Friday, 14 September 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 15: A stroll around Fairbanks as the next phase of the scholarship begins

The last couple of weeks has seen me taking a trip through some of the more popular towns and cities in Alaska, in what I called 'The Cultural Tour'. From exploring Alaska's most popular city, Anchorage, and hiking the mountains of Girdwood, to strolling across the beach in Seward and investigating the spit of Homer, I have already in two weeks got a glimpse of how varied Alaska is; it's physical geography, it's wildlife, and the people that live in harmony with their environment are all fascinating. I have only scraped a thin layer of Alaska's culture, I know, but that concludes my cultural tour. Between now and the 18th November, I am based in Fairbanks, where I will be seeing what an Alaskan winter is like both on people's lives and the environment. I will also be starting a project to explore the permafrost that Alaska is famous for, and as always, I will be updating you daily with what I've done and what I've found out.
Last night, Joe -a hosteller- told me the Northern Lights were going to be out as the sky was pretty clear. Excited by the prospect of seeing an aurora on my first night here in Fairbanks, I stocked myself up on coffee and waited up. It was about 1:15am when he headed out, across the road, to a peat field. The field is in full operation in the summer period, but during the winter the great mounds of peat offer aurora spotters a good spot to chill out while they wait for them. I use the word "chill" deliberately; we set off in 30 degrees F, which equates to -1 degrees Celcius. My gloves made an outing as I'm sure will be the case for the considerable future.

We waited for what seemed hours, but actually only 15 minutes, and then I got a glimpse of a very faint green light, in the distance. Usually it would get much brighter, but unfortunately a low lying cloud prevented this, and I was unable to get a good photo. I have got plenty more opportunities, however!
After emerging from the duvet with little more than 6 hours sleep, I was immediately moved to my more permanent room; a lovely little room fitted with a bathroom and a kitchen. I'm only in it though until the 1st October, and then I have to move back to a bunk again.

Today I decided I would explore the city I will be calling 'home' for the next few months. It was a glorious day, sun shining, and one can really detect a sense of autumn here now; there is a cool breeze in the air and the foliage is turning crisp and golden. I proceeded first on College Road, and it seems to live up to its name, with services dedicated to university students: a bookshop, cheap food outlets, laundry facilties etc. From visiting one or two, I got the feeling these were being managed with the philosophy of 'Run BY the students, FOR the students' in mind. My quest to find somewhere to have breakfast ended when I eventually found the 'Sourdough Cafe'. I've had sourdough pancakes before, in Girdwood, but these were too sour for me, even when drenched in maple syrup; something I've become accustomed to I think.

I was perhaps a little too confident with my own instincts in trying to locate 'downtown' and I didn't hold a map, but time standing by roads looking at signs passed by, and I eventually gave in and got the map out. I wasn't too far out. As I headed further into what can be classed as the CBD, housing became noticeably more dense, and I managed to spot a cinema and a shopping mall, though not as grand as some I've seen. A newly built concrete retirement home on the edge of the city didn't fit in at all with the surrounding building materials, and I wondered just how accesible these storeys were to the aged.
I entered into Downtown through a city green space, which doubled up as a small cemetry. Upon exiting, I passed a small school group; each clasping a clipboard and quite possibly doing a biological survey. City wildlife, to me, didn't appear present but there were the usual alpine trees in attendance. Moose are supposed to be popular here, but as yet, I have not set eyes on one.
Downtown Fairbanks was unusually quiet for one of Alaska's major cities, but numbers may be a reflection in the types of services the city provides. Tourists' needs seem to have been put behind the needs of the locals; there is a lack of gift shops and craft shops that I saw in Seward especially, and the types of restaurants available offer food that would be more suitable to a local population, not a visiting tour group. Passing by, from street to street, and it's hard to miss these decorated pipes. I asked a girl painting one what they were; apparently, Fairbanks city re-heats waste water and sends the heat underground through pipes, the excess gets pumped out the pipes. It's a great way of combating the problems associated with buiding on a periglacial landscape, with permafrost a major problem for building structure.

I made my way to the plaza, but it seems that this is an area populated by people without jobs; a rather mature lady approached me, drunk and smoking, and I made a quick retreat back to the streets. My last task was to go and check out the visitor information centre, to collect leaflets and event guides so I can plan the next few months more structually. Kristen was very keen to hear about my journey and plans, and attempted to tell me the quickest way of accessing the hostel from Downtown. Unfortunately, her map reading skills were, like many people's, quite bad. These days it seems the GPS and Google Directions has made the art of map reading an endangered skill, soon to become extinct I fear. The visitor centre extends to a musuem aswell, and I took some time exploring that. The main theme was the different tribal communities of Alaska although there was a section mentioning permafrost and coping with the winter. I am going to go back soon to watch a few free films about Alaska and it's glacial history.

The walk back to the hostel was much longer than I expected, though I did prolong it a little by having to go shopping. I figure that I can make my own pancakes quite easily, and save $10 a day for a while. All the shops I tried I felt were like Macro- multipackets of everything, bulk items, and nothing on it's own. Lidl has the same problem, I feel. I finally managed to find the pancake powder and with the extra baggage, my long trek to the hostel was not as easy as I would have hoped. I did attempt a pancake or two when I arrived back- unfortunately, I don't seem to be able to prevent them burning! I do have some considerable time to practice though!

By the way, the UK is never far away, as I found out on my journey back to the hostel!

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