Life in Fairbanks, by Ben Abbott, B&W graduate student
"Please turn off your electronic devices, we are approaching Seattle."
It was mid January and I was moving from Utah to Alaska. James, a guy from Seattle I'd been chatting with, leaned across the aisle. "Just remember to keep your face covered. I went through Fairbanks once in February. Snow was so dry it froze my eyes open."
Until I moved to Fairbanks, I never imagined what life would be like just two degrees shy of the Arctic Circle. Fairbanks sits in the heart of Alaska's interior, combining the comforts of civilization with more than a taste of legitimate frontier living for those who seek it. Though my eyes haven't been flash frozen open by the cold, there's been so much going on that I have hardly closed them since getting here.
Blueberries are plentiful throughout Denali National Park. Photo credit: Todd Paris
What is Fairbanks like?
Search "Fairbanks Alaska" on YouTube and you'll find clips of the northern lights, the midnight sun, "moose walking in back yard" and the obligatory "coffee freezing in MID AIR" trick. A few novelties and eccentricities aside, day to day life isn't as different as you might expect from many other college towns in the U.S.
Fairbanks is the second largest city in Alaska, and the largest city in the interior of Alaska. There are 100,000 people in the metropolitan area (which includes Fairbanks, the city of North Pole, Fox, Ester and the surrounding areas). Downtown Fairbanks boasts a variety of small shops, cafes and restaurants. Ubiquitous store chains like WalMart, Barnes and Noble, Safeway, and Home Depot round out the commercial scene. Though you don't have the same variety you would in a larger city, you can basically find anything you need right here in town.
The Alaska Range makes up the southern view from Fairbanks. Denali (the highest peak in North America) is visible on a clear day from campus. A series of prominent hills (called domes by the locals) surround Fairbanks to the north, east and west. The Tanana River flows along the south side of town, and the Chena River meanders right through the city. Farther to the north the Brooks Range separates the interior from the North Slope and Arctic Ocean. Fairbanks is only at 440 feet above sea level.
Fairbanks is hard to beat as far as outdoor recreation is concerned. In the summertime many residents go berry picking, mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking, rock climbing, road biking, four wheeling, and trail running. All of these activities are accessible right in town or nearby-no driving required. Basically anything you can do outside anywhere you can do here. The only difference is, with constant light, you can do it 24 hours a day.
Spring and fall bring bird migrations. Creamer's Field, the site of a historic dairy between the university and downtown, is the stopping point for thousands of Sandhill Cranes, Canada Geese and other migrating birds.
In the winter you can go cross country skiing, snow shoeing, dog sledding, skijoring, ice climbing, snow machining, snow biking, swimming (indoors or at Chena Hot Springs), running or check out the ice sculptures around town.
If you're looking to get out of town, Denali National Park, Gates of the Arctic National Park, and many state parks are within driving distance from Fairbanks. For both summer and winter activities there are quite a few community organizations planning expeditions, events, and adventures. The Outdoor Adventures program located in the Wood Center at UAF organizes trips and activities throughout the year.
Living in Fairbanks, you have access to some of the most breathtaking and pristine wilderness in the world. That said, Fairbanks is more than just a base camp for expedition; it's also a nice place to live.
For a town this size, Fairbanks boasts an impressive portfolio of restaurants, cafés and dining establishments. Plenty of American, Mexican, Italian, Korean, Japanese and Chinese diners along with a whopping seven Thai restaurants populate the Fairbanks culinary scene. It's also worth visiting the "northernmost" Denny's, Pizza Hut, McDonalds etc.
Perhaps partially due to the long winters and frenetic summers, the Fairbanks community is very active, with frequent festivals, parties, lectures, races and other events. Every Wednesday and Saturday through the summer the Tanana Valley Farmer's Market brings together local artisans, craftspeople, growers and performers. Fairbanks has an active music and theater scene, which includes the Fairbanks Concert Association, Opera Fairbanks, several dance companies, the world's "northernmost" Shakespearian company and an excellent symphony orchestra. Part of Fairbank's charm is the mix of tuxedos, dresses, and Carhartts you'll see at any of these events. If there is a dress code in town it appears to be overalls, down jackets, and Xtratuffs.
Besides providing a stage for homegrown talent, local venues, including the Blue Loon and Pioneer Park attract a wide range of national and international artists. In the last few years alone Fairbanks has seen Elton John, Snoop Dogg, Cake, and the Wailin Jennys to name a few.
The first thing I thought of when thinking about moving to Alaska was the climate. Never having experienced anything colder that a few degrees below zero, -30°F sounded menacing and -50°F sounded impossible. Now that I've been through a few winters I can say, yes it does get cold and dark here, and yes life does go on in the winter.
While things do get cold in Fairbanks (it usually hits -50°F at least once each winter), the town's low elevation and far inland location make for calm and dry conditions. The snow comes gradually. There are usually only a few storms a year that drop more than a couple inches of snow. Fairbanks is a land of extreme temperatures but surprisingly mild weather. Staying active through the winter is key to staying happy and healthy.
By May things have usually thawed out. Summer brings long days, warm temperatures, and an incredible burst of activity and growth. For most of the summer (June-August) the sun is only below the horizon for a few hours and even then things never get completely dark. Summer temperatures are typically in the 50-80°F range and commonly sustain around 70°F for weeks on end.
The Alaska Range looms over Fairbanks on a frigid January afternoon. Photo credit: Todd Paris
Due largely to high shipping costs and a long heating season, the cost of living in Fairbanks is 16.5% above the U.S. average . For a place with running water, you can expect to pay $800-1,200 a month. Campus housing is convenient and competitively priced, with utilities and internet-access included. There are single and family housing options available.
If you choose to live off campus, this is one of the few places where, along with "How much is rent?", you should ask, "Does it have water?" Dry cabins (small units without running water) are a common option for UAF students and can typically be found in the $500-800 a month price range. Housesitting notices are frequently advertised through the Biology and Wildlife list serve and can be a great way to save money and get a place near campus.
Fairbanks, like much of Alaska, is truck-country. Cars and trucks are the most common form of transportation. There is also a well-developed bus and shuttle system, particularly around campus and downtown and you definitely can manage without a car. One thing you'll notice around Fairbanks is the number of bicycles. Cycling is a popular transportation alternative and there is a large cycling community. While the Fairbank's cycling infrastructure isn't perfect, it is growing. Campus and community clubs and organizations give workshops on bike maintenance, winter riding, and other subjects. With a pair of studded tires, year-round cycling is totally manageable and many students (including yours truly) use biking as their primary form of transportation.