by Amanda Byrd, former student
Fairbanks often differs considerably from what most people expect prior to their arrival. Contrary to portrayals on television (such as Northern Exposure), Fairbanks is not a vast wilderness with wild animals running through it (for the most part, anyway), though a short drive in any direction will take you to wilderness. Instead, it is a fairly typical city: larger than some, smaller than others. You can find many of the conveniences you would expect to find in a city of its size in the lower 48. Fairbanks has fast food chains, national department and discount stores (Sam’s Club, Home Depot, and Walmart), and restaurants. In addition to the many taxidermy shops, we have a few Chinese restaurants, a few Italian restaurants, five Thai restaurants, a Regal 16 screen movie theater, sporting goods stores, and the list goes on. The point is we have many of the stores that people in the lower 48 have become accustomed to.
The cost of living in Fairbanks is thought to be high, primarily because of the expense of shipping. However, perspectives vary. Fairbanks prices are very similar to Long Island, NY, but expensive compared to those in Charlottesville, VA. It is possible to live here at varying levels of comfort, solely on a stipend if you budget your funds. Grocery bills vary from person to person, depending on what they eat and where they shop. In general, monthly grocery bills begin around $100. For comparison, milk is generally around $3.50-$4.00 a gallon, bread is around $1.79-$2.89, and soup is around $1.10. Noodles can be purchased for 5/$1.00 during sales. As far as other expenses go, gas prices range $4.00-$4.50/gallon, theater movies are $8.50 ($5.50 on cheap night), rental movies are around $3.75, and dining out averages $20.00.
Now that you have an idea of what sort of place to expect, let’s discuss the weather. As you might know, Alaska is the “Land of the Midnight Sun”. In Fairbanks, the number of daylight hours varies from about 21 hours in June to about 3 hours in December. Winter is often long, usually lasting from early October through April. Spring and fall are virtually non-existent, lasting only a couple of weeks, often in September and May. And summer always feels a lot shorter than it really is. Temperatures range from an occasional bitter -60°F during the coldest, darkest winter months to well into the sweltering 90°’s during the daylight-filled summer months. However, more typical extreme temperatures lie around -30°F in the winter and the upper 80°’s in the summer. Interior Alaska is so dry that it is likened to an arctic desert and UAF is situated to receive very little wind. So, it is a dry cold rather than the wet cold you would find in Minnesota. Being prepared for both of these extremes is a must. When it is -30°F or colder, you will want to have the warmest clothes on. Frostbite is a real danger, but can be easily avoided with simple common sense. Bunny boots (military issue pressurized boots), Sorels (pac-type boots with wool felt liners), or similar types of footwear are highly recommended, although you can survive without them. Some people adjust to the weather behaviorally by spending shorter periods of time outdoors and wearing hiking boots with two pairs of warm socks. However, this is not advisable in extreme weather. A very warm arctic parka is a necessity, as well as a thick wool hat, a scarf, wool socks, and heavy long underwear. Mittens are preferable, as they provide more warmth for your fingers than do gloves. These items can be purchased here in Fairbanks, but if you already have them, then you can save money by bringing them with you. Shopping at Big Rays and The Prospector is the best place for warm weather gear. Big Rays is locally owned, and a huge range of great priced boots and clothes. The Prospector is the best place for gloves. When it warms up you don’t want to be stuck wearing all these heavy clothes, so bring summer and spring clothes as well. You can expect to be wearing shorts once temperatures reach 45-50° F. This may sound absurd to you now, but it’s true. The vast range of temperatures requires you to be prepared for both extremes and everything in between. Oh, and don’t forget the bug spray. The mosquitoes are as big as they say.
What to do in your spare time: Ski on the beautiful UAF trails right from your back door (literally). The trails are groomed for skate skiing and classical and are perfect for a leisurely ski or a hard workout. Ski equipment is available at many stores in town including Raven Cross-country, Play-it-Again-Sports and Beaver Sports. Also ski rental is very affordable at Outdoor Adventures (www.uaf.edu/outdoor/) on lower campus in the Wood Center. This organization is run for students, staff and affiliates and provides equipment rentals and amazing Alaskan trips. Trips range from 1day hikes, bike trips or whitewater rafting, to weeklong sea kayaking in Prince William Sound or hiking in the Brooks Range. The Pub on campus is a great venue for live music, wine and beer tasting, movies and a whole lot more, and it is smoke free, (remember you must be 21 years to enter)! Student activities organizes events for students and through them you will meet a wide range of students and partake in social events. The UAF trails also cater for walkers, snowshoers and dogs. There is a Pooch Loop, which is around 1 mile, and weaves through the ski trails. On weekends in winter, Alaska Dog Mushers Association (www.sleddog.org/) holds sled dog races at Mushers Hall on Farmers Loop (5 miles from campus). This is a spectator sport and you may even be asked to help in holding the sleds or dogs before the races. Chena Hot Springs is 50 miles along Chena Hot Springs Road. This a great place to visit after a backpacking, ski, or hiking trip.