FAIRBANKS, Alaska n We had come to Fairbanks over-packed with too many woolly sweaters, heavy sweatshirts, long-sleeved shirts and warm pants.
By the time we arrived Saturday for a reunion of the Asper cousins the temperature in Fairbanks was hovering around 90 degrees.
It was even too hot for the mosquitoes.
It was certainly too warm for the 3,700 runners who started off at 10 p.m. that night in the annual Fairbanks Midnight Sun Marathon.
And, no doubt, too hot for the players who lined up for the annual summer solstice baseball game that started at midnight a few nights later.
No need to turn on any ballpark lights for this midnight game. At this time of the year, locals say the sun begins to set in Fairbanks sometime after 12:30 a.m. and starts up again shortly after 3 a.m.
The tourist bureau says maximum daylight at summer solstice, June 21st, is between 1:59 a.m. and 11:48 p.m., providing 21 hours, 49 minutes of sun.
In between, there is a bright “dusk” that you could read a book in.
With as much darkness around the winter solstice in December as there is light in June, folks in Fairbanks make the most of the summer sunshine they get.
And so did the Asper cousins, who decided to accept the invitation of Cousin Margaret, who has lived in Fairbanks for 34 years and is used to this sort of weather.
But, it was even too hot last weekend for Margaret. Most of the family and friends she had invited opted to stay indoors during her open house Saturday afternoon.
COOLING OFF WITH SANTA — The heat didn’t bother Santa.
He continued to sit on his well-decorated perch, greeting busloads of tourists in a comfy and air-conditioned holiday gift palace called Santa Claus House that is located in North Pole, Alaska, a dozen or so miles down the road from Fairbanks.
It is mandatory that tour guides bring their Alaskan visitors to North Pole and the tourists love the visit.
Santa Claus House is full of holiday decorations, glitzy gifts and, of course, racks and racks of toddler T-shirts that grandparents feel obligated to buy for their grandchildren.
As one might expect, the post office at North Pole, Alaska, also does a grand business, accepting post cards from tourists — even when the temperature is at near-record levels.
FAIRBANKS SITES — When the heat gets turned up in Fairbanks, one of the best things to do is to take a boat ride on the Chena River.
Fairbanks has several companies offering riverboat rides on the Chena River and nearby Tanana River.
Our tour included the Riverboat Discovery and the boat ride was a dandy one.
It’s a family-run business and the experience recalls the early days of a visit to Knott’s Berry Farm when all the Knotts themselves were actually there, greeting you.
The grandchildren of the founder of the Fairbanks riverboat business are everywhere and when the Discovery nears the home of the widow of the late founder, she actually comes out of her house, stands on her waterfront front lawn and waves to all the passengers.
Real Alaskan hospitality.
There are other “planned surprises” along the river ride. At one site, a bush pilot takes off on a short strip of lawn, circles the boat and lands his plane — giving the narrator a wonderful opportunity to share with the tourists the importance of small planes in Alaska.
The Anchorage baseball team is even called the Anchorage Bush Pilots. Among their main rivals is a Fairbanks team, the Alaska Goldpanners.
At another pause in the boat ride, there is a fish camp where we get to see how salmon were “trapped” by natives with a rather primitive fish trap.
At another location, a replica of an Indian village has been built.
One of the highlights of the boat ride is a stop at the home and training area of one of Alaska’s top dog sled operators, who is a regular winner in the annual Iditarod dog sled race in March.
From the boat, visitors can hear an exchange between the commentator on the boat and a miked dog sled trainer who explains and demonstrates how the dog sled animals are trained.
But perhaps the biggest “Kodak moment” comes as the boat nears a group of reindeer, munching alongside the river. It’s hardly a chance encounter, of course, and as our boat pulls away, we can see a company employee rounding up the reindeer and heading them back to the barn.
One has visions of hearing “Here come the tourists, bring out the reindeer.”
It’s a bit corny, but great fun.
At the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus there is also a fine museum with some stuffed animals, an interesting exhibit about Alaska’s northern lights, the famous aurora borealis.
Unfortunately, one doesn’t see northern lights in the height of summer, when Fairbanks gets 22 hours of sun a day.
The museum plans to open a major expansion next year, improving on what is already a fine exhibition.
The university in Fairbanks is the most important of three University of Alaska campuses. The others are in Anchorage and Sitka.
A third major tourist attraction in Fairbanks is a visit to one of the several gold mines, which give visitors a chance to learn about the importance of gold mining to the history of Fairbanks.
Fairbanks is considered the second largest city in Alaska, although the population inside the city limits — less than 35,000 — is actually smaller than that within the city limits of Juneau, the state capital.
When the population of Fairbanks is discussed, people generally include the Fairbanks borough, which includes about 80,000, certainly the second largest population area in the state.
DISAPPOINTING DENALI — Before we got to Fairbanks, we stopped off for two nights in Denali National Park.
The park is a huge place, covering some 9,375 square miles and is now very regulated as to who gets to go where.
Tour groups hype the animals visitors are expected to see and the heavy promotion features up-close-and-personal photos of bears, moose, caribou and mountain sheep.
The park makes a good jumping off place for those taking the wonderful Alaska Railroad dome-car train between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Personal vehicles are banned in all but a small part of the park, forcing the large number of annual visitors onto a fleet of school buses for a six-to-eight-hour bumpy ride that is required if you wish to see much of the park.
The operation is well run in a Disneyland-like manner. Visitors are assigned a bus tour number and those who oversleep and miss the early morning departures are just out of luck.
The school buses depart from the main Denali lodge like clockwork from early morning to late afternoon.
We’re not sure how one would manage in any other manner the huge crowds of tours that squeeze through Denali Park each year during the short number of months in the acceptable weather window.
If the purpose is to see animals, then the mobs of folks who come need to be controlled and, thus, no one is allowed off a school bus except at well-selected rest stops.
As for the animals, yes, they are there and you will see them if you have a good pair of binoculars.
And when a bear or two, a herd of caribou and a moose are spotted out there in the wild, it can be an exciting moment.
But spending eight hours on a school bus bouncing around on unpaved roads is not an exciting experience.
The folks who really get to see Denali and its animals are the backpackers, hikers and campers who walk in and get to escape the crowds. A shuttle bus for the non-tour-group visits runs up and down the park’s only road, providing transportation for independent visitors.
Of course, everyone wants to see The Mountain.
Occasionally they do.
Or at least a portion of Mt. McKinley or Denali Mountain, however you choose to label the tallest mountain in North America.
The saga of what to call The Mountain is an example of the continuous and numerous clashes between the federal government and Alaskans.
The mountain was earlier called Denali by native Alaskans. After President McKinley was assassinated, the federal government changed the name to Mt. McKinley.
A while back, the Alaska Legislature voted to change the name of the mountain back to Denali, but unfortunately for Alaskans, the mountain is in a national park, so the McKinley name continues to be used by the federal government.
Defiant Alaskans now use the Denali name and equally stubborn federal bureaucrats continue to use McKinley.
We lucked out and saw a portion of the mountain. The best views of the white-capped mountain will come if you happen to be seated on the right side — or left side, in some cases, depending on the plane’s route — of a flight between Fairbanks and Anchorage.
On our last visit to Fairbanks, we had a splendid view of the mountain from the air. Last week, we ended upon the wrong side of the plane.
Not to worry. As the tour guides will tell you, 17 of the 20 highest peaks in North America are in Alaska. And so, during your eight-hour bus ride in Denali Park you will see some spectacular scenery certainly worth the visit.
And, you might even see some animals. We did see one confused moose that parked itself for a moment or two in the middle of the road right in front of our bus, much to the delight of those who could grab a photo opportunity.
The moose finally decided which direction it wanted to take to get off the road and into nearby bushes. It was soon gone and we drove on, pleased with our real only animal close-up of the day.
We hate to say it, but one of the highlights of our visit to Denali Park was a rather hokey, but delightful, dinner show called “The Music of Denali” that is put on at the Denali Park lodge area to give tourists something to do during the evening.
A family-style dinner of ribs, corn on the cob and strawberry shortcake preceded the show and turned out to be tastier and more fun than we had anticipated. The evening was included in our tour, but it costs $45 for independent travelers.
THE INLAND PASSAGE — We began our Alaskan adventure with a week-long cruise through the Inland Passage.
Many we have talked with have taken similar cruises and have been greeted with a week of rain, wind and cold.
Just as we did in Fairbanks, we found wonderful weather on our cruise.
It rained for a few moments in Ketchikan, as one would expect. In Ketchikan they refer to rainfall in feet, not inches. The city gets between 16 feet and 17 feet of rain a year. Equaled only by a few spots in Hawaii, Ketchikan has the largest amount of rain received by any city in the U.S.
For our cruise we chose The Spirit of Discovery, an 84-passenger, 166-foot-long vessel operated by CruiseWest.
On an earlier Inland Passage cruise, we had also opted for a smaller ship and believe we got a better experience than if we had been on one of those larger ships.
The advantage of the smaller vessel is that it can navigate into such areas as Tracy Arm and pull right up to the face of the many glaciers in the area.
CruiseWest is also about teaching its passengers about the history, geology and culture of the areas visited. We had two CruiseWest naturalists aboard for evening lectures about whales, bears and the flora of the area.
In the hard-to-get-to Tracy Arm, two U.S. Forest Service rangers came aboard for a day to tell us about the rock formations along the way, the rules and regulations for visiting the wilderness area and where we might sight birds and animals.
Another U.S. Forest Service ranger came aboard as we neared the ice fields and glaciers of Glacier Bay.
At the end of the week, we felt we should have gotten two units of college credit for the professional instruction we had received.
There is another benefit to the cruise on a small ship. Because passengers are paying upwards of 50 percent more for such an experience than they would on one of those larger ships with the casinos and Las Vegas evening shows, the passengers you meet on the smaller ships are likely to be more stimulating.
Rather than being locked on a boat with folks who only want to talk about their grandchildren for a week, the chatter among shipmates on our ship was centered around what we were seeing out the window and what we had learned from the professionals.
Despite the limited facilities, our small ship still provided us with big-ship-quality dining. Alas, we returned home from our two weeks with CruiseWest in Alaska carrying eight additional pounds.
Among the shore stops along the Inland Passage were:
Ketchikan, population about 8,000, where we were treated to a visit to Dolly’s House, the only remaining tribute to what once was a row of rowdy brothels along Creek Street, where buildings sit on stilts over Ketchikan Creek.
It was in Ketchikan that CruiseWest offered us a 45-minute lecture on Native Alaska culture in Southeast Alaska and we learned how early natives protected their gene pool by separating themselves into various groups assigned such names as Raven, Eagle and Whale.
No one was allowed to marry anyone within his or her group.
Metlakatla. An island, with a population of several thousand natives, that has been designated an official Native Alaskan “reservation” — the only such area in the state.
Unfortunately, the local economy here is pretty depressing and now dominated by a fish packing plant. Even though jobs are scarce on the island, about ten percent of the fish packing jobs are held by Filipinos who are brought in each season.
Why in the world if the natives can’t find jobs are ten percent of the fish packing jobs turned over to others, we asked.
“Because the Filipinos work harder,” our native guide told us.
Not much for tourists to see on the island, except some impressive native dancing in a native long house.
Petersburg. Petersburg (population about 3,500) is as impressive as Metlakatla is depressing.
Called “Little Norway,” Petersburg is full of delightful, well-kept buildings reflecting the city’s Norwegian history. High school students decked out in Norwegian outfits are on hand to dance for the tourists, who get to nibble on Norwegian pastry delights during the energetic, fun show.
Haines. Some of our fellow passengers thought Haines, population about 2,000, was the place they would like to settle down in. It is one of the few places in southeast Alaska accessible by road.
It was in Haines that we found one of the better museums of local history and culture on our trip, the Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center.
Sitka. The former capital of Russian Alaska, Sitka, population near 9,000, is a favorite stop of big cruise ships, and when they are in town the narrow sidewalks are packed with shoppers.
Fortunately, one can escape to the wonderful Alaska Raptor Center, where injured eagles, ravens, owls, falcons and other birds are taken in to be “repaired.”
Unfortunately, many of the birds will spend their remaining years here, too injured to be returned to the wild.
But the best experience for us was a two-mile walk through the Sitka National Historic Park and its accompanying museum, where we found natives at work on totems and other native art.
Skagway. Pretty much now a commercial tourist shopping street, Skagway, population under 1,000, is making the most of its gold rush history.
Visitors are hauled around in 1920s-style buses by drivers in period costumes. Many tourists opt for a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route historic train that climbs high into the nearby mountains, much as it did during gold rush days.
If the shopping gets a bit much, there is always the Red Onion Bar, where we found a lively jazz group and a couple of well-developed young ladies in gold rush days costumes willing to guide tourists upstairs for a peak at what once was one of the town’s busiest brothels.
Just slip your $5 bill into the lady’s bustier and she’ll guide you up the stairs, pointing out that $5 was about what you would have paid for additional services offered upstairs while the “house” was operating in its heyday.
Juneau. The state capital, Juneau, population more than 35,000, boasts that it is the nation’s most beautiful capital city — even if you can’t get there except by air or boat.
Our cousin’s son lives in Juneau and on a Saturday afternoon he and his wife offered us an hour-long tour of the city and the capitol building.
Juneau indeed has a wonderful setting, jammed up against spectacular mountains.
Because so much of the surrounding area consists of national forests, there aren’t many places to build new homes, so housing prices and housing demand are high here.
Across the Gastineau Channel, beautiful and expensive homes are being built on the side of a mountain. Residents have spectacular views from their mountain-slope homes.
But much of what new housing there is in Juneau is being built in flatlands below the mountains. Our cousin’s son and his wife are building near the Mendenhall Glacier, some ten to 15 miles from downtown.
Both work for the State of Alaska, as do most folks in Juneau.
Alaskans have been toying with the concept of moving the state capital from the inaccessible Juneau to Willow, a tiny community north of Anchorage. Willow would be more accessible to more Alaskans, but the location is hardly as dramatic as Juneau.
Voters have turned down the Willow capital concept several times, complaining of cost.
“Besides, we like our politicians hidden away in Juneau, where we don’t see much of them,” is a favorite jingle pulled out every time someone warms up the capital-moving concept.
ALASKA POPULAR NOW — With world terrorism increasing, more tourists are opting out of overseas travel and are heading to such places as Alaska, the Caribbean and Mexico.
The number of cruise ships now calling on Inland Passage communities is getting to be overwhelming. We saw six such mammoth ships at Juneau.
Sometimes there are so many large cruise ships in town that they can’t all tie up at docks and have to anchor offshore, their passengers sent ashore on tenders.
The large tour companies, such as Holland America, Princess and even CruiseWest, have scrambled to find hotel rooms, train seats and school bus space in Denali Park.
Because the weather window is so limited in Alaska, visitors now have to plan their warm weather trips to Alaska well in advance.
One no longer just shows up for the wonderful Alaska Railroad ride between Fairbanks and Anchorage without a reservation made months in advance.
Even folks on our tour who had booked with CruiseWest long in advance found overbooked rooms in Ketchikan and were sent to a less desirable hotel than the wonderful Westcoast Cape Fox Lodge that sits high on a hilltop and is accessible to downtown Ketchikan through use of a picturesque steep funicular.
The glaciers of Alaska are receding. You need to get there before they are gone.