Published: Jan/Feb 2004

Above: The Discovery II Riverboat prepares to take another full load of passengers on a trip.

Below Dexter Clark poses with Patricia Hagan of Vero Beach, Fla., at the El Dorado Mine Tour near Fairbanks.

Before You Go
Royal Caribbean will operate three ships and offer north and southbound itineraries between Vancouver and Seward this year, beginning in May. Pre- or post-cruise tours are available on each itinerary. See your AAA Travel agent for details. Travel Agency offices.

For Alaska visitor information, visit www.travelalaska.com or call (907) 929-2200.

Strike it rich
Alaska’s interior is as colorful as the folks who live in this great land.

Story and Photos by Deborah Reinhardt

Dexter Clark pulled a rawhide pouch out of his faded jeans pocket. Sitting on a bench in front of the store at El Dorado Gold Mine in Fairbanks, Alaska, he asks, “Want to see something?”

He empties six gold nuggets in various weights and shapes into his roughened hand. It’s hard to imagine why such valuable things are kept in his pocket. When asked why he carries this stash around, Clark replies, “That way, I always know where they are.”

Clark and his wife, Yolanda (also known as Yukon), have mined Alaska’s mountains for 25 years. She wears her prize gold nugget around her neck. Her fingers shine from the gold rings. “I’m going for gawdy,” she says with a hearty laugh.

Calling mining “the epitome of playing in mud,” Dexter estimates he’s mined 5,000 ounces of gold over the years.

Another visitor asks if he’s a millionaire and Clark smiles from behind his gray and white beard.

“No, my riches come from within,” he says with a wink.

The amazing Alaskan interior

So it is with the interior of Alaska, our 49th state. Rich in Alaska Native history, as well as gold mining lore and natural beauty, a tour of the interior should be included before or after a cruise.

As part of a Royal Caribbean International pre-cruise tour that included travel by motorcoach and the luxurious Wilderness Express train, I flew from St. Louis to Fairbanks, which celebrated its centennial last year. Evidence of mining history includes the Pedro Monument just outside Fairbanks. Felix Pedro was the Italian prospector who discovered gold north of Fairbanks in 1902.

Two attractions give a great overview of the area’s history–the El Dorado Gold Mine and Riverboat Discovery. The 2 1/2-hour riverboat tour travels on the Chena and Tanana rivers and includes stops at the Chena Indian Village, re-created on 25 acres of wilderness along the Tanana River.

Dixie Alexander, an Athabascan Indian, lives at the village in the summer and demonstrates wonderful skin sewing and beading talent. Some of her creations are kept at the village for visitors to examine. She is open to discuss the native traditions and her projects, which include a commission from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., to create an Athabascan chief’s jacket.

She received the call in 1997 and was given just four months to complete the garment.

“I worked on it all the time and carried it everywhere,” she says.

Another stop on the tour is Trailbreaker Kennel, owned by four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Susan Butcher and her husband, Dave Monson, also a champion dog musher. Butcher gives a brief talk to passengers while dozens of energetic sled dogs bark, jump and run around the yard.

The Iditarod is part of Alaska’s story. The Iditarod Trail, now a National Historic Trail, began as a mail and supply route from Seward and Knik to interior mining camps. In 1925, part of the trail was used for getting diphtheria serum to epidemic-stricken Nome.

Today, the Iditarod race is run over 1,150 miles from Anchorage to Nome in 10 to 17 days. More of the race’s history and facts are revealed to those who tour Goose Lake Kennel outside Denali National Park. Iditarod champion Jeff King, his wife, Donna, three daughters and 100 sled dogs make Goose Lake their home. It’s a rare chance to get a personal look inside this sport, and King makes visitors feel welcome.

He meets the Royal Caribbean tour with a couple of puppies in hand and within a few seconds, we’re snuggling, holding and petting these cuties. As darling as these puppies are, King reminds us they are bred to race while pulling a sled packed with 300 pounds of supplies.

Shawn Sidlinger, part of King’s crew, has run the race four times. He gives an in-depth explanation of what it takes to accomplish that feat.

“It’s grueling but it’s not athletic,” he says to our group. “The dogs are the athletes.

“They haven’t been chosen because they’re good at stopping. They expect me to hang on if I come with them. They think it’s kind of cool at the end of the day when I’m still there, ” he said.

The glory of Denali

Most of Alaska’s story is about meeting a challenge, from mushing through the Iditarod to climbing Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America at 20,320 feet and part of Denali National Park and Preserve. Two of the six million acres that are here comprise the park; the other acres are part of the preserve.

Bryan Burnett has spent 13 summers as a Denali tour guide. He calls Denali one of the most interesting ecosystems in the country. That seems to be an understatement. This place will take your breath away.

A 17-mile natural history tour through the park on a stripped-down school bus provides a look at some of the park wildlife, and two interpreters share some history. I’m spoiled by the posh motorcoach and train travel thus far, but generally, the park’s touring experience disappoints. Hopefully the National Park Service can work to improve what is for many a first look at this awesome landscape.

Inside the park, Alaskan Cabin Night dinner theater shares the stories of local historical characters with song, humor and plenty of food. The cast of characters included Fannie McKenzie Quigley and husband, Joe Quigley, both of whom mined gold in the area during the early 1900s. Harry Karstens, a miner and musher, became the park’s first ranger in 1921. He also worked as a guide for naturalist Charles Sheldon, who largely is responsible for creating Mount McKinley National Park in 1917.

Talkeetna

For those explorers who come to Alaska to climb Mount McKinley or Mount Foraker, Talkeetna is the staging area for mountaineers. For the rest of us, it’s the town that inspired fictional Cicely, Alaska, in the television series, “Northern Exposure.” Either way, it’s a precious town caught in a time warp populated by adventurers and artists.

Outdoor recreation is plentiful. Royal Caribbean had several opportunities for tours. Tributaries of the Talkeetna and Susitna rivers provide excellent sport fishing. A jetboat tour gets up-close to the flora and wildlife living on the riverbanks. Higher marks were given to the whitewater rafting trip, and those on the flightseeing excursions came back praising the experience.

In addition to outdoor recreation, the town is fun to explore. Souvenirs can be gleaned in the smattering of shops and galleries, including a fine art gallery called Wild North. Indulge yourself at the chocolate shop, specializing in European chocolates.

On to the big city

With a population of approximately 265,000, about 40 percent of Alaska’s residents live in Anchorage. It’s a clean coastal city that boasts good hotels, restaurants and cultural attractions, including the Alaska Native Heritage Center. For the short visit, some of our group opted to shop the urban mall. An excellent farewell dinner at the Glacier Brewhouse capped off this adventure.

The Wilderness Express was a wonderful way to travel through Alaska. The large windows and domed ceiling allows passengers to soak in majestic scenery. Service is first-class, food and drink is excellent. The touring coach meets train passengers at the stops, allowing travelers to leave luggage safely on the coach with the driver. It’s a nearly effortless way to travel.

From urban Anchorage to encounters with wilderness, the underlying theme to this week in Alaska centers in faith. Whether they came to Alaska’s interior to mine, farm or climb mountains that disappear into clouds, each individual brought faith in himself and a better life. If you’re planning a cruise, take the extra time to explore this mystical land.

Deborah Reinhardt is managing editor of AAA Southern Traveler magazine.

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