Rolling On the River

Traveling through time in a restored Alaska sternwheeler

By: Christopher Batin

FAIRBANKS, Alaska The Chena River laps gently at the side planking on the Tanana Chief, a cadence of splashing that disperses as softly as a caressing breeze. I soon realize this is more than wood against water. I hear the harmony of two old friends of sternwheeler and river that have been co-dependent on each other for over 100 years. I am here not so much for the evening dinner cruise as for the opportunity to take a trip back through time.

I hear a passenger say it’s time to board “the boat.” I grit my teeth. This is no ordinary boat. I stand there as giddy as a schoolboy at recess, knowing I am about to board a restored Alaska sternwheeler.

In the late 1890s, before the arrival of the airplane and Alaska statehood, the Tanana Chief was the transportation mainstay for trade and development of the Alaska frontier. Even today, the sleek lines of the curved bow, the towering twin smokestacks and the finely decorated wood interior carry its life story into my imagination. I envision early miners with pokes full of gold mesmerized by the churning paddle blades. A deck that was once packed to the gunwales with livestock, freight and supplies now carries tourists of all shapes and sizes.

The sternwheeler is a transportation marvel of Mark Twain’s era the stuff of boyhood dreams. Looking out the window, I imagine the ruckus of steely mountain men and shoot-em-up pioneers, all on deck and waiting to be unleashed on the Last Frontier.

Each of Alaska’s top three riverboat tours offers a different experience, from interpretive and entertaining activities and cultural insights to fine dining, nature and wildlife viewing.

Riverboat Discovery, Fairbanks
The Fairbanks-based Riverboat Discovery tour is a 3½-hour adventure that is rated the “number one boat tour in North America,” by Mayflower Tours, and for good reason. The Discovery touches on nearly everything that is Alaska, from culture and politics to natural history and lifestyle. Riverboating is a business that has been in the Fairbanks-based Binkley family for over four generations.

Discovery is a big hit with locals who make it a point to book a tour for visiting relatives. Not only is the tour a regional highlight, but also the gift shop offers some of the lowest prices in the Interior; a must-stop shop for Alaska souvenirs.

Choose from two sternwheelers: Discovery II is a three-decker, and Discovery III is a towering four-decker, with maximum seating for 900 people, with no more than 700 booked at any one time. There’s no rush to board. Just drape a jacket over the back of a seat and start exploring. For the best photos and video, the top rear and middle side sections offer the best views. As we round a bend, a Piper Cub bushplane jumps off a grass airstrip behind a row of homes along the river. It claws for altitude and hovers over the boat as if hanging by a thread. The tour guide explains the importance of bush flying in Alaska. The plane circles the river, lines up with the runway and rolls to a stop within 50 yards of its touchdown.

All cameras should be ready for what I call “The Tour de Homes of Elite and Eccentric Alaskans.” The dwellings range from modern contemporary log buildings to a beached houseboat complete with satellite dish. My favorite is a sod-roof home covered with glowing blue tarps and old tires. People flock to the left side of the boat as we cruise to a stop in front of Trailbreaker Kennels, home of dog musher Susan Butcher. This four-time Iditarod sled dog race winner reveals facts and figures about Alaska sled dogs. Soon the kenneled dogs go wild, leaping and twisting as Butcher announces that it’s time for the main demonstration. Watching the dogs pull an ATV around the mile-plus track is especially entertaining.

On cue, reindeer bolt into an enclosed area and begin feeding on some willow branches placed in the ground. Staged, but who cares? It looks good. Unstaged are the hundreds of ducks, geese and sandhill cranes that continuously fly the river.

At the mouth of the Chena, the riverboat plies the milky currents of the 500-mile-long Tanana, one of the largest glacier-fed rivers in the world.

We pull up to an operating fish wheel. Behind it is a fully functional fish camp where an Athabascan Indian woman talks about fish-camp life. She removes a salmon from the trap, plops it on a cutting board, fillets it and hangs it up to dry in less than 30 seconds. (It takes that long for me to orient the fish on a cutting board.)

For the physically challenged or those who can’t stand on their feet for the lengths of time needed to view the activities on the bank, video cameras carry the live activity to several TV monitors on each deck.

We disembark for an hour at a reconstructed Chena Indian village. There are three separate presentations of about 15 minutes each: one on furs and local furbearers and wildlife; dogs and dog sleds; and clothing and beadwork art. During the remaining 15 minutes we take in other attractions. Worth seeing is the old general store, complete with gold-rush-days decor, a spruce bark hut, fish smoker and drying racks, a cache and a vegetable garden with huge cabbages. In addition to hot beverages, a snack bar is open for the duration of the cruise. The smoked salmon dip provided at the end of the tour is a highlight.
Adults $46.95. Children $31.95. Commissionable at 10 percent.

Tanana Chief, Fairbanks
Unlike the event-filled Discovery tour, the Sternwheeler Tanana Chief dinner cruise blends the quiet ambiance of the Chena River, panoramic views of the pre-Midnight Sun, ducks working in mist-filled side currents and perhaps an opportunity for a romantic getaway.

Once on board, this bargain-priced cruise serves ample appetizers with a no-host bar. Dinner is buffet-style with full linens and silverware, with prime rib, chicken and fish entrees and salads, vegetables and desserts.

Skipper Jim Schneider encourages passengers to join him in the wheelhouse. Captain Jim gives an overview of the ship’s operation, and the bird’s-eye view of the river can’t be beat anywhere else on the boat. Jim has been a Fairbanks resident for over 30 years, and knows its culture and history. His relaxed narration allows visitors ample time to enjoy the romance of the paddlewheel stateroom.

My wife and I enjoyed drinks on the upper deck as waterfowl passed us repeatedly on the river and an occasional fishing boat motored home for the day.

Mike Lombardino, president of Northern Schools Federal Credit Union, was enjoying the cruise for the third time.

“It’s different than the other riverboat cruises,” he said. “It’s a low-key approach where you can relax, have a good meal, enjoy the company of others and take in the sights and scenery of Fairbanks along the Chena River.”

A 6:30 p.m. boarding time with return by 9 p.m. makes for a full evening. Arrive early and enjoy the flower garden and river atmosphere.

Cost is $49.95 for the dinner cruise. Charter and sightseeing tours are also available.

Commissionable at 10 percent.

Talkeetna Queen, Talkeetna
Many consider Steve Mahay the top riverboat entrepreneur of Alaska. He pioneered commercial riverboat travel in the mid 1970s, and has built the largest riverboat business of its kind in south-central Alaska. Mahay’s Riverboat Service offers several jet-boat safaris and tours, using specially built riverboats to handle the glacial currents of the Talkeetna and Susitna rivers. Sections of these rivers were previously inaccessible to boats of this size.

“Large sternwheelers are best suited for the slow, Interior rivers and not for the fast glacial rivers of south-central Alaska,” said Mahay.

The boat he operates, the 51-passenger Talkeetna Queen, is a roomy, custom-built touring boat with comfortable, padded seats, enclosed glass-canopy sides and an onboard restroom.

The Deluxe Wilderness Safari starts with a tour guide/naturalist offering a selection of hot tea, coffee or cocoa and huge cinnamon rolls and other pastries served around an open campfire. The fire helps keep away the mosquitoes, but insect repellent is required for complete protection. We board the riverboat for a 50-mile journey upriver. At midpoint, passengers disembark and start a quarter-mile nature walk that courses through birch and spruce forests. The authentic trapper’s cabin has original furnishings and reveals how trappers live off the land. Encourage your clients to be bold and crawl into the abandoned beaver lodge, to see how these furbearers build their homes. If the weather allows, expect to see Denali and the Alaska Range on the horizon. (Adults, $95. Comissionable at 10 percent.)

For a more adventurous journey, the Talkeetna Canyon tour courses through towering rock walls that channel the river into 50 feet of cascading rapids and white water. It’s my favorite tour, having been on it at least a half-dozen times. (Adults, $125. Commissionable at 10 percent.)


Greatland River Tours

Mahays Riverboat Service

Riverboat Discovery