Chena Hot Springs
Allen Moore's lead dogs
The toughest husky race around - Fairbanks, Alaska
“After the months of darkness it takes a visitor to show us the beauty of the snow and winter light”
University of Alaska Fairbanks’ David Crouse introducing visiting poet Jeanne Clark
By the time I arrived at Fairbanks airport, on a -28 degree late February night and stepped onto the squeakily packed snow, Fairbanksians were weary with winter. It’s understandable. The city is less than 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle and its winters are long and dark with light hours plummeting to 3 in December. The snow arrives in September and stays until April and the dry cold feels solid in your nose and throat. For a visitor though, this is outweighed by the novelty of the grey pink snow reflected light making the state feel as though it is a Monet painting.
There were two reasons why I was in Fairbanks in February. I had once tromped the hills of the Burren with Amanda, an ex-resident, who had made it very clear that Lady Adventurer could never be a real travel site without a piece on Alaska. Secondly, the Yukon Quest was due to finish on the city’s frozen river. The Quest is a 1000 mile husky race which, this year, had started in Whitehorse (Fairbanks and Whitehorse alternate the start and finish each year) in Canada’s Yukon Territory. It sounds easy when you cram it into a sentence like that but imagine driving 1000 miles. Now, imagine doing that same distance being pulled by a team of huskies through winter storms, over mountains and with very little rest.
PC City dwellers in the “lower 48” or overseas may tut about the rights and wrongs of the rigours of husky racing perhaps without a clear understanding of how much a good Musher lives for his or her dogs. The year will be planned around taking care of and training the huskies for a big race and no race is bigger or tougher than the Yukon Quest. As it turned out, this year’s Quest had been the most challenging with extreme storms meaning that many Mushers had to scratch (pull out). Tales of bravery were rife. Hans Gatt’s team fell through the ice at Birch Creek on a -50 degree night and was helped by Sebastian Schnuelle’s team (although Hans suffered 2nd degree frostbite to his hands, he is planning to compete in the upcoming Iditarod race). Silver Brent Sass’ lead dog was recognised with the inaugural Silver Legacy Award for “incredible deeds and feats of bravery”. After a Musher fell into trouble after a storm on American Summit, Sass attached both teams of dogs together and Silver led both teams to safety.
At five minutes past eleven on the 15th February, in a flurry of lights and paws, Dallas Seavey’s team crossed the finish line ten days, eleven hours and fifty three minutes after they had left Whitehorse becoming, at 23, the youngest winner of the race and the overnight Fairbanks heartthrob. You know you’re a hero when somebody has carved “I love Dallas” into roadside ice.
Amanda had arranged for me to stay with her friend Madara – English Lecturer, Artist and Food Blogger. The University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) is impressive in many ways – it has received government funding to carry out groundbreaking climate change research, its agricultural department raise Reindeer and it is also home to the stunning Museum of the North. Whilst Madara was in class, I rode the blue shuttle bus to the museum and spent hours going between its rooms and blend of anthropology, history and art. My favourite rooms were upstairs - the Room Where You Go to Listen uses light and sound pulses to capture the changing light around Alaska with heavy bells when the Northern Lights are showing and booms as the ground moves and the Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery which showcases a range of Alaskan native and non-native arts and craft. We returned to the museum a few days later to hear a poetry reading from Jeanne Clark as part of the UAF English Department’s ongoing Midnight Sun Visiting Writers Programme.
With the weekend approaching and the promise of an increased chance of Northern Lights spotting, we hit the tourist trail. The Chena Hot Springs Resort is an hour outside of Fairbanks (the dusk drive out provided the first spot of a moose) and is a magnet for coach loads of Japanese Tourists. Why? There appears to be a Japanese old wives tale that if you conceive under the Northern Lights you will have a healthy baby boy. As we soaked in the sulphur water, surrounded by snow caked trees I eyed the sky and my fellow soakers suspiciously – what would happen if the Lights came out, would the rutting begin instantly? My question wasn’t answered as the Lights stayed hidden behind the winter clouds. Chena carries out research into Geothermal Renewable Energy and its Greenhouses provide salad and vegetables jumping with freshness for the restaurant. On the drive home, we passed one of the Yukon Quest checkpoints with a group of men gathered around a fire under the bright spotlights waiting for the next team to come through (the space between the first and last team is days rather than minutes).
One of the many advantages of staying with a food blogger is that you get to see the best of Fairbanks’ restaurant selections. I indulged in Reindeer Omelette for brunch at Sam’s Sourdough Cafe; Crab Stuffed Mushrooms amongst the Yukon Quest memorabilia at Ivory Jacks; Wild Wing Wednesday at Big Daddy’s (the northernmost Southern food in the USA); coffee and Napoli Flat Bread at the Alaska Coffee Roasting Company and Thai Food at Pad Thai and Lemongrass, two of Fairbanks’ 13 Thai Restaurants. In terms of shopping there’s fantastic vintage clothes and jewellery (and a small dog that likes to eat mittens) at Chartreuse and gifts at If Only. Elegant Memories sell antiques along with first edition books about and old pictures of Alaska proving that I am not the first visitor to be bewitched by the winter light and snow.
- I flew to Fairbanks via Seattle with British Airways and partner Air Alaska.
- More information about the Yukon Quest can be found at www.yukonquest.com . Dallas Seavey’s finish can be seen at www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=725508239415#!/video/video.php?v=725507735425
- Madara’s wonderful food blog can be found at tartlittlepiggy.wordpress.com
- Sam’s Sourdough Cafe (3702 Cameron Street)
- Ivory Jacks (2581 Goldstream Road)
- Big Daddy’s (107 Wickersham Street)
- Alaska Coffee Roasting Company (4001 Geist Road)
- Pad Thai (3400 College Road)
- Lemongrass (388 Chena Pump Plaza)
- Chartreuse (729 1st Avenue)
- If Only (215 Cushman Street)
- Elegant Memories (511 2nd Avenue)
I would like to say a massive thank you to Madara for her beautiful southern hospitality, Eddie for rescuing/kidnapping me from the airport and Amanda who made it all happen.