We arrived in Alaska around 1:30 a.m. on Friday morning, May 12. Outside it looked like it was about four in the afternoon, but we’d traveled over 4,000 miles in the last 12 hours, and we were a little tired! After all day Friday and Saturday on Alaska time, by Sunday we were ready for our first official day of touring. I think we had it much easier than folks who flew in Saturday night and immediately had to hit the ground running on Sunday!
On Saturday evening we were on the lodge deck, and this double-decker raft floated by. It was obviously hand-built, and the young people aboard had equipped it with a sofa, a bicycle, a grill, and several coolers. FYI: This wasn’t going to be the last time we saw this raft!
Princess Cruise Line has a big presence in Alaska. We were staying at Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge, and most of the transportation services we used in Alaska were either owned by Princess or booked by them.
On Sunday morning we entered a big Princess bus and were off to board the only remaining authentic Alaskan sternwheeler for a cruise along the Chena and Tanana rivers.
Steamboats similar to this paddleboat were used during the gold-rush days, but I’m sure they didn’t have the advantage of heated glass enclosed decks and video equipment!
Early in our voyage we were joined alongside by a bush pilot who had just landed on the river a little ahead of us. He talked to us via radio, explaining a little of the history of bush piloting in Alaska, and then he took off. So cool!
The next time we slowed down was to visit Trail Breaker Kennels, established in 1980 by husband and wife team David Monson (Yukon Quest champion) and the late Susan Butcher (four-time Iditarod champion).
Trail Breaker Kennels is now one of the longest operating kennels in Fairbanks, and visitors can experience and enjoy an Alaskan mushing lifestyle. During the winter months, the huskies train for and participate in sled dog races around Alaska. In the summer, the dogs take a break from racing and enjoy short training runs around the lake (they were about to pull that ATV (with David aboard) around the lake in the pic above.
In the summer, they also enjoy swimming in the river and interacting with visitors from around the world. These dogs LIVE to pull sleds, and their excitement when they’re chosen to be hooked up to a team is really something to see!
Our first official stop was at an old Chena Indian Village. The strange contraption in the water is a wooden fish wheel, still used extensively in Alaska by people living a subsistence lifestyle. The wheel, complete with baskets, is situated on a river, usually on floating dock. The wheel rotates due to the current of the water pressing the bottom basket. The baskets on the wheel capture fish actively swimming upstream and also capture fish simply drifting. The fish are shunted to one side and out an opening in the side of the basket by gravity. They are caught in a holding tank. The fish wheel owner comes by several times a day to remove and process the caught fish from the holding tank.
Smoked fish (mostly salmon) are processed by the thousands during the summer by people living in the wilds as Alaska – to be used as both people and dog food.
Native guides took us on a tour of the Athabascan Indian village and talked about Alaskan Native life and history. We were very impressed by the young people at each stop who were acting as guides and narrators.
Also at the village was a replica of Susan Butcher’s cabin and storyboard of her life. Sadly, she died from leukemia in 2006, after winning the Iditarod four times with the same lead dog, Granite.
Susan and her husband wrote a children’s book about Granite before her death.
Her husband was signing copies at the cabin . . .
. . . and we bought a copy for Jill, who is an avid follower of the Iditarod and was a huge Susan Butcher fan.
Where the clear waters of the Chena River meet the Tanana, the world’s greatest glacier river, carrying tons of glacial silt from the Alaska Range, our boat turned around. It was there we once again saw the 2-story raft. We’re assuming the young folks went ashore and camped for the night. They must have had those tents aboard also!
We ate lunch at the sternwheeler dock, then climbed back aboard a bus. Next stop was a shuttle train to visit Gold Dredge 8, a National Historic Monument. Where we got off the shuttle we saw a portion of the Alaska Pipeline, then were taken to pan for gold at a genuine dredge camp.
Each person is given a sack of “pay dirt” and an explanation on how to pan for the gold guaranteed to be in each sack.
Ever wonder what $36 in gold flakes looks like? Here it is – mine and Ted’s combined panning riches.
We found it a little interesting that almost every couple came away with around $36 in gold, but what we really wondered was who, at the end of the day, gets all the gold that we novice panners pour into those big troughs of water everyday!
And so ended day 3 of our Alaska adventure! Tomorrow we travel to Denali National Park!