A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Photo from Associated Press archive 2004
A pair of sandhill cranes spar while feeding at the Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. Thousands of cranes and Canada geese make stops at the refuge on their fall migration route.
In modern-day Fairbanks, a city largely built on Gold Rush fervor at the beginning of the 20th century, discovery and exploration continue to thrive. Today, Alaska's northernmost big city serves as a hub not only for ground and air travel but also for science research.
-- Susan Sharbaugh, senior biologist, Alaska Bird Observatory
-- Susan Sharbaugh, senior biologist, Alaska Bird Observatory
The same things that make Alaska a unique center for tourism have drawn scientists too, who study everything from caribou migrations to climate change to aurora physics. The University of Alaska Fairbanks, flagship campus of the statewide university system, is a leader in Arctic studies, with more than a dozen research institutes and centers focusing on the region. Numerous federal and state agencies, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, are also based here.
The result, says UAF glaciologist Carl Benson: "The community here is pretty intense."
Although summers find many Fairbanks scientists out at remote sites taking advantage of the Midnight Sun to pursue their field research, visitors with a yen for learning can still find many ways to indulge their curiosities, from helping handle temperamental chickadees to taking a virtual tour of a supercomputer.
The University of Alaska Museum of the North is a natural first stop for anyone interested in Alaska's people, places and wildlife. Accessible and interesting to all ages, museum highlights include "Blue Babe," a 36,000-year-old mummified Alaska steppe bison, Alaska Native art and artifacts, and the state's largest public display of gold. A 50-minute multimedia program about the northern lights, Dynamic Aurora, is also offered daily. Admission is $5 adults, $3 youths 7-17, free to children 6 and younger.
The museum is currently adding a new wing (debuting in September), so you will see signs of construction, but the Gallery of Alaska will be open daily.
Science buffs also may seek out one of several behind-the-scenes research center tours. One tour on campus that has received raves is the "virtual tour" at the Arctic Region Computing Center. Visitors wearing special glasses get a virtual walk-through of the facility's supercomputer, as well as seeing demonstrations based on current research, such as tsunami modeling or permafrost studies. A few participants even get to participate in a "hands-on" demonstration, such as painting a virtual picture. The tour takes about an hour.
If there's a rocket buff in the family, you may also want to shoot over to the Poker Flat Research Range facility, where researchers in winter launch rockets to explore the aurora.
On the way, you are likely to notice evidence of another subject of intense research interest in the region: burned trees. The 2004 wildfire season claimed more than 6.7 million acres, making it Alaska's biggest fire season in recorded history. Last summer, fires came so close to the rocket facility, tours there were canceled.
Look closely among the burned trees and you'll probably already notice signs of renewal and regrowth, such as the blooms of bright pink flowers called fireweed. Morel mushrooms also are known to pop up in profusion a year or two after fires.
Tempted to do your own burned forest research? Be aware that "snags," or trees whose root systems have been burned out underground, are susceptible to toppling. Ash pits, which look like solid ground, can also injure unwary hikers, warns the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. And, of course, don't pick or eat any mushrooms or other wild foods unless you know what you're doing; harmful mushrooms and plants also abound.
A wise first step for any outdoors exploring is to start in downtown Fairbanks at the Public Lands Information Center, where you can get maps, tips and any updated information or cautions on trail and forest conditions. Stop by the corner of Cushman Street and Third Avenue, or call 1-907-456-0527.
Finally, don't pass through Fairbanks without following the birds to Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. Once the site of the largest independent dairy in Alaska, these fields have been preserved as a refuge for the thousands of ducks, geese, cranes and other birds whose annual congregation here is a community event.
Among the amazing sights you might see: hundreds to thousands of sandhill cranes, whose migration south peaks here in late August/mid-September.
The field's 40 miles of trails include a one-mile, self guided boreal forest interpretive trail that offers a good overview of both forest and wetland habitats. There also are guided nature walks four days a week. A nice side effect of walking through a bird refuge: Swallows dashing about and feasting on mosquitoes make much of the area "fairly mosquito free" says wildlife biologist Mark D. Ross. (Though, for any outdoor Fairbanks foray, it doesn't hurt to have some repellent or head-nets handy, just in case.)
Also located here is the Alaska Bird Observatory bird banding station, open to the public from May through September. Biologists here annually round up about 3,000 birds representing 40 to 50 species. Visitors who come early (call for times) may be able to walk around with staff biologists to observe as they check lightweight nets for songbirds passing through on their way to Argentina, Brazil, Florida or other destinations. The research is part of an ongoing effort to monitor migration.
The banding process involves plucking the birds from the net, then measuring and weighing them. "Chickadees start to ball up all the net in their feet and at the same time constantly peck at your fingers and fight you," says Susan Sharbaugh, senior biologist at Alaska Bird Observatory. "Other birds are just little sweethearts."
Birders and children alike enjoy the rare opportunity to see the birds up close and in their breeding plumage, Sharbaugh says. Some lucky visitors may even be able to help release a bird.
Freelance writer Sonya Senkowsky lives in Anchorage.