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2013 NRHS Convention -- Riverboat Discovery in Fairbanks, Alaska ~ September 14th, 2013

by Elizabeth Guenzler

When it was announced that the 2013 National Railway Historical Society convention would take place in Anchorage, Alaska, my first thought was what a fantastic opportunity to visit a state that I was heretofore unfamiliar with. I had wanted to take an Alaskan cruise at some point (I still do) and experience the glaciers, the Alaska Railroad, wildlife and incredible scenery up close and personal. This convention would allow me to see all that (and more). In addition, the Rail Operations Manager for this convention was Bart Jennings and having joined him in two set of his rare mileage trips, I knew photographic opportunities would be abundant and as much mileage as possible would be included. Since I lived in Washington State, getting to Alaska would be easy; just a flight north from Seattle.

As if I needed any more encouragement, a request was received that would make this convention even more special and significant. Bart was looking for a second female car host (his wife Sarah was one) and I was offered that position for the duration of the convention. To say I was surprised and very pleased is an understatement. In the colloquial English term, I was gobsmacked. I had been to a few conventions in the past and saw what the car hosts did and realized the responsibility of such a position. In the months leading up to the convention, many very detailed e-mails were received and I was mentally ready for this new role.

A pre-convention option was offered in Fairbanks then a two-day trip on the Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Anchorage. I would start my Alaska sojourn with this so an eight-day trip was planned.

September 13th

Since Chris Guenzler was participating in the pre-convention trips as well, he flew up to Seattle that morning, we met at the gate and Alaska Airlines Flight 99 took us from Seattle to Anchorage. Upon our arrival, we realized the aeroplane we were on was the one to take us to Fairbanks, so no gate change was needed. It seemed strange to 'gain' an hour since Alaska is in its own time zone and all the other times I had flown outside the Pacific Time Zone, the local time was ahead of what it was at the departure. Once at Fairbanks, we waited for Chris Parker's flight to arrive then took a taxi to the Westmark Hotel. After settling in, we had dinner then picked up the tickets and information at the registration desk.

September 14th

The day dawned cool and drizzly but grew to be a fantastic, sunny autumn day. After breakfast at the Northern Lights Restaurant in the hotel, everyone boarded the awaiting motorcoaches and were driven to Steamboat Landing on the Chena River for the Riverboat Discovery voyage.

Riverboat Discovery History

Today, third and fourth generations of the Binkley family in Alaska operate tours on the rivers of Fairbanks, using several sternwheeler boats operating under the name of Riverboat Discovery. Tours on the local rivers of Fairbanks are a popular event, and trips operated by the Riverboat Discovery have been underway since 1955. In that year, the late Captain Jim Binkley (a former freight riverboat captain on the Yukon River), and his wife Mary, began operating river cruises aboard the Discovery, a boat Captain Jim built in his backyard. This boat replaced a small 25-seat craft that they had been operating since 1950. As demand increased, the Binkley family had sternwheeler Discovery II built in 1971 on the steel hull of the last freighting sternwheeler on the Yukon and Tanana Rivers, the Yutana (for YUkon and TANAna). In 1986, they had sternwheeler Discovery III built at the Nichols Brothers Boat Builders shipyard in Seattle. These new boats were necessary to accommodate the growing number of visitors interested in the three hour cruise on the clear- water Chena River and the silt-laden Tanana River. Discovery III holds about 900 passengers and the Discovery II holds 300.

As the popularity of the cruises grew, features were added such as the gift shop Steamboat Landing, the largest family-owned gift shop in the state. This shop features numerous hand-made Alaskan Native artwork, Alaska foods and souvenirs. Stops, displays and demonstration of Alaska life, including the ancient Athabascan Indian culture, the home and kennels of the late four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher, and bush floatplanes were also added.

A highlight of the tour is the "wedding of the rivers" where the Chena River and the Tanana River merge, a unique mixing of two different waters. The spring-fed Chena River runs right through downtown Fairbanks. The Tanana River, the world's greatest glacial river, carries tons of glacial silt from the Alaska Range past this point daily enroute to its rendezvous with the mighty Yukon River.

A sculpture of Captain Jim Binkley at the entrance.

The Congressional Record plaque commemorating the honouring of Captain Binkley by the Alaska Senate.

The plaque honouring the late Captain Binkley.

The Discovery III, our mode of transport for this morning's adventure.

The rear of the boat in the gloom of early morning.

Steamboat Landing and Discovery Trading Post.

NRHS members boarding the boat.

It did not take long for the boat to get underway with autumn colours along the banks of the Chena River.

The pilothouse.

My best friend with camera at the ready.

The paddle wheel in action. This boat trip made three stops during its expedition.

The first stops for a demonstration of a 1951 cub floatplane taking off and landing on the narrow river. To witness this from the upper deck of the boat and so close was exciting. A unique aspect to this was that the captain turned on the public address system so that everyone could hear the conversation between the pilot and captain.

This was the Discovery I, the first riverboat of the Binkely family, which has now been retired.

Several large and impressive log houses are along the Chena River.

View inside the pilot house. We continued up the river to our next stop, Trail Breaker Kennels.

Family owned and operated since 1976, Trail Breaker Kennel is one of the longest operating kennels in Alaska. The kennel was founded in Eureka, Alaska by the late Susan Butcher, a four-time Iditarod champion, and David Monson, her husband and Yukon Quest champion. Built on a reputation of exemplary dog care and hard work, Trail Breaker Kennel became the premier racing kennel in the world. In 1990, Susan and David purchased property in Fairbanks and established Trail Breaker Kennel on the banks of the Chena River. Today, David, his two daughters and dedicated staff members provide visitors from around the world a look at the lives of mushers and Alaskan huskies in Interior Alaska. For over 20 years, Trail Breaker Kennel has been a favorite stop on the Riverboat Discovery tour. Kennel tours, dog sled rides and other custom tours are offered seasonally.

Narration was given throughout the demonstration, which was incredible to see and I gained much more of an appreciation about the Iditarod. The riverboat then continued on.

A log house in the throes of being built.

Caribou were grazing along the Chena River.

The confluence of the Chena and Tanana Rivers.

Having lived in Canada (Victoria) for over three decades, I could not help but notice this Air Canada aeroplane on its descent into Fairbanks International Airport.

Autumn colours were very prevalent.

Our next stop was an Athabascan fishing village but before we docked, a salmon carving demonstration was given. Everyone then de-boarded and were split into three groups for talks about the history and lifestyle of the Athabascan people.

Elizabeth, the Chief's daughter, explained the different animal pelts the tribes used.

Indian coats and dresses.

The two Athabascan Indian guides (Elizabeth and Grace) model and discuss the handmade clothing.

This moose is not real.

One of the Iditarod sled dogs from Trail Breaker Kennel that ws brought over for people to see.

Everyone then had the opportunity to watch one of the handlers and also pet the sled dog. We then roamed around the grounds.

Inside one of the Indian cabins.

Wolf and other animal pelts.

Sleeping quarters in an Athabascan Indian cabin.

Indian canoe and tents.

Domesticated caribou (reindeer), an animal that I had never seen so close before.

A statue of Granite, the greatest lead dog in Iditarod history, leading Susan Butcher to four victories. Everyone then re-boarded the boat for the remainder of the trip.

An interior view of Discovery III.

The Chena River. We returned to the boarding area and everyone was given some Alaskan smoked salmon which was delicious. It was then time to re-board the bus for the drive to Pioneer Park, the salmon bake and the Tanana Valley Railroad, but that is the subject of the next travelogue.

This introduction to Alaska had been excellent and very educational and informative. I enjoy riverboats, ferries and such water-plying vessels and I definitely would like to do this again sometime.