"I get sluggish in winter," says Dan Unkerskov, head brewer at Silver Gulch Brewing & Bottling Co., where a gaggle of classic Alaskan characters gathers every Friday during the summer for free beer. "In summer, we all get sleep deprivation without realizing it. It's definitely cool to sit outside at two a.m. and read a book."
Silver Gulch is one of numerous Alaskan microbreweries churning out excellent suds, though its motto is more noteworthy than its Pick Axe Porter. "Fairbanks: Where the people are unusual and the beer is unusually good." When we meet Fairbanksan Justin Rousseau at the brewery, he does little to challenge this theory.
Rousseau is a dead ringer for Colin Farrell, if Farrell had moved to Alaska and lived in a coal mine instead of pursuing an acting career. (In fact, when Rousseau inevitably becomes famous for something or other, we're convinced Farrell will get the part in the Hollywood movie of his life.) Rousseau is the kind of guy one can only encounter in Alaska: a gangly, unclean, bearded wild man who looks as if he walked into the woods somewhat normal and emerged significantly less so. He's a land surveyor of Sioux Indian descent and quite possibly the most quotable person I've met in my 10 years of journalism. When Chad asks to take his picture, he tells us that his convertible pickup truck, a custom Rousseau invention, is even more photogenic than he is.
"I was doing the Dukes of Hazzard thing for a while," he reports, referring to jumping in and out of the truck via the window because the doors would no longer open. "[But] that pretty much sucks in a truck, so I just cut the top off. It's real cool. Really cool in winter."
We eye the truck and are indeed impressed. It looks like Rousseau literally took a chain saw to it, cutting away the entire bed and cab, right up to the steering wheel. Around here, nobody bats an eyelid.
"The Lower 48 is kind of compressed," continues Rousseau. "You have to mind your p's and q's more. Here, you can do your own thing and drive a beat-up old pickup truck with the top cut off, and nobody seems to notice." Yeah, they definitely do things differently around here.
The two biggest attractions in Fairbanks during the summer are the riverboat Discovery, a supertouristy ride down the Chena and Tanana rivers in an authentic stern-wheeler riverboat (the highlight of which is the tasty smoked salmon treats they pass out to the 900 or so tourists on board), and panning for gold at the El Dorado Gold Mine, a surprisingly fun way to pretend to strike it rich.
You cringe at the cheesiness until you see resident miner Dexter Clark sift through a random load of dirt until gold appears. Chad and I give it a try and net a total of $24 worth of gold between us - not enough to buy an hour of darkness, though, which would be kind of nice at this point. "When you get tired, you close your eyes and go to sleep," Clark tells me. "Don't you know that trick?"
But the problem in Fairbanks in the summer isn't going to sleep (although exiting a local haunt like the Marlin bar at two a.m. into broad daylight doesn't exactly help you to know when to say when), it's sleeping in. Unless your bedroom is underground, the chances of waking up to the annoying blare of an alarm isn't likely. How does 4:55 a.m. sound? My thoughts exactly.
While a visit to Fairbanks and the surrounding area in winter mostly involves a search for the elusive northern lights, a summer trip to the area revolves around the pursuit of the midnight sun (and let me tell you, it's a heck of a lot easier to find). The difference is like … ahem … night and day. Fairbanksans go all out for summer solstice, planning all manner of midnight activities and uttering such non-Lower 48 colloquialisms to each other as, "Have a good solstice." (After nearly eight months under the paralyzing grasp of relative darkness, you'd say silly things like that too.)
In Fairbanks proper, the midnight sun is hard to spot. It sits so low on the horizon that the surrounding hills block it from view from most vantage points. So, after attempting to see it at the Midnight Sun Baseball Game (no) and the Midnight Sun Festival (no), we head up to Ester Dome, one of the highest points in the Fairbanks area.