Thursday, October 27, 2016

We Tried and Failed but Found 13 Others in Fairbanks, Alaska!

an abandoned railcar on the road to Fairbanks, Alaska
On September 11, we flew to Alaska to visit Bill’s youngest child Cristine, who has been living in Anchorage for eight years, and my sister Cherry, who moved to the city last year. This Alaska trip is my third (Bill’s fifth). I had hoped finally to see the Aurora Borealis! Some sites say that one of the best times to see them are in the dead of winter or around the September and March Equinoxes.

Healy, Alaska and Denali National Park

Healy, Alaska
Upon arrival at the Ted Stevens International Airport, we drove to Healy, Alaska, 4 hours away.  This town of about 1,000 is outside Denali National Park. On our first trip to Alaska in 2009, we stayed at a campground inside the Park in our first RV. We were disappointed that Mt. McKinley was hiding under thick cloud cover even as we rode the Denali shuttle bus to Eielson Point. But we did get to see grizzlies, Dall sheep, a wolf, and even had a photo-op with Iditarod sled dogs in training.

Denali National Park
It was mid-August then. This time, in mid-September, the weather was worse. There were about 30 mph winds, temperatures in the low 40s, and a heavily overcast sky. We quickly hunkered down in our cabin room at the Denali RV Park and Motel. The next morning, we wandered around Healy, but it rained. We still sampled some of the shops. An Italian lunch at Prospectors’ Pizzeria and Alehouse shook off some of the blues, but a visit to Denali had to wait for when we drive back to Anchorage.

Fairbanks, Alaska

In two hours, we reached Fairbanks, the second most populous city in Alaska, after Anchorage. First stop was the Visitor Information Center. We wanted to know if we had a chance to see the Lights. The staff referred us to the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. On the phone, the lady said that night was our best chance, but we needed rest and decided to wait.

Pioneer Park
Almost in front of our hotel was the Pioneer Park, a 44-acre city park commemorating early Alaskan history with multiple museums and displays. We had visited it before. We include here the pictures we took then. It is a great place to have a look at the Alaskan way of life.
Murphy Dome
The following day we drove to Murphy Dome, once home to an Air Force Station whose only remaining facility is a Long Range Radar Station. We marked on our GPS our chosen spot for watching the Aurora on our own (not with a commercial tour). The area is now a recreational site for hunters, ATV riders, hikers, and drone enthusiasts, at 1000 feet elevation 20 miles from Fairbanks.

Museum of the North in University of Alaska-Fairbanks
On the way back to downtown we passed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the oldest of Alaska universities. We visited the Large Mammal Research Station and the Botanical Garden on our first trip. This time we visited the Museum of the North. It has a gallery of Alaskan history and animals including unique prehistoric Alaskan dinosaurs and another that displays Alaskan art, including “The Place Where You Go to Listen,” a unique environment that gives life to Alaskan sounds and lights.

the Vents in Downtown Fairbanks
Our last stop was Downtown Fairbanks. After perusing some of its artsy shops, we discovered colorful building air vents on street corners. A genial merchant jokingly told us they were put there so those under-the-city dwellers could breathe! Our afternoon turned into a hunt for all 12. Like the Cheyenne Big Boots, they were the work of artists. Unlike the Cheyenne boots, they serve a function!

Unfortunately, the second night was predicted not to have high aurora activity, AND the sky was still heavily overcast. Two nights down, two more chances left!

Creamer Fields
The next day we drove to Creamer Fields, a 2,200-acre bird sanctuary that consists of sandhill cranes, mallards, and Canadian geese. The refuge surrounds the former farm of Charles Creamer (1889-1974), who established Creamer's Dairy. He gave birth to the sanctuary by saving waste grains from his barn to feed migrating birds. His former home is now a Museum.

at Chena Hot Springs  Resort
We proceeded to Chena Hot Springs Resort, a little over an hour from Fairbanks. After lunch at the Resort Restaurant in the Main Log Cabin, we walked around the facility. The jaunt yielded great photos of the massage therapy sod log cabins, the outdoor horse park, the Main Lodge, the outdoor hot spring pools, and an airplane, Adventure Cats,  ATVs, motorcycles, horses, and canoes for rent.

Aurora Ice Museum
There were two Resort tours we joined. The first was to the Aurora Ice Museum, the world’s largest such facility with some ice sculptures that are ten years old, crafted by a husband and wife team that won the World  Ice Sculpting Contest five times. They keep the temperature inside at 25 degrees Fahrenheit. During summer, the Museum is kept cold by a pioneering chiller technology.

Power Plant and Greenhouse
The second tour was to the power plant that is the first low-temperature binary geothermal power plant built in Alaska. It is working on alternative energy projects, including production and use of waste vegetable oil for fuel! The second part of this tour was the Greenhouse where the Resort uses state-of-the-art technology to nurture plants for their vegetable and flower requirements.

Happily, it was predicted that there would be high aurora activity on the third night. It was too bad the sky still was overcast. Bad luck! Three down, one to go.

North Pole, Alaska

A little more than thirty minutes from Fairbanks is a small city (population about 2,000). Despite the name, the city is about 1,700 miles south of the Earth's true geographic North Pole. Before Christmas each year, the North Pole Post Office receives hundreds of thousands of letters to Santa Claus and thousands more from people wanting the town's postmark on their family greetings.

Santa Claus House in North Pole, Alaska
Christmas-themed streets include Santa Claus Lane, St. Nicholas Drive, Snowman Lane, Mistletoe Road, and Kris Kringle Drive. Street lights and many local businesses in the city are decorated in a candy cane motif. Its biggest attraction is a gift shop named Santa Claus House, the modern-day transformation of a trading post established in the early days by Con and Nellie Miller.

Santaland RV Park
Next to the Santa Claus House is the world's largest fiberglass statue of Santa Claus at 42 feet tall and weighing 900 pounds. Santa's reindeer, both real and not, reside in what used to be Santaland RV Park around Santa. We stayed there for a night in 2009 on our way to Canada’s Yukon. It is too bad the owners of the Park have closed it although its many reminders are still there.

Visitor Information Center of North Pole
Located at 2550 Mistletoe Drive, the Visitor Information Center is an old authentic rustic Alaskan log cabin. There are two Christmassy “Welcome to the North Pole” signs. The Center closes for the winter on Sept. 1 and reopens on May 1. Another landmark is The Pole of North Pole. This landmark is one of two poles created, the other one pushed out of a plane over the real North Pole.

It was just too bad that, on our last night, aurora activity was still low when the sky already partially cleared. That’s it, we failed!  On the way back to Anchorage after five days in Fairbanks and North Pole, the weather was better. We were able to make a two-hour stopover at Denali National Park and got a glimpse of the High One, a sign the next two weeks in Anchorage may give us better chances!