Currently 49 degrees, cloudy skies and rain, near Cantwell, AK. Driving from Fairbanks south to Talkeetna for a stop on our way back to Anchorage.
What’d We Do?
Today I’ll outline all the things we did yesterday. I’m writing from the passenger seat as Kirsten drives us the final couple hours down to Talkeetna where we’ll spend a day before flying out from Anchorage tomorrow night.
Yesterday we had kind of a lazy day. Two nights ago I stayed up late waiting for the aurora to show, but the clouds kept rolling by and the lights never seemed to appear. Kirsten had set several alarms and woke up to check the skies too. So we lazed around at our airbnb house and watched a bit of “Groundhog Day” as we packed up our bags and loaded up the car.
We got going mid-morning and drove across town to a Fedex store to ship back the lenses we rented for the polar bear expedition. I’ll give a quick plug here, Borrow Lenses is a pretty great company. This is the fourth time I’ve rented from them and their service is top-notch. I first rented a super-wide angle lens and this time a super-telephoto and it just makes sense to rent when you need an obscure lens you’d have no use to own.
On our drive across Fairbanks we saw the usual sights: a million little espresso sheds. Alaska is crazy for espresso and they serve it out of these tiny-house sized stores, some of which have drive-thrus, and in Fairbanks all seem to serve ice cream too. We also passed what appeared to be a real, working Blockbuster video store. We’re convinced Fairbanks is about 12 years behind the times.
Next we headed to the Fairbanks Alaska Railroad depot so Kir could do some souvenir shopping. We boarded the train so early in Anchorage that the store had yet to open, so Kir staked out her options for merchandising later in the trip.
We had pretty well wasted away the morning between resting and running errands and decided it was time to find lunch and something to do for the afternoon. We were craving mexican food and thought: why not eat mexican food this far north? Turns out their tex-mex tastes about the same as ours, although I noticed there’s a severe lack of hot sauce options up here: it’s always just tabasco.
After spending a few days in Fairbanks we’ve concluded that it’s not a bad jumping off point for lots of activities. Denali’s only a short 2-hr drive south, you can get up to the arctic pretty quickly, and it seems like there’s plenty of hiking we didn’t get a chance to partake in there. It’s also really easy to get around with limited traffic (the only snarls are the summer road construction), and highways cut across the city leaving you just a few blocks from wherever you need to go. It’s also incredibly easy to get to their airport or out of town to complete dark skies.
We headed across town to the University of Alaska Fairbanks to check out their Museum of the North which he heard good things about. We spent a few hours learning about Alaskan history, viewing historical artifacts from the various native tribes and explorers and checking out some more modern Alaskan art. They devote the largest section of their museum to the history and habitat of Alaska, but that room seems like it hasn’t been updated in about 15 years, so it’d be nice if they found ways to incorporate some more interaction.
No visit to the University of Alaska Fairbanks would be complete without talking about their hockey team though. A few years ago someone at the college created a game opening animation for their student hockey team featuring a crudely-animated polar bear destroying rival schools with tons of explosions. For the next season, the animation community helped create an updated version of the video, complete with even more ridiculous explosions and fire.
Last night we headed outside of the city to the barbecue with Kir’s friend from high school. We met Russell at the Golden Eagle Saloon in Ester, which seems to be both the area’s social gathering spot and 50% of it’s buildings. The bar is unique in that plenty of dogs just hang on out on it’s front porch, and the only food it offers is a hunk of meat you can grill yourself. We found Russell in front of his own grill out in front of the bar prepping to grill up ribs from a caribou he hunted down last week.
Russell and Kirsten went to high school together and were part of the robotics team but haven’t seen each other in the 12 years since. They reconnected online a few years ago when he shot a video for an alumni video that Kir put together for the team’s head coach. Both reminisced about school friends and we talked about what life is like in Alaska. Kir asked about the plugs we’ve seen on the front of cars, and she was right in that it’s for an engine-block heater used when temperatures dip into the negative territory. Apparently it’s popular to have an engine heater as well as one for your oil pan and transmission as well so your car will start when it’s 40 below.
We met a lot of Russell’s friends from the firehall he works at and friends from the university he attended in Fairbanks. Everyone was super nice and gave us tips to make the most of the end of our trip. We mentioned the aurora was supposed to be active and one friend gave us a great spot for dark skies, which we used later in the night. Another friend arrived wearing a 3-wolf t-shirt he’d been gifted and didn’t have any clue that it was an internet joke.
Still feeling a little hungry and hoping to stay out late, we ended up at a restaurant called The Pump House in time to eat from their saloon menu. Just a few minutes after ordering a waitress came in yelling that the aurora had finally appeared and it was spectacular. There were only a few people in the dining room but we all ran out to the edge of the river to watch the light show. Large bands of green and purple danced across the sky and we were elated to finally see them. We’d been told that nearly every night we spent on the Kenai Peninsula was a great night for the aurora and we set up countless alarms in the middle of the night just to check if it were visible.
We sat down and ate a little food before the bartender said it had appeared again! Once again the whole restaurant emptied and this time we spent quite a bit of time outside with the restaurant staff looking at the aurora. One cook said it was his first time seeing the aurora so he was just as thrilled to see it as us! Actually, everyone was excited. It seems that no matter how many times they had seen it, it was still quite awesome to see again. A huge thanks to Todd and the crew at The Pump House in Fairbanks for giving us every opportunity to see the lights last night!
We headed back to the hotel and prepped some cold weather clothing, then headed out to darker sky areas outside of the city. The first place we drove to was a small parking lot that one of Russell’s friends told us about near a dark marsh. The skies were darker than any we’d seen in a long time and the stars were clearly visible. It was dark, still and pretty silent minus some dogs howling in the distance. We looked out of the car after a while and saw the aurora starting to form again and spent a few hours finding different shots within that little parking lot and near the road.
The northern lights are crazy awesome. I’ve only heard about them and seen images online, but seeing them in person is really impressive. The only way I can describe it is like a laser light show of these glowy fractals that dances and grow across the sky. We saw big bands of green, some that looked like they were showering down, some that were dimmer and painted faint green areas across the sky. They looked like concert lights shining through bands of smoke that lit up the sky.
Feeling like we had exhausted the ground objects, we moved onto a second location. We saw a bunch of cars turning towards a road a few hundred yards from us, so we followed suit and drove about 45 minutes down a dark, empty road where we only saw maybe 1 or 2 cars on the entire drive. The road turned from paved to gravel and eventually to rutted dirt. We ended up at Murphy’s Dome, a lot that sits on top of a hill far away from the city lights of Fairbanks. Here we played with composing photos with a radio tower paired with the lights.
Eventually we headed back to the hotel and got to bed after 3am. This morning we woke up in time for breakfast which ended far too early at just 9am. Soon after we started on our drive to Talkeetna which will sadly be the last stop on our trip.
Who We Met
Kirsten reunited with her friend Russell from high school and we hung out with his friends.
What We Ate
Caribou ribs and “authentic” Alaskan Tex-mex…
What We Learned
There’s still plenty of dark folds in American history that remain relatively unknown. At the museum we learned about how the Aluets were evacuated from their villages and were interned in camps during conflicts along the Aleutian chain in World War II. The conditions of the camps were deplorable and 10% died as a result.