FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- Las Vegas. Tokyo. New York.
These are places I typically think of as nightlife destinations.
But after a four-night trip, I've added Fairbanks to that list. However, nightlife takes on an entirely different connotation here in the commercial capital of Alaska's interior, north latitude 65 degrees.
The northern lights, most certainly, are Fairbanks' biggest winter draw. Tourists travel to the town of 32,000, braving extreme cold, in hopes of catching a dazzling Aurora Borealis display.
On my first full evening as a hosted guest of Explore Fairbanks and Travel Alaska, cloud cover made northern lights viewing a longshot. Fortunately, mid-February through the end of March brings the annual World Ice Art Championships to Fairbanks. So, after dining on local fare, including reindeer sausage and blackened halibut at The Pump House restaurant and saloon, I headed with my partner Holly to check out the ice sculptures.
That's what we intended to do, in any case. Instead, we got hopelessly distracted by what I'll call the arcade of ice that greets visitors immediately upon entering the showgrounds. Think skee ball, miniature golf, cornhole and ping pong, all carved from ice.
This armed minotaur is one of entrants in the World Ice Art Championships. Photo Credit: Robert Silk
Ping pong was my favorite. It's a game I've played my whole life. And I was amazed how close the ice playing surface came to replicating a real table. We rallied for several minutes, until reminding ourselves that maybe others would like to try the table as well.
The highlight of this ice playland, though, were its three ice-carved slides. We tried all three, in one case borrowing a sled from a friendly fellow patron, before gliding at a thrillingly high speed down the track of maybe 40 yards.
Before we knew it, it was 10 p.m., the festivities were closing for the night, and we hadn't even seen a carving championship sculpture.
For many Fairbanks tourists, however, 10 p.m. isn't even close to bedtime. And it wasn't bedtime for us that night either. We next headed a few miles out of the small city to the Aurora Pointe viewing center -- a place I'd best describe as a sort of mess hall where patrons comfortably await in warmth, away from the city lights, for the northern lights to make an appearance.
It's a different type of nightlife than the casinos of the Las Vegas Strip, that's for sure. But like a slots player on a roll, the hearty group of Aurora Pointe customers, many hoping to tick off a bucket list item, brought their own brand of intensity as they readied tripods and tinkered with cameras.
The cloudy night, however, wasn't ripe for viewing. So, early birds that we are, we beat the crowds by heading out before 1 a.m.
The following night, Sunday, would bring a different result. The skies had cleared and the temperature had plummeted to around minus-20. We were booked for an ice fishing and northern lights viewing excursion from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. with Rod's Alaskan Guide Service. But by then the aurora borealis was in full flow.
Mini-golf on ice -- it's a Fairbanks nightlife thing. Photo Credit: Holly Kurtz
Holly and I first spotted the lights in the parking lot of our room at the Wedgewood Resort. It was an electric thrill, knowing we weren't going to leave Alaska having missed them. But as we drove the 20 or so miles to our fishing date, the lights intensified. Vibrant greens dance in the skies, fading in one area, then growing stronger and more radiant elsewhere. It was a show I thought would last for hours.
Like a moody child, however, the northern lights are mercurial. By the time we drove our rented Toyota Forerunner onto the lake and approached the Rod's shanty, the lights had peaked, though vestiges of activity could be seen throughout the night.
Maybe the fish were worn out from all the excitement. More likely, said our guide Cody, the sharp temperature plunge that evening might have been the reason they weren't active. In either case, I didn't get a bite, though the reindeer hot dogs Cody cooked on a small grill perched on the ice were delicious. We called it a night just before 2 a.m.
On Monday, my last night in Fairbanks, the temperature lingered at about minus-20. Still, I had unfinished business.
So, after arriving back to town around 9 p.m. from an excursion to the Chena Hot Springs about 60 miles away, I put on five layers of clothing and headed back to the Ice Art Championships.
I was one of the last people there that evening, save for the judges, who carefully inspected the various sculptures -- notepads in hand beneath heavy gloves and parkas. But the amazing craftsmanship on display made braving the cold more than worth it. A sword-wielding minotaur, a warrior fending off a tiger and a giant dragon, each etched and carved out of blocks of lake ice with painstaking detail, were just a few of the entrants.
Nightlife in Fairbanks, I thought. It doesn't resemble Vegas. But it's still unforgettable.