FAIRBANKS, 360 miles north of Anchorage and at the end of the Alaska Highway from Canada, is somewhat bland but makes a great base for exploring a hinterland of gold mines, hot springs and limitless wilderness, and for journeys along the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Ocean oilfield of Prudhoe Bay.
Fairbanks suffers remarkable extremes of climate, with winter temperatures dropping to -70ºF and summer highs topping 90ºF. Proximity to the Arctic Circle means more than 21 hours of sunlight in midsummer, when midnight baseball games take place under natural light, and 2am bar evacuees are confronted by bright sunshine.
Alaska’s second largest town was founded accidentally, in 1901, when a steamship carrying trader E.T. Barnette ran aground in the shallows of the Chena River, a tributary of the Yukon. Unable to move his supplies any further, he set up shop in the wilderness, catering to the few trappers and prospectors in the area. The following year gold was found, a tent city sprang up and Barnette made a mint. In 1908, at the height of the rush, Fairbanks had a population of 18,500, but by 1920 it had dwindled to just 1100. During World War II several huge military bases were built and the population rebounded, getting a further boost in the mid-1970s when it became the construction centre for the trans-Alaska pipeline.