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Fairbanks has a population of about 32,000 and is the second largest city in Alaska. We stayed here for two nights, experiencing the hospitality of Ben’s long-time friend (and former girlfriend), Kathie. Here is Kathie with Ben, Genevieve and Sebastian:
Kathie graciously provided dinner for us, and offered us electricity and WiFi while we parked overnight in her driveway. She also gave us “insider tips” on some special things to do while here.
The first was bicycling the 14-mile Farmer’s Loop trail, which we accessed across the street from her home. The paved trail circled by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and then rolled up and down through some rural areas west of downtown. On our ride, we stopped by Ballaine Lake on the edge of the campus and sampled a few of the off-road trails through the woods.
The second was hiking through an area called Creamer’s Refuge, a nature preserve for birds and animals.
For sixty years, beginning in the early 1900’s, the refuge had been the site of Creamer’s Dairy. Before that, the natural meadows and wetlands had provided a seasonal home to many migrating birds, such as ducks, geese, and sandhill cranes. After the dairy closed in the 1960’s, the community saved the land from development and worked to restore the natural habitats to attract wildlife once again.
The dairy buildings had also been preserved:
The former home had been transformed into a visitor’s center:
Sebastian climbed onto the vintage tractor that decorated the front lawn:
From the visitor’s center, a trail skirted the edge of an open field:
Near the middle of the field were some sandhill cranes:
At the edge of the field, the path split into two choices: a .6-mile wetlands trail and a 1-mile boreal forest trail. We did both.
First, we looped through the wetlands area:
The pond area here expands and shrinks depending upon the season. As snow melts in the spring, this low-lying area is flooded with water. A large pond forms, as the frozen ground prevents the water from seeping into the earth. The heat of approaching summer gradually thaws the underlying ground, however, and the pond shrinks as the water seeps into the earth.
As the water recedes, iris bloom around the pond edges:
The boreal forest trail had very different terrain. A raised boardwalk carried us among the trees:
Genevieve and Sebastian named one stretch “the magical place” because the ferns looked like brushstrokes, unreal, as if that they were from a world of fairies.
I had to blink my eyes several times to believe what I was seeing. Even though the ferns were perfectly still, they DID appear to be dancing:
A fascinating tree was the paper birch, which had peeling bark that felt like small sheets of paper:
We noticed that many of the slender trees in the boreal forest had fallen over:
A trail-side exhibit explained that this area has extreme temperatures—from minus 60 degrees in the winter to over 90 degrees in the summer. Beneath the top layer of soil is a deep layer of permafrost—ground that remains permanently frozen. An extremely cold winter makes the permafrost layer contract, creating deep cracks in the ground that expand over time. The thawing snow and rain wash into the cracks during warmer weather. Because of the permafrost, trees cannot sink their roots very deep, and they are toppled as the soil around the shallow roots is washed into the permafrost cracks.
During the past 15 years, the path through this section of forest has had to be rerouted numerous times because of toppled trees. As evidence of changing climate patterns, the path never had to be rerouted prior to 1996.
Along the boardwalk were some dark pools, colored brown from the tannins that run into the water:
Bright green leafy plants covered some of the pools:
A chunky striped fungus was growing on a fallen tree:
Although moose are purported to live in the boreal forest, the only animal that we saw was a small red squirrel:
We all thought that Creamer’s Refuge was a very special place.
Two other interesting sites that we visited in Fairbanks were the Museum of the North and Pioneer Park, both popular with tourists and locals alike.
The Museum of the North is part of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
We had noticed its distinctive architecture, high on a campus hillside, when we first entered Fairbanks on the highway. Here are Sebastian and Genevieve on the front lawn, with an expansive view:
Genevieve was impressed with the modern lines of the building’s exterior, especially the slanted point near the entrance:
Inside, we watched one of the three movies offered—a film called “Winter” that addressed the extremely cold and dark winters in Fairbanks and how the residents have adapted. Layered clothing, physical exercise, and a positive attitude seem to be essential.
Upstairs, we wandered through the extensive art collection, which covered 2000 years of Alaskan art. The works ranged from beautifully woven baskets and carved ivory to colorful modern paintings and intriguing sculpture.
No flash photography was allowed in the museum, so most of my photos came out blurry. However, here is Genevieve sitting inside her favorite artwork, an interactive sculpture called “Great Alaska Outhouse Experience” by artist Craig Buchanan:
Visitors were invited to sit inside the “outhouse” and contemplate what it would be like in below-freezing temperatures. As you sat there, you could also look at all the objects on the walls and search for various listed items in a “treasure hunt” of sorts.
The main exhibit area on the first floor contained a wide assortment of artifacts related to the cultural and natural history of Alaska.
On display was “Blue Babe,” an extinct Alaskan steppe bison that had died about 36,000 years ago.
Bite and claw marks indicated that Blue Babe had been killed by an American lion, a species that once roamed here. The bison carcass had been buried in the permafrost layers of the earth, frozen in time, until it was discovered in a mine near Fairbanks in 1979.
In one corner of the hall was an exhibit called “Forced to Leave” that told the story of the forced evacuation and internment during World War II of the Native Alaskans who lived in the Aleutian Islands—that long “tail” of islands that swings westward from the southern coast of Alaska.
Like the Japanese Americans, the Aleuts had been rounded up by the U.S. government and forced to live in internment camps during the war. Many lost their homes, their possessions, and—most tragic—some lost their way of life.
The exhibit also told a fascinating story that I had never heard before. While I knew that the Japanese military had invaded some outer Aleutian Islands during WWII, this exhibit presented information about 42 Aleutian men, and 2 men employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who had been transfered to Japan as prisoners of war after the Japanese had taken over the island of Attu in 1942. Only 25 men returned from Japan after the war; the rest died from malnutrition and diseases such as tuberculosis while laboring under harsh conditions in Japanese clay mines. The U.S. military had recovered the island of Attu in 1943 during a battle that had killed over 2300 Japanese soldiers and about 350 U.S. soldiers.
In addition to enriching our understanding of U.S. history, the exhibit made us think about the concept of “history” in general. Who decides what information should be taught in schools and what information should be omitted? By skipping over certain stories—i.e., ones involving racism, inequality, theft, broken promises, oppression, and other arguably shameful acts by the U.S. government—the story of America is not a complete, or honest, one. Hiding stories can only perpetuate misunderstanding, resentment, hatred, and confusion between cultures. Ignorance is not bliss.
At the museum, we also experienced “The Place Where You Go To Listen”—a room that contained lit panels on one wall that changed to reflect the monotone hum that filled the room.
The sound was supposed to embody the vibrations of the earth, sky and air, changing with the rhythm of day and night. The room’s creator, Fairbanks composer John Luther Adams, has been hailed by the New Yorker magazine as “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century.” I had been looking forward to sitting in this room and “listening.” However, within 5 seconds Sebastian had covered his ears and announced that he was ready to go. We stayed for several minutes longer, enough to witness the hum sink to a deeper note and the bright panels go dark—perhaps it was the energy of the room sensing Sebastian’s unhappiness. And perhaps we just weren’t in the right mindset to meld with Mr. Adams’ vision. The concept was great, but I don’t think that any of us fully appreciated what the room was supposed to represent. Who is to say whether Mr. Adams is brilliant, or whether Sebastian was boldly stating that the emperor had no clothes?
After leaving the museum, we ventured over to Pioneer Park, a free municipal park with a playground, historic cabins, items from Alaska’s history, and a number of small shops and businesses.
Inside the front entrance was large sternwheeler SS Nenana, which had traveled the Yukon and Tanana Rivers until 1952.
Sternwheelers were the favored means of transportation on the shallow rivers here before roads were constructed because they could navigate through water that was only a few feet deep.
Elsewhere in the park was the original wheelhouse of another sternwheeler, the Lavelle Young. Inside, Genevieve and Sebastian began turning the large steering wheel (a replica) and pretended that they were pilots trying to steer their boat down a river.
We then wandered down a curved street in “Gold Rush Town,” which had some early 1900’s cabins and homes that had been moved here from different places in Fairbanks.
Genevieve and Sebastian discovered a sled “photo op” next to one cabin:
Some of the cabins had been transformed into small shops. We stopped at one called “-40 Fairbanks,” which allows visitors to feel what the air is like at 40 degrees below 0.
Inside, the kids and I donned heavy parkas and then stepped into a large freezer where the temperature registered minus 40 degrees.
We tossed a cup of hot water into the air and watched the liquid immediately disappear, and then we hammered a nail with half a banana. I could feel the inside of my nose start to turn crunchy, and Sebastian was hunched over asking, “Can we leave now?” We did not even try to beat the current record of staying in the freezer over 6 minutes.
Moving on, the kids found the playground area.
And then they played 18 holes of mini-golf:
Other areas of the park had some old mining equipment, as well as a dark tunnel with mining information:
Overall, we would rate our time in Fairbanks as much more than “fair.” We found plenty to keep us busy during our two days there, and the added bonus of connecting with an old friend—Kathie—escalates our rating to “excellent.”
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