Fairbanks, the Chena River, and the Riverboat Discovery

The Riverboat Discovery tied up along the Chena River on another gorgeous morning. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The Riverboat Discovery tied up along the Chena River on another gorgeous morning. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Today marked the official start of our first day of touring on Cruise Experts Travel’s Ultimate Alaska CruiseTour, as we set out to explore the striking city of Fairbanks and its surrounding environs at the start of this 12-day tour that will eventually conclude in Vancouver, British Columbia, some 2,077 miles (3,342 kilometres) away.

Rollin' On the River. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Rollin’ On the River. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Along for the ride with me this time are 24 fantastic guests from all over the United States and Canada, along with our talented Tour Director Cam, who came here eight years ago from “the outside” (the term for the Lower 48 states) and never left. Honestly, I think I lucked out with this group; I can’t imagine a more fun, easygoing bunch of people than the folks I have the privilege of helping along on this journey.

The Discovery III is a proper sternwheeler. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The Discovery III is a proper sternwheeler. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Our coach driver, Lindy, has lived in Alaska all his life, and knows these parts like the back of his hand. He’s also a local native, and he’s entertained us with stories from his childhood and his culture and traditions. He also has a wicked sense of humour!

Early this morning, we set out for a cruise on the Riverboat Discovery – well, actually, the riverboat Discovery III, to be exact: a four-deck high replica sternwheeler just like the type that would have been used on the Chena River over 100 years ago.

Watching a floatplane come in for a landing from the deck of the Discovery III. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Watching a floatplane come in for a landing from the deck of the Discovery III. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Capable of holding 900 guest and constructed in 1987, the Discovery III has ample seating inside and out, and I took up position on the stern to watch the paddlewheel do its work.

Touchdown! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Touchdown! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

What was fantastic about this, though, was that it wasn’t just a three hour cruise up the Chena. Instead, numerous stops were made along the way. The first of these had us sail closer to the shoreline so an Alaskan Bush Pilot could grace us with a narrow waterway takeoff and landing, while the second had us come alongside for a quick demonstration from the kennels of Susan Butcher, an Iditarod dog sled racer.

Watching the dogs at the home of Susan Butcher. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Watching the dogs at the home of Susan Butcher. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Our final stop before returning to dock, though, was the hour we had on-shore at the Chief Indian Village, a replica native village where local young Athabascan Indians told us about their rich culture and heritage through a series of different outdoor stops. It was absolutely stunning, and far and away what you get from the commercialisation of so many of the lower Alaskan cruise ports.

The Discovery III docked for our excursion ashore! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The Discovery III docked for our excursion ashore! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

For me personally, that has been the most rewarding aspect of my journey to Fairbanks: I feel like after six separate trips to Alaska, I’ve finally seen the “real” Alaska. Fairbanks has surprised and delighted me; I could actually see myself moving here – a sentiment that a few other guest on our tour also agreed with. There’s something very interesting about Fairbanks: it’s very community-oriented, and people here are fiercely proud of their history and heritage.

Local Athabascan natives talked about their unique culture and traditions. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Local Athabascan natives talked about their unique culture and traditions. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

I also discovered another thing: the mosquitoes up here are ferocious. The coach door literally opened at the Riverboat Discovery this morning and a mosquito zipped in and bit me on the wrist. After spraying myself down heavily with OFF!, that was no longer an issue. Advice to any and all those journeying up here: bring heavy-duty bug spray. DEET is your friend here.

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

After the cruise along the Chena, our coach returned us to the SpringHill Suites Marriott for lunch on our own and some free time. If you’re me – part host, part blogger – that means retiring to the room to answer emails and ensure that deadlines are met. But it’s fantastic for those guests who arrived late last evening and haven’t had the luxury of being able to explore Fairbanks just yet.

It’s the most oddly-alluring town I’ve ever been to, I think.

Hanging fish to dry; not so dissimilar from what the Norwegians do. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Hanging fish to dry; not so dissimilar from what the Norwegians do. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Gorgeous houses are nestled along the banks of the Chena. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Gorgeous houses are nestled along the banks of the Chena. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Before journeying to our evening Salmon Bake dinner at Pioneer Park, Lindy took us to see the Trans-Alaska Pipeline that runs through Fairbanks on its way from Prudhoe Bay in the north to Valdez in the south. Being born and raised in the oil and gas metropolis of Calgary, Alberta, seeing this amazing feat of engineering in person was a real highlight of my day – and of the guests on the tour, who all posed for pictures beside and underneath the massive pipe.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline runs near Fairbanks on its journey between Prudhoe Bay and Valdez. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline runs near Fairbanks on its journey between Prudhoe Bay and Valdez. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Our evening concluded with an enormously-enjoyable Salmon Bake dinner at Pioneer Park, which used to be called “Alaskaland” until a name change several years ago. But you don’t have to love salmon in order to enjoy dinner here: prime rib, cod, and hot dogs were also on offer, along with an assortment of accompaniments like potato salad, beans, salad, pasta salad, and more.

Pioneer Park - formerly "Alaskaland" - was the setting for our Salmon Bake dinner. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Pioneer Park – formerly “Alaskaland” – was the setting for our Salmon Bake dinner. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

What better way to conclude our first day of touring than by dining outdoors, under the sun (or indoors – there’s something for everyone) than with the kind of feast that will keep you full until breakfast and beyond?

Mmm...! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Mmm…! Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

One thing that interested me was just how much better the Salmon Bake was than I had thought. I think this sentiment was echoed throughout the group, with everyone coming away very pleasantly surprised by the food and by Pioneer Park, which features dozens of old machines and antiques that would have been used here a century ago, along with an aviation museum and a small train that runs around the park.

Pioneer Park also sports plenty of turn-of-the-century machinery. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Pioneer Park also sports plenty of turn-of-the-century machinery. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Before returning for our last night at the SpringHill Suites, we made a quick stop at the local Fred Meyer to pick up “supplies” for tomorrow for those guests who wanted to purchase snacks, drinks, or bug-spray strong enough to take down a horsefly in order to tackle Alaska’s new mascot, the mosquito.

As the midnight sun blazes on tonight amid an ever-changing haze of smoke from the nearby forest fires that have plagued the region recently, I am making a mental note to plan a trip back to Fairbanks. Next time, though, I want to come in the winter to see the flipside of the coin!

Making a quick stop at the local Fred Meyer to stock up on DEET-related sprays. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Making a quick stop at the local Fred Meyer to stock up on DEET-related sprays. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Tomorrow, we depart Fairbanks and head deep into Denali National Park, first by train and then by bus. Not only do we get to see one of Alaska’s most majestic sites, we also get to spend a night there, as far removed from the “real world” as one could arguably get these days.

I think it’s going to be a great adventure!

The (almost) Midnight Sun: still bright and sunny, even at 10:00pm. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The (almost) Midnight Sun: still bright and sunny, even at 10:00pm. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report from Cruise Experts Travel’s Ultimate Alaska CruiseTour continues tomorrow as we explore and spend an evening in Denali National Park – by train and bus! Be sure to follow along on Twitter by following @deckchairblog or using the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.

 

 

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