Journey to Denali

Published: June 17th 2017
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Our bags were removed from the hallway of our hotel, just like they are getting off of a cruise ship. It’s nice not to need to worry about porting them around or getting them from one place to another. Our driver was a young student from Utah. He advised us that when we boarded the Riverboat that the best seats would be on the left side of the boat. He reminded us that when finished with lunch after the Riverboat, we should rejoin him, and he would be easy to find because he is the tallest and handsomest of the bus drivers. When we reached the river where our river tour would begin, he apologized, explaining that in Alaska it is a law covering all motor coaches such as this, that the driver must let people off within 100 feet of a souvenir store. There is a large one at the Discovery Landing but we went got inline for boarding the ship.

Discover III is evidently the third generation of riverboats offering a tourist destination for travelers to Fairbanks and gives people a sampling of what it is like living in Alaska. Throngs of people from numerous other motor coaches boarded Discover III and the line swelled past the entrance to the souvenir shop. The crowd narrowed to single file across the gangway, and by the time we squeezed up to the third deck we found all of the seats on the left side of the ship were taken, and Sharon reluctantly decided to sit in two of the few seats remaining together on the right side. We didn’t want to sit outside in the sun; and, that was an option, although, again the left side was nearly full. I’m guessing that all of those other bus drivers well telling people the same thing. He had also told us to try the blueberry donuts: They are delicious, and absolutely NON-FAT (in the center). The captain came on over the intercom and let us know that the blueberry donuts were now being served in the galleys. He covered some perfunctory maritime safety instructions, introduced the crew to us, and it became clear that this was a “family” business. The captain for our trip was the grandson of the couple that started the boat tours back in 1950. He’s already starting to teach his young daughter about the river with a box next to the wheel. The wheel is from a famous boat that used to travel along the Yukon which his grandfather workedon.

As we cast off, the steamboat was brought around and we watch a sea plane take off, fly around and then land again in a demonstration of one of the main modes of transportation into the interior of Alaska. The plane then took off one final time and flew off. We passed a series of homes, houses, cabins and the first striking thing that you couldn’t help but notice… no two are the same. We pass one rambling ranch style spread with a roomy airy porch. The captain noted, “I see that Joe is out on his porch this morning waving at us. I suppose we can be thankful that he’s dressed this morning.” We passed another waterfront property that was the dog kennel famous for raising many mush dogs, including those that Susan Butcher had first bought when she came to Alaska with the intent of not just participating in the Iditarod; but winning it!

Farther along the river we stopped on the other side where Susan Butcher and her husband had their dog sledding operation. Susan died a few years back from leukemia; but, her husband continues raising and training their dogs. He showed how they start training the dogs with a demonstration of teaching them to “jump” over logs, mostly giving them a great deal of love and encouragement. A sled riding demonstration was shown with a group eager to run, pulling an “engineless” ATV up and back and then around a lake and back again.

We went on to the Chena Village where examples of the native culture where on display, including the process of fishing, preparing fish for the drying process, clothing worn by natives and the types of game in the area offering various pelts and furs with different characteristics. Three different staging areas with seating were used to give the various demonstrations. At the presentation on the game and furs harvested from the area, the speaker asked if there was anybody from Texas in the audience. A big burly man in the front waved his hand, and the Speaker hailed him, “Welcome, to the BIG state of Alaska.” When he was showing off the various pelts, and he got to the white slender almost stringy pelt of the ermine he said, “And here we have the Texan Polar Bear”.

On the return riverboat journey trip the captain was pleased to offer us one of his favorite treats, which they make fresh for each tour, an old family recipe mixing Sockeye Salmon with cream cheese and serving it on a cracker. I got in line early and got a serving for me, and one for Sharon too! Okay, maybe she didn’t feel like eating hers. It was quite good and smoky tasting.

The captain had great stories about how Fairbanks became settled and of the various waves of people who came here and helped to reveal some of Alaska’s wonders to the rest of the world. He also loves talking to people from all around the world. One of his favorite stories was of a lady who asked him, “You don’t really live here in the winter, do you?”

The ship docked again where we started and we made our way to the dining hall where 500-plus people were scheduled to partake of a hearty Miner’s Stew. Evidently this tourist destination is part of the same company that handled Gold Dredge Number 8 which we visited about a week earlier; because, Sharon remembers when she and sister, brother-in-law, and parents had had the Miner’s Stew, but out at a meal served as part of that tour. Sharon also took the Discovery tour with Jim in 1986 but that was on the Discovery II. The meals were served from cast iron pots placed on the tables, and I obviously haven’t mastered the art of serving yourself in a community style atmosphere; because, I started with the salad bowl and got plenty of salad. Sharon got some stew first, and a biscuit. I got the vegetable kettle next, and all that was left in it was a couple of slices of onion and a cobette of corn (which I took). The stew kettle had gravy and peas and potatoes, and plenty of them, but not a shred of meat was left. I mentioned this to Sharon, after having asked the server for another kettle of vegetables which he brought fairly promptly, and she replied, “Hmmm, I seem to have plenty of meat! You can have some of mine.” And I looked at her plate, and somehow, she’d managed to scoop most of the meat in the kettle onto her plate. I took her up on her offer and it was quite good. I also enjoyed the German Chocolate pie. I scraped off the coconut and other topping off the pie for Sharon, and she managed to enjoy hers as well! I will say that the iced tea that they served was passably good, freshly brewed at least, although probably in a pot that hadn’t been properly leaned in a while as the taste of burnt coffee and tea attests. After lunch, we found our tall handsome bus driver. As all on our bus had boarded, and we were on our way to Denali, he too marveled at the long days of summer. He said that the twenty-third (of June) was rapidly approaching; and, that would be one of the most depressing days of the year for him… because then it becomes all too apparent to him with the shortening days that… Winter is Coming!

Our bus driver challenged us as to whether we knew what the difference is between reindeer and caribou. It was something that we thought that we’d learned from Mike on our journey to Dead Horse: Reindeer are domesticated caribou; but, this wasn’t the answer our driver was looking for: “Caribou can’t fly!”

The bus made a stop in Nenana and the driver noted that this was where you could buy a chance in the Great Ice Melt Lotto of 2018 for $2.50. Just guess to the day and the hour and the minute when the “Ice Buoy” would float free. When we came into town we saw a replica of the Ice Buoy with its superstructure of interlinked pipes over a floatation tank. This buoy is placed on the frozen Nenana River in winter and heavy betting is placed on it floating free between April 15 and May 15. Our bus driver that noted that this year there were 147 people who wasted their bets on wagering on April 31. Two years ago one enterprising local placed his bet on April 1, a full month before when it typically melts. In recent years the mean seems to have moved from the second week in May, to the first week and even into April. Our driver attributed this to global warming. Anyway, this unscrupulous local then proceeded to dynamite the ice upstream from the buoy in hopes of winning by being closest with his early lotto pick. He is now banned from participating in all future Ice Melt Lottos, and his efforts didn’t work that year either. Sharon bought a couple of large cookies. After we boarded the driver wanted to know if anybody had purchased the Moose Balm for chapped lips. He advised, “Lick your lips once with that on, and you won’t do that again!”

Our driver also told us the story about Ferry, Alaska. It was here that the Alaska Railroad built a bridge over the Nenana River, which was great for the people of Ferry, half of whom lived on one side of the river, and half of whom lived on the other side of these swift moving waters. This was great for the locals who began walking across the railroad bridge; but, the Alaska Railroad (which Sharon and I had road on from Fairbanks to Alaska) were not happy that people were walking on their bridge. They hired a guard to keep pedestrians off the bridge. This didn’t sit well with the locals, so they adopted a unique method of protest. Each afternoon as the train would approach the bridge a dozen or so locals would assemble on one side of the bridge and moon the train as it approached and pass by. The railroad eventually relented and added a foot bridge adjacent to the train bridge crossing the Nenana. However, they still celebrate this by mooning the train on the 4th of July and apparently that train ride is already sold out.

As we were nearing our destination the bus driver noted that Holland America’s Homestead was off to the right, where their staff reside. It looked to be quite large and evidently housed people who staff the resort, drive the busses and serve as tour guides on HAL tours. It’s made of modular units no longer needed for the oil camps. The driver said the residents called it “The Death Star”. Conditions are evidently quite cramped. He then claimed that you needed to go across the street to get “The Best Pizza”. “I’m not supposed to say that he added, because it is ‘off-property’!” (Meaning that there is a pizza-place on-property though at the Princess Lodge not the HAL one). He had also pointed out the Best Hamburger and Steak houses along the route (way before we got to Denali) though he said he doesn’t know who decides they’re the best. He also claimed to be the best Tour Guide/Bus Driver, but begged us not to tell his wife that he made this claim because she was bringing another bus tour to Denali tonight as well (and she thinks that she’s the best Tour Guide/Bus Driver and he lets her think that). But he did say we could tell her she was the prettiest.

Our bags were already in our room when we carried our carry-on bags up the flight of stairs to the second floor (no, there is no third floor here). We dropped our bags off and soon had to rush off to catch our bus to the Covered Wagon Ride and Chuckwagon Dinner.

We got on the right bus to take us to our wagon ride. There was a couple in front, and then there were five woman already on the bus, three on the right side and two on the left side. We sat just behind the large woman in red on the left side of the bus, and one of the others was asking her, “Oh there are others getting on the bus here. Do you suppose that we should sit together?” The lady in red seemed to dismiss that thought, I guess sort of akin to squatter’s rights. She greeted us nicely enough and asked us who we were cruising with. Sharon told her “Holland America.” “Oooh.” She said. “We’re with Princess. They’re sooo much better.” It wasn’t that this woman was rude, which she obviously was, but she was loud AND rude. When we got to the Covered Wagon, we were sooo relieved that they were put into one wagon and we and everyone else were put in the other wagon. We later realized that they had opted for to ATV riding before dinner; which suited us because we were nearly finished when they showed up.

Our wagon had a Jamaican tour guide, who said that he just got to Alaska three weeks ago. He thought that he was going to be working “the front desk”. Instead they made him a tour guide and now he works with horses. He said he was terrified of them at first; but, now he loves them. He said that his trip to get here from Jamaica took twenty-three hours; including, eight hours waiting in the airport in Fairbanks after arriving at 2AM. It was quite impressive how engaging this guide was, and how well he’d mastered stories about Denali, about the geography, about the flora and fauna and spoke with considerable authority and knowledge. The people on our wagon were already seated at two rows of picnic tables, leaving no room for Sharon or me to eat together. We started to sit down at one other table that had table setting; but, that one was not for us. One server said, “Well, you can sit there,” pointing to a single spot at the end of one table, “And you can sit over there!” directing Sharon to the other end of another table. Sharon made it clear we weren’t going to sit at different tables. Anyway, people scooted around and made room for us to sit together. They served a nice salad followed by beans and meat with chili. Sharon wasn’t having any of this. Around came the chicken and I tried one barbecued chicken leg. No white meat for Sharon so she passed again. The little cobettes of grilled corn came around and again Sharon said no. She did grab a biscuit and butter, and she took a rib; but, I don’t think she ate much of it. I thought the rib was quite good. I didn’t care for the dessert; although, Sharon did take one… she just didn’t eat much of it. She had taken this tour 10 years ago with her sister, brother-in-law and parents and thought the food was more of a BBQ and steak and chicken. It was about then that the others returned from their ATV ride and it’s funny how the whole mood of the room seemed to fall with that sullen feeling “Ugh, they’re back.” Loud, and still sooo annoying.

Our ride back took about twenty minutes, and we’d mostly had a good time. We went back to our room, got some rest, and had an early day in the morning.

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