I’d like to say we explored Fairbanks…to say that we found all those special places you find when you have the time to explore and really get to know a place. But I cannot. Our time in Fairbanks (and every other Alaska city we visited) was way too brief and mostly spent with the tour group at the usual tour sites. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been around enough to know that the tours pretty much hit the hot spots and make sure you get a good taste of the city and a boatload of information about the city you’re visiting. And, I have lived within a 50 mile radius of Washington, DC for some years and, yet, I still have not been to all the Smithsonian museums; I will also say that it is a curious fact that, while we (humans) do not always take the time to fully explore our own neighborhoods, we feel like we’ve messed up bigtime if we go somewhere on vacation and do not run ourselves ragged trying to see every little thing.
But this time, I wanted to at least see a little more of this city and maybe get in a little birding since Alaska is known for the birds that migrate there in the summertime. So, we had a plan to get there at least twenty four hours before the tour started and do a wee bit of exploring. But, if you have followed my blogs in the past, you know that my plans do not always work out as planned. (Why is that so, do you think?) Things do work out eventually and mostly for the better but rarely ever the way that I planned them. But this time, I wasn’t too detailed in my plans. I was gonna be flexible and laid back….just take things as they came….just play it by ear….just roll with the flow. I figured we’d get there, we’d settle into our room, we’d check with the concierge, we’d figure out the lay of the land as it were, and then we’d mosey around a bit and see what we could see. I was doing good…….right up until we got to the “get there” part.
It seems that Mother Nature had other plans. It started right here in Maryland at BWI. We just couldn’t get out of the airport. We loaded onto the plane right on time…everything looking good…all copacetic and then they off-loaded us. Seems there was a thunderstorm somewhere in the Midwest and the FAA had decided to ground all the planes to the east. Understanding quickly that we were not going to make the Fairbanks connection in Minneapolis, we desperately called the airline and tried to switch out our connecting flight to another. It took about an hour or maybe two – just shy of the amount of time before the thunderstorm out west ran its course and the FAA allowed us to load up again. Unfortunately, the small delay cost us the flight to Fairbanks and we had to switch to Anchorage instead which meant we would leave Minneapolis sometime around 11:00 PM and arrive in Anchorage at maybe 1:00AM (their time) dog tired in need of a place to sleep for a few hours before we could continue on up to Fairbanks at mid-morning.
Not great but still moving westward…in the right direction. We had departed from Minneapolis in the dark – fully night time but, as we flew, we found the famous Alaska midnight sun…or at least the Canadian/US version of it such that it felt like we were continuously flying into the sunset even well past midnight. I was sitting on the US-lower 48 side of the plane but could look across the aisle and see the Canada/Alaska side. On my side, dark; on the other side, light (well, pinkish sunset light). I amused myself playing a little game by looking back and forth and thinking, “daytime” when I looked to one side of the plan…then, “nighttime” when I looked on the other. (Lack of sleep and flying all day will do things to you and it really doesn’t take much to amuse me.) And I thought it was a pain to have the delays but it meant we’d be flying from Anchorage to Fairbanks in broad daylight so would get great views of Denali Park and Mount McKinley/Denali from the air. Silly me.
Just a note on a couple things I noticed about the airports in Alaska that you just do not see at any other major city in the US. First, at 1:00 AM, the Anchorage airport is pretty much empty. Likewise, it was empty when we went back at 8:00 AM. And, while we got a hotel room for the few hours we were in Anchorage, many people apparently didn’t.
So there were “sleepers” scattered around the airport. Yes, I have seen people sleeping in other airports when flights are delayed around holidays and such but rarely do I see them so much anymore. In Alaska, they really settle in and get comfortable….not just slumped over in those uncomfortable seats….but boots off, laid out comfortable. Well, if you’re delayed and need the rest, might as well join them.
So, after almost twenty-four hours in the air and airports, we arrived in Fairbanks. When we arrived, the sky was cloudy and a bit overcast but the temperature was good and, while most of our extra day was gone, we still had a few hours before we met up with the tour group. Great! We got to the hotel, got settled in, and grabbed lunch. We met a great couple from Cape May, NJ at lunch that had just finished up a tour and were taking a couple days before heading home. They turned out to be birders too (of course, considering they were from Cape May) and regaled us with stories about the birding and adding thirty-three life birds to their list while on the tour and cruise and gave us some info about a couple sites right there in Fairbanks and how to catch the shuttle bus to get to the sites. All good….so far. By the time, we got back to the room to get our binoculars and cameras, the rain was falling……and falling….and falling….steady, hard, and continuous. So, the birding and most exploring outside was out for the day.
For those who may be planning a trip in the future, the two places to go birding in Fairbanks that were recommended are the water retention ponds near the airport (relatively easy to find although not so easy to get a taxi to) and an old farm that has been turned into a bird sanctuary (particularly for Sandhill Cranes) called Creamer’s Fields. For me, it’ll have to wait for the next visit.
So, we watched the rain and took a nap…after all, we were tired. We met up with the tour group for dinner and from then on, traveled with the group. We got lucky and got a great tour guide (Randy) who was experienced and well-informed and well-organized. He took care of everything and did it so well that the pain of going from place to place and keeping up with your luggage was minimalized to the point of being non-existent.
As for Fairbanks, all was not lost. The tour group would spend another day in Fairbanks doing a riverboat tour and visiting a gold dredge. I woke that morning with a million things running through my head…the usual stuff….what to take on the day tour and what to leave behind in the hotel room. I am not sure why I fret over these things…..the answer is always the same – wallet, cash and/or credit card, light jacket, sunglasses, camera, binoculars, extra camera battery, phone, husband….you know, the usual things. I expected it to be a long day and it was but I went out with my pockets loaded…with stuff…not cash.
We started with the riverboat cruise. The “Discovery” is a family owned and operated concession that starts you off in a big ole souvenir shop (well, duh!!!) and brings you right back there at the end of the cruise. This cruise would be on the Chena and would go up to the intersection with the Nenana, or was it the Tanana? As I’ve noted, the boat has been owned and operated by the same family for more than fifty years. And, the riverboat is a real riverboat in that the paddlewheel actually drives the boat…although the paddlewheel is not driven by a steam engine….but, bottom line, the paddlewheel is not just for show. The boat tour guide was great and related to the original family although I forget how…maybe an uncle or something. He turned out to be a great example of how best to do these things. He had taken time on his own over the years to go up and down the river and meet and get to know the people who lived there on the river.
He knew everyone’s name and had quite a few colorful stories about the people living there on the river. Of course, he could have just made up the names and stories – how would we know if they were true or not? But he was entertaining all the same. And the people along the river all came out of their houses and waved as the boat passed…..just made you feel a bit like Mark Twain on the Mississippi…so, of course, we all waved back just like we knew them too.
There were two stops along the river. The first was at the river home (Trailbreaker Kennels) of David Monson, the husband of the late Iditarod winner, Susan Butcher. The boat pulled up in the river alongside the house and David brought out some of the dogs and gave a nice talk (which we could hear due to the technological marvels of radio transmission) on the dogs and the race and gave us a summertime version of “mushing” with the dogs pulling a 4-wheeled ATV. We were also treated with puppies from the line of Susan’s favorite dog, Granite. (Granite has a wonderful story in his own right…you can find it here.) I learned quite a bit about the race that I didn’t know although I had followed the race on television for some years.
One thing I didn’t know that surprised me was that Susan had taken her sled team up Mount McKinley. Yep, she summited the mountain with her team. Now, for the life of me I cannot fathom why anyone would take a whole team of dogs mountain climbing…especially that mountain. Okay, there’s always “to say that you did it” but, otherwise, it seems like it would be just torture for all involved to summit with dogs. Do you suppose she got little crampons and stuff for the dogs? Did she take them up one at a time or did she have other mountain climbers to help with the dogs? Did they each have their own Sherpa? (Wait, that is another mountain altogether.) Anyway, it just boggles the mind.
The second stop was a replica of an Athabascan village, the Chena Indian Village. Now, I usually stay away from these type things because they are usually too touristy and not really representative of the way the natives actually lived. But the boat stopped there so we got off and followed the group through the village. And, it turned out to be a very good stop. The village was divided into several stops with presentations at each location so that everyone wasn’t crowded at the same place at the same time.
The presentations were made by young Native Americans with representatives from several different tribal groups. The young ladies were mostly college students who had moved to Fairbanks to attend the University and, like all college students, were working during the summer. They gave a good overview of life in Alaska in bygone days as well as today since many of the cultural traditions they spoke of are still practiced at home in their villages.
After the cruise, we went back at the souvenir shop (of course) and dining hall for lunch. Lunch at the Discovery dining hall was one of the best meals we had in Alaska (and that counts the meals on the ship). You wouldn’t have thought it would be considering it was attached to a souvenir shop with all the kitsch and trappings of a joint but the food turned out to be quite delicious. There was a trapper’s stew with crusty bread and a salad with a locally made huckleberry vinaigrette that was unbelievably good. I’d have bought a bottle in the store if I’d realized it was so good and that was the only place on earth where you could get it. (Okay, I should have realized this but didn’t.)
One last note about the Discovery and the souvenir shop….they had a room (more a freezer really) that was set up at 40 degrees below zero that you could go into for a few minutes (long enough for them to take your photo to sell to you later….well, of course) so you could see how 40 below feels. Having lived in Alaska, I knew how 40 below feels and didn’t feel the need to go into a freezer but Jerry (my braver half) gave it a go. He went in without a jacket (of course) and came out with a bit of a stunned look on his face and maybe just a little swear word that only the gentleman manning the door was able to hear clearly. Yep, 40 below is just that cold.
Moving on after lunch, we headed across Fairbanks to visit Gold Dredge Number 8. I have to admit that I love the show on the Discovery Channel about gold mining in the Yukon. Last season, one of the characters named Tony Beets spent the whole summer taking apart an old dredge that he bought, moving it, and putting it back together on his claim. It was a tremendous undertaking and I had wondered if he would ever get that old dredge to work again. He did and it was a sight…I would have liked to see that old rusted up dredge operate again in person rather than just on the telly.
So, seeing a gold dredge up close even if it wasn’t functional anymore was a cool experience….very cool. There was a little train that carried you from the park entrance to the dredge that had stops along the way with replicas of different gold mining scenes that were used to tell you about everything you never knew you wanted to know about gold mining in Alaska and corrected everything you had heard on that television show that got it wrong…or so they say.
But the dredge itself was the star of the show. And after a short presentation, we actually got to go onto and inside of the dredge and take a look around. Now, if you think I enjoyed this, you have no idea how much Jerry enjoyed it. After all, he is a man and most men love machines… especially gigantic machines. We looked at all the cogs and gears and wheels and buckets and talked to the onsite guy who had all the answers and inspected everything….at least once, some things maybe twice. I am so ready now for the next season of Gold Rush Alaska….I got all the information I need and then some. (If you click on that link, you’ll see a photo of Tony Beets right there on the front page and, to see the recap on the dredge relocation, click here.)
And, lest you think that we didn’t get our money’s worth, we also got to pan for gold. Well, ye-ah! They had a marvelous set up for this. We did not even have to go down to the creek and stumble around on the rocks looking for something to pan. They had a big shed set up with troughs of water available where you could sit on a bench in relative comfort and have at it. They gave us each a pan and a little flour sack filled with dirt and rocks which we were instructed to dump into the pan, add a little water, and commence to panning. After a bit of panning, if you hadn’t come up with any gold, you could call one of the helpers who would give you more personal hands on instruction. I guess I was being too gentle with swirling the water around….I didn’t want to spill out the sand with my gold in it after all….so after the second time I called the gentleman over to help me, he just took the pan (not very patient) and swish, swish, dip and swish again and there it was……gold right there in my pan.
We took our gold and headed on up to the souvenir shop (of course) to get it assayed and discovered that all together we had scored a whole $33 worth of gold for our effort. Being the good people that they were, they offered to buy it…or better yet, to sell me a lovely little locket to hold my gold with a nice gold chain….for a mere $34 dollars and some change. (Actually, they would have sold me a more expensive piece of jewelry for my gold…but I opted for the less expensive charm & chain.) This worked out to be one of those credit card commercials – you know, cost of the trip to Alaska, cost of the ticket for the tour, cost of the pan & sack of sand, etc.,…….finding gold flakes in your very own pan – priceless!
The gold dredge stop on the tour came with a little extra in that the dredge park was near the Alaska oil pipeline. So, before we hopped on the little train that would take us to the dredge, we got to hang out and take photos of the pipeline and hear all about how the pipeline was built and how big it is and how much oil pumps through in a day.…meanwhile, most of us were standing under it taking selfies and pretending like we were holding the pipeline up like Atlas so it didn’t fall down on anyone …..okay, maybe that was just me but I’m sure others would have done that if they’d thought of it before I did.
(For info on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, try this link.)
Now, let’s see. We saw the pipeline, the old gold dredge, and took a riverboat tour. And I saw the airport on my way in. That’s pretty much the whole city of Fairbanks, right? What else could there possibly be to see there? Oh yeah, when we were on the bus, we passed a Walmart (yes, they have them even out in the boonies) and a McDonald’s – most northernmost one in the US. Hey, that’s certainly worth seeing….but, rats! The bus was going too fast and I couldn’t get a photo of either one. It is always the photo you miss that would have been the best one.
Okay, one last factoid about Fairbanks and Walmart. Now, everyone knows that it gets very cold in Alaska and one must have a head-bolt heater and a battery blanket on one’s vehicle that must be plugged into an electrical outlet at night (or when the vehicle is parked and not running for any extended length of time) or the oil will thicken up to a frozen sludge and the battery will freeze up and said vehicle will not run anymore. Now, I have heard that Walmart welcomes RV’ers to most, if not all, of its facilities in the US so that, if you do not have a place to park your RV when you’re on a trip, you can always overnight at the Walmart. Well, the same goes in Alaska and it turns out that the Walmart is gracious enough to provide electrical outlets in its parking lot for campers to use in the winter. But there are not really that many tourists in Alaska in the winter but, according to our guide in Fairbanks, some residents have campers and just hang out at the Walmart in the wintertime. As Lobo would sing it, “me and you and a dog named Boo”1 living off the land…….. over at the Walmart. (Okay, if you’re humming the song now and want to sing along – try this link.)
“Me and You and A Dog Named Boo”; Artist-Lobo; Album – Introducing Lobo; 1971; Label – Big Tree