In search of the famed Aurora Borealis, we ended up discovering much more in America’s “Last Frontier”
On my first night in Fairbanks, Alaska, I stood outside at one o’clock in the morning and stared up at the dark sky. The temperature was about 20 degrees. I waited and watched, but the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), which I had just traveled 3,000 miles to see, never showed up.
Skyshine wasn’t the problem. Ronn Murray, a local photographer, had brought my husband and me to a cabin outside the city for “ideal viewing conditions” and photography lessons. While my husband Rick was learning how to “shoot the Aurora,” I played with dogs that belonged to the owner of the cozy home.
“They’re Alaskan huskies,” Anita Fowler explained. “My husband and I have a remote cabin that’s only accessible by dog sled most of the year, so these babies are our transportation.”
My brain went into overdrive at that point trying to process “remote.” We had passed a couple of moose and a beautiful fox on the way out from Fairbanks, there wasn’t another house in sight, and I already knew the only toilet on the premises was an outhouse. Is she really saying they own a cabin more remote than this?
Yes, she was. It turns out that on my previous three visits to Alaska I hadonly seen the summer side of the southern portion of the state, not the “normal” view of the Interior — which frankly seemed pretty unusual to me.
I had not realized, for instance, that a large percentage of Interior Alaska residents live in “dry cabins” and that not having running water is actually the “in” thing. I also didn’t know until that night that owning a team of sled dogs in Fairbanks is not much more unusual than owning a surfboard in San Diego.
Fowler was generous with her time and told me about breeding the dogs and caring for them. “Food is expensive, and our dogs have to pay their own way, so we offer kennel tours in the summer and sled dog tours in the winter.” (www.siriussleddogs.net)
It was all so interesting that, before I knew it, it was almost morning and I’d forgotten all about the Aurora. In fact, the Northern Lights were AWOL for the six days last September that we were in the Fairbanks area and, truthfully, we were having so much fun it didn’t really matter. My only regret was that there wasn’t enough snow on the ground to go on a sled tour or take mushing lessons.
Anita suggested we visit Mary Shields, the first woman to complete the famous Iditarod Race — and I’m so glad we did. She welcomed us into her home, shared stories from her legendary mushing career, and introduced us to her “family of happy huskies.” Until then I hadn’t realized that sled dogs wear booties on the trail to protect their feet. Sheilds’ dogs — in fact all the sled dogs we met — were energetic and loved to howl, but were not the least bit aggressive. “It’s been bred out of them,” she explained. (www.maryshields.com, iditarod.com)
Shields offers not-to-be-missed kennel tours in the summer, but winter, she explained, is her time to go with her team “out there where the world still makes sense.”
To learn more about mushing and the options for winter camping experiences, we went to see Leslie Goodwin at Paws for Adventure. Goodwin’s kennels are a short distance outside of Fairbanks, but she also owns the remote Tolovana Roadhouse, built in 1903 on the mail trail between Fairbanks and Nome.
Tolovana was the first transfer point on the lifesaving “Serum Run to Nome” in 1925. This relay of dog teams famously carried diphtheria antitoxin to Nome to halt the deadly diphtheria epidemic. The modern Iditarod Race celebrates this historic event. (www.pawsforadventure.com)
From Paws for Adventure, we continued out to Chena Hot Springs Resort, where the extensive grounds include an ice museum, geothermal power facility, and a rock pool full of naturally hot mineral water. While I soaked, I planned a return visit to Fairbanks in March to watch the Iditarod, try my hand at mushing, and maybe even look for the Northern Lights. ELIZABETH HANSEN
More Fairbanks Fun
• Another unusual and eye-opening cultural experience: The Northern Alaska Tour Company flew us beyond the Arctic Circle to Coldfoot — the world’s northernmost truck stop. Once a gold-mining town and later a camp for Alaska Pipeline workers, this isolated spot on the Dalton Highway provides R&R to long-haul truckers traveling from the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field to Valdez. Our day tour also included a stop in Wiseman, 12 miles north of Coldfoot (population 13), where Jack Reakoff told us how he shoots moose and grows veggies to feed his family. (www.northernalaska.com)
• The Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center should be the first stop on every visitor’s agenda. Not only is it the home of the Fairbanks Convention & Visitors Bureau, but the “People and the Land” exhibits provide a great introduction to the area. (www.explore-fairbanks.com, www.morristhompsoncenter.org)
• Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is an unusually good museum with an impressive display of 100 early and rare American vehicles; also authentic women’s high fashion dresses of the Victorian, Edwardian, and Art Deco eras. In August 2013, the museum’s 1906 Pope-Toledo won two awards at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. (www.fountainheadmuseum.com)
• The University of Alaska Museum of the North offers exhibits about Alaska Native cultures and natural wonders. (www.uaf.edu/museum)
• I was less cold in dry, windless Fairbanks at 30 degrees than I am in San Diego at 50.
• Best Aurora viewing: mid-September to late March, 10pm–2am.
• You cannot see Russia from Fairbanks.
Fairbanks Lodging & Dining
- Lavelle’s Bistro — Popular local spot. Wine Spectator Award winner. My favorite: appetizer of baked brie with cranberries.
- Silver Gulch Brewing and Bottling Co. — Huge and often packed with locals. My favorite: brick oven pizza and wonderful craft beer. From the Silver Gulch menu “Fairbanks — where the people are unusual and the beer is unusually good.”
- The Pump House Restaurant & Saloon — Good place to try local specialties, including reindeer tenderloin, elk meatloaf, bison short ribs.
- The Red Lantern at Westmark Fairbanks Hotel — My favorite: Reindeer sausage and feta cheese omelet.
- Thai House Restaurant — Excellent Pad Thai.
- The Cookie Jar — Best ever peanut butter cookies.
- Chena Hot Springs Resort — About 60 miles outside of Fairbanks via a good forest-lined highway (with colorful fall foliage). I loved soaking in the large natural hot pool, dining in the restaurant, and sleeping in the comfort of Moose Lodge. The Ice Museum was another unusual cultural experience. (www.chenahotsprings.com)
- Dale & Jo View Suites — Four luxury B&B suites in a private home with panoramic view of Alaska Range. My favorite: “Spa.” (www.daleandjo.com)
- Taste of Alaska — B&B on 280 acres, 15 minutes outside of Fairbanks. Homey; lots of collectibles. Owner Kory Eberhardt won my heart by waiting up for the Aurora with me (to no avail). Yummy breakfast. (www.atasteofalaska.com)
- Westmark Fairbanks Hotel — a good choice in central Fairbanks. (www.westmarkhotels.com/fairbanks.php)