When it's Springtime in Alaska...
February 27, 2007 11:20 AM   Subscribe

What's it like to live in Fairbanks, Alaska?

Ok, so I've got a job interview for a position at the University in Fairbanks, and I'm only going to be up there for two days during the interview. Have you ever lived in Fairbanks? Will I be able to survive the winters? I was actually born in Fairbanks, weirdly enough, back when the pipeline was being built, but my family left for Saudi Arabia and a long string of other locales when I was only two weeks old. I grew up in Texas for the largest part of my childhood, but since then I've lived in New York and Illinois for about 10 years, so I consider myself fairly acclimated to your average winter weather. But I know I've never been around winter weather like Fairbanks gets before!

I'm also worried about the isolation. I live in a smallish (~100,000 people) college town right now, and find it just about right. But Fairbanks is much smaller (~30,000, I think) and certainly not a two hour drive from a big city like I am here. Will it drive me crazy? What is there to do up there?

A couple of years ago my Mom and I went to Fairbanks for a few days in September, and it seemed nice, but it didn't really give me any idea of what it would be like to live there permanently. Also, if I moved there I'd be single again. What's the dating scene like? I'm not especially outdoorsy, but would enjoy the chance to learn to ski and things like that. Anyway, lay the wisdom of your experience on me.
posted by MsMolly to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's cold, although unlike places like North Dakota, there aren't usually howling winds. So usually somewhere else has worse weather, for whatever that is worth. You'll learn to plug your car in at night, things like that, but like most things you can get used to it. The dark winters are tough for some people --- some are really sensitive to the lack of sunlight, others aren't. There are things you can do to compensate (sunlamps, spend time outside in the middle of the day) but some people just get depressed and miserable. "Cabin fever" seems funny now, but next February you'll laugh about it in a different way.

There have been lots and lots of articles (and even a TV show, I think) about the Alaskan dating scene. Basically, there are more men than women, and journalists from the Outside are always writing about how hairy and uncivilized Alaskan men are. But the rough tough and buff guys are really the minority; most men have regular jobs and shave their beards and play video games and shop at the grocery store. Like anywhere, there is a gay culture, but Fairbanks won't get mistaken for the Castro any time soon.
posted by Forktine at 11:49 AM on February 27, 2007

My friends moved up there a couple of years ago and are now looking to move back to the northeast. They enjoyed the camping and outdoorsy stuff that the surroundings provide, but the weather and isolation from mainland US is going to eventually bring them back. Ther is development there, a couple of Safeways, the usual stores, Fred Mayer as well as an airport in town.

Outside the city center where maybe 10% or so of the population lives, indoor plumbing becomes impossible due to the permafrost. They live in a nice cabin but have an outhouse in the back. Quite a few of the college students who go to UAF live like this.

Fun fact: there is a tradition on the coldest night of the year where you take a pot of boiling water and throw it outside your door. The water will flash-freeze in mid-air and shatter on the ground.
posted by dr_dank at 12:26 PM on February 27, 2007

If it's helpful, the population is more like ~80k in the general area. The downhill skiing isn't tremendous, but if you are just learning it'd be fine (albeit exceedingly cold).
posted by Nabubrush at 12:35 PM on February 27, 2007

I lived there for about 7 years and just a few months ago moved to Anchorage.

It's got a small town feel: people smile at you in the grocery store because you happen to shop together at the same time every week. Strangers will stop for you if your car breaks down - especially in the winters - and it's not frightening. The winters are filled with college students, and the summers with older cruise-ship tourists (they are bused up there). There are two prominent military bases nearby, and rumors have been that one of the bases was increasing size by about 10,000 personnel, promting talks of another WalMart.

Basically, there are more men than women

As (I think) Forktine was getting at: this is a myth. The gender ratios are pretty equal, and Alaskan men are no more uncivilized than men from anywhere else. You don't say how old you are, and that effects the dating scene dramatically. It's a college town, yes, but the average college attendee is more like 35 than 19. Most of the people there are outdoorsy, but there is also a huge artsy (hippy) community. And the ice sculptures! Every March is the international ice carving competition, and it completely rocks.

It's very dry year round, doesn't get much rain, and there is very little wind. Temperatures in the summers are very warm: it's not unusual to have a week or more where the temperatures are above 95°F. It's near a lot of summer forest fires, however, and the last few years have been pretty bad with smoke. But otherwise the skies are huge and blue and hot. The winters can be cold, yes, but it's really not as bad as you think it will be. The temperatures stick around -25°F for most of the winter, but there is always a week or two in February where they drop to -45&def;F or colder. But it's a dry cold, so it doesn't "feel" as bad as a wet cold, if that makes sense. There isn't a lot of snow, but a ton of ice fog.

The amount of sunshine in the summers - 22 hours a day - really tries to make up for the amount of sunshine in the winters - 4 hours - but all of the darkness on top of the cold can be really, really hard to deal with. There's SAD, yes, but it's so much worse when you drive to work in the dark and you drive home from work in the dark and never see the sun.

And after saying all of that, I really, really miss it.
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posted by rhapsodie at 1:44 PM on February 27, 2007

Oh, and good luck finding anything open after 9pm that isn't a bar or a Safeway. That was the biggest frustration for me and my friends, finding Something To Do after 9pm that didn't involve getting drunk or laid. Restaurants close around 9, unless you want Denny's.
posted by rhapsodie at 1:49 PM on February 27, 2007

I've never lived in Fairbanks, but I've spent most of my life in Alaska and I have friends that do live there. In my experience the isolation factor really depends on how you handle it personally. If you can find activities that interest you and similarly minded people, then it shouldn't be a real problem. Like rhapsodie said, there's a pretty strong local arts scene (theatre, a community orchestra, the university, galleries, local musicians, etc). And there are plenty of other groups of enthusiasts (in particular, runners). You say you're not particularly outdoorsy, but there are plenty of short hikes in the Fairbanks area worth checking out.

On the other hand if you're the kind of person who craves the comforts of a major metropolitan area you might find it a little more difficult. If you're curious to see what's available, check out this page.

Keep in mind that Anchorage is about 7 hours away by car and that a ticket to Seattle will run you somewhere from 400-600 dollars these days. In my experience this generally limits travel to long weekends / vacations / conferences.

It's true though, that it can be difficult to find something to do after 9, especially when you don't have anything planned.
posted by timelord at 2:56 PM on February 27, 2007

The winters can be cold, yes, but it's really not as bad as you think it will be. The temperatures stick around -25°F for most of the winter, but there is always a week or two in February where they drop to -45°F or colder.

Wow, now that's an optimist. A mere week of subzero temps in MN almost kills me every year.

My impression of the city from the people I spoke with when I visited was that it requires a certain mix of heartiness and craziness to get through the wildly swinging seasons and too much sun vs. hardly any.
posted by DonnieSticks at 3:28 PM on February 27, 2007

A mere week of subzero temps in MN almost kills me every year.

I think that the northern plains states are much colder in real terms than is Fairbanks. The thermometer might be lower in Fairbanks, but with ultra-dry air and no wind, it isn't so bad. The wind coming down out of Canada, from eastern Montana all the way over to Illinois, seems much harsher to me, at least from the brief times I've driven through in mid-winter. Don't take me wrong: Fairbanks is no Honolulu, but there are worse places in the winter.

(And yes, above I was trying to point out that Alaska is not a big ice cave full of sasquatch-like men who haven't seen a woman in years; that is, however, the common portrayal in articles I've seen. Caveat: I moved out of Alaska a few years ago, and haven't been back, so maybe all the women have since left and it is now a big boy scout camp in the snow, unbeknownst to me.)
posted by Forktine at 3:54 PM on February 27, 2007

I think that the northern plains states are much colder in real terms than is Fairbanks.

It's also the difference between 90°F in Tucson and 90°F in New Orleans: temperatures feel worse in humid conditions than they do in dry conditions.

And the best part about a week at -45°F (because after a week of that temperature there has to be something to look forward to), -20°F feels like a heat wave. You think it's crazy when I say it, you'll think it's crazy when it drops from 0 to -20&deg, you'll think it's crazy at -40°F, but when it warms back up to -20°F you want to run around in a tshirt.

But, dang, if you actually do move there, we could have had a meetup! You should have told me and I would could have stuck around a bit longer.
posted by rhapsodie at 6:07 PM on February 27, 2007

If you want a good laugh, ABC's Men in Trees will have you rolling in the aisles. I caught one episode last fall and it implied that Anchorage has a walkable downtown with trees in it (much like the sidewalks of New York), an opera with a 'smoking porch' and that bar owners keep elk as pets. (Also that the elk sound like bears.) It's funny because it's as if 'Sex and the City' decided to trapse up to Alaska for a vacation.

Fairbanks is an Alaskan city, one of the biggest in Alaska. They have an airport that you can get to. They have a Starbucks. It is probably easier to be single in an Alaskan city than in an Alaskan village.
The people that I have met from Fairbanks have all talked about the strong sense of community that's there. I would surmise that there are much -worse- places to move to from the lower 48 and it would be in my top 4 of habitable places. If you think you'll like the working atmosphere, do it. It'll be an adventure, and an easy one to leave from should you decide to go back down.
posted by lilithim at 1:27 AM on February 28, 2007

Thanks guys! This is all very helpful info. One of the things that really petrifies me is the idea of all those months of long, dark, cold. I already get more than a touch of SAD with not being able to get out in the sun during the winters here in Illinois, and the thought of that doubled kind of gives me the heebie jeebies. I'm also almost sure that I couldn't stand to live in a place that had an outhouse. How does that even work when it's that cold outside? Don't you freeze your tuchus off?

So I guess follow up questions would be, what does a good one or two bedroom apartment go for, and what kind of amenities are typical (workout room, etc.)? And would my little Toyota Prius be totally useless as a car up there?
posted by MsMolly at 7:41 AM on February 28, 2007

To answer your follow up questions:

1// The other people there experience SAD, too. So if you're finding yourself getting down, know that you won't be alone. And when there's a bunch of people itching with cabin fever, I guarantee there will be something going on to get involved with. And if you can psych yourself up for it, I would highly recommend investing in some good cold-weather gear (thermal underwear, heavy coat, heavy boots, face mask, heavy gloves, etc. - the key is to layer layer layer) so you can spend some time outside in the few hours of winter sunlight. There's a ton of cross-country skiing in the area, but not a lot of downhill.

2// Most apartments come with all amenities, including indoor plumbing and electricity. Honestly, there is civilization up here in Alaska, too. If you want to get further out of the city, there are cabins for the cheap that do not have running water. Some have outhouses, yes, but many have indoor composting toilets. But really? Everything within the city limits and most places outside the city has plumbing.

3// A good one to two bedroom apartment will run you $750-850 in town. It will be cheaper if you get a place in North Pole and commute to Fairbanks (a 20 minute drive). You can get a cabin in the Goldstream Valley for cheaper - sometimes as cheap as $300 - but those come without plumbing and some might even require you to haul your own water and heating fuel. Skip those, stay in town, and you'll be fine.

4// Typical amenities? In a one to two bedroom apartment? Full kitchen, full bathroom. Shared laundry facilities. And a shovel.

5// There are people who own hybrids in town, but I don't know how the battery would act in the extreme colds. Is it winterized with an oil pan heater? Battery heater? Block heater?

If you have any more questions about living there, my email is in my profile.
posted by rhapsodie at 2:13 PM on February 28, 2007

I lived in Fairbanks (North Pole, Alaska, actually, outside Fairbanks) for three years.

I loved it. It is very, very cold, but you adjust. For a town of 30,000 (you've got that right), Fairbanks really makes the most of it. There is some first-rate dining. Some lovely dining on the river. There's great fishing and hiking. You may not be two hours from a big city, BUT you WILL be two hours from some amazing natural hot springs. You will be right where you can see the northern lights on many fall and winter nights. You will be in a place where a hike may take you to a place where there has never been a human footfall. If that intrigues you, go to Fairbanks.

I did have SAD, and I used this light therapy box and never had a problem again.

Fairbanks is a growing town. It's acquiring more businesses every year.

But here's something to think about. Are you single? I was there with my husband, and we had a blast, snowmachining, hiking, fishing, etc. But the singles I knew were frustrated by the lack of dating opportunities. Something to consider.

Oh, and that whole boiling water thing... I believe that's a myth. "Mythbusters," the show on TLC, tested the theory at 70 below.
posted by laskagirl at 8:31 PM on February 28, 2007

Yeah, the water thing is sort of crap. I work in Prudhoe Bay, and we "eliminate" outside and I've never noticed ice crystals ending up sprinkling down in some sort of miniature snowglobe effect. Also, I think you'd be fine with a SAD light. I neve have a problem with the darkness, but I do know folks with issues, and they use the lights and get by just fine. I lived in AK for about thirty years and, as I said, continue to commute for work, so get in touch if I can help at all.
posted by Nabubrush at 7:59 PM on March 4, 2007

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