Fairbanks, Alaska in Winter
By Andrew Dier
Perhaps what surprised me most about visiting Fairbanks, Alaska in winter was how fast I became – more or less – acclimated to sub-zero degree temperatures. “It’s only -15? That’s all?” I thought on my third day there as I prepared to set out for the day.
Frigid temps in fact never kept me from exploring the area at all. Oddly, the one time I found myself stuck indoors was during a freak “heat wave” when temperatures rose above freezing. The snow melted and then, overnight, when the mercury fell once more, that slush turned into ice.
While it was a balmy 20 something degrees outside with the sun shining, the city of 50,000 or so residents and even the four military installations nearby including massive Fort Wainwright, also lovingly known as Fort Frostbite, came to a standstill due to treacherous road conditions.
When the ice was once again covered with snow and as long as I was properly bundled up, I was eager to face the elements.
Enjoying the Alaskan outdoors is easy in Fairbanks, and you don’t have to go far to take advantage of it. In fact, the Wedgewood Resort, where I stayed during my visit, operates the Wedgewood Wildlife Sanctuary that offers 1.5 miles of trails in a boreal forest – just steps away from the hotel.
On a winter day, you may have the whole place to yourself, unless you are lucky to see an owl, hare or moose. (Careful with those temperamental moose, though.)
The satisfying crunch that my boots made on the snowy paths and the occasional falling of snow from a distant branch were the only sounds to be heard in this peaceful place.
Adjacent to the sanctuary is even more nature exploration options at the Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. This was a family-run dairy since the days of the Alaskan Gold Rush when Fairbanks was established in the early 1900s. (Creamer was the name of the dairy’s owners.)
In 1966 it was converted into a park, wildlife refuge, and host of community events. On weekends the trails at Creamer’s Field attract cross country skiers and skijorers. For the uninitiated, skijoring combines cross country skiing with dog sledding. Skijoring competitions are a lot of fun to watch and sometimes take place at the refuge.
For a truly unforgettable Alaska canine experience, try a dog-sledding tour. Cruising through the woods led by a pack of loyal dogs is a thrill. But almost as fun as the ride is hearing the dogs howl in excitement as they impatiently wait for their run. They can’t wait to get going!
When you do set off under the command of a skillful musher (mine was from Alabama of all places), it is all business; the dogs take their job very seriously. If you have dreams of Iditarod glory, try a one-day mushing class. Check out Dog Sled Adventures for more. Having inspired thousands of cardio machines in gyms across the planet, one of the best workouts that they say you can get is cross country skiing.
UAF –(The University of Alaska – Fairbanks) operates nine miles of cross country skiing trails free of charge and open to the public. Being passed by skiers of all ages effortlessly and gracefully gliding by can be a frustrating experience for a novice (like the author), so you may want to avoid weekends when the trails are busier – and get an instructor.
Another option is snowshoeing, although hearty Alaskans go at that sport with gusto as well. They hold snowshoe races – at night! – on the trails in Fairbanks.
Regardless of the activity, Beaver Sports (www.beaversports.com) is the one-stop shopping place to go to rent or purchase all your equipment, inquire about classes and get all the information you need. Downhill skiing is also possible, but the area isn’t known that much for its slopes.
Check the not-for-beginners Moose Mountain and Mt. Aurora Skiland (www.skiland.org), proudly having North America’s northernmost ski lift. Fort Wainwright also has their own small ski resort – Birch Hill.
If your legs are tired after a long day of slogging away on skis – or if winter sports to you means comfortably sitting in the stands with a beer in hand – check out the Ice Dogs, Fairbanks’ pro hockey team or the UAF Nanooks (www.alaskananooks.com). What is a Nanook, you ask? It’s a derivation of an Esquimo word for a polar bear.
More than Snow
UAF plays an important role in community life in Fairbanks. It has an enrollment of around 11,000 students, including about 20% native Alaskans from across the vast interior of the state.
It is also home to the Museum of the North, which is a Fairbanks must-see.
Looking like a giant, igloo, the museum has a permanent exhibition that tells the cultural and natural history of the largest state in the Union. (There’s also an eight-foot tall brown bear.)
There is always something going on at the campus, especially on weekends. For an evening of music, for example, check out a performance of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra (www.fairbankssymphony.org) at the Davis Concert Hall.
For a more grungy experience, head to the nearby community of Ester and have a beer or two with locals in one of their famed saloons.
Lights in the Sky
Yes, there are actually a lot of things to keep one busy in the Fairbanks area even in winter – if you do run out of ideas go to Santa Claus House at the nearby community of North Pole – but for many, there is one highlight that stands out: the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis.
The Fairbanks area is one of the best places in the world to get a glimpse of them, but you should check the UAF northern lights forecast page (www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast) before heading out into the crisp night.
Of course, farther away from the city lights, you will have a better chance of enjoying this phenomenon. Many visitors spend a few nights at the bucolic Chena Hot Springs Resort (www.chenahotsprings.com), about 60 miles outside of town, where they can soak in the healing waters and, if lucky, look up and watch the celestial light show.
I have been told that Japanese honeymooners believe that if they conceive under the Northern Lights it will bring good fortune to the child. Lodge staff can arrange to wake up guests in the middle of the night if there has been a sighting.
For some, the Lights are the sole reason to come all the way to Fairbanks in wintertime. This is especially true for Japanese visitors.
The lights are “on” around 240 days a year near Fairbanks, and it is an amazing sight to behold, not to mention the perfect way to cap off your wintertime Alaskan adventure.
Practical information about Fairbanks
Even though it may be a bit intimidating for those not used to driving in snow, renting a vehicle (equipped with snow tires) is essential. However, Fairbanks does have an excellent bus service (MACS), with eight lines, if you prefer to leave the driving to a pro. As for restaurants, check out the Chowder House, Second Story Café, the Cookie Jar and Gambardella’s Italian restaurant downtown.
For accommodations besides Wedgewood Resort, the Westmark Hotel in the scruffy downtown is a popular choice and the Minnie Street Bed and Breakfast. And a word or two about dealing with the temperatures: be sure to hydrate, be careful with alcohol use, do not stay out for prolonged periods of time, and, from the department of the obvious, dress warmly!
Originally from the Emerald Coast in Northwest Florida, Andrew Dier currently lives in Bogota, Colombia where he has written about the city for various publications – and he also translates from time to time.