Thursday, 20 May 2010

Land of the midnight sun

And so to the third new entry, and Fairbanks. This is Alaska's largest city in the interior (and second largest in the state), and I can't say I enjoyed it much. It might have had something to do with the hostel - I was greeted at the door by two obese, horridly wheezing pugs and it didn't get much better than that. It's also a very inconvenient city for the non-driver - not so much a town as a very loosely connected collection of far-flung buildings. With, bizarrely, a congregation of tae kwondo and yoga instructors at the top of my road.

Still, I did go to the Museum of the North, the pride of Fairbanks and rightly so. It's got displays on Native culture, on local wildlife - and a 9ft-tall stuffed bear in the foyer. You can't say fairer than that! I was also able to watch several informative films on the Aurora borealis (always there, even if you can't see them because of cloud or sunlight) and on living in the far north through the winter (it gets as cold as minus 60C in town; the locals recommend lots of layers and good boots).

The real reason for the trip north, however, was my tour to the Arctic Circle, some 200 miles north of Fairbanks along the gravel-paved Dalton Highway. If you want wild Alaska, that's really the place to go looking for it - from the subsistence miners and "End of the Roaders" who fill their yards with junk and insure it with Smith & Wesson, to hundreds of miles of arctic tundra. There's only one place to get supplies between Fairbanks and Deadhorse (the oil town on the northern coast). Yukon River encampment is right on the shores of the Yukon - as you might expect - but its big claim to fame is that it sells burgers and blueberry pie. Apart from that, it's just you and the pipeline, which pumps crude oil all the way from Deadhorse to Fairbanks. Although ugly in itself - and much derided by the environmentalists - the 1974 pipeline is a beautiful work of engineering. All the men in our party (three older couples and a guide called Norm) were fascinated by it, though I was more interested in the tree swallows that were nesting in the joists.

It's a long, long haul up to the Arctic Circle, but the scenery is pretty mesmerising - in spring, the tundra is covered not by ice and snow but by black spruce and stunted birch and green mosses; it's unexpected and really pretty, and you can hear birdsong everywhere across the Yukon Flats as they gear up for mating season. Our guide kept us entertained, too: Norm is a real Alaskan, by which I mean he's 61, Republican, he goes hunting and trapping, flies his own floatplane to his cabin in the woods, and moved here 40 years ago because of the freedom. He and I certainly didn't agree on everything, but he had thought hard about his choices and was willing to see that his opinions were just opinions - as long as others did the same. A really interesting guy.

The Circle itself is just an imaginary line in the ground, with a sign to say you've made it. But it didn't feel like an anticlimax to me - now I can feel I've been, and seen a different aspect of Alaska, one that tourists often avoid. I didn't even feel (that) disappointed to miss the Northern Lights - after all, they were right above my head, even if I couldn't see them. And it was cool to have all the daylight - it's early in the season, but it's still bright enough to read at 11pm, and the sun's back in the sky before 4am. By midsummer, it won't set at all.

So after all that, I've caught the railroad down to Talkeetna, a tiny town south of Denali National Park, and the hub for climbers attempting Mt McKinley, the tallest mountain in the States. I too am heading up there tomorrow, but I'm doing it the easy way - in a plane with skis, which will land us on virgin snow up top for a hike. Cheating? Perhaps - but in such a good cause...

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