Alaska ‘cruisetour’ showcases Fairbanks, last stop before Arctic wilderness
by Karen Rubin
Alaska is full of surprises and contradictions – not the least of which is Sarah Palin, who has put her tiny town of Wasilla on the tourist “must see” list.
I guess what place doesn’t have – especially one that conjures up such powerful images, as out-sized as the landscape.
And then you experience it.
That’s the magic of travel. With all the technology, the vivid pictures that come instantly, it is not the same as physically being in a place, looking around, drawing on all your senses and experiencing the full, exquisite context.
I may have seen salmon rushing upstream on some “Nature” show, but seeing that ladder of rushing water in Ketchikan, and the rocks that hoards of salmon smash themselves up against to get back to their spawning grounds, was transfixing.
And who would have thought Alaska, which has six months of little or virtually no sunlight would have a solar-powered hotel and be a leader in hydroponic agriculture (though I must confess this bias may have more to do with the political rhetoric that has been coming out of Alaska)?
Alaska is warmer than expected (at least in summer), rainier than expected, wildlife is rarer than expected, there are far more earthquakes than I would ever have imagined, and native culture is much more vibrant, visible part of the culture today than I would have thought.
Most visitors, understandably, come in the summer months, but because of the people and the experiences you have on this inland trip, you come away with at least some inkling of understanding about what living here might be like in the frigid cold of winter.
One fact makes this apparent: the rivers on which we enjoy a scenic Discovery Cruise, freeze into roads – or landing strips – for planes, which are like second cars because there are so few roads through the state. The idea of having so many planes (Alaska has the most per capita than anywhere) no longer seems wasteful, but practical. Indeed, during the frigid winter, when temperatures fall to -50 (that’s the point that it becomes voluntary to go to school) you can’t shut off your car at all because the battery will go dead during even the briefest dash into a store; parking lots have plug-in stations that look like meters.
I find the stories of how and why people came here and more interestingly, why they stay, to be fascinating. “Alaskan by choice” is a common expression.
Once you get some sense of the environment, the quirkiness of the people and their customs becomes very understandable.
In fact, that one of my favorite television shows, “Northern Exposure” turns out to be more a realistic portrait than entertaining caricature – our “cruisetour” even takes us to the town that inspired the series.
The vastness, the contrasts, the context. So much to see and appreciate, it would be impossible in just the few days we had were we not with an organized tour.
Indeed, we were there to experience Royal Caribbean Line’s “cruisetour” operated by its in-house tour company, Royal Celebrity Tours, that takes its cruise passengers into the interior, and how that experience so enhances the cruise itself.
“Cruisetour” is Royal Caribbean’s term for a vacation that consists of two distinct parts – the cruise and a multi-day escorted tour through the interior.
Obviously, a cruise can only come to the edge of a destination – touch the surface, as it were, even if you can take advantage of shore excursions that take you for a few hours further into the interior. For, while cruising Alaska’ Inside Passage is a thoroughly enjoyable way to encounter the marvelous scenery, natural attractions, colorful ports of call, and is one of the most pleasurable cruise itineraries you can take, anyone looking beyond scenery to having a more immersive experience should take the land tour to get to the “heart” of a destination.
Indeed, as marvelous as the cruise of the Alaska Inland Passage is, it gets you to the magnificent Glaciers but not to the formidable Denali National Park.
And it was while I was gazing out from our hotel’s porch at 3:30 a.m., waiting to see if Mount McKinley would come out from its shroud of clouds (it did), that I saw the fleeting dance of neon-colored glow, the Northern Lights beneath the Big Dipper.
I also found that the land-tour was not only worth that extra time (the land portion adds three or four) but also the expense, which I calculated to actually afford considerable value, so that it would probably be hard to duplicate the program on your own for much less, if you could duplicate it at all.
America’s Last Frontier
“America’s Last Frontier,” is how Alaska bills itself – reflecting the vastness that cannot be imagined, the remoteness that can’t be comprehended, and the rugged individualism that is still prized without the irony of how much people depend upon each other for survival.
Our first stop is Fairbanks, the northernmost “civilization” before going into the true Arctic wilderness. In fact, Fairbanks’ most important tourist “attraction” is its department store – literally the last or first one you can get to for supplies if you’re going north.
(Fairbanks is also the capital city for seeing the Northern Lights. Like static electricity storm in atmosphere, the Aurora Borealis is seen most prominently in Fairbanks because of location on globe and position in view). Though I look for the Aurora Borealis from our hotel in Fairbanks, I am not so fortunate. It turns out that the Northern Lights are generally only visible here in spring, fall and winter.)
Our “cruisetour” actually started as soon as we departed our ship, Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Sea. It began with the efficient gathering of our baggage, transfer by coach to a plane (during our escort gives us a guided tour of Juneau) and then from the airport at Fairbanks, where our escort for the rest of our cruisetour, Roberta, met us
Our first hotel proves to be more than mere accommodation, as cozy and charming as it is. It is part of the story.
Located a stone’s throw from the Fairbanks airport, Pike’s Waterfront Lodge seems like a fairly standard roadside hotel from the outside.
You are immediately struck by the wood paneling, fire place, a massive block of jade (Alaska’s state stone) valued at over $100,000, and magnificent artwork everywhere you look.
The owner of the lodge turns out to be a restaurateur who became a Congressman who has amassed a formidable collection of native Alaskan art – worthy enough, in fact, to be included in a Smithsonian traveling exhibition.
Set on the bank of the Chena River, the hotel has a lovely deck with Adirondack-style chairs, a wonderful stand-alone restaurant, Pike’s Landing. And there is more: this is also the starting point for the Yukon Quest snowmobile race, and on the route of the Iron Dog off-road snowmobile race 2,000-miles across Alaska (the longest snowmobile race in the world).
In winter (and this becomes our first introduction into what Alaska winter is all about), the river becomes an ice road, and there is an ice bridge at the hotel (they know spring is coming when the first car falls through).
The hotel offers a shuttle bus to nearby Fred Meyer, a department store which is amazingly popular, especially for those who are headed in or out of the Arctic wilderness.
There are other intriguing elements: the hotel is actually solar powered in summer and wind-powered in winter, and off to the side, beyond where there are cabins for rent, there is a greenhouse where hydroponic agriculture is on display from 5 to 8 p.m. Indeed, the sun is blindingly bright; temperatures in summer get to 85 degrees. Alaska actually produces giant vegetables because of the long, long days of sunlight.
There are unexpected delights: as we come in, we are offered fresh, homemade ice cream (delectable), and discover that the hotel offers a sauna and steam room, exercise room, business center. The hotel also offers a free shuttle to Fairbank’s leading tourist attraction, the department store (had we had more time, I would have taken advantage, just to see what the fuss is all about).
Our room is outfitted with a refrigerator, coffee maker, and free Internet access.
A few steps away is its restaurant, popular with locals Pike’s Landing notable for apparently having floated down river at some point in its history.
Our dinner is at the Pump House Restaurant and Saloon, which is also on the Chena River. Built in 1978, it is on the site of the Chena Pump House, part of a vast system of pumps, sluiceways, ditches and flumes constructed by the Fairbanks Exploration Company to carry on its gold-dredging operations. One of the pumps is still on view.
The restaurant recreates the 1800s Gold Rush motif and atmosphere which was associated with Fairbanks. But there are real relics of that time – the furnishings are authentic and most are antique. One of the pool tables is an original Brunswick “Union League” built in 1898 and shipped to Dawson city in The Klondike in 1900; it worked its way down the Yukon River, following the “Rush”. The solid mahogany bar was built in Kansas City. there is also a massive stuffed bear in a case (www.pumphouse.com).
Today, Fairbanks, the “gateway to the Arctic” (you can take an air trip to Barrow), the last stop in civilization, and still a major transit center for “black gold” – the oil that comes from the North Slope. Indeed, I spot an Alyeska Pipeline truck, with the slogan emblazoned on the side, “Nobody Gets Hurt.”
Over dinner, which I am amazed that we enjoy on the outside patio, we learn more about Fairbanks – it is a land of extremes, the “land of the Midnight Sun” (on June 21, the longest day of the year, the sun sets at 11:59 and rises at 1:30 a.m., but it never gets completely dark). It is also the “Land of Golden Heart” probably because in winter, you really depend upon your neighbors to survive. On Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year, the sun rises at 10:45 a.m. and sets at 2 p.m. but never daylight gets brighter than twilight.
Fairbanks was founded when gold was discovered, in the early 1900s. The Barnett family was traveling on the Chena River when the paddleboat captain got stuck, and kicked the family off. Soon after, when gold was discovered, Pedro Barnett found his fortune – providing food and lodging to the prospectors.
In the morning, after enjoying a buffet breakfast in Pike’s most charming dining room, we are taken to the Riverboat Discovery III.
I might normally eschew such an unabashedly tourist creation, but in this case, it was a delightful journey – as educational as it is entertaining – designed to present the heritage and people of Alaska.
On the short bus ride over, Roberta cautions us not to stop off in the gift shop after the river cruise, so we will have more time in Fairbanks.
But what a gift shop! It is fantastic – there is even a “40-below” room, so you can experience what it is like on a typical winter’s day in Fairbanks (you pay $10); and a place to be photographed with the legendary dog musher and Iditarod Race winner, Susan Butcher.
These prove to be key themes of the Riverboat cruise, and after it, you come away with a clearer understanding of what before were just abstractions – dog-mushing, Arctic cold (20 below is typical, and temps can hit minus 40 or 50, so cold that coffee vaporizes if it is thrown).
The paddlewheeler, captained by the fourth generation of Binkleys, looks like it would be equally comfortable on the Mississippi. It has four decks, all of which are put to use during our excursion, which is more about culture than scenery
First up: a demonstration of a seaplane takeoff-landing. With so few roads in Alaska – and the extreme cold making it difficult as well as dangerous to drive (we notice there are actual plug-ins for cars in parking lots here, that power a heater that keeps the engine from freezing), an amazing percentage of the population flies. Here, a plane is like a second car – they cost about as much as a BMW – and people keep them in their backyards, or on the waterway. In winter, wheels or pontoons are replaced by skis. Planes landing on the water have to watch out for boats.
Our riverboat guide, a former radio man with the most mellifluous voice and clever repartee, points out some of the more interesting homes and people. There is Alaska Senator Markowski’s house, which hosted President Ronald Reagan.
Then we stop at one house – a lovely log cabin, that turns out to be the home of Susan Butcher, the four-time Iditarod champion, who died in 2005 after a valiant struggle against cancer, and her dog, Granite, the winningest lead dog, who came back from canine cancer to win that arduous race. The kennels are now maintained by her husband, David, who gives us an orientation to dog-sledding and its importance to Alaska as transportation. He gives us a demonstration of how the dogs are trained in summer, pulling an ATV.
Next stop is a village created by the first Captain Jim Binkley, the founder of the Discovery Riverboat, to preserve and showcase the history and heritage of this place.
It really tells the story of how people have been able to survive here for 10,000 years. The native Alaskans still incorporate many of the same subsistence practices. They do the best they can to convey to us, on this pleasant August day, what conditions are like in the harsh cold of winter, and how their culture has adapted to survive.
We see such a clever salmon trap, like a water-wheel but with netting, so as the current turns the wheel, salmon get trapped inside. It is such an efficient machine, its use is actually regulated now by the government.
Because of the rain, demonstrations that are normally held at the village, are done onboard – with the presentations shown on the video monitors for the other decks.
They explain the different hides and how they are used to take best advantage of their natural properties (mink was not important for the Akabaskens; it was Westerners who made mink as a “money pelt”).
I am impressed by the accomplishment and the personal story of these young people who are presenting their heritage. It is a theme that is repeated over and over during our visit – at each place, there are interactions, stories told by real Alaskans, that personalize the experience so much. These young women are enrolled in universities, studying to be teachers, nurses.
We still get to stop off at the village to explore – there are people who kindly offer us the use of an umbrella. It is fascinating to go in and out of this living history place, with cabins and artifacts and people to tell their stories, and learn of Akabasken life.
All during our trip, our guide is conveying to us a picture of what it is like to live here in Fairbanks in winter, which lasts 8 months here. Schools don’t get snow-days (there isn’t that much snow in this Arctic desert). But when the temperature goes down to 50-below, attendance is optional.
“American by birth, Alaskan by choice,” is a common refrain. “People come to get a start or a new start,” says one.
The riverboat excursion also serves to introduce us to some of the idiosyncrasies of the natural history here as well. The riverboat goes to the confluence of the two rivers – see the murky silt created by the grinding action of the glaciers.
Though Roberta has told us not to take any time in the gift shop (which turns out to be the best shopping place of the trip), I can’t resist speedily purchasing a jacket I had seen on sale, knowing I will risk the sneers of my traveling companions when I get back on the bus.
We get a bit of a sightseeing tour of Fairbanks. “Everything you see is ‘furthest north’ – the furthest north Denny’s, the furthest north McDonalds,” Roberta says. She points out the baseball field of the “Goldpanners,” the most successful non-professional team, where greats Tom Seaver and Barry Bonds have played.
On the bus ride into Fairbanks where we will have lunch, Roberta gives her insiders’ view of the various places to eat, from take-out to sit-in, and the shops and attractions we might be interested in visiting. She is a veritable Zagat, and it is so welcome. Our time is so limited, and she makes it easy to make the best use of it. And her reviews and recommendations are always spot-on.
We head for a place to pick up something to go, so we can spend more of our time exploring. I come upon the Ice Museum – the quality of ice here is so fine – no bubbles, it carves like butter- they actually export it; they host ice carving competitions and the championship sculptures are actually displayed in the museum; they also offer a nightly “Northern Lights” show. There is also Yukon Quest, a museum dedicated to dog mushing, and husky pups outside.
We board our bus – as luxurious as a coach can be – for the 100-mile (2 1/2-hour) ride to our next stop, Denali National Park. Our time aboard is pleasurable – interesting scenery and a lot of fascinating information and stories from Roberta, a native Alaskan and a biologist who has worked for eight seasons for the tour company but is soon to enter the state’s health service.
Roberta’s family came to Alaska “on a whim”, visiting family in Skagway and Juneau, and never left. Her father joined the state’s Agricultural department.
All during our travels, we hear from Alaskans, happy to share their stories of how they came here and why they stay.
Wednesday, 10 March, 2010
© 2010 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.