The Riverboat Discovery tour was one of the highlights of our time in Fairbanks. The Discovery is the only remaining operational sternwheelers left in the state. When Captain Charlie Bentley arrived in 1898 with hopes of plying the rivers in Alaska, he had no idea that his family would be following in his footsteps over 90 years later. The third generation of Bentleys now ferry passengers up and down the Chena and Tenana Rivers. This tour is one of the most highly rated tours in Alaska because it is unique and also it allows the participants to experience and learn about life in Alaska.
The Discovery 3, the boat that we were on, can carry up to 900 passengers although there were not that many onboard the day we went. During the 3.5 hour tour, there is a host or narrator, who tells you about some of the history of the Bentley family and early life on the river. He also points out interesting places along the river like a famous dog sled training site that is along the river.
Susan Butcher, a four-time Iditarod champion, trained her amazing dogs in Fairbanks. Now, after her death in 2006, her family continues training the dogs. We got to hear from Susan’s daughter and the host asked her questions about how the dogs are trained and we got to see a demonstration of the sled dogs in action. All of this was done from the water’s edge while we were on the riverboat.
While we were on the riverboat, they had a pilot fly a float plane near the sternwheeler. He landed and took off on the river. There are many places in Alaska that can only be reached via plane and the state has more pilots per capita than any other state.
During the tour, you disembark at an Athabascan Indian Village and some of the tribes descendants take you on a guided tour of the village. They tell you about their culture and how they managed to survive for thousands of years in Alaska. In the village they have authentic Athabascan houses that you can enter. There are reindeer (domesticated caribou) on display. Along the river, there is a fish camp where they demonstrate how they catch salmon with a fish wheel, clean, dry, and smoke them so that they have food for the entire year. Surprisingly, we learned that much of the Chum Salmon is dried and fed to the dogs. They also talked about their clothing and how they used animal pelts to make warm garments for the brutally cold winter months. It was fascinating to see how the Athabascan people adapted to their environment.
As we made our way back to the dock on this sunny, warm afternoon, we were treated to a sample of smoked salmon that was delicious as well as complimentary coffee and donuts.
The overall experience of the Riverboat Discovery tour was excellent. It was also very exciting to be out on the Chena River in this grand sternwheeler. The crew was very friendly and knowledgeable and it gave you a taste of multiple facets of Alaskan life.
Many things are pricey in Alaska, but there are ways to reduce the cost. One that we found is the Alaska Tour Saver coupon book. They can be purchased online, but we purchased ours at the Safeway in Fairbanks. It, for example, provided a “two for one” price for the Riverboat Discovery and the Museum of the North. The book is almost $100, but if you are visiting several places in Alaska it easily pays for itself.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Lunch Café and to our daughter Ashley who researched Fairbanks eateries and found this wonderful Gluten Free café/bakery for me. Lunch Café offers an excellent selection of GF, Vegan, and non-GF breakfast and lunch items. The GF items are delicious and taste so good that David could not tell that they were GF. Coffee is great, too. The best part was that the café was only a two minute walk from where we were staying. How many times did David and I stop by there during our time in Fairbanks? We’ll never tell!