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  • Writer's pictureInger and Jeff Latreille

Alaskan Discoveries

~Friday, September 2, 2022~

Day 810

Day 74 of Alaska Trip

What a lovely treat today learning about the history and culture of Alaska from the unique perspective of the triple-deck stern paddler…..The Riverboat Discovery III. There was an option to observe through a glass-enclosed area or from the sundeck above. We chose the views from the top! Most of the tourists were from various cruise lines. The crew served up complimentary blueberry doughnuts and coffee on our departure. The narrator had the voice of a wonderful radio-personality that kept us intrigued and entertained the duration of the ride, immediately launching into how the Discovery got its start.

The Binkley family has over 100 years of boat piloting experience, including the Yukon River. When riverboats were replaced with cargo airplanes to move freight, Jim Binkley decided to open a boat excursion business which gave birth to a 25-passenger boat, Discovery I in 1955. Jim’s 3 sons would eventually become U.S. Coast Guard licensed riverboat captains. In fact, today’s pilot was a 3rd generation Binkley, Kai Binkley. In 1998, she became the youngest female to be certified by the U.S. Coast Guard as a sternwheeler riverboat captain. 👏👏Discovery II, built in 1971 would carry 300 people until the 1986 construction of Discovery III took place, with a capacity of 900 passengers.

Gosh, the weather has sure been in our favor on most of our big excursions, and this one was no exception. The warm sun felt so good on the top deck, with very little wind.

Once Kai turned the bow of Discovery in the forward direction on the Chena River, we had the treat of watching a planned demonstration of a float plane taking off and landing. The pilot and Kai exchanged information via radio, sharing statistics about Fairbank’s seasons, weather and just how residents endure those frigid temperatures. It’s fascinating to think that planes and cars use the river as an “ice road” on those many long, frigid, winter nights.The record low temp has been -70 degrees F below zero with an average low of -13 degrees F in the coldest month of January. The average high in January is 3 degrees F. 🥶 Fairbanks gets only 12” of precipitation a year…, not as much as we imagined. 1 in 78 people can fly a plane. The average cost per acre of land is around $100,000 with construction costs hovering about $274/square foot.

Continuing our float, we saw many homes nestled on the shores of the Chena, some fancy, some nondescript, and many referenced as “homesteads” (a common term in Alaska). Apparently building codes are pretty lax here, leaving homeowners to build freely which was noticeable on a number of properties. Some even have their own personal dock and float plane parked as if it were a common garage.

A little backstory on the Chena River… the summer of 1967, one of the worst disasters in the history of Alaska struck the Fairbanks area. In a short time, the Chena and Little Chena rivers went 6 feet over flood stage, flooding downtown Fairbanks and surrounding areas, driving residents to their rooftops, eventually displacing 7,000 people from their homes. Railroads, bridges and roads were washed away. Rescue efforts were hampered by the utter destruction which caused over $80 million in damage. Eventually Congress would pass a national flood insurance program in 1968. To prevent this from ever happening again, the Alaska District proposed the “Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project.” Eventually it would become the largest federal civil works program in the state which began construction in 1973. The Alaska District joined the Fairbanks North Star Borough to develop the project. The Army Corps of Engineers acquired the lands for the dam and floodway, but the borough obtained the lands for the levee and drainage channels. So that is what this huge berm is on the main road to get into our campground. What a project!

Turning the corner, we came upon eager, barking dogs coming up on the Trailbreaker Kennel, home to over 40 sled dogs and the late 4-time Iditarod champion, Susan Butcher and husband, Dave Monson. After Susan’s passing from Leukemia in 2006, her husband and daughters continue Susan’s legacy at Trailbreaker Kennel. Today, we had the opportunity to meet Tekla (the oldest daughter), who came to greet us with 2 3-month old Alaskan Husky pups. So cute! Behind them were the very eager, adult Alaskan huskies ready and waiting to do what they’ve been trained for….pulling a sled. We learned that Alaskan huskies have much greater stamina than a Siberian Husky. After 8 or so were harnessed in, Tekla commanded them to hit a large 1-lap trail around a lake on the property. You could tell, the other dogs left behind, were so disappointed they weren’t chosen for that particular exercise. After about a 5-minute lap, Tekla returned with her dogs and a “whoa” command which they immediately stopped for. And as a thankyou for a job well done, the racing dogs were released and led to the river for a much deserved splash time.

Around the next bend was an actual stop for the entire boat at the reenactment of an Athabascan Village. The fishing wheel was being used to demonstrate their catch of salmon, an all-important staple in the people and their sled dog’s diet. When we were set free on shore, we were able to attend a few demonstrations.

One was a guide identifying various pelts from wolf, fox, beaver, and coyote.

One exceptional piece of clothing was modeled by one of the guides…..a beautiful parka made from fur pelts, decorated with beaded flowers.

Once the hood came up around her face, I was blown away at just how gorgeous this parka was. The guide said it would take 3 months to make such a cloak and would be priced at around $20,000. Understandably so. Small log caches on stilts provided storage for natives’ winter food. Lean-to’s, canoes, and cabins were also depicted on the property. Added to the Alaskan heritage was a special visit on shore by Tekla and her assistant to sign her mother’s book called, “Granite”.

Ultimately, Granite was Susan’s greatest lead dog, overcoming amazing obstacles to help Susan win 4 Iditarod races and participate in several more. The “runt” of his litter, Susan came to realize Granite’s potential. With hard work and loving care, Granite would beat all odds to become the greatest sled dog in

Iditarod history. And his heritage carries on as many of the Alaskan huskies we saw from the boat today are descendants of Granite. So of course we just had to purchase a copy of the book!

After nearly 3 hours of touring, as we neared our starting point, an added bonus was the special wave we received from Discovery's matriarch herself, Mary Binkley, giving us a wave from her beautiful property on the Chena River. Wow, how special was that! We probably made her day as well!

Now we can’t leave Alaska without stopping to get a close up look at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS).

We had researched a “visitor center” near Pump Station #8 on the Steese Highway to get a closer look. It’s funny, when you search online for the so-called “visitor center”, you’re expecting an actual building dedicated to educating the public when in actuality, it has a few interpretive signs, a few displays, and easy access to see the pipeline up close. You can actually touch it. Though I’ve always been opposed to the pipeline and the danger it presents ecologically, I am still fascinated and in awe of the monumental task it took to achieve such a feat. Evidently now, with less flow since its inception, the pipeline bypasses 5 out of their 11 pump stations. Here are some interesting facts about one of the world’s largest construction projects in history:

1️⃣Length is 800 miles

2️⃣Diameter is 48 inches

3️⃣Crosses 3 mountain ranges and more than 500 rivers and streams

4️⃣Cost to build: $8 billion in 1977, the first largest privately funded construction project

at that time.

5️⃣Construction began March 1975 and was completed in May 1977

6️⃣First oil moved through the pipeline June 1977. On average it carries 1.8 million

barrels of oil a day

7️⃣First tanker to carry crude oil from Valdez: ARCO Juneau in August 1977

8️⃣Above ground sections of the pipeline are built in a zigzag configuration to allow for expansion or contraction of the pipe due to temperature changes. It also allows for movement of the pipeline during an earthquake.

9️⃣In places of thaw-UNstable soils, where heat from the oil in the pipeline (usually at 100 degrees) might cause foundation instability, the insulated pipeline was built above ground. In places where thaw STABLE soils were found, the pipeline was buried in the conventional manner.

🔟Structural engineer, Dr. James Maple was the principal designer of TRANS, holding 3 patents for his development of innovative pipe supports that enabled the warm oil pipeline to safely traverse areas of permafrost.

1️⃣1️⃣Scrapers known as “pigs”, launched and retrieved at pump stations, travel through

the pipeline with the moving oil. The retired pig (pictured)

scraped wax from the internal

walls of the pipe. Eventually the scraper pig was replaced by the lighter and

softer polyurethane version.

The polyurethane pig smoothes the flow of oil by reducing

turbulence, making it easier to pump. The scraper pig weighed 2,600 pounds, almost

1,000 pounds more than its replacement.

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