This morning we took a short bus ride with a driver named Jordan who came from Salt Lake City, which I thought was a good connection. We were driven to the Explorer II, a
paddlewheel riverboat holding 800 passengers. The river trip and the attractions along the were well organized for the tourist business, and not only because they served delicious blueberry doughnuts. The first attraction four miles south on the river was a re-creation of an Athabathcan Indian Village which we got to see from the boat. They ran some reindeer out for us to observe.
The next stop was a visit to the late SusanButcher’s dogsled training compound, where her daughter demonstrated a dog run with a rolling dogsled. It was exciting because their barking made it clear how much the dogs loved to run.
On the way back we got to visit the village we observed from the boat. There were a number of interesting mini-lectures on the native way of living. One interesting talk was about the different furs used by the natives: timber wolf, wolverine, fox, ermine, weasel, and muskrat, with samples of each. The natives did not use mink that much but were very glad to find that Europeans valued it! Some beautiful parkas were modeled for us that were made from these furs, which I believe were on sale at from eight to $20,000 each. I don’t think there were any takers today.
At lunch time we were ushered into the Discovery Dining Hall, a huge dining room, where many different tour groups were having lunch. The food was family-style featuring an old-fashioned stew and veggies, as much as you could eat, and very good.
On the road again, we headed for one of the few remaining floating gold dredges in existence, Gold Dredge No. 8. It was shut down in 1959, not because it was uneconomical, but because it was too dangerous and there were too many deaths. As we approached the huge machine I assumed that we would get a good look at it, and that would be it. It has a conveyor-like “digging arm” with huge cups to scoop the gravel into the dredge, where it would be “panned” in sluice boxes for the gold. At the other end was another conveyor, the “stacking arm” to deposit the tailings, or waste material. It also had a retort to cast the gold into 55 pound bricks. To my surprise it turned out that we could not only board the dredge, but climb inside and all over it. It was like being inside a piece of industry-themed modern art.
But first we got to try our hand at panning for gold. The idea is to let the water wash away the lighter sand and small gravel, leaving the heavier gold behind. I figured I was doing pretty well, getting rid of almost all the sand, but try as I could, I couldn’t get to the point where I could see any gold. Then a hostess must have seen my difficulty, for she came over and offered her assistance. In about one shake of the pan, the sand and gravel disappeared, there they were, flakes of pure gold! How did she do that?
On the way back we learned we were driving on part of the road used for the TV series, “Ice Road Truckers”. Fairbanks is the start of a 12 hour journey to Prudhoe Bay, and apparently the driving is as difficult and dangerous as the TV show makes it seem.
In many towns our guides told us that they have a Walmart. It seemed to be a matter of pride that they had acquired one. Also Fairbanks has the busiest Home Depot in the nation, and this is because the extreme winter weather conditions require major repair work every summer, and lots of supplies are required. The northern towns have free plug-ins everywhere to keep vehicle engines warm. Not only that separate heating is often required for the battery.
We stopped at a Trans Alaska Pipeline site where we saw a section of the pipeline as it is usually built above gly whereround to avoid permafrost problems, and minimize earthquake difficulties too, I suppose. But they do have underground sections under rivers, and to provide migration paths for caribou. (Reindeer don’t need migration paths. They just fly where they want to go.) They had a sample “dumb pig” which simply scrapes the inside of the pipeline as required, and told us about the “smart pig” which examines the inside of the pipeline as it travels.
We also drove through another major operation of the Fairbanks Exploration Company, where they had drilled core samples over 35,000 acres, and knew where the gold was. They dug Davidson Ditch, but to separate the gold required 9000 gallons of water per minute, and to do that, they had to divert the Chattanooga River. It took seven years of construction but it was hugely successful.
That evening we headed for the Pioneer Park Theater for our performance. The opening act was supposed to be two different barbershop groups, but only one actually performed. There were about 150 people in the audience, which was fine.
After the show we gravitated to Tracker’s Bar and Grill, where the food was excellent.