Lounging around in Fairbanks

oday is our Lazy Day in Fairbanks ™. I’m playing on my laptop and drinking beer while my sweetie is sitting across the hotel room, also drinking beer and playing on his laptop. Life really could not get much better.

Speaking of beer: it’s too bad that I’ve been trying the local microbrews along the way, as I don’t think our local grocery store carries Yukon Brewing Company’s Chilkoot Lager, or Silver Gulch’s (“America’s Most Northern Brewery!”) Copper Creek Amber Ale. Hrm.

We all slept in this morning and then spent a couple of hours walking around the touristy section of downtown Fairbanks. Peter and I came back and did a first pass at bike cleaning — mainly finding a hose to chisel off the top layer of bugs — and I cleaned and lubed the chain. The bike has held up remarkably well; the main “damage” was dead bugs in odd places (including the underside of the windscreen, and inside of my handguards, and mud caked on the radiator, exhaust header pipes, and oil filter. The oil filter was impressive. There was actually a huge dead bug caked into the mud that was caked onto the oil filter. So we rinsed all that off and used a rag to, well, pretty much just smear the rest of the mud around a bit. But at least you can tell again that the SVS is red.

Yesterday, the four of us went to Barrow, which is the northernmost city in the United States (maybe in North America? I don’t recall). It was really pretty interesting. It took a little over an hour to get there, on an Alaska Airlines 737 — it’s about 500 miles north of Fairbanks, right on the Arctic Ocean. I’ve been above the Arctic Circle before (my parents and I went to Norway in 1991), but everything about northern Alaska is different than what I remember about northern Norway — it was much colder and rainier in Barrow, and the landscape was barren.

We were on a tour bus with 20 or so other Americans, which to me, ranks right up there with a sharp stick in the eye, but we all had fun regardless. Peter and I now have a photo of us together at the Arctic Ocean (complete with icebergs) to put on our wall next to the photo of us together at the Caribbean Sea (complete with palm trees and a sandy beach). We’ll soon be able to fool people into believing that we’re interesting and trendy jetsetters or something.

Barrow is a really interesting community, aesthetically, in that all of the buildings look as though they’ve been lifted right from a third-world slum: peeling paint, rusted cars on blocks out front, unpaved muddy roads, shifting foundations, trash everywhere. Yet, the interior of every building we went into was clean (how, I don’t know, given how muddy it was outside), well-decorated, and actually very classy-looking. Granted, we probably primarily saw tourist attractions, though the random Chinese restuarant where we killed time before the plane left was the same way.

It intrigued me how Barrow has set up multiple ways to keep the residents from going utterly insane. There are no roads leading to Barrow — the only way in or out is on an airplane to Fairbanks/Anchorage — it’s freezing cold almost all year ’round, and there’s no sunlight at all for 84 straight days in winter. Yet everyone we saw looked sane and happy. The high school was impressive, with a full gym (including a 2nd story swimming pool), extensive science and computer labs, and an athletic program which flies the kids on sports teams all over Alaska to play other high schools. There’s a similarly impressive recreation center, serving the entire community, with running tracks, basketball courts, pools, and more. I mean, it’s not like you can go outside for a jog in winter, unless you’re extremely dextrous in your parka at -50F.

We happened to visit on the day of a blanket toss festival, where three whaling crews were throwing a party to celebrate catching a whale. Our bus driver and guide, Joe, was a 29-year-old native who enjoys whaling every season (Barrow has 2 whaling seasons per year), and he gave us a rundown of whaling and the festivals. The community is given a quota of 22 whales per calendar year (not per season), which feeds the entire city of 4500 or so people. The first shot at a whale removes one whale from the quota, even if the shot doesn’t kill the whale, so the crews have incentive to be good shots. 😉 Joe told us that the crews use sealskin boats (we saw one later) and harpoons, though modern-day harpoons have a nitrogen firing system which, essentially, explodes a bomb inside of the whale to guarantee that the whale dies. It sounds harsh, but when you lose a whale from the quota if you shoot the whale but it escapes, you want to make damn sure you can catch and eat that whale. Joe said that he eats whale every other day or so.

At any rate, the whale meat is brought to the festival, where it’s divided up amongst the families and cooked/eaten in a big party. There were a few hundred people there already when we wandered by towards the beginning. We saw some whale meat being unloaded from a pickup, but no one had started eating yet. At the end of the festival, there’s a huge blanket toss as part of the festivities. Our tour group did a small one at the Heritage Museum, and even that was pretty fun.

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