Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Northern Lights March 2013 - Exploring Fairbanks

***This post is part 4 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

With only two days in Fairbanks, I didn't have a whole lot of time to see the city and surrounding area, but I did have a few definite things on my checklist. While enjoying nature and outdoor activities are a huge part of the Alaskan pastime, winter weather is typically not conducive to either. And as much as I would have loved to visit Denali, I am definitely not hardcore enough to snowshoe, cross-country ski, or camp in the snow. Someday, I hope to visit Alaska in the summer and do the famous drive up the George Parks Highway.

In the meantime, I narrowed my options down to a few local activities. As touristy as it sounded, I really wanted to try out dog-sledding. There were a number of outfitters doing shorter tours, and I ultimately decided on Paws For Adventure, which had amazing reviews on TripAdvisor and a very informative website. Out of the six tours they offered, the two that sounded most appealing to me were the one-hour adventure for $95 or the three-hour mushing school for $275. Taking into account my budget constraints, I went with the one-hour adventure.

The location is about six miles outside of downtown Fairbanks, and the roads were cleared the whole way, until you pass the actual entrance. From there, it may be a little difficult to drive down to the parking area without a 4x4, but my Ford Fusion survived without any issues. The owner, Leslie, had a heated yurt set up with extra parkas and hot tea for guests. From there, you can go down and interact with the dogs and watch as they prepared the sleds for the ride.

For the one-hour tour, you don't actually ride the runners, but you get to sit in the front basket, which was somewhat comfortable and relaxing. If you like, about halfway through, you can stand in the back with the musher and ride the runners for a bit. It was a little nerve-wracking, since it was easy to lose your balance with the sled going up and down and side to side. But watching the eagerness and energy of the huskies while flying through the open snow fields and spruce forest was absolutely exhilarating. I would highly recommend trying out dog-sledding while in Fairbanks.

In the afternoon, I walked around downtown Fairbanks, which was eerily quiet. I suppose people probably stayed indoors as it was still very cold even during the day. The Chena River was frozen over, so I made my way down the riverbank and took a stroll on the ice.

Downtown Fairbanks

Frozen Chena River

Afterwards, I drove to the World Ice Art Championships, which takes place every year only in February and March. This is one event you should definitely see if you visit Fairbanks in the winter. And if you do go, make sure it is during dusk or early evening. Multicolored lights are turned on and illuminate the beautiful ice sculptures, which are placed along a walking path through the woods. It was really an enchanting experience. There are entries from all over the world, and some of the intricacy is astounding.

The next day, taking the advice of some fellow guests at the hostel, I visited the University of Alaska Museum of the North. There is a very elaborate collection of exhibits covering the history, nature, and cultures of Alaska, including fossils of prehistoric animals and a detailed display on the northern lights. There are also exhibits on native and modern art upstairs. The information is densely packed, and you can easily spend an entire afternoon there and probably not get to see everything. Lastly, the architecture of the building is in itself an attraction.

Museum of the North

In the late afternoon, I took a quick trip to the town of North Pole, approximately 14 miles southeast of Fairbanks. A total tourist trap, but fun nonetheless, the main features include a giant gift shop known as the Santa Claus House and the world's largest fiberglass statue of Santa Claus. You can also visit the USPS post office, which receives hundreds of thousands of letters sent to Santa Claus each year. There, you can mail out postcards with the official North Pole stamp. Other than the candy cane street lights and Christmas-themed street signs, there wasn't much else to see in town.

If you have a little more time in Fairbanks, many people also do day trips up to the Arctic Circle or visit the Chena Hot Springs Resort outside of town. I've heard mixed reviews about both activities, but they may be worth the extra effort. I do think summertime in Alaska is a completely different beast, so I hope to return to Fairbanks someday soon under warmer conditions.

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