June 01, 2016

Last Day In Fairbanks

I have one more day in Fairbanks before heading across the state. Initially I left the calendar clear in case I needed to reschedule my trip North of the Arctic Circle. The weather forecast is for scattered showers, and at the last minute I decide on a game plan for the day. A trip on the Riverboat Discovery, and a tour of Gold Dredge # 8.

These are the two most popular tours in Fairbanks, coincidentally owned and operated by the same family. I call and make reservations. Even though it is only an hour before leaving dock, tickets must be purchased in advance by phone as they do not have the internet capability to handle ticketing at either location.

I pick up my ticket at the dock. Even though there are 500 passengers, I am one of about 6 that have purchased tickets directly. All the other passengers are here as part of a tour package from one of the cruise lines. The riverboat is a modern four deck stern wheeler powered by diesel engines, and hydraulic propulsion equipment including both bow and stern side thrusters.

The tour takes us up and down the Chena river. We pass a diverse range of houses, some very simple log cabins and others very elaborate modern structures with solar panels and all sorts of toys in the yard.

The boat stops at several locations. One is at the home and kennels of the late Iditarod Champion and Alaskan Legend, Susan Butcher. We are given a demonstration of some of the techniques used in training of the team. At our next stop we get to meet the dogs face to face.

Our next stop is at the Chena Village, a replica of the original Chena Indian Village of the early 1900s. Examples of how they caught and smoked fish, trapped animals, and the houses they lived in are authentically recreated. Authentic dress including a winter parka was modeled by a native Chena indian. We were told the parka takes over six months to make and is valued in excess of $20,000. We have about half an hour of free time to revist the kennels or any of the other exhibit areas.

The tour was well done. The narrator on the ship is a local radio personality, and his profession had a very positive impact on the quality of his presentation.

All of the tour groups headed for a group lunch, most at a facility at the dock, and one bus load to a different venue. The four or five cars and one cab leave with no traffic to contend with.

I grab a fast food lunch and head to the next stop. An old gold mine dredge which is located about 10 mines out of town. Again I am one of a handful of individual passengers that arrive before the tour buses. To reach the dredge we ride a narrow gauge train a mile or so to the dredge site, the spot where it was shut down about 60 years ago. During its long history, it only traveled about 8 miles after it was first assembled in Alaska.

As we step off the train we are given a bag of gravel to pan for gold. Everyone is guaranteed to find some gold, and are given more material until they do. I was told that the flakes I found are worth $9 at today's prices. Some passengers found as much as $50 worth. This is just a part of the cost of operating the business. The gold does not come from the site of the gold dredge, but is purchased from other nearby operating mines.

After my gold was weighed I spent half an hour climbing around the old dredge. It is large, but very simple and very efficient in what it does. Gold pricing was held artificially low at $35 per ounce by the federal government. As operating costs crept up to the point where it cost more to recover gold than it was worth, the dredge was forced to close down. Over the years of the dredge's operation it returned about $10 in profit for every $1 of original investment. Not a bad return.

When I leave the dredge I head to the North Pole. A community about 15 minutes from my hotel. A classic tourist town. The street lights look like candy canes, there is a 30 foot santa at the entrance to town, and all the streets have Christmas names. I drive around, take a few pictures and head back to Fairbanks for the night.

I find a local restaurant for dinner. No tour buses, only locals and me. The pasta is plentiful, the service excellent and the cost high as is everything in Alaska.

I drive my car back to the airport and return by complementary shuttle to my hotel. At the front desk I arrange for a cab to pick me up at 6:30 in the morning to take me to the train station.

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