Fending off the Midnight Sun in Fairbanks, Alaska

North, to Alaska: an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-400 Combi is seen at the gate in Anchorage on my journey to Fairbanks. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

North, to Alaska: an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-400 Combi is seen at the gate in Anchorage on my journey to Fairbanks. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

As we kick off our Live Voyage Report and embark on a front-row journey with Cruise Experts Travel on their Southbound Ultimate Alaska CruiseTour, I’ve been thinking a lot about the 2002 movie Insomnia starring Al Pacino as a troubled cop sent to Nightmute, Alaska to investigate the murder of a teenage girl.

Quiet and Isolated: looking down Wendell Street before it turns into the Old Steese Highway. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Quiet and Isolated: looking down Wendell Street before it turns into the Old Steese Highway. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The film wasn’t actually shot in Alaska – Squamish, British Columbia doubled for Nightmute – but I’m starting to see how his character, Will Dormer, was affected by the midnight sun.

Here in Fairbanks, the sun barely sets, dipping below the mountains at 12:30am and lingering there until rising again in full force around 3:00am. Now I know why the curtains in my suite at the SpringHill Suites by Marriott run from wall-to-wall.

My home for the next few evenings: the SpringHill Suites Fairbanks. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

My home for the next few evenings: the SpringHill Suites Fairbanks. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

I arrived here in Fairbanks yesterday from Vancouver, via Anchorage. This time, though, the purpose of this Live Voyage Report is a little different, because I’m not just reporting here on what I see and do. Instead, I’m helping to guide a total of 24 guests along a 12-day journey that will take us from the remoteness of Fairbanks down through some of Alaska’s most breathtaking sights, back to Vancouver.

With five days of land touring and seven days of cruising aboard Princess Cruises Coral Princess ahead of us, it’s surely going to be an interesting adventure!

My room at the SpringHilll Suites: definitely spacious. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

My room at the SpringHilll Suites: definitely spacious. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Because my duties will be more, shall we say, expanded, I hope you’ll bear with me if the reports aren’t quite as long and elaborate as many have been in the past. There are also a few days – like on Monday, when we venture to Denali National Park – when internet access will be problematic. Still, here’s what you can expect in the next 12 days right here on From the Deck Chair:

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A boat zips by in the early evening on the Chena River that winds its way through Fairbanks. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

A boat zips by in the early evening on the Chena River that winds its way through Fairbanks. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Roughly 32,000 people call the city of Fairbanks home. It’s the second-largest city in the state of Alaska after Anchorage, and it is located less than 120 miles (190 kilometres) south of the Arctic Circle. From the air, it’s also uncharacteristically flat, standing in contrast to the mountainous terrain that greeted me upon touchdown in Anchorage.

Once I had checked into the SpringHill Suites here yesterday, I had set out to find myself some dinner – and stumbled upon one of more interesting eateries I think I’ve ever found: Big Daddy’s BarB-Q.

And Now For Something Completely Different: Big Daddy's BarB-Q. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

And Now For Something Completely Different: Big Daddy’s BarB-Q. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

To start with, you have to admire the business acumen of a man who can call his establishment “Big Daddy’s” and still manage to draw a crowd. But that’s exactly what Harold Groetsema has done with his “Northermost Southern BBQ” – and what a crowd-pleaser it is. Food Network and Carnival Cruise Line star Guy Fieri featured Big Daddy’s BarB-Q on his popular Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program. It’s certainly not fancy – the dark and smoky ambiance makes you feel like there should be metal poles and a stage at one end of the room. It is,  however, a veritable feast for the tastebuds.

Inside, the restaurant is a mixture that could best be described as part bar, part lodge. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Inside, the restaurant is a mixture that could best be described as part bar, part lodge. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

I had the slow-smoked hickory Pulled Pork Sandwich, with fries (though potato salad, corn on the cob, creamed corn and other accompaniments were available), along with a cold pint of Alaskan Amber ale. Best $15 I have spent in a long time. Interestingly, I sat down today to actually read some “reviews” on Yelp and found that hardly anyone enjoys the place. More reasons to avoid Yelp – I would have missed out on a good experience.

Pulled Pork! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Pulled Pork! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

But a funny thing happened when I emerged at 7pm. I felt “off” somehow. I walked the two blocks back to the hotel before it finally hit me: the sun was in the two o’clock position – exactly where it had been when my flight touched down three hours earlier.

Feeling like I’d just eaten a very heavy late lunch, I wandered around the mainly deserted streets of Fairbanks, snapping photos of a town illuminated like it was being lit for the starring role in a bad B-Grade movie.

My room at 10pm, bathed in sunlight. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

My room at 10pm, bathed in sunlight. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Unlike Al Pacino’s character in Insomnia, I did manage to sleep last night, though I awoke at 3am thinking it was a lot later than it actually was, thanks to the position of the sun.

Midnight in Fairbanks. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Midnight in Fairbanks. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

A thick veil of smoke has enveloped Fairbanks this morning, the result of a fire that continues to burn off Chena Hot Springs Road. According to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the fire covers nearly 32,000 acres and is being fanned by warm weather and stronger-than-expected winds. Some of the locals I spoke to today elaborated that there have been forest fires all across the state in the past few weeks.

Downtown Fairbanks in 1955, taken from Cushman and looking East on Second Avenue. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Downtown Fairbanks in 1955, taken from Cushman and looking East on Second Avenue. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The same shot in 2013. Note the two buildings behind the SpringHill Suites that have remained the same. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The same shot in 2013. Note the two buildings behind the SpringHill Suites that have remained the same. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

As a strict aside – I loved the Our Town Plus section of the local newspaper, which showcases photos of Interior Alaskans and their travels to other parts of the world, like Hawaii, Egypt and Germany.

Most of all, the people I’ve encountered here are friendly – and younger than I would have expected. From the flight attendants working my Alaska Airlines flight from Anchorage yesterday to the driver of our coach to the girls working at the AT&T shop nearby, everyone seems to be in their early to late twenties. And employed – a stark contrast from Vancouver, where a friend of mine with a bazillion degrees remained unemployed for nearly a year due to lack of work.

Those Empty Streets: looking down Cushman Street. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Those Empty Streets: looking down Cushman Street. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

If you’ve seen Alaska State Troopers on National Geographic, you’ll also find some truth to that show here: despite how friendly the population is, there’s also a rough-and-tumble side to Fairbanks. Everyone seems to have some surprising side-panel damage to their cars, and I’ve seen two completely destroyed vehicles parked in the parking lot at the local Safeway, still with current registration.

The local constabulary also elected to relieve some folks of their moonshine last night across the street at Golden Heart Plaza, despite their somewhat unconvincing protests to the contrary.

Clever. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Clever. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Fairbanks is a part of the United States, but you get the sense that it is as far-removed as Hawaii: out of sight, out of mind. Consequently, most folks here are a hearty bunch.

This traditional log cabin has sat on this spot since 1910. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

This traditional log cabin has sat on this spot since 1910. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Inside the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitor's Center. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Inside the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitor’s Center. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Recreating a traditional wooden lodge inside the Morris Thompson Cultural Center. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Recreating a traditional wooden lodge inside the Morris Thompson Cultural Center. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Traditional native crafts on display. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Traditional native crafts on display. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Tonight, the remainder of our guests arrive and tomorrow, we set out to explore Fairbanks properly with a tour of the city, a cruise aboard the riverboat Discovery, and a Salmon Bake dinner at Pioneer Park.

It should be the start of an amazing journey!

The Midnight Sun at the End of the Hall. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The Midnight Sun at the End of the Hall. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report from Cruise Experts Travel’s Ultimate Alaska CruiseTour kicks off tomorrow as we begin our voyage of discovery in Fairbanks – aboard the Riverboat Discovery! Be sure to follow along on Twitter by following @deckchairblog or using the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.

 

7 Responses to Ultimate Alaska Live Voyage Report – Day 1

  1. Have a great time on this unique adventure, Aaron! Your group is lucky to have someone like you leading and guiding the way! You’ll do an exceptional job that they will never forget!

    I will never forget the midnight sun in Anchorage, AK one early July weekend in 1984 when my U.S. Navy ship made a visit there. The officers had gathered in a bar for after dinner drinks with the Captain, and all walked out to head back to the ship around 11pm, only to open the heavy oak bar door to a blazing setting sun right in our bleary-eyed, less-than-sober faces!

    Wish I could be there….but, as usual, I will enjoy the vicarious thrill from here in sultry Virginia!

    • Aaron Saunders says:

      You might find the weather here to be comparable to Virginia, Nicholas! It’s not quite the heat wave it was a few weeks back, but Fairbanks is still mighty warm – even at 10pm.

      I can believe your experience in Alaska when your U.S. Navy ship visited. I think the bars are made purposely dark just for that express reason!

      Thank you as always for all the great comments and encouragement; I am – as always – thrilled to know you’ll be reading along!
      All the best from waaaay up here in Alaska!

  2. Kim says:

    Looks like a nice place to visit! Hope to see it someday!

  3. Richard Wilmoth says:

    Hi Aaron, we have a cruise planned in August. We have never been on a land/sea cruise before and never been to Alaska. Can you share the top 3 things we need to know or prepare for? Thank you Sir.

    • Aaron Saunders says:

      Hi Richard,

      Absolutely. In fact, your comment is such a good one that I’ll devote an entire article to it next week.

      Cheers,

      -Aaron

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