Anna Harrison gets out and about in the biggest city in Alaska's interior

Fairbanks is cold. Really cold. It's a city on a river plain in the heart of Alaska's interior and the people who live there are pretty hardy souls. The average winter temperature is about -12C but it can get below -50C. That means people have outdoor freezers they don't plug in and snow machines and huskies are valid forms of transport.

Visiting the city, too, is governed by the cold. But as long as you have your thermals and snow gear, you'll be fine to explore and enjoy everything it has to offer.

Spot the aurora

Fairbanks is the place to be if you want to see the Northern Lights. The city is known for its clear skies and you can spot the green curtains rippling across the heavens after 10pm most winter nights.

Advertisement

Take a tour to a good lookout away from the city lights with your camera and a tripod. Be prepared to be patient — they tend to be a bit unpredictable but the payoff is worth it.

If you don't have the staying power for an hours-long vigil in the middle of the night, ask if your hotel offers aurora wakeup calls; they'll ring your room if the display is bright enough to be seen from the comfort of your hotel balcony.

Warm up at Chena

The natural hot springs at Chena are best at night when the steam swirls around the banks of snow at the edges of the pool — it's pretty magical. The only downside is the shock of cold air on your bare skin as you dash from the changing rooms into the steaming water. If it's a clear night, relax underneath the stars and watch for the aurora. While you wait, dip your hair in the water and feel it turn to ice as you lift it out into the cold air. Visit their ice museum to see impressive sculptures and sip a sickly sweet appletini from a glass made of ice at the bar.

An ice glass at Chena hot springs. Photo / 123rf
An ice glass at Chena hot springs. Photo / 123rf

Drive through history

Even if you're not a petrolhead, Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is fascinating. It shows the development of cars from motorised carriages in the 1900s to slick speed machines in the 1930s. Stars include the only surviving 1898 Hay Motor Vehicle and a butter yellow 1936 Packard, oozing sophistication.

A feature is Alaska's first car, built in 1905 by Bobby Sheldon to win over a girl. She wasn't impressed by his resourcefulness but you will be — the seats are made from bar stools and a tyre of fire hose. All but a few of the 85 vehicles are drivable.

Clothes and accessories from the period allow visitors to imagine the kinds of people who would be gadding about the countryside in them.

Meet a mammoth

The Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is a more traditional natural science museum with displays on the area's geology, wildlife and natural phenomena.

The University of Alaska. Photo / 123rf
The University of Alaska. Photo / 123rf

Some of the standouts: the jawbone of a bowhead whale dwarfs people standing nearby; a huge umiak — the boats Native Alaskans used for hunting them — is masterfully made from driftwood and walrus skins.

You can also see tusks of the woolly mammoths that roamed the area thousands of years ago and fossils preserved by the ice, including Blue Babe, a 36,000-year-old mummified bison from the last ice age.

Go dog mushing

With their fluffy fur, frost on their faces and their piercing eyes, Alaskan huskies are beautiful animals. Head along to one of the many kennels to see them in their element. You can meet the mushers, then get bundled up into the sled behind 10 or 12 dogs.

A young husky. Photo / 123RF
A young husky. Photo / 123RF

They look pretty small to carry the weight but they are strong and eager, jumping up and barking and keen to get moving. They'll take you around a trail through the snowy woods and you may even get a chance to stand up on the runners at the back and yell "mush, mush". Afterwards, you can pat the dogs at the kennel and meet the too-adorable puppies.

Have a laugh

Living in stupidly cold temperatures makes you go a bit mad after a while. The nearby town of Nenana has an annual bet in which locals put money on the exact time and day that a tripod, sitting in the middle of the icy river, will move 100ft downstream as the ice melts — and the jackpot was US$267,000 ($370,000) this year. Tourists can put their money down too, so take your chances for a couple of bucks.

For a taste of local humour, pop down to The Blue Loon comedy club or Kodiak Jack's bar to see comics taking potshots at bad drivers on icy roads or spinning a yarn about trying to move a moose from the driveway.

See Alaskacomedy.com for more details.

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

flies direct to Anchorage from many US cities including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle, Portland and Honolulu.

flies from New Zealand to Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco on the west coast of the United States.

Further information: See explorefairbanks.com