Saturday, July 26, 2008

Alaskan Idyll, Days 37-38 Caravan Termination in Fairbanks

Friday morning we were treated to a ride on the Riverboat Discovery, an authentic, modern stern wheeled riverboat. This is probably the most finished and professionally done tour in all of Alaska, with the possible exception of the Skagway Train. The Binkley family, who own and operate the tour, have borrowed heavily from Disney in formatting and showcasing this tour.

The tour begins with a gigantic gift shop (what else – this is pseudo Disney, after all). A new feature since our last visit in 2005 is the “cold room”, a freezer room where the curious tourist may experience 40 degree below temperatures, for a ten dollar fee, of course. We elected not to enter, but probably would have paid the ten dollars to be let out, had we strayed in.

After boarding the boat, our first stop was a pause in midstream to witness the takeoff and landing of a small float plane, typical of those used to tie together the vast Alaskan wilderness. Along the way, we also witnessed a number of magnificent riverfront homes, as seen in the first photograph.
Riverboat Discovery

Shoving off Downstream on the Chena River

Floatplane Demonstration on the Chena River

Our next pause was a demonstration of sled dogs at the home of Susan Butcher, an Iditarod competitor and winner. Unfortunately, Susan died of Leukemia a couple of years ago but her family is carrying on the sledding tradition.

Summer Dog Team Practice at the Susan Butcher Kennels

Along the way we also passed a caribou farm, and saw a traditional native fish weir. At the fish weir, we witnessed a demonstration by an Athabascan of how the Native Americans and the early pioneer mushers prepared and cured salmon to feed the dog teams.

Caribou Farm

Native American Fish Weir

Preparation of Salmon for Curing

Curing Salmon

Downstream of the fish weir the Chena River empties into the Tanana River. The riverboat excursion used to proceed down the Tanana for a couple of miles before turning around, but recent changes in the channel have blocked the entrance. So we turned around at the junction. The following pictures show the motive power for the riverboat, and the large volumes of mud churned up by this paddle at the shallow turnaround.

Paddlewheel in Action

River Bottom Mud Churned up by the Paddlewheel

After turning around, we stopped for about an hour at a reproduction pioneer and native Alaskan village, where we debarked the boat for a tour and demonstrations. Our first demonstration was, of all things, another dog team.

Another Dog Team

Then on to a reproduction pioneer cabin and cache, where a pretty native American girl showed us a number of different pelts, including wolverine, lynx, beaver, ermine, mink, etc. Interestingly, mink was the least highly valued by the native Americans, as it’s insulating qualities are poor compared with the other furs. We also found the sod roof of the cabin to be interesting. It displayed numerous flowers in the sod.

Native American Nursing Student Shows Off a Pelt

Rooftop Flower Garden

Our third stop was a demonstration of native American clothing. While not a slave to fashion, Keith was very impressed by the workmanship, as well as by the pretty native American model. We were shown an elaborately decorated coat which was said to have taken almost 1000 labor hours to complete.

Sunburst Headpiece on Native American Coat

On our way back to the boat, we paused to snap couple of residences which show the pre-European native architecture.

Native Dwellings

Following our return to the campground, we rested through the afternoon, in preparation for our farewell dinner. This dinner included excellent roast beef with salad, mashed potatoes and beans. 3 COWS. During the course of the pre-dinner social hour, under the influence of an Alaskan Amber, Kathy allowed herself to be persuaded to participate in a post caravan journey with a smaller group of friends from this and a prior caravan. We had already paid for a couple of extra days at Rivers Edge, but Keith got on the horn with the campground office, and they readily agreed to refund our money for the extra days. As we said in our last post, this is a very well managed campground, anxious to leave a good impression in the minds of departing campers.

The next morning we went early to the excellent farewell breakfast buffet, so we could have time to prepare for an early departure. In doing this we missed saying good by to a number of folks, who all had better sense than to be going to breakfast at 6am. We apologize for this omission.

Our new itinerary now includes Tok and Chicken Alaska, Dawson City, Whitehorse, and Watson Lake YT, and Stewart, Smithers, and Prince George, BC. We will be driving the Top of the World Highway, which Keith drove in 2005 and swore “never again”. Just another demonstration of the old maxim “man plans and God laughs”. Stay tuned!

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