We boarded the Alaskan Railroad again for the journey across Alaska to Fairbanks. Travelling in the late afternoon seemed to put everyone into more of a party mode with the bar open and lots of us desperate to get the possible final glimpses of any wildlife.
We caught some great sights of a herd of white Dall sheep teetering on a mountain ridge. Interestingly, it was these animals that first brought Denali park pioneer, Charles Sheldon into the Denali area to hunt these sheep that usually appear as white dots on the high ridges. It was his concern about the number of sheep being slaughtered yearly by commercial hunters that inspired him to fight to preserve Denali. Today, Denali National Park and preserve allows populations of animals to be self regulating with no human influence into herd or predator management. Its goal is to keep the park as close to nature as possible.
Some amazing scenery, bridges and crossings we ordered ourselves our train dinner and took the stairs down to the dining car.
The trip into Fairbanks was about 3.5 hours and of course we arrived in daylight. Fairbanks is the second largest city in Alaska after Anchorage and situated on the Tanana River , the largest glacier fed stream in the world. It may be a large city but not too much happening here. Our accommodation here was not very central so we were thankful we had eaten on the train.
Our itinery for our day in Fairbanks was rather full on with a morning pick up to board a river boat to cruise along the Tanana River to a replica Chena Village and then after lunch off in the opposite direction to El Dorado Gold Mine to do some gold panning.
The riverboat we boarded (with a few hundred others) has its own history in the area as an original family business of sternwheeler makers and captains from the Binkley family, originally bringing prospectors to the area in the early 1900's through to the 1950's.
Along with boats in the summer, Alaska has the highest percentage of people to own and operate light aircraft in the US. Any lakes you see in the area are surrounded by sea planes on the banks. If I remember correctly I believe there were 20% of Alaskans with licenses to fly. In the winter, many people still use dog sleds for transport along the frozen waterways or of course snow mobiles. It is quite incredible to cruise along this river now and imagine what it would be like in winter when everything is frozen and these houses become surrounded by white.
We stopped along the way to the Chena River to view an authentic replica fish camp and watch an Athapaskan woman, clean, gut and prepare a salmon for drying in record time!
Susan Butcher, Iditarod race champion, has her many dogs along the river at Trailbreaker Kennel. Susan, an Alaskan Legend, lost her long fight with leukaemia in 2006, however her legacy lives on with her husband and 2 daughters. In addition to her amazing record as an Iditarod race champion, Susan also led the only climbing party to conquer Mt McKinley by dog team when they mushed to the summit. One of the Trailbreaker Kennel's senior handlers and Iditarod competitor, Jessie Royer was on the bank of the river to show off some of the new pups and talk about the race of 1100miles across Alaska from Anchorage to Nome. She showed how the dogs behave once harnessed on the sled and then they demonstrated how they race using only voice commands. For exercise during the summer months, instead of pulling a sled, they are harnessed to a quad bike and pull that around at break neck speed.
Further on the boat pulled into the Chena Indian Village where we learnt about the different native groups of Alaska from young guides. They represented Athabascan Indians (interior Alaska), Eskimos (northwest coastal and arctic), Aleuts ( southwest) , and Tlingits ( southeast). Four very similar but different groups of natives, some who still live in rural communities and follow the subsistence way of life, living of the land and using many of the traditional methods we were shown at the village. Each of these groups have different ethinic origins, languages and cultures much of which was passed on in stories. Without a written language, a lot of work is now underway with village elders to gather as much information as possible to keep a record of these past traditions and cultures.
After lunch we boarded the coach once again to head out to the El Dorado Gold Mine, north of Fairbanks in the heart of the mining area where the first gold strikes attracted miners from the Klondike. Still a producing mine, we boarded a short train ride that took us around the mine, passing through a very dark and cold permafrost tunnel. Of course all we really wanted to do was get our hands on some gold of our own so after patiently sitting through a demonstration of panning we each got our share of the "poke" of concentrate from the sluice and were off to try our luck.
Wayne was our most wealthy panner with his gold weighing in at a value of $17, Denver second with $10, and then the rest of us about $7 each. Very exciting we got to bring home our little bit of Alaska in a film cannister! I was actually more excited about the nugget that Jaimie got her hands on, valued at many more thousands.
Our final night in Fairbanks was not to be wasted either. I was not going to leave this part of the world without getting to Santa's house at the North Pole. After much deliberation as to how to get there ( the shuttle was not yet operating for the season) we decided to get on the last bus that headed in that direction with another couple from Maine and then we could share a taxi fare back.
Heading out into the burbs of Fairbanks we got our closest glimpse of moose for our entire trip, grazing on the side of the highway. It's quite incredible that these enormous animals just wander around the streets and enter many backyards only to destroy gardens. The locals find them rather frustrating but we just thought they were so cool!!
We could tell as we got closer to North Pole as all the light poles became candy canes, even Mac Donald's sign. All the streets were decorated with Christmas decorations - every day here is Christmas!
We eventually arrived at Santa's house to find he was out, but all his reindeers were there and we got to sit in his chair. We now have his personal address and of course we left him a note to make sure we were on his list for this year.
Off to Anchorage in the morning for our last 2 nights in Alaska before heading home via Hawaii. Alaska has been truly amazing with the most spectacular scenery I imagine will be very difficult to beat. Just another place to put on the list to explore further in the future!!
On our flight out of Fairbanks the next morning, Jaimie managed to capture these last images from the plane of Mt McKinley poking her point out above the clouds. Magical!!