Published: June 19th 2012May 28th 2012
Life is like a box of chocolates. (waiting for Jim to pick us up)
Can you say ROCKSTARS? That is exactly how we felt today, thanks to our friend, Jim Binkley.
Jim is a 3rd generation riverboat captain, and the family tradition is still being handed down to kids, grandkids, nephews and nieces. Jim's grandfather worked on boats on the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers, but came up to Alaska during the Yukon Gold Rush in 1898. He started a boating company to transport equipment and supplies to the miners. Jim's father also took to the river, and in the 1950's his parents started a riverboat tour company. The family built several sternwheel paddleboats and later actually cut them in half to expand them for their growing business! The Riverboat Discovery has grown to a thriving riverboat tour company and has been passed on through two more generations.
Jim picked us up at our hotel this morning and took us to the dock, where we were introduced to Captain Ken. He then gave us two guest passes and said he'd pick us up for lunch. The tour down the Chena River was amazing! They had a bush pilot talk to us about flying, then he takes off and lands on the river right
next to the boat. Our next stop was at Susan Butcher's kennels, where her husband Dave Monson gave a demonstration on dog sledding by hooking up a team to a cart that he raced around a big track. Susan Butcher won the Iditarod in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1990, all with the same lead dog, Granite. Susan lost a battle with cancer in 2006 but her husband keeps her legend alive.
Next we visit the Chena Indian Village, where Jim had been instrumental in recreating an Athabascan and Eskimo village with both original cabins and building, and some replicas. At this stop, we actually disembark for an hour and native guides give presentations on Eskimo life. We also get to meet Dave Monson in person, who stops by to sign autographs.
On the ride back, we are invited up to the wheelhouse to ride with the captain and get a bird's eye view of the river. We are amazed to learn that Fairbanks is the "desert" of Alaska, with an average 12 inches of annual precipitation (yes, that includes snow), the same as Pueblo, Colorado! We pass Jim's mother's house, and she comes out to wave. The neighborhood
kids also come out to give us the "moose antler" wave.
Back at the dock, we see Lance Mackey, 4 time Iditarod champion, who is posing for photos. Jim meets us and takes us back to his beautiful home on the river and we have lunch and talk. They have just opened up a new tour called Gold Dredge #8, and Jim hasn't yet been on the tour, so he drives us up to the location and we board the open air train, where we make several stops to learn how the gold dredge worked, and then get a demonstration on panning for gold. At the station, we are handed our own "poke" of dirt so we can pan for ourselves. Jim sits down with us and we all try to find our little nuggets of gold. We combined our gold together and it was all put in a locket so Deb could wear it as a memory of our trip. After we enjoyed some hot chocolate and cookies, Jim asked a guide to take us up into the Dredge and explain how it all worked. On the way out, we pass under a portion of the Alaskan pipeline
and are given an informational talk about the pipeline. Jim then drove us back to our hotel and we thanked him profusely for entertaining us all day and lavishing us with such special treatment.
We were scheduled for a midnight sun float trip and dinner excursion, but when we get back to the hotel, we learn that they had to cancel it due to flooding upriver the day before. We decided to have a drink at the bar, then walk down the river to a great restaurant about a block away, where we ordered King Crab legs. The weather was so nice, we sat out on the open deck with t-shirts and were warm and happy! We decided to play a round of miniature golf, stood on the deck overlooking the river, then walked back to the hotel. Deb calls her friend Terri, who we are going to see tomorrow, and after she hangs up, realizes it is almost 10:30! I swear, it looks like it's 7pm outside - it is so weird!
Tomorrow we have an early flight down to Anchorage, so we have to catch the shuttle at 5:30am.
There are more photos below