Alaska and the Yukon, 2003

Part1: Anchorage and Fairbanks

Alaska and the Yukon, our holiday destination for 2003.
A (re)visit to, what is known as, "The Last Frontier" !

British Airways brought us, via London (where we experienced the horrors of Terminal 4: BA has an excellent in-flight product, but their groundhandling at London is a shambles) to Seattle. We arrived at SEA with 3 hours delay, but Alaska Airlines could accommodate us on a later flight and under cover of darkness we arrived at our destination, Anchorage.
Weather in Alaska is very unpredictable and can differ from day to day; we had here 2 days of rain and one day (in between) of clear blue skies and sunshine.

Prices for hotel accommodation are high in Alaska and we found a good alternative in staying at Bed & Breakfast places. In ANC we stayed with "Airport Bed & Breakfast".
The concierge was a very interesting person, Orlando, from Colombia; he had lived and worked all over the world and told fascinating tales of his travels. This place is located near the airport, but noise of departing or arriving planes did not keep us awake.


Next to the international airport is Lake Hood situated; this lake is chock-a-bloc with small planes on floats. Planes arrive and depart continiously, it seems busier than the big airport next to it….
Planes play an important part in Alaska. There are few roads in Alaska and many people depend on planes like these for their grocery shopping. Socalled "flightseeing" is a growing industry, with tourists taking a scenic flight to e.g. a glacier (some even land on it !). One can also book a lodge, to enjoy Alaska's remoteness or go fishing or hunting, and the only way to get there is by plane.

Anchorage is not a beautiful town, but it's a practical place to start. We bought camping equipment at REI and we browsed bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders. But this is a place I can recommend: Title Wave, secondhand bookstore. It is on Northern Lights Boulevard and they have a large selection of books. There is also an internet café.

Meanwhile we had found out that my triple-band cellular phone (from the Netherlands) was useless in Alaska, which was a bummer as I had promised to keep in close contact; but the phone cards proved to be a good alternative, as long as I stayed in places with a phone at hand.


From Anchorage we took the road north. We drove through Wasilla, which has a bland, run-of-the-mill selection of restaurants, gasstations, motels, stores, malls, etc. But north of town one can find the Transportation Museum, which has a fascinating selection of trains, planes, busses, cars and (except for the planes) they all seem to be modified for use on rail, dealing with the bizar winter conditions…. We found our visit here very entertaining.

Wall Mart ? No: Wal Mike's… But he's got loads of stuff for sale and prices are modest. I limited myself to a snickers bar and a tie pin, but browsing was very amusing.
It's a long drive from Wasilla to Fairbanks and a stop like this is very welcome. We had plenty of rain and there was also a lot of road (re)construction going on, which delayed us quite a bit.

Wow, wildlife ! .
Well, almost: a domesticated reindeer…
One had to pay a dollar to make a picture, but we got all the info we wanted and it was nice to get up close. It was distressing to learn that a baby reindeer had been killed by the "dog" next door (which was 50% wolf, so it followed its instincts, but still…).

I stem from a densely populated country, where things are (mostly) neat and tidy; as a result I am fascinated by disgarded carwrecks and abandoned fuelpumps (of which we see more later)…. These wrecks seem to fit in the countryside, abandoned, without making the place a mess; probably because there is so much space, they vanish in the wide open wilderness.
We'll be seeing more of those "abandoned cars" later.

Fairbanks has more cultural items to visit, compared to Anchorage. The riverboat cruise is quite nice, although I found it a bit too much "Disney"; but perhaps that is my European view on the proceedings being a bit too slick and the obvious acted spontaneity.
Fortunately, the weather had cleared a little, but from the boat we witnessed the flooding of most gardens along the river.

Riverboat "Discovery" passed this breeding farm for sleddogs; when the boat arrived the dogs started yelping, knowing very well that it was time to perform and some would get the opportunity to demonstrate their running abilities. Later on we could disembark on another locations and talk to someone who actually participated in the Iditarod races; this conversation was frank and informative.

During our 5 day in Fairbanks we stayed with "AAAA Care" B&B, which we quite enjoyed (seriousl breakfast, internet connection).

University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) has a fantastic museum.
Since it rained most days during our 5 day stay at Fairbanks, this was an excellent way to spend a few hours. The museum offers a learning experience about the diversity of Alaska Native peoples. The main exhibition area is divided into five regional galleries representing the major ecological regions of Alaska. Each gallery highlights the distinct natural and cultural history of these regions. There is also a large exhibit about the Alaska Pipeline. One of the most fascinating exhibits I found to be the 36,000-year-old mummified Alaska steppe bison (Bison priscus). Gold miners discovered Blue Babe in 1979 and donated it to the Museum.
See for yourself with this link to University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) Museum
The fact that it rained so much here was exceptional: during the weekend fell so much rain, an equivalent to one-third of a normal summer season... Flood warnings everywhere.

More rain, so more musea... It was called Alaskaland in 1995, but we did not visit it then. Now it is called Pioneer Park and better than we expected. Not many people around during our visit, perhaps because of the rain.
At the Pioneer Museum you get a taste of Frontier Alaska, where Sourdoughs carved a livelihood from the wild, beautiful, and sometimes harsh land. Preserved and displayed here are artifacts and photos demonstrating their hard work, daily life, and recreation. Among the many exhibits are prospecting- and mining tools and equipment. There are dog sleds, snowshoes, horse-drawn sleds and stages on display; and sternwheeler mementoes, period household goods reveal facets of home life plus a variety of medical, engineering, legal and other professional materials... Almost too much to list here !
But to fully be able to understand the rush for gold, I recommend a visit to "The Big Stampede Show" ! It vividly displays the rigors of the harsh Gold Rush trails. This dramatically lighted 45 minute presentation, illustrated by fifteen enormous oil paintings by famed Alaskan artist C. R. "Rusty" Heurlin and narrated by Poet Laureate Ruben Gaines, shows the hardships of the search for gold and the subsequent settlement of the future Forty-ninth State.

This 44-acre historic walk-through theme park was created in 1967 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of US territorial status. Admission is free and the park is open year-round. There are small shops, food, entertainment and the many exhibits include a gold mine, a gold rush town, a recreated Native Village and square dance hall.
I very much liked the Pioneer Air Museum, telling the tale of Alaska's rich aviation history and "bush plane" flying.
But rivers and ships have played at least an equally important and historical role in opening up these northern territories...
This Riverboat Nenana was built in 1933 for the Alaska Railroad. During it's 21 year active life, it hauled passengers and freight on the Yukon River in Interior Alaska. The 300 ton boat is 230 feet long and is the second largest wooden-hull vessel in existence. After laying dormant in the Chena River for several years, it made one final voyage. In October 1966, this tired, worn-down ship, traveled several miles, negotiating sand bars and diked channels to its final resting place. Extensive restoration was completed in 1992 and on July 12th of that year, she was officially dedicated as a National Historic Landmark. Her cargo hold now houses the Tanana/Yukon Rivers Historic Diorama which graphically tells the story of the riverboat's mission along the interior river system. 22 towns, villages, and settlements along her route have been recreated in incredible detail. Visit the "Last Lady of the River" and learn how the great riverboats helped build the Great Land.
Pity though, that while so much effort has been put into the restoration of this magnificent river vessel, it was leaking dramatically from the rain ! On various places rot was to be seen and further neglect will see the need of another restoration, in due course. But go and see those diorama displays

These detailed displays portray the isolated communities and are true replica's of how villages have looked at one time or another.

Pioneer Park, Fairbanks

Through my interest in vintage transports, I have come in contact with various operators and on this trip I managed to get a ride up north. It was a unique opportunity to visit the "North Slope", north of the Brooks Range. We landed at Ivotuk and Inagok.
Up here is a lonely world... We delivered fuel for oil exploration helicopters, because the oil exploration people are not allowed to travel overland on the easily damaged tundra. That changes during the wintertime, when a solid layer of snow and ice protect it from the vehicles.
This airstrip was deserted, except for a biologist and his wife, studying an environmental project for the San Diego State University. They welcomed the opportunity for some conversation.
The flight with this 1944-vintage DC-4 was a memorable one. The fact that a plane of this age is still making a living and is very well suited for the task at hand, I find absolutely wonderful !
Ivotuk, atlas
Research at Ivotuk

While we left Fairbanks with blue skies and sunny weather, we encountered quickly deteriorating weather here, after less than 2 hours flying. There was quite a strong wind blowing over the open terrain, bringing in clouds and sheets of rain. The ever changing light and the fast moving clouds reminded me of scenes in the "Lord of the Rings"-movie.
The tent is the acommodation for the biologist and his wife. When they arrived in May, they had to dig in 6 feet of snow, to get this tent set up ! During spring they worried about the bears passing by, but there were no incidents. The study had to be done away from any communities, to be reliable. The stay was to last to september, quite a camping trip...

From Fairbanks we drove the Steese Expressway north to the "El Dorado Gold Mine", located near a small mining community called Fox.

Originally, El Dorado was a claim developed by the "Swede Brothers"; there are mine shafts on the property dating back to the early 1900s. Nearby, it was Felix Pedro who ultimately struck it rich and fame of his strike brought the stampeders from the Klondike to Barnette's Landing, now known as Fairbanks, on the Chena River.

Twice a day a little train ("Tanana Valley Railroad") takes the tourists on the property and during the little ride, a permafrost tunnel is shown and explained plus some other mining facts. The photo was taken from the train and panning for gold was demonstrated here.
After having disembarked from the train, the workings of a sluice box was demonstrated. And everybody got an opportunity to wash some paydirt. It really resulted in some goldflakes ! But that goldpanning is not as easy as it looks, I can tell you that.
And just like it was with the original golddiggers, most people spent it right away... in the giftshop !

External Links:
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Anchorage Daily News
Alaska's Digital Archive

Click on the Yukon flag to follow my travels to the goldfields of the Yukon: Part 2




Last updated 13.2.2006