Alaska Excursions

Alaska Excursions

A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.

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Fairbanks in the summertime is an explosion of activity

The trans-Alaska pipeline runs into the pump station near the Yukon River, north of Fairbanks, Alaska, Aug 10, 2005.

The Associated Press

The trans-Alaska pipeline runs into the pump station near the Yukon River, north of Fairbanks, Alaska, Aug 10, 2005.

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Fairbanks in the summer is all about being outside.

A sort of mania takes over, a reaction to day after dim winter day of bare-bones daylight, when the noonday sun just skims over the horizon at winter's darkest. Once that flips and the sun is on its way to just skimming under the horizon in the middle of the night, Fairbanksans start to vibrate from all those solar rays.

In March and April, they whip out their lawn chairs and plop them into snowbanks, grinning behind their sunglasses at the returning sunlight amplified off the snow.

In May, denizens of the Golden Heart City hop on their bikes, grab their fishing poles or running shoes and dust off their boats and gold pans.

Sure, there are some mosquitoes and hornets, but with that light calling, who cares?

There are annual traditions to celebrate, like the Annual Harley Davidson Motorcycle Spring Run. The 30-mile motorcycle run from Fairbanks to Chatanika Lodge for barbecue and games is set for May 20 this year.

Then the Fairbanks Summer Folk Fest, June 9 this year, fills up Pioneer Park with free live folk, bluegrass, blues, jazz and Celtic music, starting at noon and running until 10 p.m.

Prime time for light is the third week of June, around the longest day of the year: summer solstice, June 21.

Fairbanks celebrates with more music, games, food and general merriment.

In an Alaska twist on the nation's classic summer sport, the Alaska Goldpanners baseball club marks solstice by playing through the night. This summer, as usual, the 102nd Midnight Sun Baseball Game starts around sunset, at 10:30 p.m. Around midnight, there's a pause for the Alaska Flag song. By the time the game ends, the sun is on its way back up.

Those who want to be a part of the action might try the Midnight Sun Fun Run. The 10K race starts at 10 p.m. and attracts more than 3,000 runners. Many wear costumes - like a couch, sported by a "couch potato."

There's also midnight sun golf, midnight sun square dancing, midnight sun Shakespeare, a Midnight Sun Intertribal Powwow and midnight sun shopping. For years, the city has hosted a street fair downtown, with food and arts and crafts vendors, live music and entertainers.

I suppose it's really midnight sunlight, because from town, the sun does go below the horizon, even on the solstice. For a view of the midnight sun itself, you'll need to find a high point. Eagle Summit, about 100 miles north of Fairbanks, out the Steese Highway, is a classic watching spot, with a great view. A little closer in is Murphy Dome, at the end of Murphy Dome Road in the Goldstream Valley.

Or head out Chena Hot Springs Road and hike to the top of the 12-mile loop known as the Granite Tors Trail, which leads to a scattering of dark gray rock fingers sticking some 20 feet high out of the tundra-topped hills. If you go, bring plenty of water, because there's no source once the trail lifts past the boardwalks over the marshy flats past the trail head. There is a pump at the trail head for filling water bottles and pet bowls.

A nice finish to a trek up the Tors Trail or the shorter Angel Rocks Trail, also out Chena Hot Springs Road, is a stop at the road's namesake for a soothing soak. Refresh weary muscles and tired feet in the same hot, mineral-rich water enjoyed by Interior gold miners through the years.

The Alaska Public Lands Information Center is a great source for information on plenty more trails and hot springs throughout the Interior, as well as fishing, gold panning and all kinds of other fun stuff. The center has children's activities as well.

Pioneer Park, off Airport Road, is another family-friendly place. Besides playgrounds, open grassy areas and a train that visitors can ride around the perimeter of the park, there are casual volleyball courts, miniature golf, an aviation museum, an art gallery and the rail car that President Harding rode in on his visit to the 49th state in 1923 (long before it was a state).

Park planners gathered historic homes from early Fairbanks, some made from logs, some from lumber, and lined pedestrian paths with them. Now they are mini-museums or shops, selling art, ice cream, old-time photos or other fun fare.

A park highlight is a giant white riverboat that looks like something out of a Mark Twain novel. If the tales I heard as a kid are true, the ship floated there during the Fairbanks flood of 1967. That's not the story on the borough's Web site, but I still like my childhood version.

Similar riverboats still ply the Tanana and Chena rivers, now as a tourism operation called Riverboat Discovery, run by a local family. Fairbanks was founded by riverboat accident, as legend has it, when a captain refused to take E.T. Barnette any further up a low river. Barnette unloaded on the banks of the Chena River the makings of the trading post he'd planned to build further along.

Italian immigrant Felix Pedro is credited with a major gold strike nearby, securing Barnette's future in the short term and kicking off Fairbanks' over the long term.

Now each summer in July, Fairbanks holds a Golden Days celebration, with the winner of the annual Felix Pedro look-alike contest leading a mule over a bridge across the Chena River bearing fake gold nuggets. This year's extravaganza is July 18-22.

To see real gold nuggets, visit the recently expanded University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum of the North.

The mascot of the award-winning attraction is Otto, a stuffed brown bear standing at attention to welcome visitors to a natural-history section that houses everything from massive gold nuggets to the hide of a fossilized steppe bison . There also are examples of Alaska Native artwork, from ancient tools to modern art. Displays of special regalia and everyday items illustrate cultures from different regions of the state.

There's an open boat used by hunters off the north coast. Woven blankets hold the imagery of clans in Southeast. Athabascan beadwork from the Interior portrays colorful wildflowers on gloves and slippers of fur-trimmed moosehide.

In the new section of the museum, many works by beloved Alaska artists, such as Sydney Laurence, formerly tucked away in storage are now on display.

The university's Georgeson Botanical Garden is a great place for a picnic. Fairbanks summers usually offer up great picnic weather, as well, with sunny blue skies and moderate temperatures.

The daily average ranges from around 60 degrees Fahrenheit in May to the 70s in June and July, with highs into the 80s and, rarely, the 90s. In August, traditionally a rainy month, that's less likely, with the average temperature in the mid-60s.

After a picnic, consider a trip to the Robert White Large Animal Research Station to see the musk oxen and caribou that live there and to learn about qiviut, the incredibly light, warm under-wool that musk oxen shed each spring. The fiber is collected and spun into luxurious yarn. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, tours are offered seven days a week.

Visitors in August can come see all that midnight sun in tangible form: vegetables at the Tanana Valley State Fair. Though sometimes rainy, August is when gardens have had a chance to mature and families don't yet have to prepare for school in the fall. So come see the giant cabbages; watch the young Alaskans in 4-H show their goats, rabbits, steers and other critters; admire the quilts; eat the mini-doughnuts; ride the rides and, most of all, soak in the last of the late-night light.

Freelance writer Sarana Schell lives in Anchorage.

Contacts in Fairbanks

- Fairbanks Convention & Visitors Bureau: www.explorefairbanks.com , 1-800-327-5774, info@explore fairbanks.com

- Alaska Public Lands Information Center: www.nps.gov/aplic/about_us/faplic.html , 456-0527

- University of Alaska Museum of the North: www.uaf.edu/museum , 474-7505

- Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station: www.uaf.edu/lars , 474-5724

- Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre "Shakespeare Under the Midnight Sun": www.fairbanks-shakespeare.org , 457-POET (7638)

- The ArcticCam, pointed toward downtown Fairbanks, the Chena River and the Cushman Street Bridge: www.arcticcam.com/cam

- Pioneer Park: co.fairbanks.ak.us/ParksandRecreation/PioneerPark , 459-1087

Editor's picks

- Go north: Visit the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum of the North. The museum is the perfect combination of art and history. This summer, enjoy an exhibit about contemporary Alaska Native art.

- Get on the river: Riverboats have been an integral part of the history of Fairbanks and the Interior. Hop aboard the Riverboat Discovery and learn about the lifestyle of Alaska.

- Enjoy the sun: They don't call it the midnight sun for nothing. Stay up late, walk the trails, enjoy the riverfront and, if you're in town on June 21, enjoy the Midnight Sun Festival with a bunch of locals.

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