Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Having a great day in Fairbanks

Today Helen and I took the Riverboat Discovery Tour and found it to be an exceptional production. We found it difficult to believe that it was sold out yesterday, I mean, way out here in the woods? Well, we were in for a surprise when we arrived at the parking lot and found bus after bus after bus of tour groups. I heard someone say they had to use both riverboats because they had way more than the 590 allowed on the big boat. It is a very popular attraction, and deservedly so.

The commentary along the route was excellent. Our captain was the grandson of the founders of the operation and his brother was the captain of the second boat. I stood just outside the wheelhouse while the boat was being maneuvered into the river and headed downstream. I was very impressed. The very young looking captain was very busy operating a whole array of controls and I was able to find out what they were later on. This riverboat is the same configuration as has been used for over 100 years, but it uses a lot of new technology. There is no steam engine. Instead there are two diesel engines connected to hydraulic systems that drive the paddle wheel and also two bow and two stern thrusters. It sounds complicated but it ran smoothly.

The boat was very clean and there were complimentary coffee, tea, and donuts on every deck. The donuts weren't very good so I only ate four. Everyone connected with the boat was personable and very polite. They also operated very well as a team getting ready to make way and also setting up later on to visit the Indian village. On the ride down the Chena River, there were a large number of beautiful log houses, both classic old ones and gorgeous new ones. I was surprised about the amount of glass on some of the new ones because of heat loss, but the commentator assured us that the thermopane windows there have 5 layers of glass to keep heat loss to a minimum.

Next, we saw a demonstration of a bush plane. In this case it was a Piper Super Cub of mid 1950s vintage. I was especially interested because it's the same plane I initially took flying lessons in 46 years ago. This was a float plane, but the color scheme was identical. I was surprised how little distance it needed to take off and later a landing was done in a short distance. The bush pilots often have to operate out of small lakes and streams.

Further down river we saw a presentation of sled dogs used in the Iditarod Dog Sled race. This particular team is owned by the daughters of Susan Butcher, the Cambridge, Ma woman who moved to Alaska and won four races in five years. Although Susan has passed, her daughters are carrying on. They had he most beautiful team dogs that you could find. Surprising to me is that they were not the huskeys and malamutes that one usually connects with dog sleds. Huskeys and such are used for short distance, heavy loads. The new breed is small and light and capable of keeping up a grueling pace for mile after mile. They are not only able, but excited to pull the sled. Our demonstration used the team of dogs to pull a four wheel all terrain vehicle. Tethered to the cart, they were jumping all around in excitement, and when the command was given to mush.........boy did they mush. They ran quite a distance as we waited for them to make the run along the trail, but they were moving even faster at the end than they were at the beginning. When they stopped and were let off the trace, they all made a mad dash for the river.

The last major production was landing at a replica Athabasca Indian settlement. Our guides were two pretty native Athabasca Indian maidens who presented the program flawlessly. Foolishly, I thought the presentation was about a past way of life, but the reality is that this is a reproduction of the Indian villages further away from civilization. One girl told us that the cabin in front of us was nearly identical to those used by her family further north. The difference is that now they have electricity, modern plumbing, and in many cases satellite TV. Many of their peers are away to college in the winter, but return to the age old village life to help their families. The processing of salmon is a daily ritual, drying enough salmon to feed the families and the dogs throughout the long winter. Each dog needs one dried salmon a day and there are a lot of dogs per family so it's a heck of a lot of salmon that is taken.

There were all kinds of hides that were shown, moose, bear, caribou, wolf, fox, and many more. I asked our main guide if she might identify an animal we saw yesterday on the Dalton Highway. When I explained that it looked like a jet black fox with a white tipped tail. She didn't hesitate and told me that it was a gray fox. She said that the fur is so beautiful that she wished they had one on display. Being me, I told her I thought the fur looked better on the animal.

Now for some pictures.

Here is the great musher and his mushette! This dog is fake, but later they had the swing dog (right behind the lead dog) from the team that won the Iditarod Race this year.

This is Discovery II, the older, smaller paddle wheel riverboat used by the company.

The presentation of sled dogs. I have video, but I had trouble uploading to You tube.

Here are some of the dogs that just completed a long run pulling the ATV. Do you think there might be some Lab mixed in there?

The above picture is one kind of portable shelter that the Indians might use. The cover is made of Caribou skins because of their light weight and superiority in providing warmth.

This would be a typical log cabin used by the family of the girl modeling the parka. Log walls chinked with moss. Sod roof over spruce poles provides good insulation from the cold.

This magnificent parka was really something special. Made from many kinds of furs for style as well as function. The brown fur nearest the face is wolverine, used because oils in the fur prevent frost from forming near the skin.

Helen and I have been traveling for many years, now, and this has got to be one of the highlights. It was so well prepared and so very interesting. We have seen much on television and magazines about the American Indians of the past, but this is the story of the North American Indians as some live today, beyond the reach of what we call civilization. Except, of course, for those with satellite TV. We both believe that anyone who comes anywhere near the Fairbanks should definitely make this part of their vacation plans. Plus, if you get the Alaska saver coupon book, it's less than $30.00 per person.


  1. The riverboat was not part of our plans, but we may have to add it. I hope Jodie & Coco weren't too jealous of the dog in the sled! LOL!

  2. What a great tour and you pictures are great, This will have to be on the agenda of our someday Alaska tour, Be safe out there. Sam & Donna. Also Rigg's

  3. What a great trip bet its hard to top each day.

    My list is so long now we need to move up our time line. Thanks for the up date.

  4. Several of Susan Butcher's dogs died in the Iditarod in her effort to gain fame and fortune. One of the dogs used by Butcher in the 1994 Iditarod died from exertional myopathy, otherwise known as "sudden death syndrome." Another dog used by her dropped dead in 1987 from internal hemorrhaging. Several were injured and killed by moose. For the dogs, the Iditarod is a bottomless pit of suffering. Six dogs died in the 2009 Iditarod, including two dogs on a doctor's team who froze to death in the brutally cold winds. What happens to the dogs during the race includes death, paralysis, frostbite (where it hurts the most!), bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, broken bones, torn muscles and tendons and sprains. At least 142 dogs have died in the race.

    During training runs, Iditarod dogs have been killed by moose, snowmachines, and various motor vehicles, including a semi tractor and an ATV. They have died from drowning, heart attacks and being strangled in harnesses. Dogs have also been injured while training. They have been gashed, quilled by porcupines, bitten in dog fights, and had broken bones, and torn muscles and tendons. Most dog deaths and injuries during training aren't even reported.

    Iditarod dog kennels are puppy mills. Mushers breed large numbers of dogs and routinely kill unwanted ones, including puppies. Many dogs who are permanently disabled in the Iditarod, or who are unwanted for any reason, including those who have outlived their usefulness, are killed with a shot to the head, dragged, drowned or clubbed to death. "Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don't pull are dragged to death in harnesses......" wrote former Iditarod dog handler Mike Cranford in an article for Alaska's Bush Blade Newspaper.

    Dog beatings and whippings are common. During the 2007 Iditarod, eyewitnesses reported that musher Ramy Brooks kicked, punched and beat his dogs with a ski pole and a chain. Jim Welch says in his book Speed Mushing Manual, "Nagging a dog team is cruel and ineffective...A training device such as a whip is not cruel at all but is effective." "It is a common training device in use among dog mushers..."

    Jon Saraceno wrote in his March 3, 2000 column in USA Today, "He [Colonel Tom Classen] confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens.. Or dragging them to their death."

    During the race, veterinarians do not give the dogs physical exams at every checkpoint. Mushers speed through many checkpoints, so the dogs get the briefest visual checks, if that. Instead of pulling sick dogs from the race, veterinarians frequently give them massive doses of antibiotics to keep them running. The Iditarod's chief veterinarian, Stu Nelson, is an employee of the Iditarod Trail Committee. They are the ones who sign his paycheck. So, do you expect that he's going to say anything negative about the Iditarod?

    The Iditarod, with all the evils associated with it, has become a synonym for exploitation. The race imposes torture no dog should be forced to endure.

    Margery Glickman
    Sled Dog Action Coalition,