Excerpt from To Fairbanks and Beyond

by Rich Stoler

The four hour train ride to Fairbanks was a restful interlude punctuated by our sighting an eagle in flight and then a pair of moose feeding in a beaver pond. One of the most delightful things about the Alaska Railroad is that whenever there is an interesting sight the train slows or stops. This would be a boon to us later. The ARR had us booked into the River's Edge cottages which were right on the bank of the Chena river. The sound of the water gently flowing past our cottage was incredibly soothing. The accommodations were great and we were so zonked we crashed almost immediately after dinner. The next day we were off to Gold Dredge number 8 for some panning and lunch. It was raining and miserable, but the dredge was interesting and then it was on to panning. They heat the water in the troughs which makes panning in 60 degree temperatures a rather pleasant experience. And the troughs are high so you don't have to bend. From the salted bags they gave us we got $22 worth of gold. But we also shoveled our own and got some really nice nuggets. My wife especially enjoyed the panning as she was really recovering fast and the panning was very relaxing.

The lunch was a hearty stew that we wolfed down. Can't say much about it except that it was warm and hit the spot. Met some nice people from Israel who were really enjoying themselves. We later bumped into them on the cruise and renewed our new friendship.

Following the panning and a trip to a visitor stop on the pipeline most people went on the Discovery paddle wheeler. These were mostly HAL/Westours patrons. We passed on the paddle wheeler and went to the Tanana Valley fair instead. A lot of local Alaskan color and characters, carnival games and rides, the giant cabbage exhibit, etc. Then back to the River's Edge to grab our stuff and on to the airport for a flight back to Anchorage. We were sad to leave Fairbanks, especially the gold panning. If we could have stayed a week or two my daughter insists we could have panned enough gold to cover the trip.

The flight from Fairbanks to Anchorage was uneventful because though we were above the clouds, Denali wasn't so there was no sighting the high one this time either. Back at the Inlet Towers we had a new suite, a nicer one. Each time we stayed there the suite got better. The next morning, having refreshed our clothes and rechecked most of our luggage, it was off on the train again, this time to Whittier for one of the highlights of our trip.

As we moved down Turnagain Arm I noted it was high tide. About 45 minutes into the trip what should we spot but a pod of beluga whales. Immediately the train slowed down to keep pace with the whales as they made their way slowly up the Arm. It was a spectacular view as they were within 100 feet of the shore. We could see the white adults and the grayer juveniles. Awesome! As we sped up, a small herd of Dall sheep appeared and we slowed down again to watch them. As we sped up again, a bald eagle flew by, again within about 100 feet of the shore. What a sight! Then Whittier. Not much going on so we watched the Alaska Marine Highway ferry dock and unload its vehicles and people and then our tour boat, the Nunatak came, to take us on a wildlife and camping trip.

First it was into Prince William Sound to see the birds (Kittiwakes and Eagles), and then Stellar Sea lions and harbor seals. Plus our first really close views of glaciers in College Fjord. With no wind the captain put the Nunatak right up by the Bull Head rookery. The sound of the sea lions reminded me of some of our users when our computer networks crash. We'd be back later. Then on to Growler Island for an overnight camping experience 5 miles directly across from Columbia Glacier.

Growler Island is named after "growlers", small icebergs that make a growling noise as they break up, or so the guide said. I actually saw an automobile size block of glacial ice break into about 10-15 pieces. The Island features small heated cabins, a central dining hall, and kayaks, sailing kayaks, canoes, nature walks and just ambling along the shore line (our choice). Very beautiful with the glacier in front of us and ice floating all along the shore. As the tide changes you can step on big chunks of ice stranded on the beach. If you want to "rough it" without roughing it too much, Growler is ideal. Next time we hope to stay there several days.

The Nunatak picked us up the next day and we continued to tour the sound on our way back to Whittier. First stop, Columbia Glacier. You cannot get to the glacier itself as there is a moraine in front (the glacier is retreating). But what strikes you is the stark beauty and the cold. It was in the low 60's on Growler Island but five miles closer to Columbia Glacier it was in the mid 30's as was the water temperature. Luckily it was not too windy so that once we reached the moraine I put on t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, patagonia sweatshirt, patagonia jacket, and my Coleman rain coat with hood, hat, and gloves and was just warm enough to enjoy the blue ice and the mountains in the background without turning blue myself. Then back through Prince William Sound where we got a distant glimpse of the Sun Princess cruising the sound. We saw it the next day in Seward. While in the Sound we saw, in the distance, the spouts and then the bodies and tails of our first humpbacks. We were so excited, even after the belugas the day before, that we were jumping up and down and screaming with glee, and these guys were a goodly distance away. Of course the Nunatak headed straight for them but stopped a reasonable distance away and we really had a nice look. Seeing whales like this was about as good as I could hope it got. Our nine year old just stared in silence and yelled whenever they resurfaced from a dive.

We got back to Whittier, wandered around for a while then hopped the train back for Anchorage. Drat...the Turnagain Arm was at low tide so no chance of belugas (we were getting greedy) but out on the flats we saw eagles snacking on Salmon. We also saw some combat fishing along one of the Salmon spawning creeks. As we drove from the Train Station back to the Inlet Towers for our final night in Anchorage, we had another wildlife experience. A red fox cut off our van right in the downtown and the three of us plus the driver just stared at the fox in total amazement. It was so unexpected...


© 1998 Rich Stoler