Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Alaska Trip Day 13: Fairbanks

Alaska Trip Day 13 (Tue Jul 6): 250 miles; 4 hr 41 min

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In retrospect, I don't think Fairbanks really got a fair shake on our trip. We were tired, we weren't all that prepared, and I don't feel like we really "experienced" all that Fairbanks has to offer. I'd like to give Fairbanks another shot. Let's go back!

Part of the reason we weren't all that prepared going into Fairbanks was because I wanted to leave the day open in case we needed to address car issues. So, really, our only plan for the day was...to get an oil change. Exciting, hmm?

I was a little worried going into the oil change that being an out-of-towner from very far away, the mechanic would try to pressure us into getting additional work done. "You've got a really long drive ahead of you, so I strongly recommend you get a new (fill in the blank) first, just to be safe..." But we didn't get hassled at all. I guess they make enough money from oil changes alone ($60 for just the oil change - welcome to Alaska!), they don't need every third customer to get a transmission flush in order to make a profit. (Side note: I asked the mechanic if they get a lot of business from out-of-towners like us. His response? "Ohhh yeah.")

Okay, so we got the oil change out of the way, and it's not even noon. Now what? Well...there is this place called Chena Hot Springs about an hour away. If nothing else, it'll be a nice drive. And we can't check into our hotel yet, so why not?

Chena Hot Springs is a resort in the middle of nowhere, Alaska. As the name implies, they have hot springs, plus many other expensive things to do. But they do offer one free activity: a "Geothermal Renewable Energy tour". Sign me up!

I honestly thought that the tour could very well be nothing more than a walk around this here little room, and that's it. But they did actually show us the power plant, a binary cycle power plant that gets its hot water from the hot springs. It was interesting, even if we may have known more about this sort of thing than the tour guide himself. The guide admitted that he basically just learned about all of this by watching a short video before he took the job. I think he said he was a business major or something.

Correction - there are actually two things you can do for free at Chena Hot Springs resort. You can also feed the goats.

We didn't actually go swimming in the hot springs themselves. That would have been $10/person, and I think taking a Chena Hot Springs dip is more of a winter thing anyway. I've been told that Chena Hot Springs is an excellent place to go when it's 40 below. So, if you're ever in Fairbanks in January or February (God forbid), go to Chena Hot Springs.

The drive out there was nice, too. The road to Chena Hot Springs is in excellent shape, which I find very interesting, given that the resort is the only reason this road even exists. The road ends at the resort, and there is nothing else around for miles. I have to wonder whether the resort subsidizes the road maintenance costs. That would make good financial sense, because they won't get as many visitors if the road is rubbish.

Statistical note - my personal record for "the farthest north I've ever been" was set along Chena Hot Springs Road: 65°4'N. I'm thinking that mark will hold up for a while.

After that, it was back to Fairbanks, where we ended up doing...almost nothing. We tried, though. First, we raced against the clock to get to the University of Alaska-Fairbanks bookstore before it closed in order to buy some UAF apparel, but we were too late. ... Well, sort of. It was supposed to close at 5:00, we got there at 4:55, and the doors were already closed. Booo! I know I could just order a UAF shirt or hat online, but it's not the same. Shopping for souvenirs online feels like cheating.

There's also this tourist trap called "40 Below Fairbanks". Experience a temperature of 40 degrees below zero in the middle of summer! Warm clothes provided! As tempting as that sounds (yes, I'm serious - I think it would have been awesome), we didn't feel like it. We were tired. Instead, we went back to the hotel room and watched local news.

Speaking of which...first off, I think it's interesting that Fairbanks even has its own local news. The entire state of Utah gets its "local" news from Salt Lake City. So why does Fairbanks need its own newscasts? Why don't they just piggy-back off of Anchorage? Do Anchorage and Fairbanks not like each other or something?

In any event, the Fairbanks DMA is one of the smallest DMAs in the country (population-wise - it might be the largest in the country size-wise), and is certainly the smallest one for which I've ever seen the local news. I had high expectations for the quality (or lack thereof) of the Fairbanks local news, and those expectations were met. It was pretty sweet. I feel bad for the four, maybe five people who work there. It actually wouldn't surprise me if the sports guy works the camera during the weather report, and vice versa.

I also watched a show on the local PBS station ("Alaska One") called "Alaska Weather". Now that was awesome. A 30 minute telecast completely devoted to Alaska Weather, including marine and aviation forecasts (which are very important up here)! Yeah! But besides satisfying my inner weather geek, watching the weather report is also a great way to learn how to pronounce local place names. For example, Nenana is "ne-NAN-na", but Tanana is "TAN-na-na".

Finally, after that, we met one of Amber's high school friends (Mike) for dinner. Mike is living in Fairbanks for only the summer. Now that's how you do it!

Fairbanks looks like a great place to be this time of year. I wasn't sure if it would be a nice small-to-medium sized town or the Alaskan equivalent of Thompson, Manitoba (trash everywhere, homeless people wandering the streets, run down buildings, absolutely nobody out enjoying the nice weather), but Thompson, it was not. We didn't actually do much there, other than drive around town a lot and walk around downtown a little. (By the way, any downtown area with ample free non-parallel parking gets my instant seal of approval.) But still, Fairbanks is alright in my book.

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