Great Alaskan Adventure: Part Four

20 07 2011

With a heavy heart, we left the beauty of Denali for Fairbanks, a trip of only a few hours but a world of difference.  We stopped in Nenana, a mostly Athabascan village of several hundred.  The sister of one of my co-workers lives here and I had been told of the charm of this small town.  Nenana is one of the only native towns that is on the main road rather than deep in the bush.  Indeed, we did get a better feel for life in small-town Alaska as we went through the cultural center, buying souvenirs in their gift shop that had been made by local residents and eating in one of the few restaurants on the main street, which, by the way, didn’t even have a stoplight.  Nenana’s claim to fame:  the Nenana Ice Classic.  / Every year, folks from all over buy tickets to guess when the ice will break up on the Tanana River, signaled by the falling of a tripod set up on the ice.  More on Nenana later.  (You can buy your ticket at http://www.nenanaakiceclassic.com )

Nenana Train Station

Crossing the Brooks Range, we headed into Fairbanks, a former boom town that now has a population of over 30,000.  Indeed, were it not for the electrical cords sticking out of the grill of every resident’s car, the city could have been Anywhere, USA.  Lowes, McDonalds, Arby’s, Wal-Mart…I could go on and on with all the chain stores that have pushed out the locally-owned businesses.  Yet most parking lots were equipped with posts with electric outlets so that car engines wouldn’t completely freeze in the winter when -40 is not uncommon.

Fairbanks Umbilical Cord

And I’ve never seen a store selling “raw” furs as I did in Fairbanks.  PETA would have a field day with the fox, lynx, and other furs hanging on rack after rack.  Another “Don’t Miss”:  the Great American Bowl Company, which produces heirloom birch bowls of all shapes and sizes while you watch.  And despite the relatively small size of the city, the University of Alaska is doing cutting edge research on all things polar.  The Museum of the North at the University was also well worth our time: art, history, native life, all you could want in an Alaskan museum.  We took a riverboat ride.  It was expensive and more than slightly hokey, but at the same time we got to watch a float plane take off and land on the water, see a working dog sled kennel started by Susan Butcher, (who, I’m sure everyone knows, won the Iditarod four times), and stop at an island where Native guides took us on a tour of a traditional Athabascan village.  Cynicism aside, it was interesting and insightful.  Plus, I got to explain “chipotle” to a British family.  I was developing a deep appreciation for what it took to live in Alaska in the past as well as the present.  While I respect the ingenuity and skills needed for survival, had I been in that troupe of early inhabitants crossing Beringia over into North America, I think I would have kept going until I found some place warmer!   (It should have been named Brrrrr..ingia.)

On a day trip out of Fairbanks, we stopped at the Farmer’s Market.  In addition to $2 tomatoes (which, in their defense, were huge and delicious), Marie bought a rhubarb pie.  She had had a hankering for rhubarb like none other, so now the question was when to dig in.  We got to Chena Hot Springs just at lunchtime, so without much arm-twisting, that pie became the most note-worthy meal of the whole trip.  Rhubarb never tasted so good!

Rhubarb going...

going...

gone!

At Chena Hot Springs we marveled at the white skin of the bathers and the long legs of the moose who also decided to take a bath.

People pool at Chena Hot Springs

Moose pool at Chena Hot Springs

For a few dollars more, we toured the Ice Museum, where two sculptors actually make a living carving spectacular objects (jousting knights and Sarah Palin, for example) out of ice.  We decided not to partake of the $15 martini served in a glass carved out of ice (you get to keep the glass, at least until it melts). Apparently, non-alcoholic drinks freeze too fast to make them good tourist purchases.

Master ice carver

Jousting knights, lit up with LED lights

We traveled on to North Pole, a small town that had high hopes of attracting toy manufacturers.  It didn’t work, although tourists help to make up for this deficiency by pumping in lots of dollars for North Pole souvenirs.  We had fun buying and mailing lots of post cards which would be postmarked “North Pole.”  Never pass up an opportunity to bolster a child’s belief in Santa!

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2 responses

20 07 2011
Kathryn Fenner

Those bathers look more pink than white! Thanks for another great day of vacation!

20 07 2011
eberteach

Aren’t vicarious vacations the best? You save a bunch of money and never have to leave the comfort of your own home!

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