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November 4th, 2009 by Greg Aragon
I’ve taken a few cruises along the coast of Alaska and all were amazing. The endless, rugged beauty that passes by the windows and decks of the cruise ship is unforgettable. And the shore excursions into port cities are exciting.
But on my last journey to Alaska I wanted to see things from a different angle. I wanted to experience the mountains, glaciers, wilderness and people of the “last frontier” in greater depth. To do this I booked a week-long tour with Gray Lines of Alaska.
My Gray Line getaway began in early July, when a friend and I flew to Fairbanks, where we met a Gray Line representative, who led us aboard a comfortable charted bus. From here we drove to the Westmark Hotel in Fairbanks.
At the hotel we met other Gray Line guests and then checked into a modern room. After unpacking we met our tour leader in the lobby and she gave us a brief orientation about our upcoming adventure. At about 6 pm, we explored the small town charm of Fairbanks, where gold mining history coexists with art deco buildings, native peoples and rugged individuals.
Located 358 miles north of Anchorage at the end of the Alaska Highway, Fairbanks is known as "The Golden Heart of Alaska.” Because of its location, Fairbanks sees remarkable temperature fluctuations, ranging from 65 degrees below zero in the winter to more than 90 degrees in the summer. When we walked around town, the sun’s rays shot down like laser beams.
In the morning we took a charter to Gold Dredge No. 8, near Fairbanks, the only gold dredge in Alaska still open to the public. Between 1928 and 1959, hundreds of thousands of ounces of gold passed through the five-deck dredge, which functioned as a gigantic mechanical gold pan.
The tour began with a wooden train ride through an actual mine, where we met a “miner” working below. The miner wore a microphone and told us of gold mining techniques used in the early 1900’s, and about the harsh conditions miners faced.
Out of the tunnel, we saw a black bear as we passed old mining cabins, a flowing stream and old mining equipment. The train stopped at a visitor’s center, where we watched workers pan for gold at a real working mining slide. We were then handed a bag of dirt and a pan and went mining for ourselves.
After this we toured giant Gold Dredge No. 8, a National Historic Site. Besides mining equipment, the site is a museum with items such as mammoth tusks and other prehistoric bones dug up by the dredge. We concluded our visit with a hearty miner’s lunch of stew and biscuits.
Next week I continue my Gray Line tour through Alaska’s rugged interior. I will board the legendary McKinley Express Railroad, meet champion Iditarod racers and dogs, take a paddle boat to a Native Alaskan village, encounter killer whales and much more.
For more info of Gray Line of Alaska and its tour packages, visit: www.graylineofalaska.com or call (800) 544-2206.