Monday, July 19, 2010

Alaska RV Tour - Fairbanks, Alaska

We arrived in Fairbanks on Friday, July 18th and left on Monday, July 19th. We stayed at the River's Edge RV Park, which is a large campground next to the Chena River and is close to shopping and sightseeing.  Although well situated, this park has cramped sites, broken washing machines, and a very poor wireless Internet connection. I'm not sure what other RV parks are in the area but I would look around before staying at the River's Edge again.

As much as we've been enjoying Canada's beautiful countryside and friendly people, in terms of cost of living it was nice to be in a big town in the US. While in Fairbanks, we paid $50 for a bag of dog food compared to $72 in British Columbia, and $3.47/gallon of gas compared to $4.94 in Dawson City. Big differences!

With a population of around 35,000, Fairbanks is the second largest city in the state after Anchorage and is the largest city in Alaska's Interior. Fairbanks is home to the University of Alaska, the oldest college in Alaska and Eielson Air Force Base is located about 26 miles southeast of town.

On Saturday afternoon, Spike led our group on a driving tour of Fairbanks. We drove past Frontier Park and the Holy Roller Church, so named because the church was moved many years ago to its present location by rolling it along on top of pine logs. We also went through the historic area of town, and drove out past the University of Alaska and up to the Fox Visitor Center, which is operated by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.

The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company designed and built the Trans Alaska Pipeline System to move oil from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope to Valdez, which is the most northern ice-free port in Alaska.  The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company continues today to maintain and operate the pipeline. Spike gave us an entertaining and informative talk on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and we learned some interesting facts, such as:
  • It cost $8 billion to build the pipeline in 1977 and was the largest privately funded construction project of its time. 
  • The pipeline is over 800 miles long and 48 inches in diameter.  
  • Engineers designed the pipeline to endure and protect Alaska’s harsh environment as it crosses three mountain ranges, three major earthquake faults, and more than 500 rivers and streams.
  • The pipeline is constructed to move and shift in response to geological movement caused by earthquakes and permafrost activity. 
  • The pipeline corridor includes more than 550 crossing areas for caribou, moose and other wildlife.  
  • Since going into operation, over 15 billion barrels of crude oil have passed through the pipeline.  

On Sunday afternoon, our group went on the Riverboat Discovery Tour and we really enjoyed it! This was a leisurely three and half hour cruise on the Chena River aboard the Discovery III, a 156-foot stern wheeler.
The Riverboat Discovery Tour began with an Alaskan float plane demonstration that showed "bush-style" take offs and landings, and explained the advantages and seasonal use of floats and over-sized soft tundra tires.

In a land of rugged topology, fast weather changes, few roads and bitter winters, Alaskan bush pilots deliver supplies and people to otherwise inaccessible areas.  This is very dangerous work: planes frequently crash and lives are lost. Nonetheless, Alaska has the largest number of licensed pilot per capita, including those holding a private pilot license so they can transport themselves, family and friends.

As we moved slowly down the Chena river, the Discovery III stopped alongside Trailbreaker Kennels, founded by four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher and her husband Dave Monson. Dave spoke a little about dog mushing and training dogs, and gave a demonstration of the combined power of a dog team pulling an ATV. 

Continuing along the river, we passed the Chena Indian Village and Athabascan fish camp. The stern wheeler stopped briefly while a young Athabascan woman told us about these native fish camps and how salmon is (still) cured and stored for the winter.  After that, we went along until we reached the confluence of the Chena and Tanana rivers. It was a beautiful day and we saw numerous pleasure boats with folks fishing.  At this point, the Discovery III turned around and headed back upriver.

On our return leg, we stopped for a one hour visit at the Chena Indian Village, where native guides gave us a tour of an authentically recreated Athabascan Indian village complete with cabins made of spruce logs, a cache used for storing supplies, and a display of various animal hides.
We also visited a very nice display about Susan Butcher in a cabin located next to the Chena Indian Village.  We both became quite sad as we looked at the information and photos - we very much admire Susan Butcher and her accomplishments, and well remember her death in 2006 from Leukemia.  The world lost an amazing person when Susan passed away.

Just before reboarding the Discovery III, we visited the dog yard near the Susan Butcher display where Trailbreaker Kennels, still in operation under the direction of Dave Monson, keeps some sled dogs.

This Riverboat Discovery Tour was excellent and there is very good reason why is it rated as one of the best tours in all of Alaska! 

We returned to the RV park, walked the dogs and got freshened up for dinner with Dave Monson at his home, to learn more about Susan and Trailbreaker Kennels. Yes, we really enjoyed this!

The meal of prime rib and salmon was wonderful (I went for seconds) and Dave's discussion about dog racing was so interesting. With the help of Val Frye who "volunteered" to wear the clothing, Dave gave us a demo of the gear the mushers wear and told us about the hardships and challenges of long distance races such as the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest.

We also were able to spend quite a bit of time with the puppies... the only thing cuter than a sled dog puppy is two sled dog puppies!

And we had a chance to chat a bit with Dave and Susan's youngest daughter Chisana.

And that was our visit to Fairbanks... it was a lot of fun and we enjoyed our time there! Click here to see more photos.

Next stop is Denali, Alaska - stay tuned!

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