During my trip to Alaska, we spent a day in Fairbanks before heading further north. In addition to checking out the local REI and grocery store, we also had to visit the **amazing** National Park Service rangers at the Federal Interagency Center. To get there, we had to walk across a bridge over the Chena River.
i had never thought of Fairbanks as a “river town” – but it turns out that the Chena is central to not only Fairbanks but most of interior Alaska’s modern history. Here’s a few things that I learned while there.
1. The Chena River Goes Right Through Fairbanks
The river’s is right downtown. It’s like a natural beltline that defines neighborhoods and shapes the city’s layout, with bridges and walkways offering scenic vistas for pedestrians and motorists alike. I love how the city is reclaiming the waterfront with walkways, etc
2. The Chena River Frames The Interagency Center & Museums
The Chena River does more than just flow through Fairbanks; it frames some of the city’s most important landmarks. The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, the Alaska Public Lands Information Center are all right on the banks surrounded by a little native plant garden. Between the river and the aspen trees, it “smells” like Alaska.
3. The Chena River Flows To The Tanana Then To The Yukon
Beyond Fairbanks, the Chena flows southwest to join the Tanana River, which in turn merges with the mighty Yukon.
The Yukon, one of North America’s longest rivers, eventually finds its way to the Bering Sea, but not before touching the lives of the many communities along its path. This interconnectedness of waterways has been vital for trade, transportation, and communication in a region where even today roads can be scarce.
4. Fairbanks Was Founded As A Riverboat Town
Delving into Fairbanks’ origins, one discovers it was founded as a riverboat town. The Chena River was the main artery that fueled the city’s early development, with sternwheelers chugging along, transporting goods and people during the gold rush era. Riverboats are still a thing in Fairbanks. I thought riverboats were just along the coast.
These riverboats were the lifelines of commerce and community, bringing in supplies and news from the outside world. The river was bustling with activity, as prospectors, traders, and adventurers all converged on its banks, drawn by the promise of fortune and opportunity.
5. Before The Highway & Airport, the Rivers Provided Access To Interior Alaska
Before the construction of highways and the establishment of airports, rivers like the Chena were the primary means of accessing interior Alaska. They were the original highways, with boats and barges navigating the waters to deliver essential supplies to isolated communities.
The rivers enabled the movement of people and goods in a landscape that was otherwise seriously daunting and impenetrable. They were the economic arteries that supported the growth of towns and the expansion of industry throughout the Alaskan interior – mainly to get gold and minerals out.
6. Rivers in Alaska Are Slow, Wide, and Beautiful
Alaskan rivers, including the Chena, are characterized by their slow, meandering flows, wide banks, and stunning beauty. They carve through the landscape, creating broad valleys and supporting a huge array of wildlife.
On one hand, they are really beautiful and clear. They are very different from the rivers I see in the Southeastern US. But…they also great these large thickets of wetlands and willow thickets are a nearly impenetrable.