©Bert Gildart: One of the most popular trips in Alaska is a cruise on the riverboat DISCOVERY III. The family owning the business has a long history in Alaska, and all that is weaved into the 3 ½ hour trip down the Chena River. Highlights include stops at Susan Butcher’s dog training kennels, and at the replica of a native village, where descendents of the various Indian and Eskimo cultures provide demonstrations of their various subsistence life style, ones that are still practiced.
Janie and I began our tour by meeting Jonathan Bradish, the ship’s First Mate, and Wade Binkley, the boats relatively young captain.
Like all other family members, Wade said he had started at the bottom and worked his way up, something all Binkleys have been doing since his grandfather began the business just following the Gold Rush of the 1890s. His grandfather, one of the “Stampeders” hiked over the Chilkoot Pass.
Subsequent to those times, Binkleys have built boats for the Chena, Tanana and Yukon rivers. At first boats served to supply goods for miners, but then, in the 1950s, recognizing a change, the family began offering excursions along the Chena and Tanana rivers with Discovery I. Today’s boat is similar to the earlier version, but still has evolved and improved with time through Discovery II, and now Discovery III.
We began our tour with pier-side waves from a group of envious onlookers, and then moments later, stopped to watch a float plane take off and land. Along the Chena, it seemed many residents had boats and planes moored to docks with steps leading to substantial homes. Some residents here were well known and one home belonged to Senator Murkowski.
Several miles further downriver, the boat anchored at the Susan Butcher Kennels, and many may remember her as the energetic young woman who won four Iditarod races. Using a dog team, Susan also led a climbing party to the top of Mt. McKinley.
Susan’s best dog of all, named Granite, became the subject of a book that Susan and David wrote. Sadly, leukemia claimed Susan’s life in August of 2006, but her husband David Monson and children continue to run the kennels and train dogs. As well, they provide DISCOVERY passengers with such exciting demonstrations that the surge of passengers to starboard seemed capable of tilting the boat.
Using a radio mike, David explained how he trained and cared for dogs. He then hooked his team to an unpowered four-wheeler, which the dogs pulled over a course designed to keep them fit. Upon their return, the dogs were released and there upon charged into the 45º water of the Chena. One of the young ladies hired to help David throughout the summer eagerly joined.
As the dogs and trainer splashed in the Chena you could hear the steady clicks from camera-totting visitors. “Good thing we’re no longer shooting film,” laughed one passenger.
LARGEST GLACIAL SUPPLIED RIVER
DISCOVERY III continued its excursion to the mouth of the Chena and Brad, who had invited Janie and me to the captain’s house, told us that the river had created an impassable sandbar so the boat could no longer pass into the Tanana. He said the Tanana is the largest glacial supplied river system in the world. “When it swells from glacial silt,” said Brad, “it can actually slow the flow of water from the Chena River.”
A NATIVE VILLAGE
The boat’s last stop was at Chena Village, a replica of native villages from interior Alaska–and here, demonstrations were provided by college students (all of whom were Native) from various villages. Demonstrations were intended to show techniques for preparing salmon to be dried on smoke racks, use of the fish wheel, trapping techniques, gorgeous hide apparel and all the other associated aspects of a person’s life in the village. Janie and I knew they were authentic as we had lived for a period in a number of villages that still rely for survival on subsistence.
(Above photos of Captain Wade Binkly and of the former resident of a subsistence village. The young lady is now a college student and works summers providing demonstration of life as it once was, and in some cases, still is! FOR ENLARGEMENTS, CLICK ON PHOTO)
Over the years, Janie and I have both enjoyed many excursions throughout Alaska, and concur that for people interested in a quick overview of the way in which life was once conducted, and still is in many cases, a trip down the Chena aboard the stern-wheel riverboat Discovery III is tops.