Thursday, June 7, 2007

Fun With Fairbanks

Nearly a week has come and gone since we arrived in Fairbanks and I took the time away from “playing” to sit down and write. Ok. I DO feel guilty about it, but get over it. With so much to explore and 20 hours or more of light per day to do it, it is easy to get caught up in things and just keep going. That in and of itself has become something to learn to manage. And the problem, if you think of it as that, will only get worse in the short term as within the next two weeks we will have the much fabled 24 hours of actual sunlight per day. Stats for this day: sunrise 3:16 AM, sunset 12:22 PM. Everglades Sandy wrote to warn of artic “running amuck.” Don’t know if there is any truth to the origin of that expression being routed in the Alaskan time zone and the length of the day and the thawing of the top layers above the permafrost into “muck“, but the coincidence is a tad humorous even if not. I suppose this would compare to the winter months when there is at most three hours of twilight when Alaskans run around in “mukluks.” But it makes for an interesting consideration.

We did a lot in Fairbanks- way too much to try and capture it all. Now that I’m feeling a bit more acclimated, and won’t need to change time zones or daytime activities for the next several months, I hope to do a better job of keeping up with the duties of the blog. Some of you do get hostile the minute I stop writing, now don’t you???

We landed back in the mountains this day about 20 miles plus or minus from Denali. Good to be back in the mountain scenery zone. Fairbanks was basically mountainous but not so it was a matter of awe like the rest of the Alaskan Range. And perhaps part of the flattening of Fairbanks is owed in part to the use of water canons that literally chopped down some of the landscape as the gold miners washed off the overburden on their way down to the gold which lay on top of the bedrock layer beneath. You can’t drive anywhere, and I do mean anywhere, around Fairbanks without seeing huge rock tailings, the left overs from the gold rush and the processes that came with it. It makes for a very unique landscape in its own right and we enjoyed living the history lesson.

Some things of note from the week: We continued our “on our own” prospecting program, hitting various places around the city, some out as far as 70 miles or more into the boonies, where the animals of interest surely out-populate humanity by a landslide- a good thing to be sure. The Alaskan Public Land Use Office was good enough to help us locate some places to try. Two notable locations were the Nome Creek and the Felix Pedro claim. Thick ice still covered the ground adjacent to much of the stream. That made for some mighty cold panning and sluicing and such, but beautiful none-the-less, and we had the company of moose and porcupines to make us feel much better about finding such small amounts of gold. Still, any gold is good gold and we always manage to find a little.

I’ve never been one for cruises of any kind. I don’t mind herds of animals but I don’t much care for herds of people and that’s how cruises hit me. But Marilyn had read a lot about the Discovery Paddle wheel cruise on the Chena and had her heart set on going, so we reached a consensus agreement to hit the water. What a great call on her part! Best tour of any kind I think I have ever been on in my life. Loved every minute of it! The concept behind the cruise is to put passengers on a historic old paddle wheel boat and head out of the port of Fairbanks and on down the Chena River toward the Tanana River. The Chena River is deep, but not wide, which makes for a cozy little cruise which keeps you in close contact both with the shore line and what’s along that shoreline. This is not just a boat ride! Every so often, the ship stops mid stream and real live people and the enterprises along the river they represent come out and speak with passengers on the ship- from the banks of the river. They are rigged with microphones tied into the ships PA system, so listening is both easy and personal. The ship’s proximity to the shoreline makes the process work especially well. Some of the stops included visits with a bush pilot who landed and took off in his plane immediately alongside the ship with pontoons on his super cub. He later showed up down river and landed on a sand bar with another plane to show how versatile the flying residents and outfitters of Alaska can be. Excellent experience. We also stopped at the kennels of the late, great musher Susan Butcher. Susan was four time winner of the Iditarod dog sled race and is the ONLY human being ever to mush a sled to the top of Mt McKinley (Denali) - a feat I simply cannot understand is even possible. She is almost a god here and her kennel, with over a hundred dogs still operates along the river where she lived. Her family and associates run the kennel and are quite amazing in their own right. We had a demo with a team of dogs pulling the ATV at speeds of 18 MPH along the river.
Also visited with a herd of Caribou in full regalia which finally provided an opportunity for a good photo or two of the elusive "reindeer.” I am sure you can appreciate how hard it is to get a good shot of them; after all, how many years have you been staying up late December 24 trying to sneak a peak at Rudolph? And we loved the Eskimo/ Athabascan village at the end of the downriver run. There we saw a real fishing village complete with salmon wheel and fish being cleaned, dried, and smoked along the banks. Met some “first nation” members of several “villages” (or tribes) and saw first hand leather and fur processing and sewing, and what life is still like in many of the villages today. And at this point, we disembarked the ship and strolled into the village and met with each party that had “met” us along the cruise for Q & A, and up close and personal interaction. A well planned, authentic, fascinating look at Alaskan life that, taken contact by contact, would have been difficult or impossible to arrange in the amount of time we had. A bargain by any standard.

This Athabaskan made fur jacket is modeled by an Eskimo girl. 16,000.00 for the jacket if you're interested. I wanted to pick one up for Marilyn but she thought it might be a bit much back at poolside in Cape Coral, Florida.
"Dog" salmon being dried on an open smoke pit along the Chena River. This salmon is processed especially for the sled dogs. Sun dried and lightly smoked...

You can’t (well, you can, but you really shouldn’t) visit Alaska without taking a look at the oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Sea to Valdez. Sure enough, there is a site especially geared for viewing the 800 mile marvel just outside of Fairbanks to the north. It seemed smaller than I expected at an interior diameter of only 48 inches but as long as it keeps moving the good stuff along I guess that doesn’t worry me too much. The pipeline is half underground where it can safely be buried in bedrock and half on pilings, where it must be kept insulated and above the constantly shifting permafrost. Where it is on pilings, it is supported by Teflon sleds to allow for earthquakes. I got a big kick out of the fact that, upon close inspection, each sled at the viewing site was “held together” with duct tape! Now of course that’s not really the case- the tape holds on rubber piping insulation so that tourists who insist on getting too close for a photo don’t crack their heads on the relatively sharp iron braces. Still, I thought it should be the shot of the day. Duct tape, the official state tool of Maine in use right here on the Great Alaskan Pipeline.

Look for the duct tape holding the Alaska pipeline together (not really).

Tour all the gold mines we could find, we did! All sizes and shapes, they were. Fascinating, they were. One, the El Dorado Mine, was run by the same concessionaires as the Discovery Cruise and was an excellent learning and hands on experience. One at Gold Dredge #8 was privately held and poorly run but still permitted us to see processes and equipment we might not otherwise have seen. Given a choice between one tour or the other when in Fairbanks- go see our friend Yukon Yonda at El Dorado Mine. She and her husband have been working the gold fields here for 30 years and are not only thoroughly amusing, they are wells of experience and knowledge and they are anxious to share their expertise. And as Yonda tells all the husbands touring the mining operation, “You might as well turn over any gold you find to your wife right away; after all, you gotta go to sleep some time!” Yonda’s motto: Gold? Mine!!!

Yukon Yonda, in blue above and below, discusses and demonstrates finding real gold. Don't touch her gold with wet fingers! It's where the term "sticky fingers" comes from; touch wet gold and it sticks to your fingers. Mine workers in charge of gathering the fine gold from the cleanups became known as the "sticky fingers" because they always had gold sticking to their hands. It later became a negative term associated with swiping the goodies.
This sluice worker panned out a sampling from the run we watched. The small gold is still in his pan, but there was one really nice nugget he put in his mouth for safe keeping. The sound a nugget that size makes hitting a metal pan is lovely music to the ear!

They let Marilyn hold it! It took Yukon Yonda and three big burly miner guys to get her to put it back though! (just kidding)

Wooden bowls, burl and otherwise are everywhere in Alaska. We took an hour and visited the Great Alaskan Bowl Factory. This wood shop produces high end wooden bowls and other products all made out of one of my favorite woods, white birch. Not an easy photo shoot, the visit was interesting and we got to see both tools and products we had never seen before.

Parting Shot: Wherever we can, we visit farmers markets. They are usually operated by people closest to the earth in their chosen location and thus provide a direct view past all the hoopla of tourism and into the soul of the locals. This far north, it was way too early to have the farmers market in full swing. Most of the items were crafty in nature and the vegetables typical to this locale were seedlings for sale rather than fully grown produce from the harvest. A few more adventurous growers did have some hot house grown cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, but there wasn’t much else. Later in the season we hope to see the state fair with its hundred pound cabbages and world class strawberries and the like. It may be a short growing season, but with round the clock light from the endless day, things have a way of catching up real fast. One photo to represent it all- bright red radishes and little tiny crocheted “mukluks.”

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