Fairbanks, Alaska - Part I: Fairbanks and Arctic Winter Games (March 2014)

The grandeur of Alaska has not faded in the five years since our first visit. When an opportunity to stay again at the cozy home of our first-time home exchange popped up, we jumped at the chance to visit Fairbanks in winter and have a chance to see the Northern Lights -- the aurora borealis.

Our wintry home near Fairbanks

click on any image to enlarge it

We flew Alaska Airlines via Seattle, and must make note to explore their companion fares available for AA credit card holders next time. And we fully expect there will be a next time because instead of checking the Aurora off our "bucket list," we already miss seeing it!

Baggage claim at the Fairbanks airport

A local enjoys the "warm" spring weather outside the Safeway store :-)

Clouds and snow made aurora viewing unlikely the first two days, but we had a great time sampling some events at the Arctic Winter Games. This event combines northern culture and sport for school age participants from all around the circumpolar region, including the US, Canada, Greenland, Russia, and Norway. Tuesday afternoon we watched a cultural presentation at Doyon, Ltd., an Alaskan native corporation.

Drummers from Nunavut, Canada

Native dancers

Many of the sporting events such as skating and snowboarding, are common in lower latitudes, but many such as Dene Hand Games and Alaska High Kick are unique to the far north.

Figure skating competition

Snowboarding "Arctic Air" competition at UAF's Hulbert Nanook Terrain Park

Dene Games -- Hand Games

Alaskan High Kick (note ball at top of frame)

Alaskan High Kick by female champion

Susan was disappointed that the free dog sled rides during the Games were for kids only.

Kids ride free at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks

But we had a blast watching the AWG dog sledding competitors and spectators at the Jeff Studdert Racegrounds at the Alaska Dog Mushers Association.

Teams getting ready for AWG dog sled racing

A dog team raring to go!

And they're off!

Almost at the finish line

We happened to be in town during the GCI Open North American Championship Dog Sled Race as well. The race started on 2nd Avenue downtown and continued up to Creamer's Field.

Dog sled team racing through Creamer's Field

Snow was hauled in to cover the streets the sleds needed to cross. While waiting for the dogs to return, we watched two local traditions - the People's Choice Parka Parade and the kids scramble to pick up as many cans of pop as they could in the snowy street.

Fierce but fun competition :-)

A member of the Parka Parade

Directly behind us, the Fur Auction put on by the Alaska Trappers Association was bustling with bidders hoping to get a bear or wolf pelt. This auction and one in Anchorage are the only two events where a grizzly pelt can be purchased.

Top finishers in the Sled Dog Championship

After the events we still had time to walk over to the Fairbanks Community Museum which had nice displays including dog sledding and AWG history. Learning about the Chena River flood of 1967 hit home, given our recent floods in Estes Park.

Historic museum photo from 1967 Fairbanks flood of the Chena River

One of the big draws for winter in Alaska isn't the weather, but the "space weather" -- the solar activity that causes the aurora borealis at high latitudes. Our first night was overcast and it was snowing the next day, but later that night, we drove north of Fairbanks to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Viewpoint to try to see the sky away from the city lights, and use the pipeline as part of the northern lights picture we wanted to make. We were not disappointed!

Our first night image: aurora borealis over the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, north of Fairbanks

Near Goldstream Road, north of Fairbanks, near Fox

Our second aurora outing was up the Steese Highway to scout out Skiland/Mt Aurora for aurora viewing. We did enjoy sharing a most delicious cinnamon roll, but didn't return to spend $30 each to view the aurora with so many other closer options available to us. I might rethink that next time since that fee also includes a warm place to retreat, coffee and restrooms!

Skiland by day -- America's northern-most chairlift!
Viewing aurora near Skiland; note the green laser from the LIDAR at Poker Flat Research Range

Other local outings included a couple walks in Creamer's Field where we now shared the trails with dog sleds, snow-machines, cross-country skiers and skiers being towed by dogs. As we hiked, we heard a grouse in the brush once, but didn't see much else in the way of birds. We were a little early for the migrants, but people were seeing redpolls already.

Along the trail at Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge

Dogs pulling a cross-country skier

On another afternoon we headed up to Murphy Dome to scout it as a possible Aurora viewing spot. We didn't end up watching the aurora up there, but we enjoyed the big views. The highlight was Mike spotting a small flock of Snow Buntings on our way down. No time for a picture, but we both got a good look at the striking little white sparrows.

View of the Alaska Range from near the summit of Murphy Dome

While we were at home we thoroughly enjoyed our stay in the birch forest. The winter light on those trees in the snow is just magical.

One morning a moose strolled by and tracks of others were all around.

A moose wanders through the birch forest near our home

Mid-week we decided to dig out our home exchangers second car (the one we were using had been dug out by their previous house-sitters, so we wanted to pay it forward). After reconnecting the battery, the car started right up! Here's a fun time-lapse of the "digout". :-)

Our last weekend we received a phone message from a friend of our home exchangers, who knew we were interested in birds to tell us about a flock of Bohemian Waxwings in University of Alaska - Fairbanks Georgeson Botanical Garden. We didn't have high hopes when we drove out in the late afternoon, since she had left the message in the morning, but lo and behold, the birds were still there. Not only did we see and hear them close up, but we observed them passing berries back and forth, a courtship behavior.

Bohemian Waxwings and courtship behavior

Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)

One regret is that we didn't visit the Ice Sculpture Championships early in our visit. We had seen this sort of thing before, but didn't appreciate how good this would be. Susan popped over one afternoon near the end of the month and even somewhat melted in the bright sun, the sculptures were fantastic. So we will add this to our "next time" list.

Susan at the Ice Sculpture Championships

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