Exploring stillness at the edge of the Arctic
A visual bouquet, Fairbanks is filled with breathtaking sights rarely seen by the contiguous 48.
In Fairbanks, Alaska, late September is the heart of their fall — a vibrant and short season before the snow begins in October. And while winters span six months and can include less than four hours of daylight each day, fall is anything but dim. The rain comes, and with it fog that cascades over the mountaintops, overflowing and pouring through the valleys. The air smells of burnt wet leaves and the yellow of late season birch trees covers the hillsides along Steese Highway. The nights are quiet and still, enhancing the subtle sounds of nature.
Alaska is a different kind of place. A mix of terrain akin to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, the trees and cumulus clouds of Scandinavia, and the arctic frosts of Russia.
Booking.com recently sent their first official Chief Booking Officer Cameron Phillips to 23 of their most awe-inspiring accommodations over the course of three months. His last stop: Fairbanks, Alaska. What follows is photographic love poem for the Golden Heart City. From huddling in freezers to sweating it out eating prik kee noo suan, Phillips dove into the belly of this rarely explored region, experiencing unknown pleasures below the Arctic Circle.
The Borealis Basecamp
25 miles above downtown Fairbanks sits the Borealis Basecamp. Atop the Elliott Highway, one has to travel three miles on a dirt road into the forest to get to the clearing where the basecamp is set up. The reward for your venture? Zero light pollution inside of a sprawling 100 acre boreal forest. The basecamp is comprised of modern geodesic fiberglass domes which, as the estate’s name suggests, are ideal for taking in views of the aurora borealis. On Phillips’s trip, clouds took over the sky but even without the Northern Lights, the basecamp still offers idyllic views into an autumnal paradise.
The geodesic fiberglass domes are similar to those used by polar expeditions and research stations of the past, with 16 foot windows for viewing the surrounding sky and landscape. Each dome is outfitted with a sink, a refrigerator, a hot water pot, and a chic bathroom. Emphasizing the rural environment that encircles you, the owners of the basecamp use water tanks, generators, and batteries to provide power, separating themselves from the city below with its modern conveniences.
For a communal space and future restaurant site, the Borealis Basecamp constructed a dining yurt with massive windows providing breathtaking views of distant expanses. The basecamp is less of a voyeuristic view of the natural world and instead a complete immersion into the Alaskan wilderness.
Chena Hot Springs Road
Sights from the Chena Hot Springs Road provide a glimpse into Alaska’s history. The Chena River evokes images of the Fairbanks Gold Rush, as the initial gold strike coincided with Captain E.T. Barnette’s construction of trading posts along the river. The presence of gold, oil, and other natural resources helped Alaska to achieve early economic prosperity around the turn of the century. There’s still gold in Chena too, and stopping to take a picture, Phillips looks down at the water to see if there is a flicker of light hidden beneath the surface.
The ride from Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs is about 56.5 miles but should be taken slow with full attention on the tree lined highway alongside Chena Hot Springs Road. The Chena River has remained in heavy use as a conduit for shipping timber from the surrounding forests into downtown Fairbanks through barge, for fishing, and to carry residents out to the nearby hot springs.
Chena Hot Springs Resort
Discovered in 1905, the hot springs literally put Chena on the map. Eight years after their discovery, the U.S. War Department built the first trail to the hot springs in 1913. Of the varied wildlife you are likely to find here, highlights include moose, beaver, fox, lynx, and coyotes, as well as black and grizzly bears.
When current owners Bernie Karl and Connie Parks-Karl bought the resort in 1998, they intended to keep the hot springs as untainted as possible, keeping the resort’s natural beauty in place. In addition to adding a new building to the property – the 40-room Moose Lodge – Bernie Karl aimed to make the resort more sustainable, a desire that seems to have seeped into every nook of the estate.
The resort obtains heat and electricity through geothermal technology, using the heat of the springs to bring power to their guests. The resort also has its own organic farm inside of a geothermal heated greenhouse, which produces lettuce and tomatoes for the resort’s restaurant and employees. Outside of their sustainability efforts, the resort’s owners also wanted to give back to their local community that supported them and as of 2016, the Chena Hot Springs Resort was a completely employee-owned property.
The Aurora Ice Museum
Within the estate at Chena Hot Springs Resort exists the Aurora Ice Museum. Maintained by world ice carving champions and married couple Steve and Heather Brice, the Aurora Ice Museum is the world’s largest year-round ice environment. The Ice Museum was completed in January 2005, a design collaboration between Steve Brice and Bernie Karl.
Frozen gems inside the Aurora Ice Museum include a two story observation tower with a circular staircase, life-sized jousters on horseback, polar bears and polar bear beds, a Christmas tree bedroom, a children’s two-story fort and bedroom, an ice xylophone, an ice leopard, and a Northern Lights themed room. Take a tour of the ice museum and you are also sure to walk away with their signature ice apple-tini glasses. With so many fragile ice sculptures in their museum, the Brice’s have to keep the ice museum at a chilly 25° Fahrenheit (-3.9 degrees Celsius). To keep their place freezing, the Brice’s harnesses the hot springs thermal energy generator for their patented absorption chiller. To help their guests enjoy their cold chambers, the Brices lend visitors complimentary parkas.
But the patented chiller is just the tip of the iceberg for Steve’s contributions to his pastime of choice. An artist and entrepreneur, Steve Brice has created over 300 different tools and innovations with the aim of improving the craft of Ice Sculpting, many of which are available on his website. Outside of toolmaking, Steve is a 16-time world champion ice carver as well as N.I.C.A (National Ice Carving Association) certified and his wife, Heather, a 7-time world champion.
Thai House Restaurant
Spend an afternoon in Fairbanks and one is sure to notice the abundance of Thai food restaurants. As of 2014, there were 14 Thai restaurants open for business in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Nearly at Starbucks levels in downtown Fairbanks, three Thai restaurants sit within a square block of one another. There are even drive-thru Thai restaurants, namely Sam’s Taste of Thai in the Goldstream Valley neighborhood on the western edge of town.
On a chilly Thursday night, Phillips made it into Thai House Restaurant in downtown Fairbanks. A charming neighborhood spot, locals couldn’t seem to hold back enthusiastic thank yous and appreciation upon finishing their meals, exchanging hugs and best wishes with the establishment’s warm staff. Originally a hole-in-the-wall restaurant before moving to its current location on 5th Avenue, the Thai House Restaurant was actually the genesis of Fairbanks Thai as they were the first ones to bring the food to region in 1989. The Thai House Restaurant would go on to be an influential part of the contemporary Fairbanks culinary scene, as many of its staff would go on to start their own restaurants, including Lemongrass Thai Cuisine’s Tutu Navachai.
Sticking to decades-old recipes with big portions and multiple levels of spiciness (from mild to Thai Spicy 3), the food at Thai House Restaurant is pitch perfect and the utmost filling, charging Phillips and company up for another trek around the Alaskan wilderness.
Running Reindeer Ranch
Tucked away in the forests of Goldstream Valley, past Sam’s Thai and the University of Fairbanks, sits the Running Reindeer Ranch. The ranch is the home of two wanderlust struck travelers, Jane Atkinson and Doug Toelle. The ranch’s story goes like this: Jane’s daughter Robin had an insatiable appetite for pets as a kid. One day, after a trip to the Reindeer Research Program in Fairbanks, Robin knew that her life’s mission was to own a reindeer. To quell her daughter’s eagerness, Jane agreed that Robin could buy the reindeer if she could save up money for two of them, which essentially meant that her 12-year-old would have to raise $4,000. In two years, Robin had actually amassed half of that, earned through selling cookie dough, and proud of his daughter’s motivation, Robin’s biological dad gave her the rest of the money. Suddenly, Jane and Doug were a livestock helming family.
Originally starting the ranch as a 4-H project in 2007, Jane and Doug turned their pastime into a full-fledged business in 2010.
Spend an afternoon with Atkinson, and it’s hard not to channel her fervent energy and enthusiasm for reindeer. A passionate member of the reindeer community, Atkinson has even traveled to Mongolia and Norway to study with herders, always seeking to know more about the creatures she cares for so deeply.
A vegetarian and life-long Alaskan, Atkinson has lived in Fairbanks for over 35 years. She came up with the name for her venture when her first two reindeer, Ruby and Moon, escaped from their pen and wound up traipsing through the construction site of what would become a McDonald’s. While her current reindeer are more calm and collected than her business’s name might suggest, some names just stick.
Museum of the North
Within the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks is the Museum of the North, Alaska’s natural history and art museum. With several different sections, the museum covers Alaska’s five geographic regions through objects and artifacts, the evolution of wildlife in Alaska, space and the aurora borealis, as well as Alaskan art, from traditional to modern, ancient ivory carvings to Alaska Native objects.
One of the museum’s most coveted exhibits is “Blue Babe,” which is North America’s first frozen mummified remains of an ice age steppe bison, dating back 36,000 years. Found during the Alaskan gold rush in 1979, a busy miner uncovered the bison’s feet sticking out of the mud and turned it over to Dale Guthrie of the University of Alaska. A necropsy was later performed and confirmed Blue Babe’s archeological importance. However, the display of “Blue Babe” at the Museum of the North is not the actual full-fledged find, as Blue’s tanned and treated skin was removed from his carcass and placed on a plaster replica of his body.
A very strange twist to the story, Guthrie would later admit to serving parts of Blue Babe’s neck in a stew at a dinner party in 1984. “It tasted a little bit like what I would have expected, with a little bit of wring of mud,” Guthrie told Atlas Obscura. “But it wasn’t that bad. Not so bad that we couldn’t each have a bowl.”
Another coveted exhibit at the Museum of the North is the immersive installation space, “The Place Where You Go to Listen,” created by John Luther Adams. A Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, Luther’s exhibition is a unique sound and light environment meant to mirror the ever-changing sounds of the natural world, giving voices to the rhythms of daylight and darkness, the phases of the moon, the seismic vibrations of the earth, as well as the swell of the aurora borealis. In a note to the participant, Adams infers, “When no one is here, the forces of nature continue to reverberate within this space. But the awareness of the listener brings it to life.”
When asking around for Alaskan recommendations, a former Fairbanks inhabitant urged Phillips and crew to check out The Marlin on College Road, a quintessential Alaskan bar. A warm dive with many local Alaskan brewers on tap and in a bottle, The Marlin is the bar you want to visit in Alaska. Just down the UAF Hill and a few blocks from the corner of College & University Ave, the Marlin is the kind of basement bar where anything might happen, where college-aged kids mingle with local regulars, where live music rings out loud Wednesdays through Saturdays and last calls go until the earlier morning. An everyone-friendly bar replete with a hostel upstairs and a smoker-friendly back patio, The Marlin is a confluence of forces. On Phillips’s Friday check in, the owners of The Marlin were preparing for a DJ night with Fairbanks local Spin Master Theme touting an “EDM, House, [and] Dance Night,” as an impromptu afterparty for Caravan of Glam, a traveling drag show that was visiting the college earlier that evening.
Leaving the Marlin, the bar’s marquee lights up a grey stretch of night sky on this strip of College Road. Cars pull in and droves of 20-somethings walk excitedly to their favorite watering hole. The end of Phillip’s trip, he gets back into his rental car before he turns in for his last night. The city lights of Fairbanks gently get dimmer and dimmer driving up Steese Highway until there’s no light at all.