It was a long weekend here in the Yukon (Discovery Day), so Jeff and I decided to take a quick trip to Alaska for one last cross border adventure before the border closes up here, mid September.
We left after work on Friday and went to Chicken, Alaska for the night. Chicken is a little town that exists for gold mining, with a recorded year round population of just 7 people. There is no phone service, no electricity, no cell towers, and no grocery store. But the people of Chicken have made the place into a real booming tourist stop. We arrived just as everything was closing up, but we had reserved a little cabin in the trees from The Chicken Gold Camp & Outpost.
The cabin had free firewood, a picnic table, and a fire pit, but it was a damp and rainy night so we stayed indoors. Our cabin had a king sized bed, a single bed, a chair, and a couple shelving units. There was no electricity or water but the outhouse wasn’t too far away, and I brought a couple movies on my laptop.
I had been in Chicken, Alaska when we originally came up here on vacation in 2014, but I hadn’t been all the way to Fairbanks.
My Fairbanks impressions:
- So many people. There are more people living in Fairbanks than living in all of the Yukon. Fairbanks has a population of around 32,000 with the outer boroughs bringing the population to 100,000. The Yukon only has 33,000 people in the whole territory.
- Doesn’t feel remote. For a city that is actually slightly north of Dawson City’s latitude, there is pavement, highways, every chain, movie theatres – really all modern conveniences, and transportation options. Compared to our quaint town, Fairbanks is living 100 years in the future.
- You don’t feel like you are in a northern city, until you look at prices. They were similar to here, and you notice the significant cost of freight in everything.
- Big military presence. The US army has Fort Wainwright there, and just outside of town is the Eielson Air Force Base. There must have been 50+ fighter jets and bombers on the tarmac.
In addition to shopping, I booked us a reservation on a couple touristy things. One was on the Riverboat Discovery. This tour was so well organized A+++
The Riverboat is modelled after the old style of sternwheeler riverboats that navigated the Chena River in Fairbanks, just like they did here in the Yukon River.
The same family has operated these boats since they were original modes of transportation. Now, just for tours, they are onto the Discovery III although the Discovery and Discovery II are also still on the river.
There were 2 sailings on Saturday. With 4 floors on the boat, they could fill it right up with cruise passengers who come to Fairbanks (and also Dawson City) by bus.
The tour starts off down the Chena River, and they have a bush pilot friend take off RIGHT beside off the boat, right off the river, and then he comes back and lands again. He calls in on the radio and you can hear him.
The entire three hour tour is narrated, but not by a recording! A man did a live commentary. There were also live video cameras, and TV, so if something was happening on one of the other 4 decks of the boat, or to one side or the other, they’d show it on the tv screens so you never missed a thing!
Then we stopped the boat beside Susan Butcher and her family’s dog kennel. Susan won the Iditarod 4 times! Unfortunately she died much too young from cancer. Her husband kept the kennel and now her daughter talks to the river boat tour. They wore mics on shore, and told us about having a team of dogs. They showed us some puppies, and then harnessed up a team to the powerless ATV and took them for a run!
The dogs took off in a cloud of dust pulling the ATV around the pond. While they were running, I took a picture of the sternwheel of the boat, which was actually functioning, not just for decoration! The sternwheel propels the boat, but there are also assistance thrusters for tight turn arounds in the river. (We turned twice, it was awesome!). The sternwheel isn’t driven by a wood powered steam system like the old river boats, but diesel instead.
And then the dogs were back! They were unharnessed, and all of them ran straight into the river to cool off and get a drink. It was an AMAZINGLY warm day, probably the nicest day of the entire summer, with the temperature in the mid-80’s (Fahrenheit while I’m in the USA!)
We cruised on, seeing some more nice houses and trees, while small bush planes were flying over. The Chena River is right by the airport, and Fairbanks is a supply hub for most remote communities and families living in northern Alaska.
Near where the Chena River flowed into the Tanana River, and where the boat turned around, we stopped at a recreated native Alaskan village. Summer students from native communities were employed on the boat, and got off the boat to teach us about their culture.
It was cute hearing a visitor telling her children that ‘no, no, they didn’t KILL the animals. They lived good long lives and when they died in the forest, then they were found.’ 🙂
Here are some freshly processed chum salmon drying from the salmon wheel (seen in the background). After they dry in the sun for a couple hours, they went in the smokehouse shown below. Chum salmon is a lesser grade of salmon, and is still used to this day to feed dog teams. They said they let chum salmon smoke for about 2 weeks.
Once back on the boat, Jeff got us a couple old Alaskan beers, and the staff prepared smoked salmon and cream cheese on crackers for everyone.
I’d highly recommend this tour. The same family has been running the tours since 1950 and have it well perfected!
When I was browsing touristy sites for ideas of things to do in Fairbanks, I saw mention of a kennel tour of Lance Mackey‘s Comeback Kennel, and it had stellar reviews, so I booked us in for a visit on Sunday.
There are some big dog sled kennels that are on the cruise ship passenger tour route, and have buses full of tourists stop by daily. We didn’t really want that experience. Instead, we went to the exact opposite.
Lance himself greeted us at his kennel. No one else around, just Lance, Jeff and I. Lance’s kennel is about 30 minutes from town, totally off the grid with a generator running, with a breathtaking view of Alaska.
Lance was “into” dogs his entire life. Lance’s dad co-created the Iditarod. Lance has won the Iditarod FOUR times, and he’s won the Yukon Quest FOUR times! Amazing feat for him and his dog teams! He’s also beat throat cancer, battled with infection and circulation issues in his fingers, lost a finger tip or two, and fought his own life battles. He is a down to earth guy, a bit shy, but proud of his dogs and of his work with his dogs.
Lance is pretty much what you see is what you get. He lives here in the woods. Doesn’t wear a watch. Doesn’t know what day it is. Just living life to the fullest with his dogs, girlfriend, and newborn child.
Lance showed us his puppies and talked about his breeding philosophies and puppy raising.
Here is another one of his retired dogs, with 3 more sleeping in the rear:
His 3 year old team that he’ll be running the 2017 Iditarod with, are in the front of the picture below. In the far rear he has an entire dog yard that he took in for the summer. He runs a boarding kennel, and for the most part the visitor dogs become just one of the pack. There were two enormous great danes staying with him, and they ran along side Lance’s dogs and other visiting dogs of all sizes.
He told us he likes his black big dogs the most and often uses them in his breeding plans.
Sometimes these dog yards can be so noisy, but his dogs really only barked when we drove into the yard and then if any of them got excited, they quieted down when Lance told them to. Most of them were just sleeping in the sunshine.
Lance really wants another win, but it feels like he wants it for his dogs, his sponsors, and his fans even more than himself. I can tell you one thing – he has two new fans in Dawson City that will be pulling for him!
If you want to read more about Lance, I really enjoyed this in-depth article:
Back to Dawson
Our drive home from Fairbanks was pretty uneventful, since it was mostly rainy and miserable. However we did see one really big Alaskan resident:
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a thicker moose!