Judging from the comments we hear at
the Ranch Motel, this is one of the most
popular tourist attractions in Fairbanks, and perhaps even the state.
The four-hour ride on the Riverboat Discovery III, with its open sun
deck and heated glass enclosed decks, is more than just a tour of the Chena and Tanana
rivers; it is a short course on Alaska complete with a humorous and entertaining
narration which covers the gambit of anthropology, culture, geology, glaciology, history,
with even a little hydrology and engineering thrown in for good measure!
On the way down the Chena River, passengers see a Bush pilot perform
a short-field takeoff and landing from a riverbank strip. Further along, there's a lively
lecture from Jessie Royer, protégé of the late Susan Butcher (four-time Iditarod champion)
or David Monson (Susan’s widower) and the senior members of Trail Breaker
Kennels, Susan’s kennels.
Visitors view the wedding of the clear Chena River with the silty
Tanana River, then the sternwheeler turns around on the Tanana River, and passengers
disembark at Old Chena Indian Village, where Native guides give an hour tour of cabins and
crafts on shore. The village, is a quite accurate replica, and
gives tourists a hands-on experience with Native culture, including an
up-close view of an Alaska native parka (see photo this page). Restrooms
are available. On the
way there, and again on the way back, there is opportunity to view
and learn about fishwheels and wildlife.
Discovery is equipped with video equipment, so even if the site is
not clear from the boat, at least it's on screen. There are convenient restrooms on board,
two full service snack bars, a gift shop, and it is wheelchair accessible.
Complementary coffee and doughnuts are the rule.
The Binkley family has operated sternwheel riverboats in Alaska since the Gold Rush
of 1898. Years before the guided trips down the river, Jim Binkley's father and uncles
pioneered Alaska's rivers during the territory's formative years. Tours were first offered
in Fairbanks in 1950 by Captain Jim and Mary Binkley.
There have been very few interruptions in the reliable riverboat's itinerary.
Extraordinarily low water levels in the Chena river in 1998 year
riverboat to turn around near Cripple Creek, after about a half-mile on the Chena River,
and return to Steamboat Landing off Dale road.
But all was not lost. Passengers
were loaded onto motor
coaches to "portage" to the home of musher Susan Butcher for an
"upgraded" show, then to Old Chena Indian Village and fish camp.
The low water problem was due to a dry summer, very little groundwater, and a general lack of snow for the
preceding two years.
In 1999 and 2000, dredging of the river bottom
solved the problem.
While at the riverboat's docking area on the shores of the Chena
River, visitors have the chance to browse through Steam Boat Landing, a replica of a gold
rush-era town in early Alaska which is mostly a gift shop.
Daughter-In-Law Judy Binkley heads the Discovery Trading Post gift shops, as VP of Retail Operations. The three
Binkley sons, Skip, Jim Jr., and Johne, are all licensed riverboat captains.
Binkleys join the crew at age five to continue the family tradition started by their great
grandfather, Charlie Binkley. Grandchildren Ryan Binkley and Kai
Binkley earned their US Merchant Marin Officer's Licenses in 1997
and 1998 respectively, with Kai becoming the youngest female to be
certified by the US Coast Guard as a sternwheel riverboat Captain.
Wade will become a captain this summer, and Scott, Jon, Jacque,
and James Binkley already serve as deckhands.
The Discovery III departs twice daily between mid-May and mid-September,
at 8:45 a.m. and at 2 p.m. A third tour departs at 6:30 p.m. on selected days throughout
the season. Cost is $49.95 for adults; and $34.95 for children ages 3 to 12. Children under
3 ride for free. Active military can obtain discounted
tickets through the ITR office on Fort Wainwright.
Steam Boat Landing is off Dale Road. Head out Airport Way toward the Airport. Turn
right onto Dale Road just beyond Pike's Landing and follow the signs.
For more information call Riverboat Discovery (907) 479-6673, or visit their website.