Would you know when to sleep if it never got dark? Even though Fairbanks is south of the Arctic Circle, the latitude where the sun doesn't set on the summer solstice, it has 70 days of civil twilight because of the refraction of the sun's light on the atmosphere. That means it's light enough for outdoor activities without artificial light from May 17 to July 28. For over a 100 years, the Midnight Sun baseball game, played entirely without artificial lighting, has been a tradition in Fairbanks. The opening pitch is at 10 p.m. with the sun shining throughout the game. Sunset is at 12:48 a.m. (Sunrise again at 2:57 a.m.)
We were there just a little past the July 28 mark, but there was never a time when the sky was totally dark - just enough darkness for the outdoor lights to come on. At first it seemed strange to see people out wandering around outside at all hours, but it didn't take us long to adjust. Most nights we were too tired to care and couldn't wait to close the drapes & hit the bed!
On this, our 3rd day of travel, we were on our way by 8 a.m.to the Riverboat Discovery for a 3-hour cruise on the Chena River, billed as "a ride into Alaska history". Sternwheelers, dog mushing and floatplanes were once the main means of transportation in Interior Alaska.
The steamboating tradition in the Binkley family goes to the Gold Rush Days of 1898 when the first family member came over the Chilkoot Pass with other stampeders. Instead of searching for gold, he became a river pilot and boatbuilder. His son followed in his footsteps, piloting freight on the Yukon and Tanana Rivers in the 1940s, a 2,000 mile trip, living with Native Alaskans, trappers, traders, miners, missionaries, prospectors and adventurers along the river. However, transportation systems changed as railroads and airplanes began to carry much of the freight. By the early 1950s the last of the steamboats was retired, and the Binkley family began a river excursion business with Discovery I. A larger boat, Discovery II, was put into service in 1971,and now there is Discovery III (1987) with the 5th generation of Binkleys involved.
Alaska is a huge state with more than 70% still not accessible by any kind of road, which means that aviation is a vital part of the transportation system. It is estimated that 1 in 60 Alaskans own planes, with the number in small remote villages typically 1 in 20. In wealthier communities it may be closer to 1 in 5. On the cruise we got to watch a bush pilot take off and land a small plane right next to our boat.
While dog mushing is no longer a primary means of transportation in Alaska and has been replaced with the snow machine or snow mobile, it is now considered Alaska's state sport. The cruise stopped at Trail Breaker Kennels, home of the late 4-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Susan Butcher and her husband, Dave Monson, also a champion. The Iditarod is a 1,000 mile race in March from Anchorage to Nome over mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundra in subfreezing temperatures with up to 3 weeks on the trail!
Dave and one of the senior handlers gave us a demonstration of the champion sled dogs in action. When we were in Alaska in 2003 and took this same cruise, Susan was still alive and greeted us there. This time we were there on the 12th anniversary of her death from leukemia on Aug 5, 2006.
Continuing down the river, we got off the boat at Chena Village, a replica of an Interior Alaska Native Village and fish camp between the Tanana and Chena Rivers. Although the rain didn't dampen our spirits, it did discourage us from spending a lot of time exploring. We did get a chance to watch sled dogs and their handler close up. It was fun to see all the big blue & white umbrellas provided for us opening up as we left the boat.
Returning to Steamboat Landing we had a family style lunch in the Discovery Dining Hall of hearty miner's stew, roasted vegetables, an apple pecan salad, freshly baked sourdough rolls and a brownie desert.
Since we had a little time to browse the gift shops before boarding the bus, Susie and I decided to experience what it feels like during an Alaska winter by trying the "Alaska at 40 Below" chamber. Brrrr! We were in less than a minute, but that was more than enough! It hurt to breathe!
After lunch our tour took us on a field trip to the University of Alaska Museum of the North. It is housed in a beautiful architecturally unique building and is full of interesting exhibits of Native culture and Alaskan history. However, some of us were too tired by that time to truly appreciate it.
The group then split up, part of the group going to the Botanical Gardens and the rest of us heading back to the hotel. Later some went out for a Thai dinner but we elected to have take out in our room and get ready for the VERY early day tomorrow.