04 September 2013

Destination: Fairbanks & North Pole

(Additional pictures here.)

We've survived the drive to Fairbanks. The roads are very rough and bumpy in places, with many cracks, dips, and some of the worst frost heaves you've ever seen. It can be exhausting to drive hundreds of miles on bad pavement, but roads in Alaska can be like that. At mile 72, give or take, there's an 11-mile construction zone where the roadway is being widened. No pavement there, but plenty of mud and potholes. While that wouldn't have been a big deal in my truck, we elected to take the car, opting for better mileage. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, that was probably a mistake. We did okay, but the truck would have handled the load (four passengers, luggage, and shopping bounty) plus the roads (mud, dirt, gravel, and potholes galore) with greater aplomb.


The drive north was interrupted by two such zones, the northernmost being 18 miles in length. On Friday, the crews were working despite the rains, and we had to sit in queues awaiting our turn to be led by a pilot car through a zigzag obstacle course around pylons and excavating equipment. On Sunday's return trip, the zones were unmanned, and the dirt sections were "proceed as best you can, given the conditions".

Having not previously traveled more than 120 miles north of Anchorage, we all enjoyed the sights. The stretch through Denali National Park was really interesting, too, with deep gorges and mountain vistas somewhat different from those surrounding Anchorage. Mt. McKinley, alas, was shrouded in clouds on both days, so we didn't get any up-close-and-personal time with the continent's highest peak.


We did note that some of the valleys near the entrance to the national park were named in a fashion to discourage getting out of the car: Iceworm Gulch and Hornet Creek. Of course there were several Bear Creeks, and at least two Bison Creeks along the way. We also crossed the Upper and Lower Troublesome Creek valleys; I'm going to try to find out what's behind the name. That sort of thing interests me.

The drive of 365 miles took 6.25 hours.

Fairbanks reminds me of Anchorage back in the mid-'70s, before the oil boom. More frontiersy, and a bit more rustic. We found the people to be more polite, and in less of a hurry than those in Anchorage, too. Nice.  


Younger Daughter hadn't programmed the date on her camera.
Dining out was a bit more pricey there, but we had some really good meals.

The heavy rains came on Saturday; having spent over 45 years in the Midwest, we're no strangers to gully-washers. The thunderstorms that blew through in the afternoon were as heavy as I've seen, with visibilities at one point down to less than 15 feet. It brought traffic to a standstill on the highway, and flooded local streets and intersections. I never realized I missed that (a little, anyway) until it happened.

On Saturday morning, we drove to North Pole, a smallish town about 11 miles southeast of Fairbanks. We all laughed at the highway sign, announcing "South Hwy 2 to North Pole" ... you know you're too far north when you have to turn south to get to North Pole.  :)

On Santa Claus Lane, all of the street lights are striped like candy canes.

When visiting North Pole for the first time, everyone must visit the Santa Claus House ... on Saint Nicholas Drive, of course. It's the place where, every year, dozens of volunteers hand-cancel Christmas cards which have been sent there, so that the cards go to their destinations postmarked "North Pole, Alaska". That's nice.



The ladies shopped ... and shopped ... and shopped some more. We arrived at 8:30 a.m., and didn't leave until noon. My wife decided it was a great place to find Christmas gifts, and got a kick out of the idea that we'd have 95% of our shopping done in July, for a change.

 

After looking around for an hour or so, I walked around outside, taking pictures of the building (lots of murals), the reindeer (what? surely you knew Santa's house would have reindeer) and generally enjoying being in one place. Seven hours in the car on Friday made me glad to sit still.

After lunch back in Fairbanks, we headed north to the El Dorado gold mine, a functioning mine which extracts three million in gold daily. It opens to the public at selected times for guided tours, including a narrated ride on an old train which goes through a permafrost tunnel, past old cabins, mining sheds and sluices.

Part of the tour includes the opportunity to pan for one's own gold - and you get to keep whatever you find. Youngest daughter's sample produced $69 worth of flakes, which we split between two lockets so that each girl could have one.

It was on the way back from the mine that we ran into the heavy rains. Dinner was at a neat place called The Pump House, an interesting place with a tin roof and Victorian decor dating back to the Klondike gold rush. Another round of storms came through while we were eating, first causing the power to go off for a moment, and then the heavy rains hit & drowned out conversation for awhile.

It was worth it, all told, to drive up there and back ... but if we decide to visit for a third time, I believe we'll fly. If for no other reason, it's a great time-saver: it's only an hour in the air.

21 comments:

Teresa said...

What a fun trip! And it's good to have so much shopping done way early in the year before Christmas ever gets close. ;)

Rev. Paul said...

Absolutely - and the scenery is awesome!

Well Seasoned Fool said...

Two seasons. Winter and construction.

threecollie said...

Sounds like tremendous fun!

Rev. Paul said...

Some say we have three: this winter, construction, and next winter. :)

Rev. Paul said...

threecollie, I love road trips anyway, and all the scenery just makes it better.

Sandy said...

Rev. Paul,

It sounds like you enjoyed the ride minus the construction (mud).
We love taking trips within the state venturing out and seeing areas we haven't seen. Good old fashioned family fun.

Rev. Paul said...

Sandy, we do, too. Of course, 90% of Alaskan towns & villages are accessible only by air, but we go where we can. :)

Chickenmom said...

Sounds like it would be a good trip in my Jeepster! Getting away is good, even if it rains - just a change of scenery works wonders. And the time spent together as a family is the best part of all!

Rev. Paul said...

Chickenmom, it's an interesting drive in any vehicle, but taller ones (4x4s, etc) have to really watch for the big frost heaves. Nothing like hitting a bump at 50 mph & the front tires go airborne ... all you can see is hood!

Brigid said...

I'd wager you didn't dine at the "Royal Fork buffet". I remember flying in there in a little plane when I was visiting a friend in Bettles post college and got Voluntold to go get some supplies. I wanted lots of food, and cheap and several chubby pilots steered me torwards the Royal Fork. Carbs were their friend.

I was only in town briefly but I remember it as you describe, even it that was 25 years ago.

Rev. Paul said...

Brigid, the Royal Fork is very, VERY hit-or-miss. There were two of them in Anchorage, 10 years ago, which promptly went belly up. The one in Fairbanks followed shortly thereafter.

Old NFO said...

Heh, that was my stomping ground off and on for a couple of years in 88-92 time frame. Glad to see the Pump House is still going! Good food!!! Did they still have the Chocolate Mousse with the little Chocolate antlers in it? The other place we hit was Pikes, an old Klondike Saloon that had been there for years, but I can't remember the name...

Cathy said...

What an exotic environs compared to central Ohio.

"Troublesome" Creeks, gold appearing in the bottom of pans . . driving south to get "North."

Toto . . we're not in Kansas anymore . . .

Rev. Paul said...

NFO, there's a place about a mile from the Pump House called Miners' Restaurant & Saloon - might be what you recall.

Cathy, you'd be surprised how often we hear that "not in Kansas anymore" line, up here. :)

Murphy's Law said...

Been there a couple of times as one friend used to live there and another one currently does. There's a Thai place in North Pole that'll do you well. Hope to get back there again, and hope to stop in Anchorage on a day when you are not leaving for Hawaii. :-)

Rev. Paul said...

You've spoken from time to time of your friends in North Pole; I'll keep the Thai place in mind. And I'm looking forward to your next visit.

joated said...

Nice trip down memory lane. Wen tto all those touristy sites in 2010. Didn't get much gold in our pans, just enough for a small necklace souvenir for Terry. Santa's House was a gas!

Try that road while hauling a 27' travel trailer! But don't forget thte Dramamine!(The road through Destruction Bay on the way up was far worse as was the highway on the Kenai to Homer. Frost heaves that would make an Hawaiian surfer jealous. At least in 2010 they were.)

armedlaughing said...

I always loved road trips as a kid, except the whole 'don't make me stop this car!' thing. :-P
There's a Royal Fork in town here, but it's an upscale bar and grill. A former co-worker's husband is the manager.
One of their signature items is the Big A** Burger!
Don't think it's your buffet chain...

gfa

Rev. Paul said...

joated, "a small necklace souvenir" is all most folks get. A few get lucky, but only a few. And as for the trailer ... I'll pass.

Guffaw, Royal Fork is a family-owned business out of Oregon, with places scattered around the western states. The locations here didn't fare well; too much competition.

Old NFO said...

Rev- That might have been it! OLD building, the ridge pole was a tree trunk! :-)