Fair-banks, Fairbanks , Not So Fair-Fairbanks

University of Alaska Museum of the North

I certainly can’t pinpoint when the “official” national park quest began … or that I would become a “park chaser” or “park collector,” but in the summer of 2016 several life events punched me in the gut and destined me to drive cross country to  Oregon for my annual visit with daughter Tasia.  In planning a route I decided on a diagonal course from Florida to Oregon and chose a mixture of historical sites and national parks.  So with my two dogs buckled in,  I headed to Hot Springs National Park via Little Rock AK  and then  to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park from Oklahoma City.  The  seed to be a National Park “collector” was planted. Though still employed as a professor at the University of South Florida,  I was fortunate enough to be teaching a class on-line that fall semester, so I had significant latitude as to my departure schedule from Oregon. So on September 13th I set off on a return journey  to Florida with the express intention of visiting and camping in several national parks. Using another somewhat diagonal route,  I “collected” Lassen Volcanic, Great Basin, Mesa Verde, Capitol Reef, Great Sand Dunes, Mammoth Cave, and Great Smokey Mountains National Parks. By now I was 100% INVESTED in visiting as many national parks as possible before an aging body says NO MORE sleeping on a rock strew tent pad, getting chilled to the bone in a tent much too large for myself and the two dogs to heat up, wondering what critter I might encounter on one of a couple of middle of the night adventures to a bathroom, or getting lost on wet, muddy under water hiking trails, being kicked in the butt and  exhausted by yet another 2000 feet of elevating… 

Since I live part time in Alaska it seemed like an economically wise and no brainer decision to focus on the national parks in the vast and amazing wilderness of the State of Alaska.    Given the size of this state and the location of many of the parks,  I quite accurately  anticipated that this would be an expensive undertaking.  At least living within a three hour drive from Anchorage I would not have the expense of a flight to this immense far up north state. So, “Why not start the farthest north, above the arctic circle?” and I opted to visit Gates of the Artic National Park and Kobuk Valley.  Adventures awaited… This above the Artic Circle Adventure began in Fairbanks.

As a kid, we drew igloos in school. Thus,  I was left with the impression that Alaska was all ice and snow year-round. This adult self knew otherwise … I read of the cold and hot extremes of temperatures in Fairbanks. But I somehow anticipated having a more unique experience (i.e.  “rough-and-ready)  in this northern most city. Despite the guidebooks that describe Fairbanks  brimming with shops, restaurants and attractions,  I mostly saw impoverished areas and the fast food establishments (Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Arby’s, McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Popeye’s , KFC… yes it has them all)  of the lower 48, lots of road construction… it could be almost any town USA in the summer. … The cost of living is very steep making  everything quite pricey. The friend I was traveling with had reserved a “less expensive” room at the Super Eight with a price tag of $204.12 for 1 night and the place was a dump! I am sure this has in someway affected my overall view of this city for this trip. This is what they promised vs below is what we got! The best part was the lamp without a shade and to Super Eight logo in the corner of the pictures above the bed.

Fairbanks, located in the Tanana Valley, straddles the Chena River near its confluence with the Tanana River   The Tanana Valley is crossed by many low streams and rivers that lace the Tanana Flats, an area of marsh and bog that stretches for more than 100 miles (160 km) until it rises into the Alaska Range. It is a marvelous sight  to see these pristine serpentine rivers and rivulets snaking their way across the tundra. Fairbanks is 198 road miles south of the arctic circle and I was shocked to discover Fairbanks rests only 446 ft above sea level. My vision of Alaska being a land of tall mountains (akin to Denali) has been shattered. Fairbanks is best known for viewing the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights from August to April but I had yet another disappointment, as the Aurora was not visible on either of the nights I was there due to cloud cover in the area.

To be fair I have only experienced a potion of what Fairbanks has to offer.  Though raised in suburbia and living proximate to larger cities, I am not a city girl at heart. I love the wilderness, woods and rivers, forest and wide open spaces so I am not the ideal individual to rate a city experience. We visited Pioneer Park, an historic village that features original buildings moved from downtown Fairbanks, as well as museums and a Gold Rush town street. It had potential but it was the end of the season for the shops and restaurants (some closed)  and the day was chilly so the experience was less than exhilarating. However, the real highlight of the visit to Fairbanks was a visit to the University of Alaska Museum of the North. It is a wonderful modern museum.  It is rich in Alaska Native cultures, Alaskan women settlers and settlement history and showcases the diversity of wildlife , an Arctic dinosaurs,  and a great collection of Alaskan art and crafts.  A visit to Creamer’s Field Migratory Fowl Refuge sighted a gaggle of geese strutting and waddling towards a small lake which I assume is their temporary home since this area is “advertised” for migratory fowl. I opted out of a hike deeper into the refuge due to the muckiness of the ground and the dinner hour approaching… I did not want to miss out on a meal at the local diner (right across the street from the decaying Super 8 with its deluxe prices and right next to a shuttered Denny’s.) One hears about how great diner food is –  at least some diner food- but the diner of choice threw me for a loop when I ordered a medium rare hamburger and was informed they couldn’t do that because the patties were already pre-cooked and well done. So much for a delicious juicy burger… after assuaging my appetite with some very mediocre food it was back to the less-than-super Super 8 and preparation for a flight to Bettles AK the next morning.  

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