Photo Credit: TN
Using The Alaska Railroad To Discover The Alaska Many Black Travelers Miss
Discovering the Alaska many Black travelers miss took me on a ten- day trip with transportation provided by the Alaska Railroad. Coming to Alaska made me realize just how much I love slow travel. This style of travel allows me to really get to learn about the culture of the area I’m visiting. I can take time to find my people, get to know the food I like and experience the things that may take more than one, short trip to the area. Most of Alaska’s tourism occurs during the summer and early fall months, so many Black travelers miss seeing the beauty of the state in the winter months.
By traveling with Alaska Railroad, I was able to discover the Alaska many Black travelers may miss. Traveling between Anchorage and Fairbanks is time consuming, so many Black travelers miss the opportunity to see parts of Alaska only accessible by train.
I boarded the train at eight in the morning, with just a travel backpack and my laptop bag, prepared for the 12-hour ride from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The conductor yelled, ‘All aboard’ and the excited passengers began loading the train. I’d just gotten settled into my seat when the train began to move. Breakfast was served within the first 30 minutes and biscuits and gravy with a side of reindeer sausage was the best option for me, as I wanted to delve into the unique Alaskan cuisine. The community style seating allowed for people to sit together and talk that maybe wouldn’t otherwise. We all watched as we slowly traveled away from the water and into the interior of Alaska.
The conductor talked along the route about the things we would see and what we should all be on the lookout for. Before long, riders were shouting, “Eagle at one o’clock,” “Moose at five o’clock!” Everyone on the train would rush over to see, the conductor would say it over the intercom for the other cars to hear. Fun facts about the terrain, the flag stops and towns were interesting to hear along the way. Andy, the conductor, is a wealth of Alaskan knowledge.
Lunch consisted of unforgettable smoked salmon chowder and a side salad as I was still full from breakfast. Reindeer penne pasta was also offered, but I just couldn’t imagine having a lunch that size after such a rich breakfast. Back in my seat, I studied the Alaska Railroad guide and learned about some of the places we were passing.
There were a couple of stops along the way where passengers could get out, take pictures and play in the six foot high snowdrifts. Some took pictures of the train, others stayed on. I got out and met other passengers, including a Black solo traveler from Anchorage. She was from Vegas and was heading back to Anchorage on a flight later that night. I came back to my seat after the stop in Denali and fell asleep to the gentle rocking of the train. Waking up, it was time for dinner! And after a dinner of a slow braised pot roast with mashed potatoes and veggies, we were pulling into Fairbanks. It was the shortest 12-hour trip I’d ever been on.
The first night, I stayed at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, a nice sized hotel with a boutique atmosphere. The amenities were expansive and kitschy. They included a heated gazebo and an outdoor firepit for viewing the Northern Lights. A small movie theatre with movies playing until late into the evening. There was an aromatherapy sauna. I stayed in one of the north facing rooms and had the ability to see the Northern Lights from bed. Guests can even ask for a wake up call when the Northern Lights are out.
Ready to Explore Fairbanks for the next week, I made my way to Borealis Basecamp the next day, a highlight of the trip. This geodesic igloo adventure camp included activities, winter gear and an on-site chef. I spent the afternoon riding snow machines around the property, checking out the Alaska pipeline before I moved on to dog sledding. I got to actually mush a little on the back of the sled while the guide worked the middle. The dogs were super sweet and excited to pull us along the snowy trails. Participating in winter activities like dog sledding, a reindeer meet-and-greet and snow machining were new to me, a Black traveler.
Dinner that evening was at Latitude 65, the small, exclusive restaurant on property. The chef prepared crab cakes with a lemon aioli that made me pucker just a touch, the perfect amount of sour for seafood. He followed it up with an enormous steak served under mouthwatering purple sweet potatoes and smoked broccolini. I was so full I asked for my dessert to-go; a fudge brownie with ice cream on top. On my way out, I was reminded to pick up a S’mores kit for the firepit as well.
That night, I saw the Northern Lights for the first time on the trip. I was already looking at them through the huge plexi-glass opening in the igloo. I was laying in bed in awe when a pleasant alarm sounded. Each time the lights started to dance, a chime sounded. They only came out for 30 minutes or so that night, but they were definitely visible.
Chena Hot Springs was next on the list. The hot springs, ice museum and ‘Chena Greens,’ the leafy green vegetables grown on site were pleasing. An insider tip for anyone who visits, go to the hot springs at night. There weren’t many people in the hot springs and… you can see the Northern Lights while soaking in the hot springs. I didn’t bring a camera so I, along with some guests from Japan, all oohed and ahhed over the lights moving through the night sky. It was one of the most surreal moments of the trip.
The ice museum was something of interest at Chena Hot Springs as well. Open year round, the ice sculptures that decorate the museum were designed by a couple of the area’s best ice sculptors. A leopard, a bust of a woman, a staircase and even two hotel rooms made purely of ice are toured while glow-in-the-dark martinis are made for guests at the ice bar. The drive out to the hot springs was a bit treacherous, with ice so thick and smooth I saw quite a few cars slide a bit on the roads, even with their four-wheel-drive vehicles. We all arrived safely though, as slow and steady wins the race!
Back in Fairbanks I also had the pleasure of meeting a few Black Alaskans along the way. I had the opportunity to meet Black entrepreneurs in Fairbanks, chatting with them both at their places of business. Isaiah Mangum of Venue and Jeffry ‘L is for Love’ Brooks of Pike’s Landing talked with me about Fairbanks and the love they have for their city and Alaska overall. Through them, I learned even more about the Alaskan culture and why so many people fall in love with the state when they first arrive. On a side note, only one percent of Alaska residents are Black, but with the opportunity that is present in Alaska there are many successful business owners and they welcome other entrepreneurs with open arms.
Since only one percent of tourists who visit Alaska each year actually travel far enough north to see the Arctic Circle, I would say I am probably .1 percent of the total number of Black tourists who stepped foot there in the last year. This is one- stop way too many Black people miss when visiting Alaska. Taking the 16-hour sightseeing trip with Northern Alaska Tour Company to get a few pictures of the Arctic Circle Sign, along with a certificate, was well worth it.
As they say, ‘it’s all in the journey.’ I couldn’t agree more as I got a chance to see hoar frost clinging to the Black Spruce trees, the famous rollercoaster hill from Ice Road Truckers and I even sledded down to the Yukon River at sunset! The guide on this trip was amazing too. He knew all kinds of fun facts and kept the riders entertained the entire trip. Plus, he drove the whole way! The ride wasn’t over until three in the morning and we didn’t see any Northern Lights this time. There wasn’t enough solar activity that evening, even though the skies were dark and clear. Sometimes, groups on this adventure do see them though and the guide will pull over and let everyone view the lights.
I adventured into the parts of Alaska that many Black travelers miss. I saw the Northern Lights and the Arctic Circle. The tastiest road trip I’ve been on in a long time, I was able to luxuriate in the local, Alaskan cuisine including halibut, sablefish and reindeer sausage. I met with Black Alaskans and talked with them about the welcoming energy that Alaskans bring to the table and excitedly participated in winter activities that I’d never tried before. I visited hot springs that have been soaked in for centuries. Traveling through the interior of Alaska with the Alaska Railroad made me realize just how much I love slow travel and the ability it provides to see and discover the Alaska many Black travelers may miss.
For more photos and videos of this Alaska adventure, head to my Instagram: @sailing_dipity