A journey to the Northern Kingdom: of sculpted ice and northern lights

In Alaska Travelgram by scott

Frozen fish, Fairbanks-style. Seen at the World Ice art Championships

I never miss a chance to journey north to Fairbanks (and beyond). That’s especially true this month (March), when Ice Alaska is hosting the World Ice Art Championships. But we combined it with a trip north from Fairbanks to Coldfoot, Wiseman and Sukakpak Mountain on the Dalton Highway.

Carving away with power tools at -26ºF !

If you haven’t seen these giant works of art scattered in the woods near the Tanana State Fairgrounds, stop what you’re doing and make plans. Seriously….the art is incredible and even the kids have a g-r-e-a-t time. We saw it in person–and have the pictures to prove it.

Kids playing ice-checkers. At -26ºF
That beast doesn’t look very frozen to me, huh? Looks like it’s ready to POUNCE!

Getting to Fairbanks:

1. Drive. It’s not a terrible drive–and it’s paved all the way from other destinations on the Rail Belt.

2. Take the Mighty Alaska Railroad. During March, the railroad has extra trains and you can ide the rails from Anchorage to Fairbanks. It’s a 12-hour ride and you can bring your own food.

3. Fly with Alaska Airlines. That’s what we did.  We cashed in some miles. And we picked up a car from Avis when we got there. Avis will give you an extension cord to plug the car in. Might wanna do it, since it was -29ºF when we were there. OMG. “But it’s a dry cold,” she said. SNORK

I’m a big fan of the Golden Heart City–so I had a list of what to see and do on the day before flying north to Coldfoot. Here are my recommendations, which include an overnight at airport-close Sophie Station.

1933 Auburn “Boattail” on display at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum.

Make tracks to the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. This impressive collection of immaculately maintained antique cars is NOT to be missed. Curator Willy Vinton has an incredible backstory to each car, too. There’s a Duesenberg. There are several Cadillacs. There’s a Model T on tracks. There’s a Stanley Steamer. Electric cars. Absolutely incredible stuff. Plus period fashion displays with original garments, mannequins, jewelry and associated hardware that will take you back 100 years. Tell Willy I sent you.

Museum Curator Willy Vinton shows off a 1904 “Buckmobile” complete with an umbrella!

Head up to the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus to visit the Museum of the North. The building and its setting atop a hill overlooking the city is impressive enough. But the first thing you see when you walk in is a full-scale skeleton of a giant bowhead whale. WOW. The museum has a wonderful Alaska section to tell about the indigenous people who have called Alaska home for thousands of years. You also can learn about the high points that built Fairbanks, including the gold rush, Word War II and the pipeline oil boom. Don’t miss the modern art section, though. Look for the giant outhouse (can’t miss it). My favorite exhibit: “The Place Where You Go to Listen” by John Luther Adams. Enter quietly. Earth’s natural forces are assigned a sound and a light frequency and the room is a serene place to be still and…well….listen. 

This huge skeleton of a bowhead whale hangs in the entryway of the Museum of the North.

After visiting the museum, we’d worked up a mighty thirst. So on our way back to Sophie Station, we stopped in to see the fine folks at HooDoo Brewing, my favorite brew-pub in Fairbanks. Started by Bobby Wilken and his family, it’s a real community hub. I love the outdoor fire pits and the revolving food trucks that add some substance to the artful suds that Bobby + crew serve up. Try the Oatmeal Stout. Come back for the IPA. Prost! 

We met friends for dinner at Zach’s on the second floor at Sophie Station. And yes, I remembered to plug the car in. But I needed help to remember NOT to drive off with the cord still attached!  I’m still dreaming about the “Slow Roast Pork Taquitos”. But our friends Karen and Glenn split an order of “Vegan Mac and Cheese” and couldn’t say enough about it!

We waited until the sun went down to visit the Ice Park near the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds. That’s because the Ice Alaska folks light up all of the sculptures and exhibits with colored lights–and it’s fabulous. When we went last weekend, the carvers still were working on the biggest, baddest ice sculptures. So GO NOW to see them in their glory! 

A Wright Air Cessna 208 is bundled up against the -20ºF weather on the ramp in Fairbanks.

The next morning , we packed up and headed over to the “East Ramp” of Fairbanks International Airport where Northern Alaska Tour Company has its office. There, we checked in for our one-hour flight north to Coldfoot. There are several options when you’re headed north:

Flying north over the Yukon River on our way to Coldfoot.
FLying over the South Fork of the Koyukuk River. Note the two bridges: one for the pipeline and one for the trucks.

1. Fly. That’s what we did. It’s quicker than the all-day drive on the Haul Road (Dalton Highway).

2. Drive in Northern Alaska‘s van. It’s a long drive, but it’s fun. There are plenty of stops to stretch your legs and use the rest room. You’ll cross the Yukon River, see the “Enchanted Forest” where the trees are covered in Yukon River mist and get up-close to the pipeline. You’ll learn the inside stories of when, how and why the “Haul Road” was built. There’s a special ceremony when you cross the Arctic Circle! You’ll learn all about the Arctic, the Brooks Range, the rivers and the wildlife–it’s a great trip. You’ll arrive in time for dinner at the world’s northernmost truck stop: the Coldfoot Cafe.

Some trips are just up-and-back. But we opted to stay the night and watch for the northern lights.

Our trip up in a 9-passenger Cessna 208 was smooth and scenic. Great weather for flying at -18ºF.

On arrival in Coldfoot, the NATC van meets us and takes us to the oh-so-glamorous Slate Creek Inn. HAHA. It’s an old pipeline-era man-camp that they’ve refurbished for guests. Important considerations include:

– private bath
– good heaters
– extra blankets

We dropped our gear and headed to the cafe for some food. Just a burger is fine for me. 

NEW THIS YEAR: My AT&T cell phone worked flawlessly, so internet access is assured. This is different than before, when you were effectively off-the-grid.

Smiling on a sunny day. In the shadow of Sukakpak.

We took a drive north of Coldfoot up to Sukakpak Mountain to look for caribou. There were plenty of tracks, but the creatures themselves proved elusive. Nonetheless, it was a lovely afternoon for a drive.

At 11pm, Steve, our driver, came to get us for our night-time drive up to Wiseman, 14 miles away.

On arrival, our host, Jack Reakoff, came out to meet us. Jack and his family make up the majority of residents in Wiseman, which once was a bustling mining town. I refer to Jack as a citizen-scientist as he keeps a close watch on wildlife, the economics of life in the Bush and trends in the environment.

Tonight, he’s helping us adjust our cameras and smartphones to capture the northern lights for those who couldn’t make it! 

Jack has a cabin set up with a roaring fire and hot beverages for everyone to stay warm while waiting for the northern lights to show up. There’s also a fire outside. In the cabin, there’s all manner of memorabilia about Wiseman and the Arctic. 

The weather was clear and cold–and the northern lights were out most of the time, although it wasn’t a wild display! Still, we got a few pictures and renewed some old acquaintences. 

After returning at about 3 a.m., we hit the hay, content to sleep in a bit after our late-night adventure.

After our late breakfast, we snagged an earlier flight and were back on the ground in Fairbanks by 2:30pm.

The “T-Rex Breakfast” at Coldfoot Cafe: 2 pieces of French Toast, 2 scrambled eggs + bacon. Breakfast of Champions.

That gave us time to visit the Morris Thompson Visitors Center on the shores of the Chena River. This actually is a good FIRST stop when you arrive in Fairbanks. You’ll get a good overview of the land and people through a series of walk-through displays. It’s really well-done. My favorite part is the plane that hangs in the middle: it belonged to “The Flying Bishop”: The Rt. Rev. Bill Gordon. Fairbanks is the seat of the Episcopal Church in Alaska–so he had quite a bit of ground to cover!

After all of that, I got a nice note that we’d been upgraded to First Class for our 49-minute flight back home.

Hello from beautiful, downtown Wiseman, Alaska. Photo by Jack Reakoff.

Icing on the cake!  Thanks for the memories, Fairbanks! 

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