Fairbanks AK – One of the Best Cities I Have Seen in Almost Nine Years of Travel

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North America » United States » Alaska » Fairbanks
August 22nd 2018
Published: September 13th 2018
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The drive from Healy AK to Fairbanks AK was only 110 miles, and we arrived at the Best Western Plus Pioneer Park Inn on Thursday, August 17, 2018 without incident. My primary reason for selecting this particular motel is its location about a quarter mile walk (or a one-mile drive) from, ta-da, Pioneer Park – home to a handful of interesting attractions, including Pioneer Hall which was designed to represent a 1900s-era building that houses two historical attractions, The Pioneer Museum and The Big Stampede Theater; Riverboat Nenana, a now inoperable sternwheeler nicknamed the “Queen of the Yukon,” that was built in 1933 in Seattle and then shipped to Nenana AK where she was constructed; The Harding Car, also known as the Denali Car, a passenger railroad car named after President Warren G. Harding; Mining Valley, which hosts some of the equipment used in early mining operations; Pioneer Air Museum, which hosts a few of the earliest aircraft used in Alaska dating from the 1930s and 1940s; Red & Roela’s Carousel, an antique carousel that was built between 1915 and 1920; the Farthest North Square & Round Dance Center; the Tanana Valley Railroad Museum; and several other lesser attractions. I envisioned,
Just the Cinnamon Roll by Itself Would Make a MealJust the Cinnamon Roll by Itself Would Make a MealJust the Cinnamon Roll by Itself Would Make a Meal

The Cookie Jar Restaurant – Fairbanks AK
with optimal weather conditions, spending two or three full or partial days at Pioneer Park.

The motel had prepared a list of nearby restaurants for its visitors which we received at check-in, and the attendant gave us some personal preferences. We headed to The Cookie Jar Restaurant for some supper and found it to have a nice selection, fair prices and good service – indeed, we returned there several times during our week-long stay. On that first visit, I spotted Nolan’s Own Breakfast, "Our cinnamon roll cut in half, dipped in egg batter, grilled and dusted in powdered sugar." I managed to resist because it was supper time, but on another visit, I couldn’t help but order the Stuffed Nolan’s, "We stuff our cinnamon roll halves with cream cheese, grilled and topped with strawberries and whip cream." Very tasty but not for the diet-conscious! I’m on vacation, what can I say? During one of our visits, a man sitting at an adjacent table asked if I was from Rockford IL, apparently having seen my Firefighters Local 413 ball cap. Responding positively, he introduced himself as Jim who was raised in Mount Morris IL but has been in the Fairbanks area for 42 years. Following his discharge from the U.S. Army at Fort Wainwright he stayed. He offered several tourism ideas, most of which had been incorporated into the master plan, but a couple of his suggestions did offer an enhancement to that plan.

Friday, August 17, 2018 dawned a cool, damp, overcast day but we walked to Pioneer Park anyway, just to get a lay of the land. We made a stop at Pioneer Museum and then took in the Big Stampede Show, both of which share a lobby in the same building. Pioneer Museum is like most local museums but, since we’re in Alaska, was unlike most I have visited in many respects. I found some interesting artifacts of early Fairbanks and early Alaska as well as many relatively commonplace relics from early America. Across the lobby, we headed into the Big Stampede Show where photography is not allowed. This interesting attraction is in a round theater and has paintings on the walls with a turntable-style seating arrangement that rotates from painting to painting as a narrator describes various aspects of Alaskan history. Quite interesting. In the common lobby, a 1940s-era movie was playing on a loop – Alaska Highway (Overview 8:59; Full Length 1:07:11). The newsreel-style documentary chronicles construction of the, ta-dah, Alaska Highway.

I’m not sure if I had forgotten or had never learned that Japan had attacked the western Aleutian Islands and, indeed, had occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska. The Japanese reasoned that control of the Aleutians would prevent a possible U.S. attack across the Northern Pacific. Similarly, the U.S. feared that the islands would be used as bases from which the Japanese could launch aerial assaults against the West Coast. The Japanese first raided the naval base at Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska on June 3, 1942 and then invaded Kiska on June 6 and Attu on June 7. Interestingly, a Japanese Zero was captured intact by U.S. forces in July 1942 on Akutan Island, after the Dutch Harbor Attack, and it became the first flyable Zero acquired by the United States during the Second World War. It was repaired and made its first test flight on September 20, 1942. The remoteness of the islands and the challenges of weather and terrain delayed for nearly a year the dispatch of a combined U.S.-Canadian force sent to eject the Japanese from Attu and Kiska. A battle to reclaim Attu, the Aleutian Islands Campaign, was launched on May 11, 1943 and completed following a final Japanese banzai charge on May 29. The campaign ended on August 15, 1943 when a U.S.-Canadian invasion force landed on Kiska, in the wake of a sustained three-week barrage, only to discover that the Japanese had withdrawn from the island on July 29.

U.S. losses are recorded as 1,481 killed, 3,416 wounded, 640 missing, 8 captured and 225 aircraft destroyed while the Japanese suffered 4,350 killed and 28 captured. Many of the United States locations involved in the Aleutian Islands Campaign, either directly or indirectly, have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and several have been designated National Historic Landmarks. The battlefield on Attu and the Japanese occupation site on Kiska are both National Historic Landmarks and are included in the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. Surviving elements of the military bases at Adak, Umnak and Dutch Harbor are National Historic Landmarks. The shipwrecked SS Northwestern, badly damaged during the attack on Dutch Harbor, is listed on the National Register, as is a crash-landed B-24D Liberator on Atka Island. Good luck trying to get to any of the sites except Dutch Harbor. All require a charter, while Dutch Harbor is a definite “ya gotta wanna go see it” locale – a round trip flight from Anchorage is about $500.00 or a round trip ride on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry is $598.00 and takes six days travel time (three each way) though the traveler gets eight hours in Dutch Harbor before turnaround.

Proposals for a highway connecting the Canadian highway system to Alaska had originated in the 1920s and had been bantered about in both the United States and Canada; but the attack on Pearl Harbor, with the accompanying Japanese threats to the west coast of North America and the Aleutian Islands, changed the priorities for both nations. On February 6, 1942, the construction of the Alaska Highway was approved by the United States Army and the project received authorization from the U.S. Congress and President Roosevelt to proceed five days later. Canada agreed to allow construction as long as the United States bore the full cost and that the road and other facilities in Canada be turned over to Canadian authority after the war ended. The official start of construction took place on March 8,
This Reindeer Fella Was Losing His VelvetThis Reindeer Fella Was Losing His VelvetThis Reindeer Fella Was Losing His Velvet

Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station - Fairbanks AK
1942, about three months before the invasion of the Aleutian Islands by the Japanese. Later, construction efforts were fueled by that invasion and the Aleutian Islands Campaign which followed. The highway was dedicated on November 20, 1942 at Soldier's Summit. I can only imagine how long that project would take with today’s modern technology! At the end of the day, at the Pioneer Museum, the Big Stampede Theater and the common lobby area, Uncle Larry learned a whole bunch.

We had two attractions on tap for Saturday, August 18, 2018. First was the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station in Fairbanks. The docent gave a very nice “uncanned” presentation about reindeer, called caribou if untamed, and then about muskox. Part of University of Alaska Fairbanks, Large Animal Research Station (LARS) is charged with maintaining healthy colonies of both animals for nutritional, physiological and behavioral research. The facility is interesting but is not something I could put on my “must see” list. Our second stop was the University of Alaska Museum of the North, also in Fairbanks. In the “Gallery of Alaska,” the indigenous peoples are examined by geographic area: Western Arctic Coast – Inupiaq and Yupik Eskimo; Interior – Athabascan; Southwest – Aleut and Alutiiq; Southcentral – Eyak and Alutiiq; and Southeast – Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian. Mounts of virtually all, if not all, of Alaska’s native animals are displayed, the effects of glaciers and volcanos on Alaska’s landscape is discussed, man’s quest for riches harvested from Alaska’s natural resources, including gold and oil, is assessed and the impact of World War II is considered, particularly as it relates to the confinement of Alaska’s citizens of Japanese heritage. The “Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery” contains 2,000 years of Alaska art, from traditional to modern, including ancient ivory carvings and Alaska Native objects used for both ceremony and everyday life. The Museum of the North belongs on everybody’s “must see while in Fairbanks” list.

Sunday, August 19, 2018 found us heading for the Tanana Valley Railroad & Gold Dredge 8 In Fox (Fairbanks) AK. Although the attraction might seem pricy at first, I was encouraged when three tourist busses adorned the parking lot as we arrived and five more arrived after we did. Tour companies have a reputation at stake, and I don’t think they would take guests to an unworthy attraction. After paying the admission fee, we entered the grounds and saw, right out of the gun, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. In due course, our “tour guide” offered a very interesting narrative about the history, design, construction and use of the pipeline and the funds it generates. We then moved to the Tanana Valley Railroad and headed for Gold Dredge 8. Along the way, reenactors demonstrated various mining techniques and operations. When we arrived at the dredge, our narrator was replaced by a lady who gave an interesting and entertaining presentation about dredge mining, and she and several “Gold Dredge 8 hands” demonstrated the technique we should use when our time for “striking gold” arrived. The train then moved to a disembarkation point where each visitor received a sack full of gold concentrate. We took our “nest egg” to the panning tables where we could sit or stand and pan – wash away the gravel, pebbles and sand until we struck it rich. The panning helpers had the patience of Job and, indeed, will do the panning for you if you prefer or have difficulty. I think everyone in the group found gold – Marilyn harvested $33.00 worth of gold and I $8.00. Uncle Larry says, “Remember to select your old bag carefully!” Oops, gold.

After I learned that I had to put the purchase of a Swiss chalet on hold, I headed for the dredge while Marilyn headed for the shops. The dredge has informational placards throughout that help explain the inner workings of the beast and identify the controls and equipment. It was a real hoot, just to take a free-lance walk around such a mammoth piece of vintage equipment. The shopping area is large and well-stocked – yes, there is plenty of Dredge 8 memorabilia, but there also is a nice selection of Fairbanks, Denali and Alaska souvenirs for sale as well … AND … it is all very reasonably priced. During the course of my stroll through the marketplace, I happened upon a refreshment center. COMPLIMENTARY coffee, hot chocolate and cookies were available. Dredge 8 is a first-class, labor-intensive operation that merits every penny of the relatively healthy admission fee. When the train departed the dredge/company store area for the entrance, at least twenty employees were standing beside the railroad tracks, waving goodbye. That, along with the volume of tour buses gracing the parking lot (there were only 12-15 cars there when we departed), is a testament to the quality of this attraction from A
Everything Is Well Organized and Self-ExplanatoryEverything Is Well Organized and Self-ExplanatoryEverything Is Well Organized and Self-Explanatory

Alaskan Salmon Bake - Pioneer Park - Fairbanks AK
to Z. Oh, yes, it’s something you can’t do just anywhere.

We made a stop at the Alaskan Salmon Bake in Pioneer Park. The buffet-style dinner features prime rib, Alaska salmon (grilled on an open fire) and deep-fried cod filets – oh yes, an add-on of Alaska King Crab is available. Non-alcoholic drinks, salads, a variety of side dishes and desserts are included. Thirty or forty years ago, it would have been a good deal; however, my diminished appetite makes buffets of any ilk somewhat expensive. That having been said, the Alaskan Salmon Bake is a celebration of Alaska – its history, its culture and its way of life – which makes the attraction worthwhile. We finished supper as predicted – just in time for the Palace Theater performance that was sold out! Bah-humbug! The performance is reported to be an old-school musical-comedy revue about frontier life and appears to be lots of fun. So …, after supper, we walked around the grounds getting a few photographs of some of the vintage equipment that celebrates Alaska’s gold-mining history.

I had baulked slightly at the price for Dredge 8 and for Riverboat Discovery, but decided to take the chance anyway. On Monday, August
Discovery from DocksideDiscovery from DocksideDiscovery from Dockside

Riverboat Discovery and Indigenous Village - Fairbanks AK
20, 2018, we arrived about 30 minutes before riverboat departure. The parking lot was virtually empty of cars but some fifteen charter busses were on hand. Again, that endorsement by the tour industry was reassuring; however, the line to board the boat was to hell and half way back! It seemed everybody wanted a window seat. Once boarding began, it went quickly and smoothly – this wasn’t their first rodeo. Riverboat Discovery begins with a bush pilot demonstration wherein the pilot is talking to the tour narrator (so all the passengers can hear) as he takes off and lands his floatplane next to the sternwheeler (left or port side) not once but twice.

Susan Butcher started Trail Breaker Kennels, located on the banks of the Chena River, after she had moved to Alaska and deepened her interest in dog mushing. She was the top female competitor in her first Iditarod in 1978 and won the event in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1990. Of Susan’s 16 Iditarod races, she was in the top 2 eight times; in the top 5 twelve times; and in the top 10 fifteen times. Although “she was the top female competitor in her first Iditarod,”
The Dog Team Getting a Break after Pulling the ATVThe Dog Team Getting a Break after Pulling the ATVThe Dog Team Getting a Break after Pulling the ATV

Riverboat Discovery and Indigenous Village - Fairbanks AK
I’m kinda thinking that might have been the race where her finish was out of the top 10. Unfortunately, Susan was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005 and died the following year. She developed a motto, “Alaska, where men are men, and women win the Iditarod.” Pretty cool. Discovery held steady offshore from Trail Breaker Kennels (also on the left or port side) while Butcher’s widower provided a dialogue with the tour narrator about Susan Butcher, dog sledding in general and about the Iditarod. After watching some training exercises and watching a team pull an ATV around a training course, Discovery continued on to the confluence of the Chena and Tanana Rivers where we made a U-turn and headed for the Chena Indian Village.

Just short of the dock, we stopped for a demonstration of salmon preservation (on the left or port side). Then, Discovery docked, the group was split into thirds and a Native Guide took one group to three different stations around the village. Then she led the group from station to station and exposed us to the Athabascan Indian culture. Finally, we were allowed a very few minutes to roam and take pictures before the ship whistle sounded, and we were called to reboard Discovery. Marilyn enjoyed Discovery slightly more than Gold Dredge 8, and I felt the opposite; however, the key word for both of us is slightly.

On Tuesday, August 21, 2018, rain was forecast for the entire day, and the weatherman was right on call. Wednesday found us heading for the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center and we learned that there were three (of five) movies on tap that we really wanted to see. Show time for all three was later in the day, so we decided to head to the Fairbanks Community Museum. This very small museum has one display and is not really worth a special trip, but if you find yourself in downtown Fairbanks for any reason, it’s free and what the heck. The museum is located on the second floor of Co-op Plaza which is interesting in its own right and deserves a looky-see.

In the process of looking for Fairbanks Community Museum, we spotted the Fairbanks Ice Museum right next door. Here, it gets a little complicated. I had us slated to visit the Aurora Ice Museum after the Fairbanks Community Museum. My recollection had it located about an hour drive from Fairbanks. My memory said that it had presentations at 11, 1, 3, 5 and 7 and an admission price of $15.00. We stopped in the Fairbanks Ice Museum. It has presentations at 11, 1, 3, 5 and 7 and an admission price of $15.00. We paid the admission price and went inside. The Aurora Ice Museum looked first rate on the website, but the Fairbanks Ice Museum was a disappointment. Later that evening, I Googled “Fairbanks Ice Museum,” and at the top of my “hit list” was the Aurora Ice Museum. Other hits were for the Fairbanks Ice Museum, but I was confused. Even Google Maps directed me to downtown Fairbanks when I entered Aurora Ice Museum. Now, I was really confused. In summary, the Fairbanks Ice Museum has no web site but the powers to be have cleverly coped features of the Aurora Ice Museum to, in my opinion, entice visitors into believing they are getting “A” when they walk in the door but, instead, are paying for “B.” Fairbanks Ice Museum is okay but not worth $15.00, in my opinion. I wish I had seen the Aurora Ice Museum for comparison and wondered, “Might the Fairbanks Ice Museum have been started by a disgruntled employee of the Aurora Ice Museum?”

Our final stop of the day was the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center. The three movies we saw were “Gates of the Arctic,” “America’s Wildest Refuge” and “Aurora: Fire in the Sky.” The first two examined Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge respectively while the third took an in-depth, scientific and cultural look at the, all together now, Aurora Borealis. The center looks at the history behind Alaska’s public lands, the harvesting of natural resources from those lands and the interface and coexistence of each. This is a very well done, thought-provoking museum and should be on almost everybody’s short list while in Fairbanks. Fairbanks, with a surprising 2016 population of only 32,751 is chock full of history, quirky saloons and eateries, cultural exhibits and interesting attractions. The entire City of Fairbanks belongs on your bucket list.

Additional photos below
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Just One of a Number of Interesting Eateries We PatronizedJust One of a Number of Interesting Eateries We Patronized
Just One of a Number of Interesting Eateries We Patronized

Soapy Smith's Pioneer Restaurant – Fairbanks AK
These Muskox Were Conditioned a la Pavlov’s DogsThese Muskox Were Conditioned a la Pavlov’s Dogs
These Muskox Were Conditioned a la Pavlov’s Dogs

Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station - Fairbanks AK
Two of Alaska’s Non-Aquatic Animal Kingdom IconsTwo of Alaska’s Non-Aquatic Animal Kingdom Icons
Two of Alaska’s Non-Aquatic Animal Kingdom Icons

Univ. of Alaska Museum of the North - Fairbanks AK

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