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Feb 27, 2024

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Alaska – Part 2: Modern Frontier
With A Taste For The Old

Fairbanks: Quiet River Cruise To A Land Of Excitement

Story and Photos by Bob Nesoff

If you’ve never been to Alaska you probably picture it as a land covered in ice with a horde of grizzled gold prospectors sitting at the banks of rivers with pans in hand hoping for the shiny nugget and people mushing along on dog sleds. (In photo:  Sled dogs being hooked up for their daily run).

You’d be half right.

The prospecting days of yore are still part of this huge state’s legacy, but check out the tall buildings, paved roads, cars and people in business attire.

But fear not. The state’s proud history still abounds and using Fairbanks as a kick-off point will bring adventure and memories that will last a lifetime.

A great starting point to immerse yourself in Alaskan history and culture is to take a relaxing trip down the Chena (pronounced Cheena) River about the authentic Alaskan sternwheeler, the Riverboat Discovery.

The trip down the Chena is about as smooth as any boat ride can be with views incomparable any place else. Look past the river banks to the homes situated at the edge of the woods. Some are log cabins that seem right out of the History Channels programs about mountain men living  off the land. Then minutes later are homes that would be right at place in any very upscale neighborhood in the “Lower 48.”

In photo: Alaskan stern-wheeler Discovery departing for a cruise on the Chena River near Fairbanks

But there is more. So much more.

As the Discovery makes its way along the Chena you’ll come to a bunch of howling dogs jumping up and down. They are not captive, but Alaska sled dogs demanding their turn to be hooked up to a sled. The location, actually a training ground for dogs, is run by David Monson, the husband of the late Susan Butcher. David, an avid sled dog racer was the greatest supporter of Susan, the first woman to win the famed and very grueling Iditarod Race. She then turned around won it three more times.

David will demonstrate the training and the hook up a team of the huskies to a wheeled sled. The dogs are in heaven as they whip across the field and then into an oval run before returning to the starting point. As they are unhooked, each makes a mad dash to frolic in the Chena.

Moving on keep your eyes peeled along the shore to see if you can spot moose, brown bears, or even a reindeer. Off the starboard side of the ship you’ll next come to a compound where some of these animals are. Discovery Capt. Wade Binkley (whose family has operated riverboat tours on the Chena and Tanana Rivers since1950) will pull up to a dock and permit passengers to come ashore for a close-up look at the animals and the encampment.

Back aboard you’ll continue on to a real fish camp. Check out the spinning wheel that is an almost ancient tool for catching fish as they swim by. Checkout the itinerary before boarding as some tours make an hour-long stop at an Athabaskan village and get to meet native Alaskans and learn first-hand about their lives and daily living.

Back at the dock you’ll find the inevitable souvenir shop, but most of what you’ll see are unique items. One of the best is the canned salmon that comes three in a box and is named “Captain Jim’s Alaska Smoked Salmon. It’s a salmon spread you mix with cream cheese, nuts and finely chopped parsley. It was amazing as a dip on crackers. You can order It on-line at www.riverboatdiscovery.com. Red sockeye salmon isn’t cheap, but this is worth it.

Back on shore a must-see is the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, the largest and most extensive such museum in the Pacific Northwest. It would make Jay Leno’s eyes roll with jealousy. The huge building houses dozens of antique autos and fashions of a bygone era.

The museum follows the development of the automobile from the late 1800s through the pre-World War Two era. Virtually all of the cars and motorcycles are in running order and can be driven right out and onto local roads. Those not in working order are in a small shop and being made ready.

The walls are decorated with more than 100 vintage photos of Alaskan vehicles .There are also several video presentations running on a recurring loop presenting actual pictures of vehicles in Old Alaska navigating roads that would make the Ice Road Truckers squirm. They are shown navigating glacial streams, avalanche chutes and snow as deep as can only be found in Alaska.

This scratches the surface in what can be found and enjoyed in Alaska, and especially Fairbanks.