Thursday, October 2, 2014

Fairbanks revisted

I've got to be honest. Fairbanks is not my favorite city.  On more than one occasion,  I have been excited to learn I'm going to Alaska only to be subsequently disappointed when I hear it is that part of Alaska.  Why, you ask.  I'll tell you.

1.  The hotel we stay at is a menagerie of death.  They have every creature, big and small, all with one thing in common: they are dead and stuffed on the walls.  I know this is what passes for decor in that part of the world but it is still disgusting and walking in that lobby pisses me off every time.

2.  When I think of Alaska, I think of Anchorage, Ketchikan, Seward...places with beautiful expansive water views. Fairbanks is smack in the middle of the state and other than a river or two, has no water view to speak of. You will see no whales in Fairbanks.

3.  Years back, a group of us rented a car at the Fairbanks airport.  I asked the guy at the agency if there was a chance that we would see moose.  His response:  "You can't miss them.  They are everywhere."  Well, guess what. We did and they weren't.  This cemented in my mind the fact that all the people of Fairbanks are big fat liars.

With all of this in mind, I was not exactly ecstatic when I learned that I would be in Fairbanks for almost three days.  At least the weather would be decent, hovering around the 70's, which seemed surprising for Alaska in mid-September.

Another surprise followed.  We would not be staying at Ye Olde Inn o' Death.  We would be staying in- I kid you not- the North Pole.  No, not the one where Santa lives a mysterious life with a bunch of midgets and a heavily mutated reindeer.  That town is 1700 miles from this one.  This North Pole is only 13 miles from Fairbanks and is the result of a spectacularly failed marketing attempt.  At some point in time, I imagine a group of men (it had to be men!) sat around an office trying to figure out how to bring industry to this remote outpost close to a city with no ocean view and dubious moose claims.  One dude, the one with the motivational poster of a kitten poking it's head out of a UPS package and wearing funny sunglasses that says "Think outside the box", had an idea.  Why not name the town "North Pole" causing all the toy manufacturers to flock there so as to have their boxes read "Made in the North Pole".  Because as everyone knows, the provenance of their playthings is what is of upmost importance to children.

Somehow, against all laws of reason and probability, the others agreed with him.  Thus, the city of North Pole was born.  Sadly, the rallying cry of "If you build it, they will come" failed these poor people. The toy factories, all happily ensconced in their Chinese sweatshops, never came calling. Instead, they got kooks, like a fat bearded guy who legally changed his name to Kris Kringle and a slew of people who were just looking for an excuse to hang xmas decorations year-round.

I can't possibly imagine living here but as a place to visit, it is actually kind of endearing.  That plus the North Pole Hotel-it's actual name-was thankfully cruelty free.

We stopped in at the Santa House, a year-round xmas stuff shop, whose main business is generated by its postmark.  You can have any letters and postcards "from Santa" mailed the next day or withheld until xmas time.  They had the typical "what do you want for xmas?" and "I'll be seeing you soon" form letters available but more entertaining were the "Stop being a little bastard or come December, you're not getting squat.  Love, Santa" missives that could be purchased and mailed to your little truant.  I myself bought a postcard for my boyfriend and inscribed it with "Go ahead and be as naughty as you like.  I'm cool with it.  Your pal, Santa".

With the postcard sent and the mega-Santa pic snapped, there was not much else to do in North Pole, Alaska so we drove into downtown Fairbanks.

The weather was lovely, all the people we encountered were friendly and the free city museum, located in the visitor's center, was interesting and well-presented.  It was almost enough to make me re-think my feelings on Fairbanks.

I guess technically, this is a body of water....
But the test was going to come in the drive east towards the Chena Hot Springs Resort.  The somewhat desolate 62 mile drive had been deemed by locals as our best chance to see moose. The folks we spoke with were more circumspect in their predictions then the rental car liar years back and warned us that, since it was hunting season (ugh!!), the moose would be justifiably wary of open areas.

For over an hour, we kept our eyes glued to the road, hoping to see a rogue antler moving in the brush.  We pulled over and walked on a trail that followed the river.  We proclaimed loudly that we were not hunters and meant them no harm.  Still no stinking moose.

Around 7pm, we arrived at the Hot Springs. We had come to both bath in the therapeutic waters and possibly see the Northern Lights.

The resort had more of the feel of a summer camp, with bungalows, activity centers and a rustic bar and restaurant on property.  There was at least one busload, possibly two, of Japanese tourists staying the night so there was plenty of activity everywhere you looked.

If we wanted a chance at recreating the promotional brochure photo of happy tourists hanging out in the hot springs while the Aurora Borealis put on a dazzling display, we would at least have to wait until it got dark, which was somewhere around 9pm.  To kill time, we ate, we drank, we took photos. I wandered around the property trying to get a look at the hot springs themselves.  To do this, you could either pay the admission fee and walk through the locker room or you could walk around the back of building and take a peek through a fence.

I opted for the latter choice and saw a smallish spring, about the size of a large backyard swimming pool, with some cheapy plastic chairs placed around the edges.  It was not exactly Iceland's Blue Lagoon. But what can you expect, it is after all, still


We were already here, so it would have to do.  As I turned around to go back towards my friends, something moving caught my eye.'s a Moose!!!!  EVERYBODY, MOOOOOOOOOOSE!!!

Or at least that's what I wanted to scream.  But I didn't want to frighten the poor thing with my moose mania (or in his eyes, just plain old mania).  I slowly and quietly approached, worried that if I even breathed too loud, he would dart out, straight into the scope of some asshole hunter.

I had underestimated the chillness of this moose.  As I got closer, it dawned on Bullwinkle that he was hungry.  Instead of running, he had zen-ly downward dogged himself onto a tasty patch of grass and started munching. He remained in this position as I got closer.  He remained this way as the entire Japanese contingent came out of their cabins, cameras in hand and approached him as well.

There was not a soul at the Chena Hot Springs Resort who left without a photo of him that day. During the course of that one moose meal, Fairbanks had been redeemed in my eyes.  With this feat crossed off the list, we soaked luxuriously in the hot springs, feeling any signs of tension ooze out of our bodies.  

Around midnight, we were pruny and slightly boiled yet there was still no sign of the Northern Lights, so we abandoned that project.  I heard the next day that they had appeared sometime around 3am but no worries, they also appeared the following evening, just as we were flying towards Sapporo, Japan.

That morbid hotel may stay still be there and unless global warming goes hyper-speed, there is still no ocean to speak of but thanks to that one lovely day, I don't think I will cringe the next time I learn I am going to Fairbanks.  But I will still prefer Anchorage and Ketchikan...

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