If you’re looking for a relaxed and easy way to learn more about Alaska’s fascinating history and people, there’s a sternwheel riverboat cruise departing from Fairbanks that combines native cultures, transportation, and the official state sport. In other words, it’s got it all.
The Binkley family, who runs the Riverboat Discovery Tour, has extensive knowledge of Alaska and a deep connection going back five generations, since 1898. Over the last century, they’ve adapted their business practices to align with the changing times, and today, tourism is their main business. They’re focused on “sharing their love of Alaska and its culture with visitors,” and their passion shows.
In a video about the tour, Captain Ryan Binkley says:
This trip is about the history of Alaska and the experiences my great grandfather and grandfather had back in the old days.”
This was one of the excursions my family signed up for while on a trip in Alaska, and we were glad we did. We boarded the boat from Steamboat Landing in Fairbanks and set off for an afternoon cruise along the Chena River.
The trip featured three main stops, and each one gave passengers some insight into the Alaskan way of life.
Bush Pilot Demonstration
As soon as we left the dock, we got to see a floatplane do a take-off and landing right beside the boat!
The pilot also told stories about living in an Alaskan village and explained the importance of planes in Alaska’s most remote places. He told us that about 1 in 60 Alaskans can fly a plane, because it’s such a major way of transportation in the North, and especially in Alaska.
Many of the people who live along the rivers have floatplanes or boats (or both) in their back yards instead of cars. Although this seemed completely foreign to me, it makes perfect sense when you’re living in an area of vast wilderness with unpredictable weather and rugged terrain that’s liable to changing suddenly.
As Ryan explains in the video, “Bush pilots were instrumental in opening up the bush of Alaska.”
Home of former Iditarod Champion Susan Butcher
A little way down the river, we arrived at the house of Susan Butcher. She was one of Alaska’s most famous dog mushers and won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race three years in a row and four times in total during her racing days. She was also one of the first women sled dog racers to enter this grueling race of more than 1000 miles through Alaska’s wilderness, inspiring millions in the process. Her story was truly remarkable and her memory is honored by Alaskans each year on what’s known as Susan Butcher Day.
Unfortunately, Susan passed away in 2006 after a battle with cancer, but her husband David (also a dog musher), is carrying on her legacy. He and his daughters still own and operate Trail Breaker Kennel and continue raising and racing sled dogs today.
Once the boat had docked, David told the passengers all about the dogs and how they raise and train them. He also offered a dog-mushing demonstration on the trails around his house. Being so high up on the boat, you could really see just how fast the dogs were and how far they could run in a short amount of time.
Athabascan Indian Village
Our final stop was at the Chena Indian Village, which was constructed to be very similar to what many Native people live like today.
Once we got off the boat, we were given a 30-minute tour of the village, with three main stops. We learned about the way of life of the hunters and gatherers, and how they made clothing and other necessities, such as tools, shelter, fires, structures, etc. Our guide referred to himself as "a mix of a number of different Native backgrounds," and he was excellent and very knowledgeable.
As the website says, guides "will also share how the Athabascans skillfully survived for over 10,000 years and how they adapted to village life and Western culture in the past century."
The summer season is about to start
Captain Binkley describes the Riverboat Discovery Tour as “so much more than just a boat ride. It’s a chance to get out on the river, meet some real Alaskans, and have a real experience.”
And that perfectly describes the experience we had. My family enjoyed each stop and felt we learned a lot about the true Alaskan way of life.
The Riverboat Discovery Tour is now taking bookings, with the 2021 summer season kicking off this Saturday, May 29th. Tours depart daily from Steamboat Landing, so be sure to get in on the adventure!