Now I am in a most wonderful cabin about six miles outside of Fairbanks. I knew it would be special from the pictures I saw online as well as from all the raving Airbnb reviews. And it is and it deserves further praise, but let me start at the beginning of the day.
We woke up early and it only made sense that we’d continue the ritual of breakfast at Snow City Café. We brought our bags down with us and so after eating, we headed straight to the car and went to Kincaid Park, which borders the airport and Turnagain Arm. It’s over 1500 acres and the trails all had snow on them. Although time didn’t permit, I had read about this park being a great place to do cross country skiing. Whipping through the winter wonderland forests could certainly make for a majestic experience. Instead, we did a 30 minute trek up a hill and back, which on a chilly morning like today (fifteen degrees or so), definitely got the blood pulsing.
Check in and getting aboard the flight to Fairbanks was straightforward enough. The entire flight lasted less than an hour, which is amazing, since it’s a ten hour drive. When I was in Alaska last, I had flown to Talkeetna and over some of the Alaskan Range (of which Denali is a part) twice. So the landscape was familiar except that I witnessed it when it was lush and green dotted with more lakes than you can count. This time, the trees lacked foliage and the lakes were irregular shaped skating rinks – every one of them was covered with a sheet of ice. The vastness of the landscape begins to become comprehensible from a birds eye view. Alaska has cornered so many superlatives, it’s hard to believe. For example, the coastline of the Aleutian Chain is enough distance to get from the earth to the moon. We spoke to someone on this trip who mentioned that the Matanuska Valley is the size of Illinois.
So, directly north of Anchorage the land is flat and then about 100 miles north the Alaskan Range proudly rises up out of the earth. We were treated to some killer views of glaciers, rivers of ice that pour out of the mountain range – it’s like watching a flowing river that appears to be stuck in time, although glaciers are ever changing in actuality. The skies were clear as a bell and Denali was visible, which on average happens only one in every three days. North of the Alaskan Range, the landscape shifts to gently rolling hills, or Alaska’s version of hills. In another fifteen minutes, the announcement came over the PA that we were descending. We were treated to a great view of the Chena River, which was extremely circuitous and also currently frozen. Other than glaciers, I had never seen a river that was frozen over. My guess is that below the surface of ice there are lots of fish going about their business, if maybe a little slowed by the cold.
We got our bags and were on our way. We purposely chose lodging with a kitchen, so we could eat home cooked food, knowing that Fairbanks was not the culinary capital of the world. In fact I suspected that I would be hard pressed to find a meal that even fell in the acceptable category here. We went to Fred Meyer’s and my hat is officially off to them. For being isolated, they have done a great job of importing quality food and have a handful of aisles that are health food store like. I stocked up on fresh veggies, Synergy Kombucha, Olympic Provisions pates and charcuteries, Cypress Grove chèvre and Rogue Valley blue cheese and some staples. In the interest of not buying too many ingredients, I planned on sticking with the basics of olive oil, vinegar, and salt for flavor.
Nearby was Alaska Fish Processors, a warehouse looking place with a retail component that sells local fish and meat. We picked up some salmon and summer sausage (with reindeer) and I got a jar of salmon roe to take home for a treat. The young woman working there had offered us a sample and it was stupendous and I was picturing eating generous portions of it in homemade sushi rolls. She mentioned living in Portland last year, for a year, while she went to school. She loved the city but wanted to return to her native state.
Check in time at the cabin, which is really a house, but has the cabin feel due to its log construction, was at 3pm. I am sure I could have negotiated an earlier check in, yet, I was just as happy to spend some time in Fairbanks until mid-afternoon. Not knowing exactly what was on display, we opted to go to University of Alaska- Museum of the North. Although the museum was not a Frank Gehry creation, it certainly could have passed for one. The irregular shaped angles that comprised the outer walls is typical of his style and very cutting edge for its location.
We checked out the permanent display and a couple of the traveling exhibits. Vogel 50 x 50 was based on the art collection that the frugal NY couple, Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, amassed and eventually distributed throughout the nation. They collected 5,000 pieces of modern art that they liked and was affordable and, at some point in time, decided to give it away to museums to be shared with the public, as opposed to selling it to individuals. I didn’t particularly love the art, but I appreciated the mission and that some of the art was making a home in the far reaching corners of the USA, specifically in Fairbanks.
When we entered The Gallery of Alaska, we were greeted by a nine foot, 1250 pound grizzly bear. This area was divided into the five geographical regions of Alaska and each area focused on native culture, history, and what animals dwelled there. Many artifacts from native culture were on display and this was probably my favorite part. I was endlessly enamored by the clothing made of salmon and seal skin and baskets made of grass and cribbage boards made of walrus ivory. Although the stuffed spotted seals and bison and wolverines caught my eye as well.
Upstairs we wandered into The Rose Berry Art Gallery. The plaque on the wall told the story of the brave Rose Berry, who sailed up on a boat from Washington State to Alaska being the only woman on the ship with 300 men. She was and is considered a pioneer for her day. It is thought that Berry had done a lot for the state and so this gallery honors her, although the art is not necessarily related to the art she created. The collection is broad and while all of it somehow is an expression of Alaska, it encompasses native and non-native, modern and traditional, visitors and residents, and both genders and range of age of artists. Each piece is more interesting than the last piece. I especially enjoyed the large paintings of the vast landscapes – some of which were depicted as inviting and others as rugged and desolate.
I very much enjoy museums, but can only stay in one for a couple of hours, as I generally start feeling the need to move around after that. We headed onward and made one last stop to rent snowshoes before reaching the cabin. I had never snowshoed before and figured it would be the easiest winter activity to partake in, as we could just hit a trail and go. Just to note, there was really not a whole lot of snow on the ground. Certainly, there was a blanket of snow covering the land, but it was not piled high as one may expect. I think the interior of Alaska is a dry type of cold and so the precipitation is minimal in the winter months.
Standing outside the museum looking south, the Alaska Range is on full display. We have now gotten to see it from a few different vantage points. From the Cook Inlet looking north. From a plane looking down and now from the interior Alaskan transportation hub of Fairbanks, looking south. It typifies what Alaska is about – mammoth, rugged, magnificent, picturesque, ever changing, not for the faint of heart.
Soon enough we arrived at the cabin. It was charming and exactly what one would hope for should they want a winter wonderland visit. What impressed us most and perhaps it’s because it was unexpected, was how well stocked the kitchen was. While I had made sure to get pears and bananas and avocados at Fred Meyer’s, there was a bowl of fruit on the kitchen table with exactly that the same items. And there were condiments galore. And the cabinets were full of spices and teas and pantry type ingredients. We were totally amazed and I realized that instead of making due with the simple ingredients we had acquired, we were going to be dining à la Chez Brown. I hadn’t even unpacked, and I was already making myself busy in the kitchen.
At some point, Tom, the owner, had knocked on the door to introduce himself. He lives in a small cabin on the property and rents out the home on Airbnb.com. His six month old chocolate lab entered through the dog door and all Cooper needed to do was flash his sad puppy dog eyes at me and I was ready to do his bidding for him. We rolled around and played with each other, while Dan and Tom chatted. Tom had brought us moose he bagged last year as well as some extra salmon he caught. I invited him to dinner.
When I went to Tom’s ceramics studio to let Tom know dinner was ready, I met Porter, his fourteen year old chocolate lab that he has had since he was a puppy. Porter barked at me, as I was a stranger and he was being protective. The sweet little guy is blind and while he would be invited to dinner too, he could no longer climb the steps. Although Cooper was more than happy to see what I cooked up.
Dinner consisted of a few side-by-side dishes. A hearty vegetable soup – onions, carrots, parsnips, turnip pureed and enhanced with a lot of fresh ginger and a can of coconut milk (full fat of course!). A thick cut of pork chops with a paprika and butter sauce. And a seasonal salad – radicchio, watercress, diced turnip, sliced pear, sweet onion, toasted almonds and blue cheese all marinated in a rice wine vinaigrette. We were styling! While we ate, Cooper was close by, doing the sad puppy dog eyes and begging. Tom would try to deter him from begging, but I would state that I didn’t mind and, in some ways, kept encouraging it. I have been known to help make other dogs naughty as well.
Tom works at the University doing research in the realm of freshwater ecology. In part, his research is used by the government to allow or not allow, or to determine how to allow oil drilling to occur in the region. He made mention that there is plenty of grant money around and he has avoided accepting grant money from the oil companies, considering it dirty money.
Our conversation naturally turned to Airbnb and it was interesting to hear Tom’s perspectives and experiences. I think as a host, he is truly into the whole experience of Airbnb. He stays in them primarily when he travels. And he wants to do everything he can to make his guests have an exceptional experience. We also chatted about his vetting process, because for him, he is concerned with quality visitors, over quantity.
He was interested in how we selected his home and we let him know that as far as Airbnb’s in the area, his was one of only a couple homes that gave the real “Alaskan experience” — the log cabin theme, with a birch tree coat rack and similar touches. The rest of the homes were just “regular” homes that could have been anywhere in the country. This would explain his 90% occupancy rate. People are contacting him, wanting to book a year in advance, even longer out than Airbnb allows. He was even contacted by a couple in Georgia who had heard about his cabin and were building their vacation around it, as opposed to picking a location where they wanted to travel and then finding lodging. I am sure there are lots of cozy log cabins in the area, but they are being occupied and not rented on Airbnb, so he should enjoy the abundance of interested travelers while he can.
I am not a night owl by nature, perhaps I used to be, but I haven’t been one for a couple decades. Since the Northern Lights are most likely to come out between 10pm and 2am, we took a nap for a couple hours so we would have some energy late at night. Five minutes before my alarm when off, I stirred in my sleep and glanced out the window and caught a glimpse of the green light dancing in the sky. This caused me to come alive within seconds, jump up and in a hurried fashion, put on some layers so I could stay comfortable outside.
The green gases danced through the sky like ballerinas. The light seemed to originate from two main regions. The most prominent was the arc that stretched across the eastern side of the sky. Almost like a rainbow, but of course, all green, and wisps traveled off the top of it, as if reaching up toward the top of the sky. In the southeastern sky, the lights were more fluid, and shapeless if you will.
I am not sure why I was picturing the lights would change form quickly, but in actuality they moved slowly like a sloth through the jungle. It was very zen like and I cautiously moved around the property wanting to catch the lights at different angles. In the meantime, Dan had joined me outside and for him witnessing the northern lights was reminiscent of his other experiences seeing them from his time spent in Scandinavia. Even if you see a phenomena like this on different occasions, I would suppose that each one feels like a once in a lifetime experience.
At the museum today, I read a bit about the northern lights. What amazed me is that although they look so close, the ones closest to the earth are still 60 miles away. If there were a highway in the sky and you drove a car from the earth to the bottom of the northern lights, it would take an hour to get there. Those are the green lights we see. Further out in the atmosphere, closer to 240 miles are the furthest reaches of the lights and they are the red ones, which are rarer to see. The museum displayed a picture that astronauts took from space of the northern lights. If you think they look cool from the earth, they really look cool from space. The top of them were shooting off sparks like they were on fire!
The lights can come and go for hours and after they faded around 11pm, we went inside and watched remnants of the green ballerinas quietly dance through the large south facing windows before drifting off to sleep.
**As a note, one needs a special camera to capture the Northern Lights, long exposure time being a factor. My camera was not that sophisticated, yet Tom gave us some pictures from a guest who had visited earlier this winter.
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