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.

Afternoon in Fairbanks

Should I start with a favorite memory and work backwards to the beginning of our trip to Alaska? Should I just highlight a few of our favorite sights in no particular order? I think I’ll take Lewis Carroll’s advice and begin at the beginning and go on until I reach the end.

We began our adventure in Charlotte with stops in Minnesota and Seattle. From Seattle, we flew into Fairbanks where a shuttle was waiting to take us to the Princess lodge. On the shuttle ride, the driver kept talking about the Northern lights and reported several sightings that evening, and when we arrived at our destination, there they were—green and ethereal moving clouds on the horizon.

To make sure we got the full effect, the driver steered the van around back and insisted that everyone pile out to take a better look. That, my friends, was my introduction to Alaska, and I knew I was going to love every moment of my stay there. Nearly every person we met was just as friendly and accommodating as this driver.

Too excited to sleep in, we awoke early the next morning to check out our environment. It was beautiful, especially the river walk behind the lodge. Around noon, we took a bus into Fairbanks and walked up and down some of the streets in the center of town.

One stop we particularly enjoyed was a park with a walkway along the Chena River. There was a unique “antler arch” leading to the walkway, and naturally we all took turns posing beneath it. We moseyed along enjoying the breeze, the yellow willow trees, and the gently flowing river. As we stood admiring a huge statue entitled “First Family,” I became aware of a woman in distress, alternately sobbing and shouting, sitting several yards away from us.

As I wondered what to do (if anything) to help her, music began wafting through the park, and nearby church bells began to peal. It was a memorable moment, especially when the limbs and leaves of the willow tree began to sway in the breeze. When I glanced at the suffering woman to see whether she had been affected by the sounds and sights, I saw that someone had joined her and was hugging her and speaking soothing words. My friend Deborah would call it a “God wink.”

We left the park and sauntered around going in and out of various shops. Spotting some huskies outside of a building, we began listening to their trainer and learned we were at the headquarters for the Yukon Quest, a 1,000 mile dog race between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon. Until that afternoon, I didn’t even know what a musher was. Soon I learned that many of them will begin this race, said to be the toughest dog sled race in the world, on February 6. Musher—now that’s a word.

Hungry from our sight-seeing, we stopped for some refreshment at the Fudge Pot, a downtown eatery recommended by a friend who had dined there many times. We loved it! The smell of delicious chocolate greeted our senses as we pushed open the door. We settled on dark chocolate walnut, but before we allowed ourselves even one sliver, we recharged our batteries with fish chowder and sandwiches.

With 45 minutes to spare before the bus arrived, we visited the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center. In a word: awesome. All of us especially enjoyed the museum aspects of the facility and came away with a renewed interest in the culture and people of the 48th state.

Politics, Travel, and Family

I’m thinking of changing the name of this blog to something that more aptly describes its purpose and focus. When I started it a decade or so ago, my primary role was that of a mom. While it’s still the one that I hold most dear, my life and the lives of my children have changed greatly. They’re all responsible adults who left the nest many years ago. Some of them have children of their own, so grandmother is a role I’ve acquired too.

Should the blog’s title be Grandma Jayne’s Musings? No, I think it’s time to come up with something that describes my life as a wife, mother, grandmother, writer, retired educator, truth seeker, traveler, and child of the universe. Musings of a Matriarch? No, that’s not it either.

Today, my thoughts are about the crazy political scene and a recent trip to Alaska. Never far from my mind are thoughts of the children and grandchildren, so they’ll likely get more than a nod in this post.

First, I think I’ll be glad when the election is behind us. I say “think” because it all depends on who wins. Which way will he or she lead this great nation? How will the next administration’s policies affect the average American’s life, livelihood, and pursuit of happiness?

Today I’m disturbed by the prancing about, the finger pointing, and well, just the ugliness of not just the folks who are vying for the title, but also of the news people who are supposed (or so I thought) to tell us the truth. It’s becoming increasingly hard to distinguish fact from fiction. And don’t even get me started on the average Joe or Jane who wastes no opportunity to “slash and burn” every contender with whom they disagree. I refuse to become contentious about this (at least today) and will leave the hate mongering to those who are better at it than I.

Next topic: recent trip to the 49th state of this great union. It’s always good to see something a little different from one’s regular surroundings, and as Mark Twain famously said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

There are so many ways to live and love and greet and meet, and we (I) tend to forget about that as we move about in narrow, but safe, spheres. At the moment, I’m recalling the dignity and sheer joie de vivre of an Athabascan woman who won the hearts of all who heard her words on a September afternoon on Primrose Ridge in Denali National Park. Her life, though different from yours and mine, has meaning and integrity.

I can’t end this post without mentioning my three children, especially since they’re the impetus behind Mom’s Musings. Their father and I are in awe of the adults they’ve become, and although this might seem strange to say, I feel confident in the knowledge that after their parents have left this life for the next one, these children will continue to find their way(s).

Topic for the next several days: Alaska! And by the way, I hope to find inspiration for a blog name change through my writing this week. Maybe you’ll offer suggestions.