Category Archives: Alaska

North Pole

You knew this was coming, right?

While planning for my trip to Alaska this past August, I noticed that the city of North Pole was a suburb of Fairbanks, one of the stops on my driving tour of the 49th state.  Needless to say, I set aside plenty of time to scour North Pole; I was determined not to leave without finding the welcome sign.

As it turns out, it was a surprisingly difficult sign to find.  After navigating Snowman Lane, Kris Kringle Drive and Santa Claus Lane, I finally located the sign on St. Nicholas Drive.  It was strategically placed in a gravel parking lot in front of a church, across the street from an uninviting Asian restaurant.

The sign seems like it was a reject from Santa’s workshop.  The text is strangely uneven and, with the odd capitalization, somewhat difficult to read.  The construction is probably the best feature of the sign – it seems that Santa’s elves are more adept at woodworking than calligraphy.  I do like the candy-cane striping around the sign – a subtle, tasteful incorporation of the holiday theme.  Interestingly, this is the first sign that I have encountered that includes a ZIP code.

Intersection of St. Nicholas Drive & Fifth Avenue

Looking at the sign now, just a few days shy of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, I realize that the photo would make a greater impact if it had been taken in the winter, with snow on the ground and skeleton-like tree limbs in the background.  Unfortunately, the lush green foliage doesn’t create the sense of place that one imagines when conjuring up images of the North Pole.  I’ll try to make my next visit in season!

Alaska Wrap-Up

While in Alaska, I logged nearly 1,300 miles on my rental car.  All with the goal of discovering what welcome sign would await me around the next bend in the road.

My favorite sign of the trip was in Anderson, a city of less than 400 people.  In addition to landscape features that define the Denali area, the hand-crafted, hand-painted sign features a bear that is more scared-looking than scary.

And the sign has two sides, each one painted individually!  I especially like the fact that one side has the sun (summer solstice) while the other side doesn’t (winter solstice).

The Willow Area also provides a warm welcome.  This is a professional sign that displays the summer and winter activities that visitors and residents alike can enjoy in the Willow Area.  (Notice the wooden bear perched on the left side of the sign; slightly scarier than the bear in Anderson.)

Many signs in Alaska are designed with wood and have a rustic feel.  The sign in Delta Junction followed this theme, but drew me in more than some of the others.  How could I resist “Alaska’s Friendly Frontier”?

Unfortunately, this next sign overpromises.  Downtown Talkeetna is not particularly beautiful.  Especially when a bus full of tourists has just emptied onto its street.  (And dirty shoes aren’t exactly appealing.)

Joy is a small off-the-grid homestead about 60 miles north of Fairbanks.  (Joy was one of the original settlers of the land in the 1960s.  It seems the sign dates from the 1960s, too.)

Last but not least is Houston, a 1,200-person suburb of Anchorage.  Like some of the others, this sign tries to capture all that is Alaska – wildlife, fishing, mountains, the summer sun, forests and rivers.  And it does it very well.

Much more interesting than the sign in Houston, Texas.

And that’s a wrap!

Wasilla

Two years ago I probably would not have gone out of my way to visit Wasilla.  That was before Sarah Palin became a household name.

Home to 10,000 people, Wasilla ranks as the fourth-largest city in Alaska (behind Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, respectively).  Wasilla is a suburb of Anchorage (40 miles to the west) and the George Parks Highway linking the two cities was the closest feeling to interstate traffic that I experienced during my visit to Alaska.  How to describe the city?  William Yardley of The New York Times summed up Wasilla in an article in this week: “Where development dead-ends and some of the most remote places in America begin.”  I can’t top that.

Northbound travelers are treated to an elaborate welcome sign (above) situated on the bank of Wasilla Lake.   (This is not the same lake that backs up to the Palin household; that is Lake Lucille, Wasilla’s other lake.)  The metal sign pays homage to the city’s famous lakes; its design includes the reflection of the Chugach Mountains and a boater, in addition to other circular cutouts that do not represent anything obvious.

Southbound travelers are greeted in a typical Alaskan fashion – a wooden sign.  Like the northbound sign, mountains and the local Rotary Club are highlighted.  The City of Wasilla seal adds some interest to an otherwise lackluster sign.

Juneau

Unlike many visitors to Juneau, Alaska’s capital city, I arrived by air.  The landing is among the most challenging in the world; on final approach pilots have to maneuver through numerous mountains to the airport’s single runway that sits at the end of the Gastineau Channel (which also acts as a dangerous wind funnel).  The runway is not visible until a final sharp right turn turn around the Mendenhall Peninsula at speeds of over 150 miles per hour.  Quite an experience!

Because Juneau is not accessible by car, most tourists pour into the city on cruise ships, packing the souvenir shops that line the wharf area of the compact downtown.  But even the teeming tourists could not take away from the charm of Alaska’s third-largest city.  Juneau has character unlike any other city I visited in Alaksa and it was by far my favorite stop; the historic buildings constructed during the 1880s when Juneau first prospered due to gold are quaint and welcoming.  Highlights for me included a walking tour of the numerous totem poles sprinkled throughout the hillsides of downtown, lunch at the Twisted Fish Company along the waterfront and gazing at the 4,500-foot forested peaks that rise dramatically around the city.  Juneau combines both natural beauty and a soft, laid-back pace of life that is a clear contrast to the harshness I felt in Interior Alaska.

Okay, I’m starting to sounds like a guide book!  The true highlight of my visit, of course, was the welcome sign.  Unlike states, welcome signs for cities are not guaranteed.  So I was thrilled to exit the airport and immediately spot the Welcome to Juneau sign.  In keeping with tradition of many signs I saw in Alaska, this one is wooden and rustic.  The names of the Governor of Alaska and Mayor of Juneau are cleverly etched on removable pieces of wood that can be changed as quickly as the whims of voters.  Flowers at the base add some color.

As a bonus, a second sign sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard was just steps away. 

Fairbanks

Fairbanks, home to 35,000 people, is the second-largest city in Alaska; the surrounding boroughs swell the metro area to nearly 100,000.  Founded in 1901 on the banks of the Chena River, Fairbanks grew quickly when gold was discovered nearby in 1902.  But the city fell on hard times when the reserves of easily accessible gold were depleted a decade later.  Additional influxes of permanent residents occurred during periods of construction: the Alaska Railroad in the 1920s and the Trans-Alaska pipeline in the 1970s.

As the oil flowing through the Trans-Alaska pipeline slows due to dwindling reserves in the Arctic, the economy has come to rely on tourism, and the city itself retains a boom/bust feeling.  The downtown area is tired and worn, while the airport terminal is new and creates a modern space for visitors traveling by air.  And the Museum of the North on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks is visually stunning.  In addition to the extremes in architecture, the climate  is extreme.  Temperatures can plunge to more than -50 degrees in the winter when the sun shines for less than four hours per day.  In contrast, the sun is visible for more than 21 hours a day during the summer solstice.

In the welcome sign department, Fairbanks competes with Anchorage: the city boasts three welcome signs (although they are more dispersed those in Anchorage) and each one is unique.  And there is a fourth bonus sign for the downtown area.

The first sign is located at the airport exit and although not particularly eye-catching, it is a good effort.  It includes the motto that was bestowed upon the city by the Fairbanks Commercial Club in 1911 – the Golden Heart City.

This second sign is drab and dull.

The third sign reflects the city’s motto in a more subtle fashion: although it might be hard to see, the golden flowers on the left are in the shape of a heart.

And, last but not least, is this sign in downtown Fairbanks.  Unfortunately it is located in the parking lot of a bank and not in a spot that would normally be considered welcoming.

(Welcome to the) Arctic Circle

So, this sign breaks one of my self-imposed rules.

When I first started this project, I was adamant that I would only take photos of signs that included the word “welcome”.  If it didn’t say welcome, I wasn’t interested.  Except in extreme circumstances, I have adhered to this rule.  My trip this week to the Arctic Circle can certainly be categorized as an extreme circumstance.  The journey to reach it was slow and arduous, traversing the monotonous yet extreme environment that characterizes Interior Alaska.

The Arctic Circle is the parallel of latitude 66° 33′ 44″ north of the equator, and it passes through only eight countries.  The only road to cross the Arctic Circle in the U.S. is the Dalton Highway.  Originally built in the mid-1970s to service the construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, the Dalton Highway is a mostly unpaved road that has been featured on the reality television series Ice Road Truckers

At mile 115, the Dawson Highway crosses the Arctic Circle in a low-key fashion.  There is a pull-off where travelers can take photos next to a sign marking the invisible boundary.  In addition to the sign, there are some explanatory placards that describe the summer and winter solstices and an outhouse.  That’s it.

Although a relatively boring drive, the Dalton Highway does provide the opportunity to experience one of the most remote locations on earth in relative (I use this term loosely) safety and comfort.  The landscape is transformed before your eyes from one of aspens and black spruces to a treeless tundra that protects the delicate permafrost beneath.  The Trans-Alaska pipeline snakes above ground for major portions alongside the Dalton Highway, providing a glimpse at this man-made marvel.  And crossing the mighty Yukon River – the third-longest river in North America – was the highlight for me.

Bittersweet Border Crossing

The driving force behind my visit to Alaska this week was to photograph the Welcome to Alaska sign.  Over the past four years I have crisscrossed the USA with the goal of photographing the welcome signs for all 50 states.  And Alaska was, appropriately, my Last Frontier.  (Stay tuned for more info about my book State Lines that will be published later this year.)

As I stood alone at the end of the Alaska Highway facing the sign, my emotions were mixed; I felt a certain sadness that this journey has come to an end, but at the same time I felt a strong sense of accomplishment.  I set a goal, focused my energy and resources, and succeeded.  (I also felt the biting of mosquitos on my skin, a minor annoyance that only temporarily distracted me from the moment.)

The sign is simple and sturdy, displaying details that define Alaska: the shape of the state (the largest in the country), wildlife and wildflowers.

As I turned my back on Alaska – and closed the book (literally) on my state welcome sign project – I faced not only a new country, but a new journey.  Why not photograph the welcome signs for the Canadian provinces and territories?  Nothing is stopping me, so I started.