FAIRBANKS - The U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory wanted to know if the public would be interested in seeing their permafrost tunnel near Fox, so they sponsored a two-day open house this weekend.
Within a couple hours of opening the gates on Saturday, the answer was a resounding yes.
"It's really a one-of-a-kind place," said Debbie Quimby, public affairs officer.
Hundreds of people traveled to the site just south of Fox on the Steese Highway for the opportunity to step back into the Pleistocene era in tunnel through permanently frozen ground that researchers have been using for decades, but which has rarely been available for the public to see.
The crowds were so thick, in fact, that all the tunnel tour slots were filled by 11:30 a.m., Quimby said. More than 475 people signed up to tour the tunnel and she estimated she had to turn away another 250. Cars lined both sides of the Steese Highway for a half-mile on each side of the entrance.
Quimby said organizers had not put the word out that children under the age of 4 would not be allowed in the main tunnel, in which hard hats are required, so some families were disappointed.
A smaller 100-foot-long tunnel, however, was open to everyone. Children exited the tunnel holding their noses against the pervasive barnyard smell emanating from the permafrost, which is kept about 24 degrees. Information kiosks around the site included mastodon and mammoth teeth and bones and other artifacts that children were encouraged to touch and examine up close. One table held slabs of 30,000-year-old ice.
The permafrost tunnel was built in the 1960s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and yielded a slew of scientific research and developments on topics such as mining, civil engineering on permafrost, geology, paleontology, biology and even Mars studies.
Researchers hope to expand the tunnels and potentially develop more public-friendly facilities at the site.
The open house continues today from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Visitors who want to tour the main tunnel should arrive early to get a slot, Quimby said. Children must be older than 4. The gates will open at 9:30 a.m. Visitors should wear closed-toe shoes and bring a jacket. Tours last 15 to 20 minutes. The permafrost tunnel is located at Mile 10.5 Steese Highway, just south
of Fox. Look for the balloons on the sign at the facility's entrance.
Contact staff writer Julie Stricker at 459-7532. Staff writer Matt Buxton contributed to this report.