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North to Alaska - Full Version - Day 33 (June 18)

Friday - The Large Animal Research Station was closed Fridays so we continued on to Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge where we looked at Sandhill Cranes and more colorful wildflowers, and dodged mosquitoes. We continued our efforts to keep Alaska solvent when Margaret bought her 4th tee-shirt of the trip. That afternoon we all went aboard for the Riverboat Discovery Tour on the Chena River. The professional banter explaining the scenery and history coming from the boat's LOUD speakers kept our heads pivoting, trying to see everything along the way.

A local bush-pilot demonstrated a float-plane take off, circled low over the boat and then very smoothly settled back to his pier. There were elegant mansions, and piecemeal shacks. Our captain blasted the ship's horn every time we saw anybody on the shore and they would obediently wave. We waved back.

We paused at Susan Butcher's dog training headquarters along the river's edge for a visit and demonstration. Susan (a repeat winner of the famous Iditarod Trail dog sled race) was away but her protege (rookie of the year) explained (via radio-headset to the ship speakers) the breeding and raising of sled dogs. After we "awwwwed" at her adorable puppies, she hitched some adult dogs to an ATV and they flew around a short oval course near the water. It was amazing to see how eager the dogs were to run. They barked and hauled against their restraints trying to get chosen for a sled hook-up. One big black and white dog jumped continuously up and down as if he were on springs. Those unlucky ones not chosen lay down and watched, as if sulking, while the vehicle whizzed around, carrying two adults. After they finished, the pullers were loosed to happily mill about, cooling off. Some actually jumped into the river.

We passed the ex-governor's house where (we were told proudly) Ronald Reagan, the first president to visit Alaska since Harding, stayed when he met with the Pope. Now the ex-governor lives in a converted railroad freight car on a corner of the property. Hmmmm. Further along, the Tanana River, full of silt-laden glacier water, met our clear Chena River, creating a dramatic color contrast.

Then a reconstructed native fish camp appeared along the river's edge, complete with a water-current-powered fish trap, racks of drying fish, a raised cache and roughhewn dwellings, and a table where a native woman was fileting salmon. As we cleared the camp the woman jumped into an outboard-motor-driven, zodiac-type small boat and zoomed ahead of us to the other shore and a native village site. We disembarked there and were guided through various areas where Athabascan girls explained village life-style. There were corralled reindeer, examples of beautifully prepared hides and furs, a rare fragile-looking birch bark canoe, various types of shelters, gardens and a large enclosure containing sled dogs. The lady from the fish camp (Dixie Alexander) turned out to be one of the clothing artists. (Her work is so highly prized that some of it is on display at the Smithsonian.)

In the sled-dog arena the "rookie of the year" talked about the important role of the dogs in the lives of the natives. (The natives even made rain-coats and booties for them.) Back on the riverboat we lined up to sample appetizers of salmon-creme-cheese on crackers (yum), while the captain turned the boat around for our return trip.

We heard the story of how our captain attempted to purchase some of the leftover sections of the oil pipeline to use building his boat dock. The government wouldn't let him buy only a few. It was "all or nothing," so he bought all, storing those he didn't use. Later, when the government wanted to buy back a few sections for pipeline repair, he was able to reply, "All or nothing." We left the riverboat area, after being cleverly led through the gift shop, and enjoyed a fabulous dinner at the Pump House Restaurant and Saloon, which we'd spied on our tour along the river. Our friend Barbara Boerner had gifted us with a check at the start of the trip, with instructions to spend it on a lavish dinner -- and here was our chance.

Ben had chunks of salmon, halibut, crab and scallops sauteed in a vodka sauce along with brown rice and braised vegetables while Margaret enjoyed scallops in a creamy-sweet sherry sauce with bacon and mushrooms over wild rice, plus the vegetables, and a glass of excellent, ($6.50) Bogle Chardonney, from El Dorado County! We finished off Barbara's donation by sharing a large piece of peanut butter pie. Back at The Bean we collapsed, too full to move.