Cruising Through Alaska History and Culture Aboard a Sternwheeler

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Riverboat Discovery sternwheeler excursion in Fairbanks, Alaska

Riverboat Discovery excursion along the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska

(Disclosure: Thanks to Explore Fairbanks for hosting my stay in Fairbanks. Observations and opinions, as always, are my own.)

Staff stand on the dock at Steamboat Landing in Fairbanks, Alaska and wave at us as we sail away on the sternwheeler Riverboat Discovery for a 3-hour narrated cruise along the Chena River.

Staff waving us off as we being our sternwheeler excursion aboard the Riverboat Discovery in Fairbanks, Alaska

A sternwheeler is a ship propelled by a paddle wheel positioned at the stern. Sternwheelers played a major transportation and freight role in Alaska in the late 1800s and first part of the 1900s. At one time there were 250 sternwheelers on Alaska rivers, 91 on the Chena. Powered by wood furnaces, they would use one cord of wood an hour. The current Riverboat Discovery is a tourist excursion boat powered by diesel, but it has a strong connection with the past.

The boat is owned and operated by descendants of Charles M. Binkley, who started building and piloting boats in the North in 1898. In the 1950s, with railroads and airplanes beginning to carry most of the freight, his son Captain Jim Binkley Sr. and his wife Mary started a river excursion business. It was their granddaughter piloting the Riverboat Discovery the day of my cruise.

Float Plane

Float plane demonstration for the Riverboat Discovery tour in Fairbanks, Alaska

Bush planes, landing with floats on the water in summer and with skis on snow in winter, were and still are another important transportation vehicle in the North. Shortly after leaving the dock, we were treated to a demonstration of a float plane taking off and landing.

Trail Breaker Kennel

Before the use of snow mobiles, called “snow machines” in Alaska, dogsledding was a common method of winter travel used by indigenous peoples and early European settlers and trappers. Although dog teams are no longer used much for travel or moving goods, dogsledding has become a popular winter sport. The Iditarod dogsled race, which was created in the 1970s partly to save dog sled culture, has contributed to its popularity. The race runs between Anchorage and Nome. The more grueling Yukon Quest, which runs between Whitehouse in Canada’s Yukon and Fairbanks, started in 1984.

Trail Breaker Kennel of sled dogs in Fairbanks, Alaska

Susan Butcher was a four-time Iditarod race winner, winning her first race in 1986 and winning again in 1987, 1988, and 1990. She passed away in 2006, but her family still operates Trail Breaker Kennel, one of the longest operating kennels in Fairbanks where visitors experience the Alaskan mushing lifestyle. We paused at the banks of the kennel to see some of the dogs and learn about dog sledding from Susan’s husband.

Puppy training at Trail Breaker Kennel in Fairbanks, Alaska
Puppies playing and being trained

Chena Village

The only place where we stopped and disembarked on the cruise was at a recreated Chena Athabascan Indian Village from the early 1900s. Captain Jim Binkley Sr. supplied villages like this by sternwheeler from the late 1930s through the 1950s. Guides at Chena Village explained how various animals were used for food and protection (clothing and shelter), how Athabascans survived nomadic life and how they adjusted to village life. Dogs from Susan Butcher’s kennels were also on site for those who wanted to get closer to the animals and learn more about them.

Athabascan cache house at Chena Village, Fairbanks, Alaska
Guide at Chena Village talking to us from a cache house where Athabascan Indians traditionally stored their furs
Birch canoe and temporary dwelling at display about nomadic Athabascan life at Chena Village in Fairbanks, Alaska
A display about nomadic life
A traditional salmon trap at Chena Village in Fairbanks, Alaska
A traditional salmon trap
Salmon drying on racks at Chena Village in Fairbanks, Alaska
Drying salmon
Elaborate fur parka at Chena Village in Fairbanks, Alaska
One of the guides modeling an elaborate handmade parka made of different furs and worth thousands of dollars

On The River

Caribou herd along the Chena River in Alaska

As we cruised the river, we passed a variety of log cabins, old and new, large and small, on properties along the shore. We saw a herd of caribou (a planned sighting as this is a domestic herd) and a bald eagle along the shore (unplanned sighting).

Junction of the Chena and Tanana Rivers in Alaska
Junction of the Chena and Tanana Rivers

We turned around at the point where the Chena River joins the Tanana River. The Tanana River is a 584-mile tributary of the Yukon River. The Tanana River is a braided river, something I’d not heard of until I visited Alaska. A braided river consists of a network of river channels that continually split and join and are separated by small and often temporary islands. Braided rivers are typically wide and shallow and carry a lot of sediment.

View of Binkley home from the Chena River
Mary Binkley waving to us from her home on our return to dock

Steamboat Landing

At Steamboat Landing, where the Riverboat Discovery docks and sets sail from, you’ll find a gift shop and Discovery Dining Hall, where a hearty lunch of miner’s stew, rustic roasted vegetables, apple pecan salad, sourdough rolls and a brownie is served family style at long tables.

People lining up for the Alaska @ 40 Below Experience at Steamboat Landing

Here you’ll also find the Alaska @ 40 Below Experience, where you have a chance to enter a specially designed chamber to experience what -40 degree temperatures feel like. I did not join the line-up for what looked like the entrance to the locker plant at the butcher shop in my childhood hometown, where my family rented a locker to store frozen vegetables and sides of meat before we had our own freezer. (The inside of that locker was actually many degrees warmer than -40.) Coming from a place with cold winters, I’ve lived through -40 degree temperatures in real life and preferred to remain in the hot summer temperatures, so I passed on the Alaska @ 40 Below Experience. However, even the idea of temperatures that cold must seem unfathomable to people who’ve lived their lives in warm climates or have not experienced temperatures much below freezing. I can understand wanting to know what it feels like.

The Riverboat Discovery sails twice a day from early May through mid-September. It is an excursion well worth taking should you visit Fairbanks in the summer.

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Riverboat Discovery excursion along the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska; Cruising Through Alaska History and Culture Aboard a Sternwheeler #Alaska #Fairbanks #sternwheeler #history #rivercruise
Cruising Through Alaska History and Culture Aboard a Sternwheeler: an excursion on the Riverboat Discovery excursion along the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska

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    1. Ken, the Riverboat Discovery is well worth doing when in Fairbanks. It is both a step back in time and a modern-day experience.

  1. I’ll never forget the thrill of taking a cruise a few years ago on a paddleboat down the Mississippi and your ride on the ‘Riverboat Discovery’ looks just as memorable. I loved learning about the history of the sternwheeler ships as well as more about the dogsled races. And … oh that gorgeous fur parka!! Anita

    1. Anita, that parka was special. It was made of some many different furs I couldn’t remember them all, with specific ones selected for right around the face because of their insulating quality and handling of moisture. I also don’t remember how much it weighed, but it wasn’t light!