Get a pure rush without the gold in this northern metropolis on the Chena River
With the summer sun shining nearly 24 hours a day, Fairbanks bursts with energy. Strike it rich panning for gold, float the Chena River, mingle with reindeer and musk oxen, cool off in an ice museum or take a refreshing hike or be inspired by brilliant art galleries, museums and historic sites. Late August to April you have a great chance to see the shimmering light of the aurora borealis. A host of other fascinating activities and events are unveiled during the winter.
Once a gold rush boomtown, Fairbanks is now Alaska's second-largest metropolis. The Alaska Highway, trans-Alaska oil pipeline, military bases, mining operations and the University of Alaska are all integral to Fairbanks' past and future. The city population hovers around 32,000, but nearly 98,000 live in the Fairbanks' North Star Borough—an area the size of New Jersey. Visitors find Fairbanks, the Last Frontier, inviting, invigorating and awe-inspiring.
Though the economy has evolved over the last century, Fairbanks still remembers its origins. Italian immigrant Felix Pedro's initial 1902 gold strike coincided with Captain E.T. Barnette's goal of building a trading post on the banks of the Chena River, and the gold rush to Fairbanks was on. Prospectors flooded the area to pan and sluice, followed by small manual drift mines and draglines to the monster floating dredges and lode mines.
Today, historic visitor attractions and modern-day mining operations still celebrate the quest for gold. See the largest public display of gold in the state at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Visit the Pedro Monument in tribute to gold's first discovery in the state. Try your hand at gold panning and uncover your own Alaskan gold. Find that perfect gold nugget souvenir to take home. Discover for yourself one of the reasons Fairbanks is called the "Golden Heart" city.
No other place in Alaska blends the richness of its history with the present day. Transportation from yesteryear's sternwheelers, bush planes, railroads and sled dog teams continue to provide experiences to visitors that are similar to those of past travelers.
Sports buffs can take in a full schedule of hockey or basketball games. Tee off late one summer evening under the midnight sun or view a baseball game at 10:30 p.m. with no artificial lights. Nature buffs can visit the local farmers' market and the botanical gardens. Visitors can enjoy a wide selection of indigenous and contemporary art and music along with an impressive selection of galleries and specialty stores. Fairbanks is the venue for local fine arts, a symphony orchestra, and world-renowned theatrical and musical performances year-round.
Olympics, Alaska Style
Alaska's sports history reaches back several centuries. Every July, Fairbanks hosts the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO), a four-day series of traditional Alaska Native athletic competitions and dances. WEIO draws Native athletes and dancers from around the state, the United States and Canada.
The competitions at the Olympics not only provide entertainment, but also give men and women the chance to test their strength, discipline and endurance – all qualities that were needed to survive in a harsh and often unforgiving climate. All the WEIO events, from the fish cutting competition to the greased pole walk, serve this purpose. For instance, fast yet careful fish cutters were sometimes needed to process a plentiful fish run before spoilage could occur. A walk on a birch pole slathered with bear grease was good practice for checking a fish wheel on the river and other precarious situations. One of the most popular and difficult games, the two-foot high kick, also reflects this kind of practical origin. Competitors leap into the air from a standing position, keeping both feet together at all times, and kick a softball-sized sealskin ball perched on a string up to eight feet high. Both feet must touch the floor simultaneously upon landing. This game originated in coastal whaling villages, when hunters would jump and kick both feet in the air after taking a whale as a signal to villagers in the distance to come help with the catch.
Besides being a time to test strength and endurance, WEIO is also a time to don parkas, moosehide dresses and vests, mukluks and moccasins to compete in parka and Indian dress contests. It is also a time to dance and tell stories through songs and motion. Dressed in kuspuks–traditional summer parkas–complete with feathered fans and drums, dancers perform throughout the four-day Olympics. Winners of the dance competition perform again on the last night of the event.
Although the events themselves developed over many years, WEIO was created in 1961 in response to the rapidly spreading impact of western culture into rural areas. Two bush pilots, the late A.E. "Bud" Hagberg and Frank Whaley, witnessed the Native games and dances in their village travels. They grew concerned that the traditional events would be lost as western ways seeped into the villages, unless steps were taken to preserve them. They helped organize the first Olympics, which included a blanket toss, a seal-skinning contest, and a Miss Eskimo-Olympics Queen contest.
The event has since grown to over 50 games, with an ever-increasing number of athletes. For the competitors, WEIO is a chance to meet old friends and distant relatives, to entertain and be entertained, to challenge one another and to engage in friendly competition. For some competitors, it is the only tie to their heritage.
For visitors, it's a chance to see unparalleled feats of endurance and agility. It is also a chance to browse through booths of authentic Alaska Native crafts, and meet the people who carved, sewed, wove or beaded the items. WEIO provides visitors the rare chance to experience a culture alongside those who live within it.
Every year WEIO coincides with Golden Days, Fairbanks' annual summer celebration of its Gold Rush heritage, providing locals and visitors a variety of activities to choose from.
For More Information:
Fairbanks Convention and Visitor's Bureau
Alaska Travel Industry Association