The last stop on our Alaskan trip was the northern city of Fairbanks – the end of the Alaska Railroad and for that matter more or less the end of bitumen roads too.
You can continue a little way north by road from Fairbanks and then you come to the start of the Dalton Highway. This is not a highway in the traditional sense though! It is often little more than a gravel track and for several months of the year the track is actually an ice road. The Dalton Highway runs parallel to the oil pipeline and is used mainly by trucks ferrying cargo for the oil industry (it featured in a reality TV series called Ice Truckers, which followed the fortunes of truck drivers on the icy roads of Canada and the USA).
The Dalton ends at the settlement of Deadhorse by Prudhoe Bay just south of the Arctic Ocean, very close to the oil fields. It is not a good idea to drive along the highway in small or recreational vehicles – in fact it is recommended to take survival gear with you if planning a trip. A more sensible option for tourists is to do what our friends did and take one of the bus tours that operate in the summer months up to various points of interest including driving across the Arctic Circle (see here for more details). The return trip to Fairbanks is by light plane and our friends said it was a memorable experience. By that stage though we had left Fairbanks to fly down to Seattle for a few days before our long journey back to Australia (via Vancouver).
Fairbanks is certainly an intriguing place. It seemed to be heavily populated with personnel from the nearby military base. As a strategic location along the oil field pipelines and geographically close to eastern Russia, there is a heavy US military presence. We found large clumps of mud deposited in the foyer of our hotel and along the corridors, left by service personnel tramping in from their army manoeuvers. What with that and the ubiquitous stuffed animals decorating the walls or in glass cases it all felt a bit surreal.
We also caught up again with the conman, Soapy Smith, whom we had first encountered in Skagway in south east Alaska on our cruise – see here for that post and the links to Soapy’s story and the Klondike Gold Rush. Soapy Smith’s Pioneer Restaurant in downtown Fairbanks is a themed restaurant looking back to the time of the Gold Rush miners. The food was typical northern American fayre, which certainly helps to keep the cold at bay (it must be especially welcoming in the bitter winters). The decor and the memorabilia plastering the walls was a fascinating insight into the rich past of this region.
Wandering around the town centre we also passed memorials to the Chena River flood. We found out that a devastating flood had hit the town in 1967 – unusually heavy summer rains had swelled the main Chena River and the smaller Little Chena River so their levels were dangerously high. Flood waters poured into Fairbanks and outlying areas causing considerable destruction. 7000 residents were displaced from their homes and extensive damage done to infrastructure such as roads and bridges. To mitigate against future disasters, the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project was inaugurated by Congress. A complex of dams and levees including Moose Creek Dam (on the Chena River) and the Tanana River Levee were constructed to reduce the flooding risk to Fairbanks and surroundings settlements.
Fairbanks is on the traditonal Iditarod Trail, which we had learnt about when we stayed in Skagway and visited a dog mushing training base (see here). I can’t quite work out whether the famous race follows the same route each year but it looks as though it varies (I’m not an expert on this though!).
There is an attractive square down by the river, a small community and dog mushing museum and a few cafes and eateries downtown. It was the furthest north we had been and a part of the world that in hindsight we have felt even luckier to visit than we did back then (August 2018). Who knows when such trips will be possible again without stringent restrictions?
Just in case here is a link to the Fairbanks Tourism website,which gives more detail about the activities and exploration opportunities available in this part of the world.
So Fairbanks rounds off the series of posts about Alaska (see here for all the posts in the collection).
I’ll sign off with a few lingering shots of Alaska. After that I do have a few posts about our trip to Seattle (marred a little by me coming down with the worst flu I’ve had for a long time – this was in 2018 pre Covid days). I also have several local posts out and about in Perth to share.
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