Facebook Page
AK day 14

Riverboat, Steam engine train and Stanley Steamer

Day 14

It is the crack of dawn in the second largest city in the largest state in the Union that this day starts.

Before falling asleep last night I perused the NRHS Schedule of Activities for Saturday September 14. The main first check point I needed to make was the bus shuttle operation from the Westmark to Riverboat Discovery. This was from 7:00 AM to 8:30 AM. I chose the time frame from 7:30 to 8:00 as the target.

So near 6:45 AM as I crossed the hotel lobby saw Chris P. Said he, Chris G and Elizabeth arrived last night ok and had just finished breakfast and they were now getting ready to board the early bus.

After enjoying a good buffet breakfast, I proceeded to lobby and queued up for the bus shuttle. At 8:20 AM our bus was pulling out from the hotel. The morning was gray and dark overcast with occasional sprinkles.

bus ticket

Our driver was giving background information about our cruise. Our three and a half hour riverboat cruise will take us into the heart of Alaska. It is operated by a family who has made the rivers of Alaska a way of life for five generations. The riverboat’s itinerary will include: seeing a plane taking off right next to the boat; understanding how Alaskans survive in a place where temperatures range from 95 F to -65 F; meet champion sled dogs at the kennel of internationally acclaimed athlete Susan Butcher a four –time winner of the 1,100 mile Iditarod Race; witness the dramatic “Wedding of the Rivers” where the Chena and Tanana Rivers meet; and gain insight into the Athabascan Indian culture through Alaskan Native guides that will take us on a personalized tour of the Chena Indian village.

After telling us this information the diver turns off Airport Way and shortly we arrive at Steamboat Landing on the Chena River. Steamboat Landing is a replica gold rush-era river port with a dining hall where hearty miners stew is served and has the largest family-owned gift shop in the state.
GPS: 64 49.797, -147 51.961.   Copy and post in browser for map of location.

steam boat landing

Exiting the bus I walked to the river and the dock towards where the Riverboat Discovery III was tied up.

up river

discovery III

Discovery III

There were no passengers on the boat as boarding had not yet started. Well I guess this means more time to look and shop in the gift shop. This was the first of many “Closing for the season sale” bargains we would see throughout the trip. Looked at many nice things but nothing that tickled my fancy enough that I wanted to carry it around all day.

Suddenly the mass of humanity moved toward the river and the direction on the riverboat. Taking one last look in the gift shop I walked to the boarding area. Showing my ticket and walking down the ramp and across the dock and up the boarding ramp to my ride for this morning’s adventure. There was the Discovery III, a sternwheeler with three covered decks plus a top deck of part open and part canopy. The overall length is 156 ft. The stern wheel is 20 feet in diameter and with twenty, 16 ft paddles, that are turned by hydraulic motors and chain final drive.

Discovery II

Discovery III in front with Discovery II in back.

As we left the dock and moved to the center of the Chena, the captain is giving the safety and welcome aboard talk. I climbed up to the top deck where I joined up with Chris G, Chris P and Elizabeth. Standing here on the top deck you have a 360 degree vista of this wonderful landscape in the land of the midnight sun. The captain told us there was complimentary coffee and donuts at several locations on the boat. He then told us a brief history of the Discovery III.

The Binkley family’s steam boating tradition goes back over 100 years and five generations to the Klondike Gold Rush. In 1898 when Charles M. Binkley hiked over the Chilkoot Pass with other stampeders, he was not so much in search of gold as he was the chance to chart and navigate the Yukon River and its tributaries. He became a respected pilot and boat builder in the north. His son, Captain Jim Binkley, Sr., followed in his father’s footsteps and piloted freight vessels on the Yukon and Tanana Rivers in the 1940’s- journeys of about 2,000 miles round trip.

Noting the coming changes in the freighting business, Captain Jim and his wife Mary began a river excursion business in Fairbanks in 1950. They purchased a 25 passenger boat from the Episcopal church. In 1955 Captain Jim built the company’s first sternwheeler, the 150 passenger Discovery I, in his back yard.
It was not long before Captain Jim and Mary became parents. Their three sons, Skip, Jim and John, worked on the Discovery I, learning the ways of the river and the visitor industry from their parents. As the business grew, so did the fleet. In 1971, the 300 passenger Discovery II was put into service. In 1986, Discovery III was built near Seattle, Washington and shipped to Alaska in 1987. The 900 passenger boat began service in July of that year.

discovery I

Discovery I

Back on the river after the crew turned the Discovery III a 180 degrees, we were focused downstream over the bow to a small plane sitting in the river. The plane proceeded to approach us and as it moved faster it lifted off and flew by. The small plane is more popular in Alaska than an auto. The two most popular ways to travel in the north are the plane and train.

The pilot circled around and then landed on the water and coasted toward the riverboat. The captain was on the radio and talking to the pilot and was in turn patched thru to the public address system, this allowed the pilot to tell us a little about flying here and how important bush floatplanes are to living here. After a short chat the pilot drifted off and taxied drown river and was off to the wild blue yonder.

Video clips will open in a new window.  After viewing, close the video window to return to this report:


Continuing downstream we pass several nice houses. I am in my first Alaska neighborhood. Several residents came out to wave as we passed by. They were very neighborly.

house on river

r house

Shortly we pass The Pump House Restaurant & Saloon. This is an authentic former tin pump house used in gold-mining operations; the restaurant is listed on the Register of Historic Places.

pump hose a

pump house b

Next to the Pump House is the mouth of a little creek. This creek has produced more gold than any other Alaska creek.

gold creek

Follow the creek upstream to the gold.

Our next stop was at the Trail Breaker Kennel, owned by Dave Monson and his late wife Iditarod Champion Susan Butcher. Dave and Susan married in 1985. They quickly became the most dominant racing team in Alaska. Susan won the 1,100 mile Iditarod Dog Sled Race from Anchorage to Nome four times (1986, 1987, 1988 and 1990). In one magical year -1988-Susan and Dave won every race they entered: Dave won the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile dog sled race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse; Susan won her third Iditarod; and they won other races in Kobuk, Bethel and the Klondike.

Dave stood on river bank shore and talk to us thru a headset to the boat’s PA system. He explained the dog’s training routine and the different steps in training to be a good sled dog. He then hitches a dog team up to ATV (with engine removed) and was pulled around the compound to exercise and train the dogs

dog kennel a

dog kennel b

dog kennal c

dosg kennal d

dog kennel d


Our next spot of interest was a animal pen or corral that, almost like on clue, the caribou came running into the pen on the river bank. The local saying here is the difference between caribou and reindeer is that reindeer can fly. After the caribou came out, made their appearance and jumped around the pen, we then paddled on.

pen a

pen c

pen d

video clip:

Next was the highlight of this tour and that is the “wedding of the rivers” where the Chena River and 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 en route to its rendezvous with the mighty Yukon River.
Notice the mixing of two different river waters.

boat at river

meet of water

river meet 3

GPS: 64 47.972,  -147 54.713     copy and paste in browser for map of location.

The Discovery did another 180 procedure and then we proceed back up river to our next stop at the Chena Village. This resembles the original Chena Athabascan Indian Village of the early 1900’s.

video clip:

village a

village b

Grace gave a demonstration of slicing Chum salmon into strips to be dried and then made into dog food.

village 4


video clip:

The boat docked and the gangplank was moved into place and we disembarked to tour the village.


Elizabeth, the Chief's daughter, gave us a talk here about animal pelts the tribe used.


pelt a

pelt 2

A fur cache.


log cabin

Log Cabin with grass roof.

deer pin

Reindeer pen

eliz fur

Elizabeth, the Chief's daughter showing local Athabascan hand made garments.

grace and eliz

Grace and Elizabeth with a really special coat.

coat rear

pelt a

pelt b


Author. photo by Chris P.


moose plus

garden a

Garden near the Chena River.

cabin a

Trapper's Line Cabin

cabin b


This is Susan Butcher's dog team area.

dog team a

dog b


Tanana River fishweel.
trap 2


On approach to FAI crossing the Tanana River.

dry rack 1

Salmon Smokehouse.

garden 2

Tanana River garden.

granet a

granite b

After about an hour the Captain blew the riverboat’s whistle and the passengers wandered back to the landing and re-boarding.
After getting under way and heading upstream, the passengers were treated to a Discovery tradition. A taste of Captain Jim’s gourmet smoked salmon. The recipe: Start with Alaska’s finest ocean-caught red sockeye salmon. Custom smoke it with natural alder smoke and hand-pack it the same day it is caught. Then mix it with cream cheese and spread on a cracker.
It had a smoked taste. I must have liked it because I went back for seconds. Take a couple of tins home with you, we were told.

More residence along the Chena River.

up river

house a

house 2

house 4


Captain Jim's widow Mary out for a stroll and a friendly wave for us.

Shortly after our tasty treat, the Discovery III was being tied up to the dock at the Steamboat Landing.


Waiting on the dock for us to return.

last look

One last look down the Chena River.

The disembarking passengers separated with the cruise line passengers heading to the dining hall for their noon meal and the NHRS group heading toward the buses to our next stop and adventure.

  Contact information:


The Pump House:

Thanks to brother Jim for his editing.

Table of Contents

Next:  Pioneer Park
Alaska Adventurers on Rail

[ | Rail Travelogues by other Reporters ]