Friday, June 8, 2007

Fairbanks and Home

The next morning, we had to have our luggage ready to go at 6:00 a.m. I'm not sure whether this was strictly necessary, or just a warm-up for the 5:15 call I'd get the next morning. In any event, luggage packed and ready for pick-up by 6:00, for at 7:00, we're on the bus to Fairbanks.

Sarah, our Exploration Leader, let us sleep on the bus. I vaguely remember hearing her say something about someplace, and the next thing I knew, it was "Welcome to Fairbanks!"

First stop: a riverboat cruise.

Well, no. First stop: a half hour in the gift shop owned by the riverboat cruise people.

Cruise West is not named Cruise West because it Cruises in the West. It is so named because it was started by Chuck West. The Wests were apparently good friends with a Fairbanks family called the Binkleys, and convinced the Binkleys to go into the Fairbanks tourism business. Which they did. And, it seems, the Wests guaranteed the Binkleys a reasonable amount of business by taking all their Fairbanks passengers on the Binkleys' riverboat. That the Cruise West busses make it to the Binkleys' boat in time to do nothing but spend a half hour in the Binkleys' gift shop for a half hour, well, that's just a bonus.

To be fair, Cruise West is way not the only business the Binkleys get, and we saw busses from all the major cruise lines piling up to take the Riverboat as well. Also, I should note that, as "crap that says Alaska on it" shops go, the Binkleys' was one of the prettiest and nicest ones. And, Cruise West customers apparently get extra special treatment on their Riverboat cruise (free coffee and donuts). But, still, the fact that we're here because the Wests are buddies with the Binkleys is, well, obvious.

The Riverboat Discovery cruise. You pile on a Riverboat. You go down the river in Fairbanks. Now, this isn't just a calm, peaceful, recenter-yourself-while-you're-going-down-the-river sort of affair. Instead, a guide (Mrs. Binkley) does a running commentary in which she points out the houses along the river (many belong to her family and friends), tries to sell you the Binkleys' own brand of canned salmon (the free sample was tasty, but it's like $10 for a single tuna-fish-can sized can), and, well...

... it's staged. It's staged and it's scripted. It's like a tour through an exhibit except the exhibits are all live people and animals rather than waxworks or audio-animatronics, but you're really there for the show -- the fact that you're on a riverboat is just a convenient way to pack the whole audience in. The show includes: a float plane pilot who takes off and lands near the riverboat; a home where sled dogs are trained (and a display of their skills takes place near the riverbank); a couple of caribou (who have been loaned to the Binkleys and are conveniently penned up right near the riverbank); a display of Yu'pik native salmon drying technique (at a fake native village built by the Binkleys near the river -- I'm told that folks on their longer cruise get off the boat here and spend time at the village); and so forth. And everywhere, the participants are wearing mics so they can converse with Mrs. Binkley and be heard over the boat's PA system, and they're very clearly following (and sometimes forgetting their lines in) a script that pretends all of these conversations are just chance encounters.

I don't mean to totally diss the Binkleys here. They've obviously put a lot of time and money into doing up a nice tour here. And a lot of people on the tour really enjoyed it. But I couldn't kick the feeling that it would've been way more entertaining if we'd done it at the beginning of our trip rather than at the end. I mean, why see a fake Native village after you've been to Metlakatla? Why see two captive caribou after seeing a whole herd of them wild in Denali? And, of course, seeing as we'd ridden in a float plane and a dogsled, watching other people doing it was kind of anti-climactic. All things considered, I would've preferred bailing on the riverboat trip and sleeping in that morning in Denali.

Next stop: The Museum of the North, located on the grounds of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. We had lunch there and a private screening of a really interesting film on the Aurora Borealis. (Which, of course, we wouldn't get to see, what with it being summer and therefore too bright at night for any Northern Lights viewing.) We then had an hour or so to wander the museum.

The museum has an unusual display called "The Place Where You Go To Listen." It's in a room with speakers all over the walls. And the sounds you hear are sounds corresponding to the natural world in real time. (They suggest revisiting the room at different seasons and different times of day.) There's a bright hum for sunlight; something cooler at night; drum rumblings whenever there's seismic activity; and cheerful bells across the ceiling if the Aurora is active (even if it can't be seen). The museum is a little vague on the actual technology that went into this (exactly what natural conditions is this thing monitoring?) but the artist has done a good job translating regular earth activity into sounds -- and sounds that harmonize with each other rather than sounding discordant.

I totally dug this. I sat in there and really tried to listen. And it was the first time when I've ever questioned the veracity of my hearing. I mean, yeah, sure, I heard the hum (it was pretty loud), but I also thought I heard a repeating cycle in it. Was that real, or was my mind trying to find patterns where there weren't any? I put a lot of effort into trying to figure out what I was actually hearing, and to separate that from how I was processing the sound.

Another couple from the cruise entered the room. They listened with me.

After a minute or two, I heard the chiming of a watch alarm. I looked at my watch. 2:00. Aha! I had them! The mysterious owners of the annoying 2:00 watch alarm.

They did nothing, obviously not hearing it. I politely said, "One of your watch alarms is going off." The woman held her watch to her ear. It was silent. (It was. Just by walking over to them, I could tell it was his alarm that was ringing.) She yells to him to check his watch and see if the alarm was going off. He held it to his ear. He shakes his head. The wife turns to me and says, "It must be the exhibit." Sigh.

After the museum, we are dropped off at our hotel for a short rest before the Farewell Dinner. The Farewell Dinner is held in the Binkley Room of the hotel. (Not a coincidence. There's a portrait of Mr. & Mrs. Binkley on the wall. I start to wonder whether they own half of Fairbanks.) Dinner is tasty and we say our fond farewells to the rest of the gang.

My flight out is at 7:15 the next morning and I'm told to take a 5:15 a.m. shuttle, even though the airport is within spitting distance of the hotel. When we get to the airport at 5:30, the reason for this is abundantly clear. Cruise West isn't the only cruise line ending trips in Fairbanks. There's a line of Princess Cruise customers as far as the eye can see all waiting to check in for their flights. As usual, the Alaska Air check-in machines aren't working, so everyone has to check in at the desk. And once they get through that, there's Security to clear, and the Fairbanks airport only has two metaldetectors. For the thousands of people getting off cruise ships and catching flights home. It's wicked crowded and we need nearly all of the two hour lead time to get through it all and get to our gates in time for boarding.

(At the Security line, I am behind a dude who did not follow directions to have his liquids in 3 ounce bottles in a one-quart clear plastic baggy, even though TSA employees have been constantly reminding us of this requirement for our last half-hour in line. Dude eventually opens up two fabric pouches and dumps their entire contents into one of those plastic bins you stick on the conveyor belt. It's, like, 30 random prescription pill bottles, and a few everyday items (liquids, gels, toothpastes). He asks the screener if he can just go like this and forgo the plastic bag? The screener lets him. On the one hand, yay for not slowing the line while he jammed all this stuff in a bag. On the other, it does not thrill me that the TSA is willing to let people slide on this clear plastic baggie requirement, which is supposed to be necessary for national security.)

Ooops. Flight landing now. I shall restow the computer, head home, hug my cat like she's never been hugged before, and post all this stuff in due course.

1 comment:

hewasolddog299 said...

Welcome Home, kiddo. I do hope, once you've caught up on hugs and snoozes, mail and bills and laundry that we get to see all those photos you've been promising.

This has been a great personal account and very helpful to this old dog's thinking and planning for a similar cruise with other family members and grandchildren, too. All very valuable bits of info and insight. I am impressed. And appreciative.