North to Alaska: Destination Denali – Part 6

road trip to Alaska

Santa Claus House in North Pole

Santa Claus House in North Pole

Who would have thought?  Here we are in Alaska, staying at the North Pole!  And yes, they do have Santa Claus here.

North Pole, Alaska is just outside Fairbanks, and it is famous for Santa Claus and the true Christmas spirit.  Originally a settlement called Davis, the community had the name changed to North Pole hoping it would attract business; reasoning that some toy manufacturer might be induced to locate a plant there so his products could be advertised as having been made in North Pole.

Prior to Christmas each year, the United States post office in North Pole receives hundreds of thousands of letters to Santa Claus, and thousands more from people wanting the town’s postmark on their Christmas greeting cards to their families. It advertises the ZIP code 99705 as the ZIP code of Santa. We were told that each year thousands of volunteers on behalf of Santa answer each child’s letter.

Christmas-themed streets in North Pole are named; Santa Claus Lane, Snowman Lane, Kris Kringle, Mistletoe, Holiday Road, Saint Nicholas Drive, North Star Drive, Blitzen, and Donnor. Street lights in the city are decorated in a candy cane motif, and many local businesses have similar decorations. The city’s firetrucks and ambulances are all red, while the police cars are green and white.

Visitors to the community can’t miss the giant Santa that stands in front of Santa Claus House.  Santa Claus House is complete with live reindeer, a huge Christmas gift shop and old ‘Nick’ himself.  Everyone is welcome to visit with the jolly fellow, or tell him what you want for Christmas.

Believe me, if Santa Claus is real then this guy is the one.  Short, round, white hair and an authentic and respectably trimmed ‘Santa’ beard, not to mention the red pants, black boots, red shirt and Christmas suspenders.  This jolly fellow had the look that goes with the elf persona and the best ho, ho, ho, I have ever heard.

We felt like we’d just walked into Saint Nick’s living room and any minute he was going to ask if we wanted a cup of tea!  Santa listened to the kids, lightly joked with the parents, and created a calm, warm fuzzy feeling wherever he went.  In fact he was so good at being who he was, I really wondered if he wasn’t just exactly who he was supposed to be – Santa Claus, in Santa House, at the North Pole!

How wonderful to know that Christmas really is alive and well 365 days a year in North Pole.

The Riverview RV Park where we stayed in North Pole was right on the Chena River, and it proved to be a popular evening feeding ground for resident moose.  The Fairbanks area has a moose around every corner, and I read somewhere they outnumber the residents by quite a large margin.  We saw moose all over Fairbanks, and even saw one in a shopping center standing out back at a delivery dock like he was waiting for someone to open the door and let him in!

Fairbanks has four military installations, including two Air Force bases, one being Eielson Air Force Base that sits right beside the main highway and is filled with huge numbers of bombers and fighter jets row upon row.    Eielson provides arctic testing and training services for the Air Force. Strategically, the base’s location allows a faster response to hot spots in Europe, Korea, and the Far East than can be made by units at bases on the East Coast, and even quicker than many of the units based in California. Needless to say the city is filled with government and military personnel from all of the United States, and the skies are busy with military jets flying low over the city just about all day long.

Travellers on the highway are advised by signage that it is forbidden to take pictures of the Air Force base while driving by on the Richardson Highway.  Makes you wonder how ‘big brother’ monitors the offenders?

Fairbanks is a bustling city with numerous opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors, or move indoors for a ballet, opera, symphony, fine arts, or theatre.  There is great shopping, and yummy eating all over the place.

We enjoyed an afternoon at the Fairbanks University of Alaska visiting its impressive Museum of the North.  The museum is huge, a world class gallery that documents the geological, natural, and cultural history of Alaska and the Arctic.  There is a formidable gallery of paintings created by artists from way back when, and those of today.  Strolling through the gallery gave us an appreciation of the amazing art that was gathered there which in its own way told the history of the land, and the people who lived there.

The museum has a huge collection of gold nuggets, and a chunk of copper rock that is the size of a double door refrigerator and weighs in at over 5,000 pounds, plus the world’s only restored Ice Age steppe bison mummy.

While at the museum we learned that during the last Ice Age that covered North America the Fairbanks area retained a warm climate where numerous animals and even some of our ancestors survived on a tropical plain.  Moose, lions, deer, camels, mammoth, and more; all survived in the area while the rest of North America was in the deep freeze.

Fairbanks also features a sternwheeler Riverboat Discovery cruise, a train ride to the Eldorado gold mine for gold panning, and an antique car museum. Folks can spend an afternoon at the 44 acre historical Pioneer Park which is chock full of interesting stuff; and then they can finish off the day there at a Salmon and Prime Rib Bake that is guaranteed to fill you past bursting.

While here we considered taking a jog out of our itinerary and heading 766km (476 miles) north to the Arctic Sea, but time was not in our favour to go that far off track, so we settled for a visit to the University of Alaska Animal Research Station instead.  The station specializes in musk-ox, caribou, and reindeer.

Musk-ox are Ice Age survivors, but in Alaska they became extinct in the late 1800’s, having to be reintroduced from herds in Greenland in the 1930’s. The bulls weigh in at about 800 pounds, stand about four-and a half to five feet tall and are like giant mops the size of a Volkswagon; when they put there head down and turn to face you it’s time to go.

The musk-ox cows are much smaller, but just as hairy, although when they are nursing their calves they lose quite a bit of wool and you can see their legs and big cloven hoofs.  As for the calves, they are the funniest looking little guys;  all hair and eyes, and very much momma’s kids.

When musk-ox are threatened (such as a predator approaching, or a pushy human) they all form a circle facing outwards and put the calves in the center to protect them.  Apparently this circle is pretty much impenetrable if there is a large enough group.  We didn’t see any circles formed, but we did see three cows facing us with their three calves jammed between them, just barely visible under mommas extensively hairy coat.  We had a lot of laughs watching these little fuzzy calves playing, and getting some serious lessons in herd etiquette from their moms.

Apparently Canadian musk-ox, found at Banks and Victoria Islands, Northwest Territory, are much bigger animals, are larger in number, and have brown faces instead of speckled with gray.

Musk-ox hair is called qiviut, it is amazingly silky soft and warm, and sells from $25 an ounce.  Qiviut spun into yarn is $300 for 300 yards, and the qiviut is combed out and saved to help fund the Large Animal Research Station.

We also learned that reindeer are a sub-species of caribou; and interestingly, both male and female caribou (so reindeer too) have antlers.

Playing tourist around Fairbanks we found one of the best parts of the city was the names of the roads and streets.  Imagine living on Loose Moose Road, Runamuck Avenue, Bullwinkle Crescent, or Flying Squirrel Crescent; or living on a road called Snow White, Cold Foot, or Boondox.

We had a few giggles wondering about Loose Moose Road; was it named after a moose that escaped from someplace it was supposed to be, or was this a reference to eating too many prunes!  Hopefully the former.

We found the people who call the area home to be friendly; and even met a young lady who was working as a flag person on road construction who told us she had lived there all her life, but she was hoping to attend the University of British Columbia in the future because British Columbia was so beautiful.

Alaska is known as “Land of the Midnight Sun” because the sun is up 24 hours per day in parts of Northern Alaska where there is no night sky for many weeks. The people who live here love their summers, and tell us so do the flowers and gardens – they grow magnificently in the 24 hours of daylight.

Alaskans also love their winters, but for Bob and I the thought of nine months of winter where temperatures can dip as low as -78°F degrees in the winter put shivers down our backs and will make us think how fortunate we are that winters are nowhere near that cold at home.

Sleep came reluctantly that night as we would be in Denali the following day.  Would it be all we hoped for?  Would we be disappointed – or would we realize our dream?

Watch for the next installment of North To Alaska: Destination Denali in an upcoming issue of the Star/Journal.