This was our free day in the Fairbanks area. We traveled to the Large Animal Research Station, but found it closed for the holiday weekend. However, we were able to see some of the animals in the distance. This was my first view of Muskox and caribou. Next stop was the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum. I enjoyed this more than I expected. All but four of the automobiles are operational and are driven in parades and for other special events. For me, the highlight of the museum was the audioplayers that everyone gets with their admission. On this device we were able to listen to a curator describe the history of each car, its features, and how it was restored. There was even a car an Alaskan built to impress a potential girl friend! She loved the car, but still wasn’t interested in him.
We visited the Fairbanks Visitor Center and biked along the Chena River. You could tell they had a lot of rain recently as the river was flowing over the bike path in spots.
After doing some research we decided we could kayak on the Chena River. The next morning we paddled from a bridge upstream from the campground to a spot in Fort Wainwright. Fort Wainwright was just downstream from the campground and there was a nice spot where the river had overflowed its bank, giving us the perfect spot to take our kayaks out of the river. It was interesting to paddle past backyards in one stretch and feel like you were in the middle of the wilderness in the next.
Later that afternoon our group took a bus to the University of Alaska Museum of the North. I found the Museum particularly interesting as it displayed Alaska by region, highlighting significant events and resources of each region. Every place we stop we learn more about the “last frontier.”
The big event of the day was the Alaska Pioneer Park Salmon Bake Dinner. This was a huge outdoor buffet and we all enjoyed it. There was grilled salmon, Alaskan cod, roast beef, crab legs, and more. Some of the best salmon and cod I have had in a long time!
Pioneer Park is a 44-acre park in downtown Fairbanks and is the site of the Salmon Bank, Air Museum, Pioneer Museum, Tanana Valley Railroad Museum, and Palace Theater. At the Railroad Museum I was shown Engine #1, the original engine used on the Tanana Valley Railroad. The men that have restored it have done an outstanding job!
We attended the “Golden Heart Review” at the Palace Theater. As opposed to the “Frantic Follies” that we attended in Whitehorse, this show focused on Alaskan history, primarily in the Fairbanks area. It was an excellent performance with plenty of laughs.
The big event today was a trip on the Riverboat Discovery. This was the best thing we did in the Fairbanks area. At the beginning of the trip, we were treated to watching the takeoff and landing of a float plane and listened as the pilot described, over the radio, his takeoff and landing, and how bush pilots supported Alaskans living in the back country. We had a running commentary during the entire trip. The commentator gave us history on some of the homes along the river, and the captain described how the ship was driven by the paddlewheel and how they navigated the river that had sand bars that appeared and disappeared overnight. A special treat was the free blueberry donuts and coffee offered to all onboard. This was a tradition that has lasted since the first river cruise.
Along the route we were treated to speakers from the shore. Our first stop was Susan Butcher’s cabin and dog kennel. Susan Butcher was a four-time winner of the Iditarod and started breeding and raising sled dogs. Her family continues this tradition and her daughter described the breeding and training of the dogs. We saw a team hitched to a four wheeled and raced around a short route in front of the boat. It was amazing to see the strength of these dogs and how much they actually enjoyed pulling the “sled.”
Our next stop was an Athabascan Fish Camp. A native Athabascan described the salmon wheel and how it was used to harvest the salmon. She also demonstrated how salmon were filleted and smoked. We then stopped at a rebuilt Athabascan Village and were given demonstrations of how they lived and hunted; types of homes and shelters; and how they prepared and used animal hide for clothing as well as other uses. Some of the staff of Susan Butcher’s kennel were there with the dogs to give us more information on how dogs are breed and trained for dog sledding. I can’t say enough good things about this tour, it was much more than a boat ride!
On the way back from the river trip, we stopped at the Alaska Wooden Bowl Company, where they make wooden bowls from native trees and berls. It was interesting to see how they use a lathe with a curved blade to cut concentric bowls, sand, and apply a finish.
Gold Dredge 8 is a restored gold dredge. They used to use high pressure water to blow away the top levels of soil to expose the lower layers that held the gold. With core drilling they mapped out where veins of gold lay underground. They would then dig a pit, flood it, and put the dredging barge in the resulting pond. The dredge would scoop up soil like a chain saw cuts into wood, bringing the soil to the surface and dump it into the dredge where it was sifted through screens to eliminate the large rocks. The remaining soil would be washed (or panned) to bring the lighter soil to the surface and wash it away, leaving the heavier gold behind. It was a big, impressive piece of machinery.
We had a chance to pan for gold. We were given a small bag of soil and taught how to use a pan to wash away the lighter soils. Pat ended up with nine grams of gold and I got seven – women are always better gold diggers! When Dredge 8 was taken out of service, it wasn’t because they ran out of gold, but because they ran out of profit. Gold prices had been set at a fixed level by the government, but production and transportation costs continued to rise. Eventually it was no longer profitable to continue and it was closed down. Now with safety and environmental restrictions, this form of mining is no longer feasible.
The Alaska Pipeline was out next stop. The ingenuity that went into the design was amazing. Much of the pipeline is above ground to avoid thawing the permafrost and the vertical supports are engineered to protect the pipeline from even an 8.5 earthquake! At times the pipeline runs underground to allow for animal migration. Periodically they run “pigs” through the pipeline to inspect and clean the sides and prevent a build up of wax and other contaminants. One of our group was an engineer who had worked on the pipeline and his additional knowledge was a plus for the trip.
Our campground was located in North Pole, AK. Of course we had to go to the Santa Claus House. It was a typical Christmas shop, although a nice one. You could get your picture taken with Santa and they had reindeer outside. We did buy a few ornaments while we were there.
We had a relatively easy drive, although it rained for most of it. We made a quick stop in Nenana. This is the city where the annual Ice Classic, the oldest tradition in Alaska, is held. People have been guessing when the ice will break up on the Tanana River since the early 1900’s. This time is determined by a huge black and white tripod. When the breaking ice tips the tripod an attached line to the Ice Classic office stops a clock and the winning time is recorded.
We arrived at Denali in mid-afternoon, wandered around the shops that lined the main road, and made arrangements to go white water rafting on Wednesday. That night we went to dinner at Cabin Nite. Cabin Nite replicates an Alaskan roadhouse experience, with a family style dinner. Following dinner was a show that focused on Denali history. Even though this was the third show we had seen as a group it was unique and we all had a great time.
We took the bus tour through Denali National Park. It is not advertised as a narrated tour, but our driver did a good job of describing the park, its history, and the wildlife as we drove the 66 miles from the Wilderness Access Center to the Eielson Visitor Center. We saw Dall sheep on the rocky cliffs above the tree line, grizzly bear, moose, and caribou in the valleys. We even saw a red fox running down the road right next to our bus. We did some hiking near the Eielson Visitor Center and caught a different bus back. On our way back, we stopped at the Park Sled Dog Kennel to see a demonstration of a dog sled team and how they are used by Rangers in the park. All day I was in awe of just how huge Denali is. The park seemed to have a raw power projected from the mountains and glaciers. We spend the entire day in the park and we saw a mere thimble full of the six million acres of wilderness.
We went rafting on the Nenana River with eight other members of our caravan. This is a glacier fed river, 48 hours earlier the water was ice! Everyone wore dry suits, the kind of suit divers wear for SCUBA diving under the ice. The area had more than normal rainfall in the past weeks and the river was high and fast. It was a great ride and I took more than one wave right in the face – great fun! An hour and a half later we pulled into the take out point, way too soon!
After we changed clothes, Pat and I headed back into the park. We went to the visitor center. The displays were some of the best I have seen, showing the history of the park and the wildlife that inhabit it. From the visitor center we hiked some of the local trails. One of them led to a lookout about 1,700 feet above the valley floor. We made it about 1/3 of the way to the top, enjoyed the view and headed back to the visitor center.
We have been so fortunate with the weather. The forecast was for cloudy skies with a 60% chance of thunderstorms. The days started out cool, but were sunny with temperatures in the high 60’s the rest of the day.
Another travel day, but we had an easy day in front of us and only one stop for sightseeing, so we were in no rush to get going. The weather was pretty bad, rainy and cold. We stopped at the Veterans Memorial and Medal of Honor Loop. This memorial honors veterans of all services, traces the history of the military in Alaska, and describes the actions of those brave Alaskans who were awarded the Medal of Honor. It was a very well done and touching memorial.
That afternoon we drove into Talkeetna. This is a small village that essentially supports the climbing on Mt McKinley. We visited the local cemetery to see the memorial to those who died attempting to climb Mt. McKinley. The Talkeetna Historical Society Museum had some unique displays, including “artifacts” from the local school. I say “artifacts” because Pat and I recognized text books that we had used in elementary school – what does that say about our age? Other displays exhibited bush pilots and their exploits, one pilot would hunt wolves with rifles attached to his plane’s wings. At the Ranger Station we saw where climbers would check in, obtain their approvals and permits, and prepare for the for the climb. We saw a video of how climbers will take three to four weeks to travel the 14 mile trail to the summit – at least half of the climbers fail to reach the summit. Our final stop in town was to stop by the Fairview Inn to see where many of the mountaineers would have their last drink before departing for their climb.
We only had a 90 mile drive and were asked not to arrive in the next campground until after noon. Consequently, everyone took their time and we left about 9:30. Along the way we stopped at the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry. Parts of this museum were interesting and well done, other parts looked like a junkyard. I found the restored train the most interesting. The pictures inside showed how the railroad supported industry and the general population. There was a Model T Ford on display that showed how it was modified to be a snowmobile, as well as two motorized toboggans. You know you are in an Alaskan Museum when there is a 20 foot row of outboard motors and an equal amount of chainsaws on display.
Our next stop was the Iditarod Trail Headquarters and Museum. The parking was real tight for RV’s and several of our group drove through the parking lot and just kept on going. There was good information about the race and a video about how the mushers train and take care of their dogs. Outside you could take a short ride on a dog sled. We went out to see the dogs. They were laying in the trail waiting for the next ride and they looked mighty hot!
We arrived at the Golden Nugget RV Park in mid-afternoon. This was the first time we were in a real built up area. There was a Costco right across the street and most of us took advantage of it to stock up on groceries.
We had enough time before our first activity for Pat and I to get some exercise. There is a nice trail network in the area and we were able to get in a good walk and run. It felt good to get in a good run for a change.
We went downtown to take a trolley tour of Anchorage. This was very interesting. Jody, our driver and guide did a great job of describing Anchorage and its history. We drove past the float plane base and Jody told us that one out of every 56 Alaskans is a licensed pilot, some are licensed to fly before they are old even to be licensed to drive! Also, one out of every 85 Alaskans own their own plane. Her combination of real-life examples (she is a fourth generation Alaskan) and humor made it an enjoyable experience.
After the tour we had some lunch at the local famers’ market and went to the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. While some of the group are suffering from an overdose of museums, I thought this was a very good one. I particularly enjoyed the floor that was devoted to the indigenous Alaskan natives and their culture and the exhibit that showcased Alaska’s history in a chronological series of displays. While we had heard a lot of this already, this exhibit gave it more life and texture.
The Ulu knife is a very popular tool in Alaska. The Ulu Knife Factory is in Anchorage. During business hours you can see the knives being made.
The first item on the agenda was the Alaska Native Heritage Center. This center was created to help native Alaskans to learn about their own culture. Because the history of native Alaskans has been passed down through oral history from tribal elders, public school education has caused many of the tribal young to lose their cultural roots.
Young native Alaskans act as docents to guide visitors through the center. They demonstrated a lot of pride in their cultural knowledge and were excited to be a part of its preservation. We saw demonstrations of native games and dance. One exhibit described the traditional values and how they impact on the lives of native Alaskans. I found the description of the values easy to relate to and how they would apply to anyone.
Later one of the docents guided us through a display of how each of the groups of native Alaskans lived. It was interesting to see how the availability of wood from trees affected how they lived. On the Arctic coast with few trees, the homes were underground, supports were constructed from drift wood and the sod walls were supported with mats woven from grass. Heat for warmth and cooking came from sea oil lamps. Often food was eaten raw. On the coast in southern Alaska, the environment is like a rain forest and trees are abundant and huge. Here the homes are framed with logs and closed in with lumber. This is the area with totem poles made from the largest trees. The totem poles tell a story. Today tribal craftsman continue this tradition.
I felt this was one of the best museums of the trip. It was stirring to learn about the native customs and how they could apply to anyone. The commitment of the young docents, striving to continue their tribal customs and tradition, was inspiring.
After this Pat and I rode our bikes to Earthquake Park. Anchorage has a great bicycle trail network that allows you to ride almost anywhere in the city. One minute you are in a busy commercial area and the next you are surrounded by trees and streams. We rode along the coast of the Cook Inlet and saw how much of the land was exposed by the low tide. Anchorage has the second most radical change in tide fluctuation in the world of 39 feet! Earthquake Park is at the end of a huge area that literally dropped into the sea during the 1964 earthquake (9.2 on the Richter Scale). We rode all the way to Woronzof Point hoping to get a look at Mount McKinley. Unfortunately McKinley was still obscured by clouds, but we did see aircraft passing directly overhead as they landed at the Anchorage Airport.
This was our free day. We took care of laundry and some shopping and rode our bikes along the bike path with some friends from the caravan. They continued on to Woronzof Point and we rode into town to check out the downtown area. That night we took a bus to see the World’s Largest Chocolate Waterfall at Alaska Wild Berry Products and had a family style dinner at the Sourdough Mining Company. Everyone made sure they had their fill at the ice cream machine!