We drove north from Denali on Friday afternoon, but we didn't really start our exploration of Fairbanks in earnest until we returned from our weekend in Barrow, so we're combining the writeups. Northern Hawk Owl
As we left Denali, we drove through wide canyons with little or no snow. This is because the Alaska Range stops most of the precipitation to the northeast, just as the Sierra Nevada does in California.
Suddenly we saw a sight we hadn't seen for a couple of years: a military jet, and then another swooshed past, low and fast -- A10 Warthogs. The pilots probably got their own good tour around Mount McKinley!
We are clearly in the country of Make Your Own Celebrations: one little town, Nenana, has had an annual contest, since about 1916, to see who can guess when the Nenana river ice will break up; this is a pretty critical fact for the town because their river, which flows into the Yukon River, carries barge traffic to and from the Alaskan Interior whenever possible. So they have a tripod set out on a piece of ice, with a wire attached to a clock on land. When the ice moves, it stops the clock.
Tuesday morning we finally got around to exploring Fairbanks. As we drove across the Chena River looking for the Radio Shack (we had left our battery recharger in a previous hotel) we spied a beaver. So we turned around and looped back, and there, from a parking spot in a city park along the river, we watched the busy beaver swim back and forth, duck under water, go up on land, chew on this or that, back in the water. We had seen many beaver lodges and Big rabbit dams, but this was our first honest-to-goodness wild beaver, and we watched quite a while in fascination. Probably the animal was not frightened of humans, but it does bring home how close Alaska is to the wilderness.
We drove on to Fort Wainwright to gas the car, and then followed a path around the city; greater Fairbanks has a population of 80,000, according to the 2000 census. Just then we saw something in a tree, and had to back up again. It was a bird sitting on top of a 10-foot spruce tree. It looked like a small owl. Then it dove off the top of the tree, where it had been watching the ground, and came up with a mouse for breakfast. Wow! We immediately thumbed through Sibley, and verified that it was a Northern Hawk Owl. We feel like experienced, if still amateur, birders.
We snaked up and down the hills, and drove up to the University of Alaska experimental farm, where we saw musk ox and caribou being raised in captivity. As a bonus, there was an adult and a young sandhill crane feeding in the fields, too.
Then we came onto the campus proper. Although the University was founded Alaskan brown bear in 1917, it looks like the buildings were put up yesterday. The museum turned out to be terrific, a must stop for visitors. It looks at the state of Alaska from an interdisciplinary point of view: history, art, sociology, politics, anthropology, life sciences, earth sciences, and so on, and has outstanding story boards. After viewing the museum's five sections, we thought Alaska could be five different states. The southeastern rainforest, the Anchorage area, inland Alaska around the Yukon valley, the frozen east and north coasts, and the Aleutian Islands.
Some of WW II took place on American soil; the Japanese occupied the westernmost Aleutian Islands in 1942, and U.S. soldiers retook the islands in 1943. Before this happened, the government ordered some 800 Aleuts evacuated. But instead of caring for these citizens, they were placed in internment camps, like the Japanese-Americans. Their homes were taken over by U.S. military personnel, resulting in widespread vandalism and theft of religious and historic artifacts.
Since WW II the Aleut leaders have been fighting for recognition and compensation for these injustices. They joined with the Japanese-Americans in working for Congressional legislation, which was finally passed in 1988. Some, Prehistoric bison "Blue Babe" though inadequate, compensation was paid, a statement of apology was passed by Congress, but the acts are still not recorded in history textbooks.
We marveled at a prehistoric bison, nicknamed Blue Babe. It had been killed by an American lion, and its skin covered over with silt and then preserved in permafrost for 36,000 years. The paleontologists pieced together the whole story. Additional displays cover undersea discoveries, the science behind the northern lights, and the construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. We even believe, after seeing the museum's display, that we're beginning to understand permafrost.
The museum had a special exhibit of extraordinary photographs by Michio Hoshino, who specialized in the wildernesses and wildlife of Siberia and Alaska until he died in 1996, killed by a bear on the Kamchatka peninsula.
Fairbanks is such a new city that our lunchtime restaurant, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a restoration of a gold-dredging pumping station in use during the first half of the twentieth century.
After Barrow where the only access is by air, it is pleasant to climb into the truck and have a choice of places to go!