Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fairbanks and Denali

After dinner last night, I decided to take a walk around downtown Fairbanks.  I wasn’t concerned about being in a mostly deserted downtown at night since even at 9 pm, the sun was up and shining. 

I headed towards the Chana River, which flows through the town.  There’s a memorial to the Lend-Lease air bridge with Siberia (though you can only see a Russian flag, not Russia from here).  

There’s a little park along the river, but only a few panhandlers were out. 

I passed several abandoned and bordered up buildings in downtown; it looks as if Fairbanks has seen better days.  I saw many residential properties also bordered up or with signs saying they were for rent.

One odd thing I noticed:  how many homes have trampoline sets in the backyard.  I passed at least four in my short walk.

Back at the hotel, I found it rather warm in the room, so I negotiated with my father to turn the heat down.  By 4 am, it was cool enough that I could sleep under the blanket.  I prefer to sleep cold.  I slept OK, but the problem is that I never sleep well when I have to get up early the next morning.

We had to have our suitcases in front of our room by 6:30 am for pickup. That meant that while I set my alarm for 6:25 am, in fact, I woke up at 5:45.  I showered, shaved, and then put all the toiletries I had resigned myself to taking in my carryon into the big suitcase and put both of them in front of the door.  I also decided to wear a t-shirt under my light long-sleeved shirt in case it gets cold.  Finally, I dug out my umbrella since it’s supposed to rain in Denali this afternoon and evening. As of 6:30, the skies of Fairbanks are pretty overcast.

All the tour buses for hotel guests. It's sort of being like on a cruise, but there's no ship.

Much of the worker bees in the hospitality industry here have been an eclectic mix.  For example, our drivers have been Americans, mostly young people from the Lower 48 who’ve come up here to earn money either during or after college.  Many of the crew on the sternwheeler boat were local high school students of Athabascan/Eskimo heritage.  But many of the waiters and staffers we’ve met have been young foreigners.  That includes our Hungarian and Bulgarian waiters, the Polish guide on the covered wagon (and the Slovakian guide on the other wagon), and the Taiwanese cooks.

Our driver from Fairbanks to Denali was Kobey.  We started off doing with the sternwheeler cruise on the Chena River.  It was a cold and mostly overcast day, so dad stayed on the second deck, and I went up to the top deck to brave the cold and see the better views.

 The river levels are high due to all the recent rains, which meant the 1951 Piper Cub, which was arranged to land and take off for us, had to avoid some floating debris. 

Afterwards we went past a famous dog mushing school, established by a former Iditarod champion.  We could see the puppies being trained to follow orders, as well a trained crew what looked like a tractor.  

We sailed as far as where the Chena meets the Tanama River, which is fed by glacial run off.  

From there we went to the “Chena-Athabascan Fishing Village.”   They had some kitschy items, including some reindeer displayed on cue:

This is mostly a tourist operation of buildings constructed in a native style.  My favorite parts were the small vegetable garden 

and seeing the dogs trained to mush.  I was able to pet several.

After that we returned to the boat and I joined my father inside.  They gave us some salmon dip using their smoked salmon (cans for purchase) and it was pretty good.  When we docked we had lunch at the restaurant on the dock (included) and it was pretty good.  Then it was in the bus with Kodey for the 3 hour plus drive to Denali.

Despite the poor weather, the views of the Alaskan countryside were quite dramatic. Lots of green spruce, birch, and aspen trees. 

It reminded me a little of the southern Polish countryside near Zakopane (only much larger).  I’ve been a little worried about the weather as we are scheduled to have rain every day.  It rained a little on the drive, but it was spotty and short.  I was pretty sleepy, but I tried to stay awake to see as much as possible.

The final drive to Denali was pretty dramatic, with a rapidly river flowing through a gorge with a rail track above it.  I’m not sure if this is the train we will take to Anchorage on Saturday.

We were met at the lodge in Denali with a staffer who gave us our welcome packets and keys and direction to our specific lodge.  We’re in the new canyon lodge, but all excursions leave from the main lodge up the hill.  Luckily, they have a shuttle that does that run in less than five minutes.

Our rooms are nice, though I would have liked a desk to write on.  Shockingly, wifi service is limited to the lobby of the main lodge, which means I can’t write from my room anyway, if I want to post it to the internet.

I told dad we were signed up for the covered wagon and back country dining that evening and he looked and sounded less than pleased.  I think he was a little tired from the bus, but also that he wanted to try some of the restaurants.  He kept asking if it were just me that was going or if paid too.  I assured him we did.

It was already drizzling a little when we got on the bus, and drizzled the rest of the evening.  After 15 minutes, we reached the facility where our group first split in two between those doing the covered wagon and those on the ATVs (not a good night for the later).  The covered wagon group then split in two again, with six of us with Simon, and ten with the other guide.

I’m glad we were with Simon.  He’s a Polish student of cognitive science at Jagiellonian University in Krakow and spending the summer in Alaska earning money before he travels to Hawaii, San Francisco, and London.  It turns out that the six of us were each a pair of parent and adult child.  We got along well as a group and very much enjoyed the ride (we were protected from the rain by the plastic siding and blankets).  He also gave us cinnamon oat cookies.

I sat in front and am glad I did, even though I got a little wet, because it meant I had better views.  Dad kept commenting that now we know what it must have been like a 100 years ago when people took these west.  

One person who did the tundra tour that we’re doing tomorrow assured me that the overcast weather was a plus not a minus.  A lot of wildlife comes out during the drizzle and they had seen several moose and some grizzlies.  We saw one moose tonight, but from a distance.

Just take my word that there is a large moose in the far back of this photo, mostly obscured by shrubs.
After about 45 minutes on the cart, we reached the back country pavilion, where we had very good corn on the cob, some salads, ribs, chicken, bison chili, and salmon. 

We also had as much as we liked (I had 2.5 cups of cabernet).  Then it was back on the carts for the journey home.  

At one point, they took us to a lookout, but we could only see clouds.  I made some sort of drunken joke about enjoying the mountains hidden by the clouds and everyone laughed. 

 On the way back we heard about someone who paved the dirt road we were on with carpet to deal with the permafrost, and how he eventually ended up in an institution in Seattle.  In no time at all we were back where we started, and fifteen minutes after that we were back at the lodge.

Meanwhile, we’ve ordered box lunches tomorrow, since our 9 am tundra excursion will last 8 hours. 

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