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City of Fairbanks, Alaska, Still Has Frontier Lure

July 12, 1987|JIM LEVEQUE | Leveque is a Lindenwold, N.J., free-lance writer

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Last fall, Suzi Waugaman had a problem--she couldn't feed her pet squirrel because a mother moose and two yearlings were bedded down in the front yard.

A couple of days later, Waugaman shooed the moose off the sun deck by exasperatedly tossing the squirrel fodder after them. And as she wiped the nose marks off her windows, the massive trio ambled on back to nibble at the scattered nuts and crumbs and grain.

Waugaman then shimmied herself into a nifty little number by Diane Von Furstenberg, slipped into her Datsun 280ZX and roared off to a reception at an art gallery.

It's that kind of easy, unself-conscious movement back and forth between two entirely different worlds that disorients visitors to Fairbanks. Equally proud of both their 50-below winters and the no-night, flower-filled summers, Fairbanks residents take perverse pleasure in telling the newcomer that this city of 30-odd thousand is known among many Alaskans as "the northern terminus of the schizoid escape route."

In that context, it is fitting that Fairbanks was an accident.

Ran Aground

In 1901 a river boat loaded with trade goods was headed up the Chena--a tributary of the Tanana, which is a tributary of the Yukon--and got stuck short of its destination. What the heck, figured Capt. E. T. Barnette, so he promptly unloaded where he had run aground and went into business.

A year later and 16 miles away, Felix Pedro struck gold and Fairbanks, named for a U.S. senator, was on its way.

Eventually, Barnette was on his way, too. It is appropriate to this sometimes contrary sub-Arctic community that Barnette was run out of the city he had founded for alleged irregularities having to do with other people's money.

Gold has always been implicit to Fairbanks, and even today is responsible for tales as tall as those fabricated during the pick-and-shovel days of the early prospectors.

For example, just about the time Waugaman was pulling into the parking lot of the art gallery, Tony Leveque, a lifelong Fairbank resident, was telling a visitor about taking gold--not money--for wages while working "out in the creeks."

Stashed in a Hole

That was several years ago, he went on, and he still has it "cached away in a hole in the ground."

Why in the world, asked the visitor, didn't Leveque convert it into cash and invest in a good mutual fund or a money market certificate?

"Oh, I guess you don't know about gold," he suggested in a most serious manner. "Well, the fact is, if you put the gold back into the ground it grows and doubles its weight every five years. And where else," Leveque concluded, "am I gonna find an investment that'll guarantee me a 20% return on my money every year?"

Yeah, well, OK, uh-huh.

Fairbanks is as flat as day-old beer, but take a five-mile run to the hilltop of the University of Alaska and to the south there is nothing but wall-to-wall, purple-mountain majesties. The local expression is, "The mountain is out today," and they are referring to McKinley, at 20,000-plus feet the most prominent peak on the North American continent.

It's a dazzling visual delight that can turn from cotton-candy pink to regal blue with just the brush of a cloud painting its face.

Miner 'Students'

The University of Alaska has been as gold-related as anything else in Fairbanks and, in the old days, was a haven for miners too broke to go outside--what Alaskans call everywhere else--for the winter. Many would enroll as students but never go near a classroom. It was simple economics: The school offered the cheapest room and board north of Seattle.

There are still certain oddball aspects to the University. "Lisa Birnbach's College Book" awarded the Fairbanks institute top honors in three categories. But again, the perversity: Most Food, Most Serious Drinkers and the Ugliest Female Student Body.

On campus, they immediately elevated their ales in agreement with the first two accolades, but the reaction was mixed as to the appraisal of the women.

A male from New York, Tony Marotta, allowed as, "I've heard some girls here have harpoon scars on their thighs." Somebody else remarked that nobody could look good in long johns and parka. And co-ed Anna Allen sniffed: "I obviously wasn't here when she took her poll."

Pleasing Itself

Quite possibly the warmest compliment paid Fairbanks came from a travel writer who said the appeal of the town is that it appears to be pleasing itself, not anybody else. And Fairbanks is very much that hometown kind of place.

Hard by a metal-clad high-rise, the Northward Building from which the Alaska novel by Edna Ferber got the name "Ice Palace," consists of sagging, still-occupied log relics with grass growing out of sod roofs and sawdust packed around the foundations for insulation.

Peek into the backyard and right there next to the latest super-nifty gas grill will be clotheslines strung between two magnificent racks of moose antlers.

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