Alaska I registered for the 10k Midnight Sun Run. The run started at 10 pm (yes, you read that right) and wandered through the neighborhoods of Fairbanks starting at the University of Alaska and ending at Pioneer Park. Thousands of runners dressed in all forms of costumes and workout gear took advantage of the party atmosphere. It was great fun as the neighborhood folks were all out in their yards having their own celebrations and cheering along the runners as they passed by on the course.
They were happy to share the free flowing beer with eager 10k participants and the music and atmosphere was one big midnight sun party. Gary and Stacey (of Pau Hana Travels) and I had a great time being a part of this experience.
“The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past us, but through us.” – John Muir
In 1917 the Alaska Territorial Legislature included a museum in the charter for the establishment of the University of Alaska. The first exhibit at the Museum of the North was opened in 1929 and included a collection of ethnographic, archaeological and paleontological items collected by local naturalist Otto Geist. Over the years the museum’s collection has grown to 1.5 million objects and specimens making it one of the premier collections and displays in all of Alaska.
If you are lucky enough (or with a little advanced planning) to visit the museum on a Tuesday or Friday take a behind the scenes tour of this great collections and research facility. Like most museums only a small fraction of the collection is on public display.
The tour of the collections and research areas was very interesting and informative.
In addition to being the repository for all artifacts and specimens collected on Alaska’s vast public lands, their research collections represent millions of years of biological evolution and thousands of years of Alaska’s cultural traditions. The university conducts valuable research on climate change, genetics, contaminants and other important issues facing Alaska and the North.
The tours are led by university students and give an insiders perspective and a glimpse into the inner workings of the facility.
“Museums provide places of relaxation and inspiration. And most importantly, they are a place of authenticity. We live in a world of reproductions – the objects in museums are real. It’s a way to get away from the overload of digital technology.” – Thomas P. Campbell
Another interesting place to visit is the University’s Large Animal Research Station. Herds of musk oxen and caribou are important in the universities long term studies in Arctic biology and nutrition. Having seen caribou in the wild I was most interested in seeing the musk oxen. Once roaming throughout the northern region of North America they were forced out more than a century ago due to climatic and environmental changes. Transplanted back to northern Alaska in the 1930’s there are still few of these prehistoric looking herbivorous left to view in the wild. If you visit be sure to take the tour given by student naturalists to learn about these unusual animals and the research being done to help preserve the species.
North of Fairbanks you can find the Summit Trail to Wickersham Dome. Likely named after Judge James A Wickersham considered by some to be the tsar of Interior Alaska.
Billed as the driest of the trails in the area I still found it to be quite muddy maybe I was too early in the season but I am guessing that there are a lot of rivers, lakes and streams in Alaska with the constantly melting snow and ice. The five-mile hike to the dome affords great views of the surrounding mountains and hundreds of miles of undeveloped open country. While lunching on the dome a couple of marmots expressed their displeasure with our intruding on their space by chattering at us as we enjoyed the views. I am finding that there are fewer “designated trials” in Alaska as most people enjoying the backcountry do so without relying on man-made facilities such as roads and trails and instead forge their own paths through the woods and tundra. A little hard for this California conditioned traveler to get used to but certainly appropriate here in this wild country.
Fairbanks is bordered by the Alaska Range to the south and the Brooks Range to the north. Fairbanks is Alaska’s second largest community located in the Tanana Valley, which is crisscrossed by the Chena and the Tanana rivers. Flowing east to west through Fairbanks with several access points the Chena River provides a great way to see the city from a different angle.
It was also my first chance to get the Stand Up paddleboard out in Alaska. The two-hour paddle from Pioneer Park to the Pump House restaurant started with sunny skies and a calm and quiet river. Typical Alaska, all you have to do is wait 10 minutes and the weather can change 180 degrees. About 2/3’s of the way down the river the clouds and wind picked up and the rain came down. Cory seemed to dislike the rain more than I did and tried to hide between my feet on the board.
“As you sit on a craggy summit viewing the vastness of interior Alaska, you are seeing a landscape that is vibrant with change…. A landscape is like a theater…. We are there for but a single performance.” – Robert Thorson
I contemplated a trip on the Sternwheeler Discovery but after watching the hordes of cruise ship folks disembarking the busses to get on the boat when I was paddling the river I decided that tourist attraction was one that I would skip. Instead I spent a few hours with Mary Shields and her sled dogs at “Tails of the Trail” (her home). Mary was the first woman to complete the 1,049-mile Iditarod sled dog race in 1974, the second year of this now famous race. Following the old dog team mail route from Knik to Nome blazed in 1910, the trail crosses two mountain ranges, follows the Yukon River for about 150 miles, runs through several bush villages and crosses the pack ice of Norton Sound. The route traditionally is described as 1,049 miles long – a distance selected because Alaska is the 49th state, but the actual distance is closer to 1,200 miles. Mary not only finished the Iditarod but also the Yukon Quest and was able to take part in the Hope 1991 dog sled journey through to Siberia as an ambassador of the United States to Russia during very turbulent times.
It was very special spending time with Mary as I was the only person booked on the tour that day and got to spend quality one on one time with this spirited and tenacious lady. Spending time with the sled dogs was certainly a bonus but having the opportunity to talk with Mary and hear her stories was a one of a kind opportunity and one that I was very glad I took advantage of.
“So now you have listened to my heart and you know where my dreams take me. Each spring when the clearest blue sky calls and the sun arcs a little higher each day, my path will lead out to where there is no trail.” Mary Shields – Sled Dog Trails
And what would a trip to Fairbanks be without visiting the local breweries. Fairbanks is home to two great breweries – Hoo Doo and Silver Gulch. It was obvious that HooDoo is a popular local spot, a typical brewery located in an industrial area brewing and serving their beer with the local food truck visiting to provide the nourishment. Silver Gulch is a brewpub restaurant with good food and good beer. Each had its own merits and both had good beers on tap.
A week in Fairbanks was just long enough to scratch the surface of this place. I could certainly spend much more time there enjoying everything the area has to offer but it’s time to hit the road.
Next stop – Denali National Park