We set out early on a gray and rainy Wednesday morning on a motor coach for a 3 hour ride to Fairbanks. We stopped in a Nenana, a small settlement where the Nenana River enters the Tanana River, for a mid-morning break. This little way station had the biggest cinnamon rolls I’ve EVER seen! I wish I would have taken a picture but you will have to take my word for it–they were as big as a dinner plate! Nenana’s biggest claim to fame is being the starting part of the serum run to Nome made famous by the book and movie, “Balto.” Before airplanes, Nome was only accessible by dogsleds on the Iditarod Trail. You can read more about that here. The other thing this little native village is famous for is the lottery they have for when the ice of the river will start to break apart each Spring known as the Nenana Ice Classic.
When we arrived on the outskirts of Fairbanks, we were deposited at the Riverboat Discovery landing for lunch. This began the most organized tourist experience I have ever seen. These people KNOW what they are DOING! We all filed in to long tables set with everything we needed for a family-style hearty pioneer stew meal. The food was very good as well as hot and filling and ready when we arrived. They also had a 40 below zero room a person could go into to experience what Fairbanks winters feel like (no thank you!) as well as a large gift shop. The employees were numerous and friendly and determined we would have a great time.
After lunch we loaded aboard the paddle boat and set off down the Chena River. The whole experience was narrated by a man who was very good at his job and there were monitors set up on every level for close-up views of anything of special interest. The first experience on the trip was watching a bush pilot take off and land on the water right beside the boat. They even had the pilot of the boat on the radio so the guide could interview him for all to hear.
Our next stop was at a model native fish camp. Because of the rain, we sat on board the boat and listened and watched as this lovely young lady described to us (again with sound piped into the boat) how her family would catch the salmon in this fish ladder and then set up an assembly line to clean the fish and cut it into strips. The strips would then be scored and hung over a wood fire to smoke in the smoking shed. The lower quality salmon would be fed to the dogs over the winters while the rest would keep them in protein for the very long, cold winters.
After her demonstration, we continued down the river to the other side to the kennels of four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher. Here we again were able to stay in out of the weather and hear all about how they raise and train dogs to be sled dogs. They train in the summer by hitching the teams to a 4-wheeler with no engine and running them on the trails. The talk and demonstration were given by the late Susan Butcher’s daughter and it was super interesting! We were able to meet her later in the day as well as some of her dogs. I have longer videos and if anyone is interested, I would be happy to share. It was so great she could continue to talk to us about the dogs even while she was driving the team out around the track. Did you know that the word “husky” just means sled dog? Did you know that Alaskan Huskies are not a recognized breed and are really mutts? Did you know Siberian Huskies that are normally thought of as sled dogs aren’t used in any kind of endurance situations at all?
After the sled dog demonstration, we headed down river and did a u-turn. Some of the houses along the river were absolutely beautiful! Lots of hot tubs. The locals told us they love to sit outside in the hot tub in the winter and watch the Northern Lights–bbbrrrr!!!! Can you believe this river freezes totally solid in the winter and they actually drive across it instead of going all the way to the bridge and up and over?
We returned to the native fish camp and disembarked. The staff even had umbrellas at the end of the ramp to help hold off the drizzle. Susan Butcher’s daughter was on hand to sign Susan’s children’s book she wrote about her lead dog, Granite. There was also a pen where some of the dogs and one of the handlers from their kennel was available to visit with people and answer questions. The dogs were very friendly!
The village was pretty interesting. The flowers were GORGEOUS and the vegetables in the garden were HUGE and looked wonderful. There were some reindeer and they had this taxidermy mount of two bull moose that had been found dead locked in mortal combat.
(Thanks for sharing some pictures, Janet!)
Oh, there was one more animal spotting on this riverboat cruise….guess who?!
After the riverboat journey, it was back to the coach for a quick trip into Fairbanks. Some of us walked down to a Thai restaurant for supper. Now, Fairbanks is not a very big city but there were more than a dozen Thai restaurants within walking distance of the Westmark Hotel downtown. And….those were about the only ones other than our hotel restaurant. So, Thai it was and it was good but I guess it wasn’t photogenic!