Alaska, An Excellent Choice ~ Day 1, Fairbanks

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August 23rd 2015
Published: October 15th 2015
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Click here for photos from Day 1, Fairbanks

Alaska, an excellent choice. On the other hand, I never thought I’d return from anytrip saying, “Can’t wait to get home to the sunshine.” I often say to whomever would listen that Northeastern Pennsylvania is the second most overcast place on the planet; we’re right behind Seattle on that list. Since humans are naturally happier when the sun is shining, I go on to claim, those of us fortunate enough to live in NEPA learn to find happiness even in gloom. Certainly I exaggerate our climate’s place on the overcast list, but this trip to Alaska has made me appreciate the happiness of home even more.

It seems a bit odd that this blog would be (ostensibly) about the photos when it was conceded before we departed that this would not be a photographic excursion. I wasn’t even bringing a tripod. Still, I carried a hefty camera bag consisting of two cameras and 3 extra lenses. I had a fisheye 8-15mm, a wide angle 16-35mm and the good ol’ walk around lens, the 24-105mm. For any distant shots I brought the Canon SX50 with 50-times optical zoom. It doesn’t provide great quality, but it will reach out to nose hairs on a bear a hundred yards away, and it’s much lighter than the long-lens alternative. Unfortunately, as you’ll see, the SX50 was used for more than 90% of the shots, making this even less of a photographic journey.

The journey began at the end of last year, or at least it was conceived then and planned ever since. Barb & I wanted to see Alaska and missed an opportunity a few years ago. This trip, however, had the bonus of some extra special company. My brother Phil and his wife Maureen, and their friends General Joe Perugino and his wife Mary Ann, were surely the best part of this trip. They had a great gift for making us ignore the gloomy weather and bringing their personality-sunshine to brighten each day. Although I’d consider myself quite close to my brother, we hardly have had the opportunity over the years to really spend much quality time together. Rather than balancing out that deficit, this trip made me realize how much I’m missing. I’m even happier now for all the folks who get to hang out with Phil on a regular basis.

The limo van pulled into our driveway,
stirring the air with hopeful anticipation. It was full of potential, and carried our 4 companions on this excellent adventure. The plan was to stay the night in Newark, and fly out to Fairbanks in the morning. We’d spend 2 days in Fairbanks, then bus down to Denali for 2 days. From there we’d take the Alaskan Railroad to Whittier, and spend the next 7 days cruising southbound through the Inside Passage. A less exciting, perhaps more realistic, way of describing these first two days would be: We had to spend 3 hours in a van on the interstate, toss and turn through a restless night, and lug our tired asses through 15 hours of Snafu Airlines just to reach the part where we could say we were on vacation. Yet our festive mood began when our driver, Paul, helped me load our luggage into the van. A well-placed meal the first night in the company of our fellow travelers helped set the stage for the fun that followed.

Barb had known both Joe and Mary Ann years ago when she worked for the gas company, so I was the stranger. Having never met a general I didn’t like, I knew I’d hit it off with Joe. My level of respect for him kept getting higher as the days passed. It was easy to see how his leadership skills could not be ignored, and how those in his charge would scramble to please him. He jokingly gave me assignments and missions to complete, and by the end of the trip he had me promoted to E6. Of course, my only competition was my brother, and he was a navy man. Behind every good man there is a good partner, and Mary Ann was the greatest. In every situation we encountered on this trip, it was a pleasure and an honor to be in the company of these one-time strangers.

Well, as mentioned, this was not a photo trip, and as it progressed it got to be even less so. At best, most of the snapshots were from moving vehicles (either bus, train, boat or ship), and many were through dirty or steamy windows covered in raindrops. All of the photos from this day were taken on the Riverboat Discovery in Fairbanks, photos 1 and 42. You’ll notice in photo 42 the painterly treatment I gave many in the digital darkroom, much like the non-photo journey earlier this year in theNetherlands. The technique is growing on me so much that I am now seeing the real world with this type of an overlay. It’s surely much more artistic than rose-colored glasses, but possibly more pathological. The cure, of course, would be a good trip dedicated to photographing light while using a tripod.

The Riverboat was a fun, albeit rainy, experience, which of course starts and ends at the gift shop. In gift shops like that I feel my grateful-dead age of old-and-in-the-way, so I stepped outside to see what I could shoot. All I could manage in between the raindrops (and other dead fans already shooting all the cool flowers) was a shot of the boat and a wet bust of Captain Jim Binkley, the guy who started this family business back in 1950. You can see his rain-drenched likeness in photo 3. It’s cool how its creator added reflections of Discovery 1 in his chiseled sunglasses. Captain Binkley actually made Discovery 1 in his backyard in 1955. That endeavor alone made me happy to be there even in the rain, so I went back in the gift shop to encourage Barb to show my gratitude through her purchases.

As for the photos, the good part about the gloom of this day was the lasting hope for the photo ops imagined through the rest of the trip. So far, my better camera setup was still operating properly, although on this rainy day I only brought my 24-105mm lens, which, for the most part, was just tucked under my jacket to protect it from the rain. The bad part of the photo gloom was that we weren’t shooting macros or waterfalls, which often embrace the overcast evenness of light. Still, you’ll remember that the best part of folks from naturally gloomy climes is that we are good at finding enjoyment in spite of the weather. In many ways, the best part of our days were spent enjoying our time together at night.

Since the photos in these galleries are always in chronological order, the 50 presented in this gallery simply follow the boat tour described on their website. They’ll tell you about the floatplane that takes off and lands near the boat, photos 4 & 5. It would have been a lot more interesting (and surely more expensive) to have been aboard the plane shooting the riverboat. We next stopped at the home of 4-time Iditarod winner, the late Susan Butcher and her husband, David Monson. Photos 8, 9 and 10 were from this stop. Our captain and David Monson fed their parts of the script through microphones that reached the passengers through speakers placed all over the boat, inside and out. David keeps the Trail Breaker Kennel running, and has a beautiful and exciting book entitled Granite about his wife and a very special dog who led her to four victories and literally saved her life as she once saved his. Personalized books can be obtained through David’s website. You can see a statue of Granite in front of the post office in the Athabaskan village, photos 15, 16 & a closeup in 39. A display dedicated to Susan Butcher can be seen in photo 43. Here is a quick movie of the dogs and David in action.

Photos 15 thru 42 were all taken in the rain at the Athabaskan village. The eagle seen in photos 12 & 26 are the same bird. Photo 12 was shot from the boat before the captain made a u-turn and docked near the village. As soon as we started to disembark, the rain increased. The wonderful folks who worked in the village provided passengers with rain ponchos and little pieces of dry cushion for sitting on the wet benches at various locations of the village tour. Having two cameras to contend with and still hoping for a few shots, I declined both. Photo 26 of the eagle was captured from the shore when I left the group who listened to some of the fascinating history of this remote piece of the planet. The Athabaskan people are considered paleo-arctic folks who came across the Bering Strait when it still connected Alaska with Siberia. They probably came south to get warm. Archaeologists have dated them to be living in Alaska as long ago as 8000 BC, but they don’t know what they don’t know.

Photo 24 was the last time I used the 24-105mm lens in the village. After that it spent the rest of the land portion of the riverboat tour tucked in my water-repellent jacket. No, wait… I pulled it out again on the gangway for photos 40 & 41. We circled back for a fine
lunch and another crack at the gift shop.

The next leg of our tour brought us by bus to an old mining location known as Dredge 8, which I believe was also owned by the Riverboat Binkley family. The buses parked in a lot near a portion of the Alaskan Pipeline that is above ground, photo 44. We were then loaded onto bench seats on an open train where we were entertained by a guitar-strumming fiddle player singing Johnny Cash songs as we descended into the dredge area to pan for gold. The dredge can be seen in photos 45, 46 & 47. The original version of photo 46 is a very large 7-shot pano.

You can see the benches where we all sat to pan for gold, which each of us was guaranteed to find, in photos 48 & 50. The reason for the guarantee (and what reallypaid for the train ride) was the gift shop where you can see Barb exiting in photo 49. Notice that the gift shop was cleverly called the Assayer’s Office. The idea was that we all pan for gold, then take our “winnings” to the assayer’s office where they weigh them and suggest we keep such valuables secure in an over-priced piece of jewelry that we could bring home and show everyone how successful we were. I sat, got the feel for the panning process, then handed my pan to Barb and went to find something to shoot. Without much to photograph and feeling the affects of the cold air coupled with cold water, I shot for the bathroom.

It seems that everything that wasn’t owned by the Binkley’s was owned by Princess Cruises. Leaving Dredge 8, we boarded buses owned by Princess and were taken back to our hotel in Fairbanks, also owned by Princess. After exhausting the best choices on the menu at the Princess Lodge the night before, we opted to ride one of their buses into town. As it turned out this late in the season, there were only two restaurants in town that were open. We picked one and hoped it wasn’t also owned by Princess. As it turned out, we got to meet the owner of Lavelle’s Bistro. Kathy Lavelle moved to Fairbanks from Scranton, Pennsylvania, 13 years ago. She may have been a princess, but her only connection to Princess Cruises was gratitude.

We gratefully tucked ourselves in at the Princess Lodge and looked forward to a ride to the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge in the morning on a Princess bus.

Additional photos below
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