Denali and Fairbanks
As we have travelled north it has got noticeably cooler and some of the woollies are coming out of the bags. Unfortunately, the weather has also turned cloudy and wet to go with the cold. We arrive late in the morning and settle in at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge beside the Nenana River for the night. This lodge is also closing tomorrow so we are here for one night.
Allthego had made arrangements for a water rafting expedition down the canyon section of the river in the afternoon. Homealone avoided this and was going to hang around the lodge and await Allthego’s return. Allthego hasn’t been rafting for many years, the last time with Mitchell on a river near Coffs Harbour maybe 25 years ago. There was only one other person in our raft that had also previously done it. So the guide really wound everyone up with tales of being tipped out and how to survive in the river etc. We had a few oohs and ahs along the way. Allthego held tight to a cold bar. It rained a bit and water splashed into the raft as we bumped our way down the river. The trip down the canyon took a bit over 2 hours and we went through about 10 rapid sections, grades 2 and 3 with one 4. I think 6 is he highest rating. They were pretty tame but a good experience. The guide said that because we were late in the season the water levels were down and the rapids were not quite as vigorous as earlier in the season. The river is fed by glaciers and is very silt laden, apparently there are few if any fish because of the heavy silt content. We finished up back at the lodge around 5 pm for dinner and bed.
It was to be a 6 am start the next morning with a tour out into Denali National Park. We had another chilly start when we set off in the National Parks Service bus and accompanying guide. Because of the weather the outlook from the bus was bleak. The trip takes us past the tree line and looking out of the window you can feel how vast and remote the park is. We don’t get a view of Denali because of cloud cover. No animals. It would be good to see the park at another time of year in warmer weather. Back at the lodge it was a quick lunch before boarding the bus to head for Fairbanks.
Fairbanks was to be the end of the road for us on the way north. It is about 180 miles south of the Arctic circle. In contrast Hobart, in Tasmania, is 1630 mile north of the Antarctic circle. We had 2 nights here in Fairbanks at the Princess accommodation before it too was closing for the season! We then left our fellow cruislings for another couple of nights in town. The major attraction in Fairbanks are the Northern lights, they are completely natural of course and although predictable to a certain extent, seeing them is weather dependent. If there is cloud then there is no seeing the lights. Fairbanks is a prime spot for the experience. The day we arrived the night skies were clear but we sought of overlooked going out ( feeling too ragged in other words to make it) thinking we had another 3 nights to do it. Guess what? The next 3 nights were cloudy so no lights! Maybe there will be another time or place to see them.
The Princess people had arranged a couple of tours for us to catch some Fairbanks sights. First up was an old Gold Dredge historic site just out-of-town. Gold dredges were apparently an invention of our Kiwi mates in the late 1800s. They were used to mine alluvial gold in streams or on ancient river flats. Enormous quantities of water were required to blast away overburden material, the dredge then scooped the gravels up, washed them and extracted the gold from sludge along washing boards. Quite efficient at a certain level but totally destroys the environment. Their use petered out after the 1920s as cost structures escalated and environmental controls made the method uneconomic. Haven’t heard of these machines being used in Australia and this is probably because of the large quantities of water required. Part of the experience here was doing some panning. Everyone was more or less guaranteed to ‘find’ some gold. We each got a small bag of gravel to wash, probably ‘salted’ with about $10 worth of gold. We dutifully found our gold and were then funnelled into a weighing room to ‘value’ it. We were then mined ourselves to put our small pile of gold into various styles of trinkets. The trinkets would have cost almost nothing and sold for a minimum of twice the ‘value’ of the gold. Some trinkets were like 10 times the ‘value’ of the gold. Quite a seductive little operation which got a fair few of us in. Written off by Allthego as an experience.
Then off onto the Chenna River for a riverboat cruise, along the way seeing some indigenous life experiences, dog sled racing and general river scenery. An interesting feature of the Chenna River is that it freezes over to a depth of 5 or more feet in winter. Locals take advantage of this and make winter short cuts across the river on ‘ice bridges’, more than one driver has stretched the season out and sank into a chilly thawing stream.
Fairbanks is really a stepping off place to explore the wilds of the north. We hired a car for the last couple of days and drove around a bit, managing to get to North Pole to check out Santa’s Christmas operations . Santa was winding up operations for the season and doing some renovations to his premises in time for the Christmas rush period. Enjoyed a Big Mac here at North Pole McDonalds, tasted much like Big macs taste at other places.
It is now time to leave Alaska and head south on Alaska Airlines to Seattle where the journey continues, in hopefully warmer weather. On this part of the journey the internet has proved fairly slow at times and the blog is behind a bit. We are now actually back in Vancouver, having come up by train from Seattle. Tomorrow we head to Houston to see Mitchell and Piper, will catch up the blog when we are there. Have to rise at 2 am to get to the airport for a 6 am getaway, so it is to be early to bed.