Friday, September 17, 2010
Free Time in Fairbanks
So what do I do? Laundry.
I have to say, after two nine hour plus days on the road, it felt good to be in a real hotel with big beds and restaurants that had linen napkins and a wine list. Next to the laundry room was a tiny room with two computers with Internet access for guests, so I was even able to check and respond to e -mails. Yay for civilization!
I didn't arrange any excursions for our first evening at the hotel, preferring just to wander the grounds and watch the river from the hotel's deck. We enjoyed a great meal with Craig and Maggie from our Prudhoe Bay group and bantered with our waitress Mary. After all those hours of doing nothing on the bus we decided an early bedtime wouldn't be such a bad thing so after watching a little bit of the news we were out like a light.
The next morning we were scheduled for a riverboat excursion on the Discovery II and I have to say these folks do a tremendous job of making the excursion worthwhile. A gentleman started narrating as soon as we backed away from the dock, first explaining the history of the riverboat we were on as well as some information about the company and its employees and going on to talk about what we were seeing along the river and riverbanks. He explained about the climate of the area, who owned some of the homes along the river and their connection to Fairbanks, how barges can only use the river 19 weeks out of 52 to deliver supplies because it is frozen the rest of the time.
The riverboat stopped near a house that had a fenced yard with a lot of dog houses on it. It turns out that this is the home of Dave Monson, widower of Susan Butcher who was the four time Iditarod champion before her death from leukemia. This stop is part of the excursion and Dave comes out with a microphone to talk about raising sled dogs and how they train them. Then several dogs were hitched up to an ATV that has had the engine removed and within seconds the dogs were off! The hitching up process was fascinating because the dogs literally leaped into position, they were so eager to run.Dave starts to train sled dog puppies by taking them out into the woods with the older dogs and then calling the older dogs back home. The puppies learn that to get back home they have to run after the older dogs. Each dog in the kennel gets exercised every day. The dogs run at 20mph during their practice runs and in the winter time they'll run for one hundred miles on the ice. Today after their demonstration run the dogs were allowed to jump into the river as a reward, where they played like puppies.
The riverboat continued past the Athabascan fish camp to where the river ran into a second river and where we could see the line of glacier silt coming down from the mountains.The captain turned the boat around at the junction of the two rivers and we headed back to explore the Athabascan fishing camp. On hand were young ladies from the Athabascan culture who explained life in a typical fish camp and who gave demonstrations on cutting salmon for drying and curing as well as explaining how moose were called ("here moosie, moosie"!) using a caribou shoulder bone scraped against a tree which sounds like another moose scraping his antlers on the tree. We saw recreations of bedding in fish camp tents, line cabins which are small cabin built simply to spend the night when checking trap lines, fish caches and curing sheds, Athabascan clothing and coats and much more. Many of the native cultures still use the subsistence method of living, meaning what they harvest (they don't use the word kill) they use fully--coat, meat, horns/antlers, sinews, etc. because they have a transient lifestyle and do not have access to gardens and grocery stores. They do not hunt for the pleasure of it, they do it as a method of survival. It was a fascinating look into a difficult lifestyle.
Spruce trees are important in the Athabascan culture. Not only do they provide wood for shelter, the branches are used as a mattress over caribou pelts and the spruce wood is used for smoking salmon. Punk or bearbread is a fungus that grows on the trees and it is used to hold embers from a fire when the families move from one location to another. The punk with the burning ember is wrapped in moss and then in a caribou skin carrier so a fire can be started at the next camp. Punk also acts as a mosquito repellent.Our native tour guide, Jofina, after giving a brief talk on the clothing made and worn by Athabascans then modeled a fur coat. The coat, normally sewn as a pullover, is made of muskrat with a sunshine ruff of timberwolf on the outside and wolverine on the inside of the ruff. Wolverine is used due to the amount of oil on the fur which helps keep the Athabascans' faces from freezing in the extreme cold of winter.
After the guided tour all of us were allowed to wander the camp to ask questions and further explore different areas. Denny and I headed to the sled dog area where some of the dogs were on display. While we were there some of the employees approached the fence surrounding the complex and one of the white huskies jumped the fence into the arms of one of the girls. These small, skinny, energetic sled dogs are also incredibly affectionate. The young white dog had only three legs as she had lost a paw to a trap but she was such a good runner and breed dog that they kept her on despite her injury. Obviously it didn't effect her much, as she was the only dog strong enough to jump the fence!
All too soon the boat whistle sounded for us to return to the ship for our return ride to the dock. We were given the opportunity to sample and purchase some yummy salmon dip (and wander the onboard gift shop, of course!) as we enjoyed a leisurely ride back. This was a very enjoyable excursion and one that is available to anyone who travels to Fairbanks. And of course there's also a huge gift shop at the dock just in case you want a souvenir of the boat ride or of Alaska!