Birds, beer, baseball in the state's 'golden heart'

Email|Print| Text size + By Molly Lynn Watt
Globe Correspondent / April 16, 2006

FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- Visitors to Alaska frequently pass through Fairbanks on their way to other locations across ''the last frontier," as the state is known.

They don't know what they're missing.

''Tourists don't usually stay here more than a day or two," said Lori Sanders, a Fairbanks resident and shop owner. But my destination was Fairbanks itself, nicknamed the ''Golden Heart of Alaska," and the state's second-largest city. I had come in June for a two-week vacation, for the third time in as many years. I could not explain this even to myself.

The first evening, I needed to shake travel out of my legs. My husband suggested Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, with 3 miles of nature trails across 1,800 acres of boreal forest and wetlands. It was 11 p.m., and the sun was high. I doused myself with mosquito repellent to ward off the so-called state bird.

Two real birds faced each other, made deep curtsies, then hopped and flapped their 6-foot wings. They looked like square dancers honoring partners, twirling to the beat of the bass and fiddle. They had red foreheads and white cheeks, copper shades to their back and wing feathers. Two dozen birds, each 3 feet tall, pecked out a picnic of seeds and rodents.

''Some call them little brown cranes because of the rusty color on their wings. It's a stain picked up in peat bogs," said Joanne Jackson, a volunteer from Louisiana at the visitors center. ''. . . But they're sandhill cranes. They migrate to Fairbanks in the spring."

The cranes became an obsession; no day was complete without a trip to Creamer's. With 22 hours of daylight, it always fit my schedule. If the cranes weren't munching, I watched a flock of Canada geese. I had seen the movie ''Winged Migration" and appreciated their journey from winters spent in Washington and Oregon. Occasionally, I spotted a great horned owlet. I bought a bird book and identified northern shovelers and common redpolls. I met birders from all over the world hoping to check off on their lifetime lists many of the 150 species seen at Creamer's each year.

Heidi Hahn, a painter from Fairbanks, folded her tripod and we walked to our cars. As we parted, she said, ''Only 'round midnight in the Far North could perfect strangers have such a nearly perfect conversation on birds and art in the wee hours of daylight."

Amen, but I still hadn't shaken impressions of Alaska that were formed by Hollywood distortions -- ''The Gold Rush," ''North to Alaska," ''Insomnia." It's known as the land of glaciers, grizzlies, caribou, gold, and midnight sun, yet here I was in Fairbanks, chatting with the locals as I licked a cinnamon-shower cone at Hot Licks outdoor ice cream parlor.

Danny Martin, a sportswriter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, licked his cone and said, ''I like the people and the light here. We have a midnight ballgame on the solstice played without any lights. Don't need 'em; it's bright as day. We have golf courses where you can tee off around the clock. And runs, there's even a Mosquito Meander. It's just nice being outside all summer. No need to sleep, we do that in winter."

Even in July, the sun shines 20 hours a day.

Fairbanks was about to celebrate its centennial midnight ballgame. I paid $2 for a seat and cheered the Fairbanks All-Stars, who came from behind to beat the Alaska Goldpanners in the last inning. The pitcher's shadow stretched halfway to first base.

Nice, but where was the Alaska of gold fever? Felix Pedro discovered gold here in 1902, and boomtown Fairbanks sprang to life. I signed on for a tour of the El Dorado Gold Mine in nearby Fox.. Ian McGregor, the parking attendant, said, ''It's named for a mythical place of gold."

Earl Hughes, a tour guide, came to Alaska on what has become a 30-year detour to the Grand Ole Opry. He fiddled for us aboard the narrow gauge train -- ''The Tennessee Waltz" and ''Mosquito Breakdown" -- and recounted the history of gold mining, an active industry even today. We stopped in a permafrost tunnel to watch a mining actor-interpreter explore bedrock.

''Why do miners dig in winter, wash in summer?" Hughes asked, then answered his own question. ''Miners dig mine shafts making use of the permafrost for scaffolding, thus dig in winter. In the summer, they use gold pans to catch sluice water and swish for gold, thus wash in summer. Gold, 19 times heavier than water, stays put if you slosh the pan just right."

It was summer, so we played at washing. I swished and tilted until only gold flecks remained in the pan, valued at $35 and mine to keep.

At public screenings of films featuring Alaska, Terrence Cole, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, taught Alaskan history and debunked stereotypes perpetrated in films. He supplied commentary, corrections, and humor on every topic, and sometimes referred to cheechakos (chee-CHA-kohs).

''What's a cheechako?" I asked a nearby student.

It means '' 'You're not from here, you're a newcomer,' " Maggie Billington, a retired administrator from nearby Ester, said with a laugh. We followed her directions and had no trouble finding the Golden Eagle Saloon. Monique Musick, the bartender, sized us up as cheechakos and poured us the $3 Alaskan brew (the locals quaffed $1 brews).

Musick has always lived in Ester and juggles three jobs: bartender, photographer, and production manager for Mushing: The Magazine of Dog-Powered Adventure.

''I remember as a kid going to the Lower 48 one summer and seeing stars," she said. ''I'd never seen stars when it was warm. I couldn't figure it out."

Still eager for wilderness, we drove the beautiful 56-mile Chena Hot Springs Road, through the Chena River State Recreation Area. We traveled at the same speed as a gull flying overhead, passing beaver lodges, a pair of tundra swans, miles of black spruce reflected in the river, and patches of charred trees, a reminder of last summer's forest fire, to Chena Hot Springs Resort and the Aurora Ice Museum, which claims to be the country's first ice hotel.

We soaked in the rock-rimmed outdoor pool of nearby Chena Hot Springs. The 100-degree mineral water has been said to cure everything that aches since it was put on the map in 1912, and was used by the indigenous people long before that.

I settled into the water, content under the midnight sun. I had found the true Alaska. I flew in from ''outside" and had a good time hanging out with locals and visitors. The midnight sun gave everyone double time and energy to follow pleasures in the long summer light. Residents of Alaska's Golden Heart City have a deal and they know it.

Contact Molly Lynn Watt, a freelance writer in Cambridge, at

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