Fairbanks’ Foggy Northern Lights Obscure Denali Peak

The weather in Alaska was..

“… Alaskan,” the taxi driver reported. “It always rains in August.”

“Maybe it will clear later today. We’re on the train north and we want to see Denali.”
RR train Alaska Rail in Denali

“Well, that won’t happen.”

“And we’re going to Fairbanks to see the Northern Lights.”

“The only time to see them is
February.” the driver helpfully informed us.

The train was efficient and the views were magnificent. We rode on the upper level that features transparent window viewing in all directions. We even had (a good) breakfast on the train and we didn’t have to worry at all about our luggage: it was delivered to our hotel room before we could get there.

And, while we didn’t see Mount Denali, we did learn about Alaskan traditions and history. Sometimes, the speakers in the train led to a garbled message. For example, when the guide explained the history behind the The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race — which he claimed had begun when..
nazy and santa dog

“… mushers used dogs and sleds to Nome during an emergency.”

“Why did the dogs in Nome want mushrooms?” Nazy asked.

“Eh…” I began.

“And who mushed them all up?”

“And why would they do it on the sleds in the snow?” I replied. “Alaskans have unusual sports.”

Our hotel, the McKinley Chalets, featured great rooms, a good restaurant, wonderful views of mountains and lakes (but
not of Denali), lots of annual flowers and a fully decorated Christmas Tree in the lobby because National Parks celebrate Christmas on August 25th following a tradition that began in Yellowstone in the 1930s.

View from the Train to Denali
reflection on train to denali

We had booked a tour deep into the park. It left…

“… 6:30!?” Nazy exclaimed. “Who planned that?”
Unbelievably, we arrived at the pickup point at 6:35… but we were met by a brusque guide.

“As everyone knows, unless thay had their head in the sand, the road in Denali has been closed at mile 42 because of frost heaves. So this trip has been cancelled…”

“I didn’t know that United Airlines owned the Denali Tours,” I thought, reflecting as I thought about cancellations in my travel experiences.

“That’s not our tour, Nazy noted as a second bus pulled up. Our tour guide was somewhat more pleasant.

“I have good news — and bad news. The bad news? The park road is closed at mile 42. The good news? We will still be able to see animals and mountains and the tour will start at 8:45.”

We could have slept another 2 hours?” Nazy thought.

It was, unfortunately, not worthwhile to go back to bed, so we had a hearty breakfast and a short walk around the area.

Entering Denali park with dan and naz

When we began the tour, the guide remained focused on lemons and lemonade. She pointed to wild animals so far away that they were basically unrecognizable. She even stopped the bus so we could see a ground squirrel. Naturally, I was impressed.

“I wonder if we can drown in lemonade?” I asked Nazy, who, in turn, asked the guide to point out the location of Mount Denali.

“It’s in that direction,” the guide replied pointing to a nearby cloud.

We had dinner (a great salmon) that night at Karstens Public House where we were serenaded by a Jim Croce tribute singer. We later heard Jim Croce tribute singers in Fairbanks and Anchorage, so we conclude the Jim is popular in Alaska.

Wild Caribou in Denali Park (three of them… each one pixel)

Denali Park with Caribu far far away

We were booked on a late afternoon train to Fairbanks the next day, so we had time to hike around Horseshoe Lake in the Park.

The lake, created by busy beavers, is, like everything in Denali, really beautiful. iThe hike is about a three mile loop, mostly flat, but with cool vistas at every corner.

And, as you can see from the photo, the clouds were beginning to dissipate…

“… in Denali,” I commented. “But we are going to Fairbanks.”

Horseshoe lake 5

“It’s foggy and raining in Fairbanks,” Nazy concurred after checking with Siri.

Perhaps we will be able to see Mount Denali on the train.” I thought — in err.

I asked the guide about seeing the Northern Lights.. he said that
March was best.

The train from Denali to Fairbanks took about 4 hours and passed through countryside that wasn’t quite as spectacular as what we had seen on the way to Denali. But, at least, the black spruce were…

“ … not dying,” Nazy noted.

“At least not here,” I replied. The guide had told us that the spruce between Anchorage and Denali were being devastated by
spruce bark beetles which, because it’s not as cold in Alaska as it used to be, are no longer killed by the winter weather.
The Alaka Pipeline

Baggage claim at the Fairbanks station was a chaotic mess. 100+ people milled around (most maskless) while a forklift brought about 8 bags at a time. Some passengers took on themselves to lift the suitcases into the air so that people in the back could get them. The claim ‘belt’ was too narrow for more than about 10 suitcases.

Melika had arranged a magnificent hotel far from the city center of Fairbanks. This was a very good choice, because, as we later found out, there is not much in the Fairbanks City Center.

I had decided to visit Fairbanks to see the Northern Lights — so I asked the taxi driver about our chances. He wasn’t sanguine about our chances..
Retired Pig in Fairbanks

“You’re too early — the best time is in September.”

We called a taxi into town the next morning. I cheerfully asked..

“What can we do in downtown?”

“Not much,”the driver responded. “
Nothing,” the driver thought. “But I can show you the pipeline.”

(It turns out that viewing the pipeline, which is not actually inside the city, is a (or ‘the&rsquoWinking thing to do in Fairbanks. I was a bit annoyed when Nazy took the picture at the left. Note: the ‘Retired Pig’ is the piece of machinery behind me.

It took a while to get into town because the road was being repaired after a frost heave — a heave caused because the permafrost was melting. In short, it wasn’t as cold as it used to be. Amazingly, they were installing heat exchangers along the highway to keep the permafrost frozen.

I asked the taxi driver about the best time to see the Northern Lights. He recommended

We walked around the ‘town’, running into some people we had met in Denali. They strongly recommended that we not see the Ice Museum because…

“… it stinks. Literally.”

I had booked a ‘Northern Lights’ viewing excursion that evening and, although all the taxi drivers were unenthusiastic and the clouds were stubbornly immobile, we persevered. And, at about 2:30AM, the clouds vanished for a short time, the Big Dipper showed up and we were graced by a little bit of Northern Lights.

The Big Dipper (if you look closely) and 'lights'

big dipper in Fairbanks
Back at the hotel, I did some research and discovered that the best way to view Denali on our flight back to Anchorage would be to sit on the right side of the airplane. I changed our seats appropriately.

The taxi driver that took us to the airport was, eh, opinionated. He was certain that the covid vaccine was part of Bill Gates’ plan to use injected microchips to track everyone. And, he was also sure that vaccinated people in Israel had become sterile and had developed pointy red blood cells. But…

“My wife got the vaccine because she works at the University.” He concluded.

Our time in Fairbanks was coming to and end — but we still had more time in Alaska. Find out what happened in the next issue of The
Weekly Letter.

For last week's letter, please click here

nazy sunflower in Anchorage

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