Striking It Rich at Gold Dredge 8

I’m wearing my gold-filled pendant on its delicate silver chain today. Yes, you read correctly—gold-filled pendant. There are flecks, not nuggets, in the tiny round pendant, but still, the jewelry is special because of the memories it conjures up, memories of a cool, overcast afternoon in the 49th state.

We’d spent the morning on the Chena River, and lunch behind us, we clambered aboard the tour bus to head towards our next excursion. Before the afternoon ended, we’d have walked beneath the Alaska Pipeline, also referred to as TAPS (Trans Alaska Pipeline System), and panned for gold. The girls would be taking home some gold-filled treasures. When I say “girls,” I’m referring to pretty much every female on the excursion.

As soon as we disembarked and headed towards the Pipeline, we could see that the people already assembled were paying rapt attention to the speaker. Dressed in black from his hat to his boots, the presenter shared a number of facts with his listeners, including the tidbit that the Pipeline provides revenue to help operate schools and that Alaska citizens receive a check from its profits each year. Designed to move oil from Alaska’s north slope to Valdez, the 800-mile Pipeline is a marvel of construction.

Next we got on an open-sided train that was a replica of the Tanana Valley Railroad. While we waited for the train to get going, a musician entertained us by playing the guitar and playing “Ring of Fire.” Within a few moments, the train rolled down the tracks to Gold Dredge 8, a popular and historical attraction, where we learned how the dredge worked the gold fields. According to the literature, Gold Dredge 8 extracted millions of ounces of gold from the frozen Alaskan ground and today serves as a monument to the miners who built Fairbanks.

After a presentation on the history of Gold Dredge 8, we piled off the train and were handed small bags of what appeared to be dirt. Little did we know there would be actually smithereens of gold hidden in the dirt. Friendly employees clad in plaid shirts gave the gold diggers (us) a demonstration of exactly how to pan for gold by using the warm water in the troughs in front of us. After striking it rich, we deposited our tiny nuggets into a plastic receptacle and headed to the huge rustic building close by.

The building contained a number of gift shops and a jewelry kiosk (?) set up to measure our gold. Delighted to learn that we had enough specks to preserve in a pendant, most of the women walked over to one of the gift shops to check out our options. Choices included pendants and earrings of various sizes and designs. I chose a “plain Jane” version, but my traveling buddies got something a little more embellished.

While wandering in and out of the various shops, most people sipped on complimentary hot chocolate, coffee, or water as they munched on delicious freshly baked cookies. My personal favorite was chocolate oatmeal raisin.

Fortified by our snacks, we boarded the railway car and listened to a gentleman play the fiddle and sing “You Are My Sunshine.” Many of us joined in the singing, and I knew that I’d always recall that beautiful afternoon just “a singing” beside Gold Dredge 8. Seeing the staff lined up with smiles and goodbye waves added the perfect ending to the afternoon.

Back at the lodge, eight of us later met for salmon chowder, cheeseburgers, and meatloaf. To be honest, the food was mediocre to be so expensive. My chowder was thick, muddy, and lukewarm (even after it was reheated). My husband still talks about his $4.50 scoop of chocolate ice cream and is planning a trip to Cold Stone Creamery in Myrtle Beach ASAP.

Everyone hit the sack early that night, excited with the knowledge that we’d be heading to Denali the next morning.

Along the Chena

On the second day in Fairbanks, it was up at at ’em pretty early. Our bus driver, Benjamin, was outside waiting to take us to our first destination, a port a few miles away where we ‘d board a riverboat and cruise down the Chena River. It was cold for those of us with Southern blood, so Jeanita and I found it necessary to shop for some warm clothing in a gigantic gift shop. We each bought olive green vests with AK written on the front left. Call us Plain Janes; we didn’t want bears or moose emblazoned on our clothing–not that day, not yet.

The “All Aboard” summons came all too quickly, and we queued up to board the Coral Princess steamboat. Once on board, some of us climbed to the top deck for a better look at everything. It was chilly, yes, but some of the cold was assuaged by the free hot beverages and donuts served at the prow of the ship.

The scenery on both sides was breathtaking, and I was again reminded of how many ways there are to live our time on Earth. Some people live in high rise apartments and rarely see a single tree. Others live in dense rain forests and have never tasted a Coke or heard of a vest. Along the Chena, inhabitants live in all types of structures, some elaborate and others rustic and suited to the surrounding taiga forest, riverfront, and brutal winters. Anticipating tourist questions about the varying architectural styles, the captain remarked that as long as a house met code, the owners could build whatever style or shape of house they wanted.

We soaked it all in. There was so much to savor and absorb that I almost missed the demonstration of a small floatplane! While all was grand, There are three specific river memories that will stick with me: Susan Butcher’s husband training dogs, the scenic nature at the turnaround point, and the visit to a fishing village.

Remember Susan Butcher? She was an American dog musher, “noteworthy as the second woman to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1986, the second four-time winner in 1990, and the first to win four out of five sequential years.” (Wikipedia) Unfortunately, Susan died of breast cancer in 2006, but her husband, also a musher, continues to operate Trail Breaker Kennel along the Chena, and he treated the boat folks to comments and a demonstration of the dogs on a training run around the lake.

Not long after enjoying the energetic and noisy dogs, we reached a turnaround point  where the captain took a slow turn, allowing the passengers to take sone gorgeous shots. Although I took several, the deck was too crowded with avid photographers to capture as many views as I wanted.

On the return trip, the captain slowed down a few moments so that we could listen to a lecture and demonstration by a young Alaskan woman about catching and processing fish. A few minutes later, we disembarked at the Chena Fishing village and were privileged to see caribou, learn how to treat furs, and watch some huskies being “put through the paces.” It was a magical morning that ended all too soon but not before we had someone snap our photograph beside the Chena.

Back on the boat, we headed to the port for a hearty lunch and more shopping. Everyone gathered in a huge dining hall to savor beef stew, salad, bread, potatoes, and chocolate cake.the efficiency and quality of the entire experience was amazing!

Lunch behind us, we browsed through the gift shop, and my husband found a few treasures. Since ours was the last tour of the season, prices were reasonable.

With memories of a beautiful morning along the Chena and a fortifying lunch, we once again climbed aboard the tour bus, this time headed for gold. Stay tuned to learn of our gold panning experience and the treasures we brought home.