Thursday morning dawned covering Delta Junction in a thick layer of fog. We fuelled up and headed north on the Richardson Highway the 90 odd miles to Fairbanks. Around 20 miles north of Delta we managed to break free of the fog but the day was grey and drizzly all the way north – pretty app that it was turning cold as our first stop was the town of North Pole – 15 miles south of Fairbanks. North Pole is Alaska’s version of Santa’s hide-away. He stands proud and tall at the North Pole Visitor Centre – it’s more a Xmas gift shop. You can get post cards stamped with North Pole here, and of course you can sit on Santa’s knee. All the roads and streets in the town have an Xmas theme – St Nicholas Drive, Santa Claus Lane, Mistletoe Drive and more. From there it’s another 15 mins and you reach Fairbanks – the south side of the city is dominated by Fort Wainwright Army Post (just south of North Pole you have Eielson Airforce Base – I noted F-16 and F-35 fighters preparing to take off in the grey drizzle).
Fairbanks is known as the Golden Heart City – so named due to the gold found in the surrounding hills in the early 1900’s. The establishment of Fairbanks is interesting – an opportunist by the name of Barnette wanted to get into Central Alaska to supply those heading out for gold. He common dared a river boat captain to take him up the Chena River as far as he could – when they could go no further the captain kicked them off the boat and Barnette established his trading post there – renaming it a few years later to Fairbanks – a Vice President. We got ourselves downtown to the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Centre – a really nice facility where we spent some time looking at historic information and displays. Having studied up on the local area and found out some info on the local Indian tribe – the Athabaskan, we had a walk around downtown before heading out to our accommodation – the large Wedgewood Complex. An added bonus at the Wedgewood is the nature reserve they have established so we have a wander around the man-made lake and surrounding area. Another bonus is the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum – hard to believe I know, but I didn’t actually partake in what the museum had to offer – a conscious choice, but I hear it is very good.
On Friday we headed out – I dropped the girls off to have a wander around ‘down town’ and I headed out to Pioneer Park which is a large and popular facility. I wanted to have a look around the aviation museum, but unfortunately the facility was all closed up around a week earlier – someone had made the call the winter was on its way, and a lot of things get closed up / battened down for the winter. I was able to have a look some of the static displays in the park – one of the larger ones is the SS Nenana paddle steamer – they claim it is the second largest all wooden boat still in existence – was pretty big. I headed back into town to find the girls experience of ‘down town’ was pretty limited, so we headed off for the afternoon to do the Riverboat Discovery excursion. The Binkley family have been plying their trade on the Chena River for something like 90 years – they are now on Discovery 3 which can carry something like 900 passengers / tourists. The skipper / captain these days is the grand daughter of the original Binkley family. Like most things in Fairbanks, the cruise excursion only had a couple more days to run before being moored up for the winter – apparently the river completely freezes over in the next month or so. On the excursion they arranged for a float plane to take off and land around the steamer – the pilot talked about the floats being replaced with skis for the winter months – he will take off and land on the river ice moving forward.
The riverboat (which only needs about 4 feet of water to operate despite its size) moves up the Chena River to the convergence with the Tanana River (same track Barnette had taken almost 120 years earlier). Along the way you pull up at the Dog Mushing base of Dave Monson. Dave and his former wife Susan Butcher who died of cancer in 2006, were champion dog mushers – Susan is famous for being the only woman to win the gruelling Iditarod Dog Mushing race 4 times – defying believers that a woman could win this race (the Iditarod is famous for being an 1100 mile mush across Alaska and into the Yukon of Canada). Dave honours his wife by maintaining a very strong dog mushing kennel – the riverboat pulls up alongside their property and Dave talks about the training techniques they adopt to breed champion dogs – very impressive. From there the riverboat runs up the Chena to where it meets the Tanana, where it turns around and heads back up river to the Chena River Athabaskan Village. Some of the team on the boat explain and demonstrate some of the traditional ways of the Athabaskan and how they would have lived in the area. Some of the furs and garments they had were stunning. The team took us around the village – some of the mushing dogs were there, huts were open to view, and there were a group of large Caribou to take in – was well done. After a time the boat whistle sounded and it was back on the boat for the final steam back up the river with the accompaniment of Binkley family’s smoked salmon – the samples were very nice. In all the excursion took 3 hours – and despite it being a cool grey day, it was very well done.
Saturday dawned cooler again – the temperature gauge on the car hovered around 37 Fahrenheit most of the morning (less than 4 degrees). We got on the road early and headed out of Fairbanks to get south to the Denali National Park. We were aware that we may have left our run a little late getting up to Denali as the park closes in late September, but we set out with optimism. The run down to Denali village took us a bit over 2 hours and then it’s a short run from the village into the park (you follow the Parks Highway south). We reached the park around 10am and whilst it was grey and drizzly we did hope to get as far as the 30 mile gate (the farthest private vehicles are allowed to run year round – during the summer season you can drive to Mile 15 and then have to board the park bus to travel through to around Mile 65 – we were told the bus trip can take around 8 hours). By the time we had a bit of a look around the info centre and talked to the ranger, she advised that the weather was packing in and the road was now closed at Mile 15. We headed off hoping to see some wild life but all we got was snow – which in itself was very nice, but by the time we reached the gate the snow was very steady – not a problem for all the pick ups and SUV’s but our Prius was a bit lower to the ground. We had a good look around but weren’t able to see any animals at all. We trekked back down – once we dropped back down to around mile mark 5, we were below the snow. We headed out of the park a bit disappointed – we had planned to spend the day seeing wild life everywhere.
Once back on the highway it was a solid 3 – 3.5 hour run down to Talkeetna where we were staying. Our new friends Sandra and Loomy have a very nice AirBnB house in the village of Talkeetna (14 miles inland from the main highway). We were very fortunate to be able to stay at their lovely place – they live and are developing 80 acres out of town and are building an eco-home off the grid – it’s a labour of love – it’s been 5-7 years in the making so far between stints down in Antarctica, and they have a couple more years work ahead of them but the sounds of it. A bonus of the AirBnB home is the wood burner – Carol was very happy to get the fire going and curl up near it for the evening. On Sunday we had a quieter day – we had a look around ‘down town’ – which consists of touristy type shops and eating / drinking establishments. Talkeetna was established as a mining and trading post at the junction of the 3 rivers – the Talkeetna, Susitina and Chulitna Rivers and the little town is considered the ‘base camp for adventure’ being a key stop on the way to or from Denali National Park. Having had a good look around – the town has a couple of good vantage points to take in Mt Denali if it’s showing (there’s a good tee shirt around that refers to the 30% club – supposedly only around 30% of people get to clearly see Denali – we were amongst the lucky ones). Having studied town, Netty took the opportunity to do a scenic flight out and around Denali National Park and timed it well weather wise and got some great views. Carol and I headed out to see Sandra and Loomy’s rural property and enjoyed a really nice catch up with them.
Sandra and Loomy’s ‘adopted son’ Jeremy was visiting from Anchorage and very kindly offered us a lift south to Anchorage the following day so that worked out very well for us. We have a real nice catch up with them all before heading back in to hear all about Netty’s flight. She’d had a great experience – flight was supposed to be an hour but they ended up being up for over 1 ½ hours. Sunday evening was spent keeping an eye out for the aurora – Carol wants for nothing more to see the northern aurora in all’s its splendour. Although the sky was clear, no defined aurora was experienced – not yet anyway. On Monday morning we woke to a nice cool but clear morning and headed down to the river lookout and were rewarded with great views of the Denali mountain range. From there we had to get back and clean up the house before heading out to Sandra and Loomy’s to link with Jeremey for the ride back to Anchorage. We had a great ride south – an area at the south end of Talkeetna had been badly affected by bad fires in the last couple of months – its impact was very clear from the road. Jeremy played a great host pointing out key sites and keeping us entertained as we worked our way south. He dropped us off at our hotel near the airport – and we said our goodbyes. Carol and I took the opportunity to go and have a good look around Lake Hood – the local Seaplane base. There are around 1000 aircraft that use this area – many of them float planes. We stopped to see planes land and take off on the lake – very cool. We enjoyed a really nice meal out – thank you again Netty for that, before retiring for an early start Tuesday.
Tuesday morning has us checking in at the airport early for a 7am flight to Seattle – our time in Alaska draws to a close. We have really enjoyed our time here and would be keen to come back for more of what is on offer. The sights and sounds have been great as has the hospitality we have been shown. There’s loads more here to see and do, but unfortunately that will have to wait for another time – thanks Alaska.