I spent my holidays in a place where the elements and isolation are as stunning as they are stifling – in the Alaskan interior, or more specifically, Fairbanks, Alaska’s second city. I was visiting my friend Hannah, who grew up in Adelaide and shifted to the other side of the world when her mum married a man. To me, it seems like a big ask to shift from the comfort and predictability of Adelaide, where all your friends and family are, to Fairbanks, where 100,000 people manage to live, surrounded by thick forests, bears, moose, and little else, for hundreds of miles. Worst of all, it seems so damn far away, but to my surprise the flight up from Seattle was only three hours. I landed at 10.30pm and the sun was still blazing in the clear blue sky. The trade-off for these extremely long summer days, when the sun sets for only a couple hours and it never gets dark, is the terrible winter, which kicks off with the first snow in September and sticks around until the last in May. Fairbanks experiences one of the biggest temperature inversions on Earth. On one day I found the family sweltering when it was 32C (there was talk of going to the big supermarket and buying an air conditioner) and yet in winter the temperature plummets to an unimaginable -40C. This is also the land of the northern lights. The Aurora Borealis is visible more than 200 days of the year, but unfortunately not in summer when I visited.
The culture shocks of being in a city built around a gold rush, an oil boom, and the advent of the pick-up truck (an oversized ute) came one after another. Almost everybody seemed to own one of these massive GMC or Chevy trucks, and sitting in them, you’d be looking down on a passing Land Rover. Not only are they ideal for protecting their occupants from a wandering moose, caribou, musk ox, or other vehicles on icy winter roads, they are the perfect cars to take through one of the many drive-thru banks that Fairbanks offers. Once one has withdrawn some hard currency from an ATM in the comfort of their truck, they could pay a visit to Fred Meyer’s, a supermarket whose size and range is unmatched by any Coles or Woolies. It’s even more remarkable because almost all of it would have to be imported from the lower 48 states. I also never got over the fact that on every trip in the truck the Alaskans would recognise a friend or relative out driving in their truck. It’s like seeing someone you know in Rundle Mall, but amplified.
I went into this trip hopeful that I would encounter a moose, a beaver, and perhaps even a grizzly bear. I was pretty excited about the rich wildlife that Alaska is famed for, especially after seeing pictures of moose in my friend’s backyard. The reality was terrifying. On the second night of my stay I found myself in a kitchen with the members of the Red Hackle Pipe Band, drinking and having a laugh after practice. They were sharing stories about all the animal encounters they’d had. Very quickly I learned that in Alaska almost anything and everything will try to kill you. If a bear comes into your tent, you’re a goner. Wolverines and lynxes stalk the trees. Pike will leap out of the water and bite your fingers off. Squirrels harass you by throwing junk at your face. Worst of all, the lovable, soft, Bullwinkle moose is actually a gargantuan beast that runs like the wind and stomps humans to death, and is responsible for more human fatalities in Alaska than any other animal. This fear that was instilled in me had given me greater respect for the wild, untamed animals that call this land home. The most mind-blowing moment of the trip was when we encountered a mother moose and her calf, drinking and frolicking in a shallow, crystal-clear lake in the mountains in Denali National Park – perhaps the most beautiful place on Earth I’ve ever been.
Ironically, the members of the pipe band were petrified of Australian snakes and spiders.
The people in Fairbanks were the most intriguing. Nothing about them screamed Alaskan. I’m not even sure if such a stereotype exists. We ate in a shiny chrome diner, but I didn’t meet any rednecks. They were mostly conservative, and very friendly, polite, and chatty. Almost every night somebody came around for dinner, and random house calls during the day were to be expected. Meanwhile, Hannah said that people move to Alaska for its isolation and nature all the time. She said sometimes that meant they were “a bit funny” but the locals don’t ask too many questions of newcomers. I heard a lot about people who live in so-called dry cabins. These basic log cabins are located on the outskirts of town, and don’t have running water and in some cases electricity. One of Hannah’s friends, Mitch, is a scientist who undertook two tours of duty in Iraq, and spent a few years in Tasmania doing research. Now he lives in Fairbanks in a tiny house of just eight-by-twelve feet, and manages to conduct a normal life despite not having water or any space. It’s remarkable how they do this up here, especially with such long, cold winters.
A trip to Alaska is not going to be at the top of many readers’ wish lists (most of the tourists I met up there were grey nomads from Arizona and Texas) but I had an incredible time. Being in a city where you know there’s not much nearby for thousands of miles gives you this strange feeling – it’s something that has to be experienced to be believed. The landscapes, the animals, the people and the way of life are all so unique. It’s expensive and it’s a hell of a long way away, but trust me: travelling to somewhere off the beaten track, be it Alaska or another wild part of the world, is worth all the time, money and effort you can throw at it.