Gateway to the North

UA Museum of the North. Sept. 15.

Soon, the aurora borealis will roll overhead and the sun will dance between distant mountains, just out of grasp. The ice fog will settle and suffocate.

It’s important to seek adventure and discovery just past your doorstep, but sometimes you need a break from home, a portal to other worlds.

Winter in Fairbanks makes this difficult.

Before I go on any further about this backyard exploration business, I want to let you know there’s a big green EXIT sign nearby. There, you can take five to catch your breath.

Let me introduce you to the UA Museum of the North. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

It doesn’t matter whether the building’s supposed to be a beluga, a ship or an iceberg. If you lift that white cake box up and off the ground, underneath you’ll find the real delicacies the museum has to offer.

Cake now with 75 percent more dinosaur fossils. Earth Sciences curator Patrick Druckenmiller stands near the racks of specimens from the collection. UAMN photo by Theresa Bakker.

There’s a catch. The heart of the basement, known as the range, isn’t open to the public. Even the employees can’t go hunting around the range to see some new treasure in another department, but sometimes these things present themselves when boxes get moved around. Once, I walked alongside the cabinets, and every surface was covered in polar bear skulls. Another time, boxes and boxes of wolf pelts littered the floor. I would walk past the ornithology section and they would pull out a tray of more than a dozen nearly identical stuffed birds.

You can visit the aboveground portion of the museum six days a week in winter. Here you’ll discover a natural and cultural history of not only Fairbanks, but much of Alaska. If you’re not from Fairbanks and want to visit, this is a great resource.

Locals: keep an eye out for special events. Sometimes the doors to the catacombs creak open. If you live here, chances are you’ve seen a majority of the exhibits available year-round. A few times a year, the range is still closed, but you can visit the surrounding basement laboratories during the museum’s open houses.

You can visit these labs – here's the fish lab -- during special open houses or on Halloween. Ichthyology Curator Andres Lopez in his lab. UAMN photo by Theresa Bakker.

The rest of the year, the basement’s closed, but sometimes specimens still find their way topside.

Graphic courtesy Teresa Bakker. Click to enlarge.

This Saturday, Sept. 17, the museum will host a Collection Connection event. Laboratories will display goods upstairs that normally don’t see the light of day. It’s free for UAF students, and part of regular admission for everyone else ($10 general, $5 youth).

Each specimen from the range – a dinosaur fossil from the North Slope, a pinned insect from the Aleutians, a plant from Far East Russia – can conjure nostalgia about our high-latitude life while providing a gateway out of Fairbanks’s entombing grasp.

Disclaimer, and another little challenge: I worked among those gems in the catacombs for a year when I assisted the museum’s Herbarium. If you do get to go to an open house, please visit the plant people. The specimens – pressed plants – look like lithographs, and give you a jolt of green while snow covers the ground.

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