Through no fault of my own, I had some free time in Fairbanks this week. If you’ve ever been to Fairbanks, you know there are exactly five things to do there: 1) Kayak down the Chena River, 2) Canoe down the Chena River, 3) Bike along the Chena River, 4) Take the Riverboat Discovery Tour along the Chena River, or 5) See a movie. Having already done 1, 2, 3 and 5 on past visits, I elected to try out 4 even though I would likely be the only patron who hadn’t consumed a Geritol-laced Ensure for breakfast. So, I set my commemorative Al Roker alarm clock and, after missing the morning sailing, embarked on the afternoon option.
Like all nature tours focused on education and conservation, this one starts and ends in a giant gift shop. What makes this shop particularly unique is that it includes an “Alaska at 40° Below” room where you can walk in and have your picture taken next to a thermometer while freezing your Kenai peninsula. Being a Minnesota resident, the experience was not dissimilar to a walk out to the mailbox in January, but unlike the paragraph above, I can now officially say I did it and be truthful at the same time.
The tour itself is a slow meandering down the scenic, snow-melt river while an uncanny Paul Harvey sound-a-like offers a constant monologue of history, anecdotes, and thinly veiled political leanings that are at times cheesier than a Tillamook worker at a Packers game. There are stops along the way however, that are interesting and informative and you can enjoy them while munching on the free donuts and smoked salmon dip you paid $60 for.
As a tip, you’ll want to elbow your way past the gray-hairs and their various walking aids as you board the boat to find a seat on the upper left (port) side, as this is will allow for better viewing at the stops. Plus, it allows you the opportunity to block everyone else’s view by standing up in front of them to take a picture—and don’t forget to yell “Sukkaz!” when they ask you to please sit down.
The first stop is for a bush-pilot-float-plane demonstration wherein a bush pilot in a float plane takes off alongside the boat, circles and lands in bushy and quite impressive death-defying fashion. This display is somewhat surprising for a river boat tour, and is almost worth getting out of the donut line to view. The demonstration concludes with a conversation with the pilot via radio, which I’m sure is unrehearsed except that it has been repeated twice per day every summer since the Eisenhower administration.
The next stop is at the sled-dog kennel of the late Susan Butcher, a woman who won the Iditarod four times in the eighties despite her bulbous shoulder pads and giant hair. Here, a team of extremely type A malamutes are hooked up to an ATV and pull it a quarter mile around the compound, then return to the boat faster than you can come up with an Anthony Weiner pun. What I found especially fascinating is that much like an iPhone belonging to a quadriplegic, directing the sled dogs is done entirely through verbal commands. For example, yelling “Ha!” means “Left!” as in “Ha! The Left sure is loony!” and “Gee!” means “Right!” as in “Gee! The Right does the same things as the Left!”
The final stop is at a reconstructed Athabascan Indian village, located where the Chena empties into the Tanana River, named for mediocre Tiger pitching great, Frank Tanana. At the village you can disembark and walk around, guided by authentic Athabascan high-school students. Talks include information on Athabascan housing and clothing, survival in the brutal Alaskan winters, and why your tour guides are all going away to attend school in the fall at places like Arizona and Hawaii. Also demonstrated are how the Athabascan chums would cut up salmon and pelt each other with animal skins.
After an hour at the village, patrons re-embark and head back upstream to the giant gift shop to purchase their “Bear Necessities” shopping bags and “Moosing you in Alaska” postcards. While I can’t say this is the best boat tour in North America (as the website claims), it’s way better than It’s a Small World. And the line is shorter. And it’s not nearly as creepy. If Juneau what I mean.
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