FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska -- Fort Wainwright has partnered with several community organizations to provide weekly, informative off-post tours to all newcomers. This effort is designed to share information with new Soldiers and their families about the wealth of opportunities and resources in the greater Fairbanks area. Explore Fairbanks, the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce, University of Alaska Fairbanks, the government of the City of Fairbanks, and Pioneer Park have all made significant contributions to the new tour program.
The tours began in March, though the program was temporarily put on hold due to the pandemic. Tours resumed on July 10 and now take place every Friday. Safety measures include stipulations that all participants wear masks for the duration of the tour, use hand sanitizer regularly, and maintain physical distance from everyone outside their immediate family.
The partnership with community organizations is a critical aspect of the tour program.
“Explore Fairbanks became involved as we were expanding our outreach program with our Armed Services neighbors throughout the borough. We were already hosting Fairbanks information tables at the Spouse to Spouse orientations and at the deployment seminars. What really got the ball rolling was when Explore Fairbanks’ President and CEO, Deb Hickok, approached the topic of orientation tours at the local FNSB [Fairbanks North Star Borough] Civilian Military meeting with a representative from U.S. Army Garrison Alaska. After that, exploratory meetings were held and the program was developed,” said Charity Gadapee, director of Visitor Services and Partnership Development of Explore Fairbanks.
The tours begin with Soldiers and interested family members boarding a military bus parked at the garrison headquarters. The first stop on the tour is the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, where they are greeted by a member of the Explore Fairbanks team and given a brief overview of how the tour will go. Following the overview, they are welcomed to Fairbanks by a local elected official or other prominent member of the community. The mayor of Fairbanks, Jim Matherly, has given the address several times.
“Our service members are a very important part of our community, and I feel that it's imperative that we give them a warm welcome and make them feel at home here. As Mayor, I feel very privileged every time I have the opportunity to welcome them on behalf of all Fairbanks residents,” Matherly said.
Participants are then given about 30 minutes to explore the museum, which highlights Native Alaskan culture and life in Interior Alaska. They can also peruse the racks of free booklets and brochures on recreational opportunities throughout the state from the Alaska Public Lands Information Center and speak to a representative from the National Park Service. They are encouraged to come back to the Center on their own to explore at length and take advantage of all the resources it has to offer.
A member of the Explore Fairbanks team serves as the tour guide for the entire three-hour tour and keeps everyone on schedule throughout the morning, cuing them when it is time to get back on the bus.
The next stop on the tour is Pioneer Park, a 44-acre historically themed park offering a walk through local history and opportunities for recreation, shopping, and dining. Donnie Hayes, the park’s manager, often greets each newcomers tour group personally, welcoming them and describing what the park has to offer.
“We have always had a wonderful partnership with our many military members. We host a military appreciation day, partner with all branches to offer Memorial Day and 4th of July celebrations, and seek to be another reason why Alaska is home to some of the best military personnel around,” Hayes said.
During the tour, the guide describes points of interest along the way, including the Fairbanks Curling Club, Big Dipper Ice Arena, an entertainment venue and sports arena called the Carlson Center, Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, local public schools, and shopping areas featuring both local shops and national chain stores, among other places. This portion of the tour is particularly useful for those who may choose to get their groceries off post, need to visit a hardware store, or simply want to take advantage of what the local community has to offer.
The tour guide also shares information about various events and festivals that happen throughout the year, such as the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the Golden Days Festival. Soldiers from the garrison are often asked to participate as volunteers for such events. For example, during the Yukon Quest, they may serve as dog handlers at the start or finish line for teams of up to 14 rowdy, four-legged athletes.
Additionally, the guide will present local and state trivia—such as the fact that the coldest temperature ever recorded in the city of Fairbanks is -66 F—and explain the Native Alaskan influence on local place names.
Gadapee wrote the majority of the script for the tour guide, a role that cycles among the staff of Explore Fairbanks and the Chamber of Commerce, and as the bus passes by a portion of the Chena River, the guide will share the following information: “A further note about rivers . . . many rivers in Alaska end with the ‘na’ syllable – Chena, Nenana, Tanana, etc. Na is the Athabascan word meaning ‘river.’ There are also many rivers which end in ‘nika’ – Chatanika, Tetlanika – which is the Athabascan word meaning ‘small river.’”
That is something the average newcomer to Fort Wainwright is unlikely to learn on his or her own.
The next stop on the tour is the Museum of the North on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. The guide gives the tour participants an overview of the programs at the university and opportunities for Soldiers and family members to take classes. Following that, participants are given free time to wander the museum, which features exhibits on Alaska’s mammals, along with Alaska Native culture, the aurora, gold mining, and other topics.
Participants only have time for a quick look at the museum’s offerings, but since admission is free for active duty personnel and their families, they are more than welcome to come back on their own at no cost.
Back outside the museum, the participants are directed to an interpretive sign that points out the location of various mountains that can be seen in the Alaska Range. The guide also discusses the multi-use recreational trails on campus that allow running, hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing, as well as the campus’s botanical garden and Large Animal Research Station, which enables visitors to get an up-close look at musk oxen, a unique arctic mammal.
The final stop on the tour is Creamer’s Field Migratory Bird Refuge. This is a popular recreational site close to town with miles of walking trails and interpretive signs describing the local flora and fauna. The guide explains to the tour participants how the refuge is actually an integral resource in reducing bird strikes at both Fairbanks International Airport and Fort Wainwright by providing migratory birds a temporary stopping place on their long journey north for the summer.
This stop concludes the tour, and Soldiers and their families then return to Fort Wainwright.
As many service members have experienced firsthand, a move to a new duty station can be extremely stressful and chaotic. With learning the ropes of a new job, navigating around post, and settling their families into a new home and children into new schools and activities, it can be months or longer before they get to take a breath and explore their surroundings. In a remote duty station such as an overseas post or rural central Alaska, the stress can be multiplied greatly, and exploring the local community can seem overwhelming.
Danny Wallace, the director of the Plans, Analysis, and Integration Office at Fort Wainwright said that is why the tour was initiated.
“This event allows for new arrivals to immediately be introduced to the local community and what it has to offer. This is a phenomenal hands-on experience that allows them to both meet local community leaders and actually participate in a hosted tour of the town. I think this sets the stage for a great experience for Soldiers and their families as they arrive at Fort Wainwright and Fairbanks.”
Gadapee values the partnership between the various civic and business organizations that enable the tour guides “to help spotlight our community’s history and culture. We’ve been able to share Fairbank’s Golden Heart spirit with soldiers and their families by sharing ‘insider knowledge’ from locals. Whether it be a welcome from the City Mayor, visits with staff from UAF’s Military and Veterans Services office, to visiting local attractions, we hope to share information which helps Fairbanks feel like home.”