Friday, June 18, 2010
Mickey Mouse in Fairbanks
FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- The first day of my Alaskan tour was a surprise. I hardly expected to enjoy it, but I did.
Holland-America, the operator of the tour, is famous in the travel industry for its slick and stagey day of exhibitions in Fairbanks. In the space of eight hours it ushers hundreds of tourists through a riverboat ride, a fake Indian village, a reconstructed coal dredging camp and a gold panning "experience."
Such Disneyfication would draw a sneer from sophisticated travelers looking for depth and authenticity, but Mr. and Mrs. Middle America (and Herr und Frau Mitteleuropeen, for that matter) just ate it up. So did I, for the most part.
That was largely because the players on the stages were so good at their jobs -- giving mass tourists a broad taste of colorful Alaskan history at a level easy to understand.
For instance, immediately after the "steamboat" set out along the Chena River outside Fairbanks, a bush pilot in a Super Cub took off and landed alongside in the river twice, gladdening the heart of this former private pilot who'd never before seen floatplane operations.
There was a brief stop in the river off the sled dog training camp established by the late Iditarod champion Susan Butcher, with a noisy and crowd-pleasing demonstration of a team mushing a four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle around the place. The dogs had a good full-throated time of it, too, leaping about and barking happily.
We debarked to visit an Athabascan Indian "village" that turned out to be unexpectedly absorbing. Three Athabascan youths whose summer jobs are to lecture on and demonstrate their forebears' culture were remarkably poised and articulate for college students so young. One of them had grown up in a fish camp and expertly demonstrated how to fillet and smoke a salmon caught in a weir in the river.
Lunch at a coal dredging camp -- a real one, judging by the rust and ruin -- was mess-hall style, hundreds of tourists sitting hip to elbow on benches at long wooden tables. The miner's stew and cornbread was just OK, but it was a good way to feed a lot of people in a reasonable time.
Only the visit to a gold mining camp seemed excessively hokey. The tourist "train," drawn by what the engineer claimed was a steam locomotive but which emitted neither cinders nor smoke, was as lame an attempt at pretend railroading as I've ever encountered. So was the dormitory-style gold panning under an enormous roof. One never saw the Forty-Niners do that.
And why does the exit from every attraction have to pass through a gift shop?
On the whole, however, the day, ersatz as it may have been, was a satisfying experience for those at whom it was aimed.
The next day brought a real ride on a real luxury train to a real national park. About this, more later.