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Me watching the Tanana Chief passing the Princess hotel outside of Fairbanks. the Chena is a favorite place of Fairbanksans for recreation in summer and winter

Rivers in Alaska are undeveloped. While this fact sounds great for the outdoor enthusiast, it also means that these rivers can be particular dangerous from all kinds of perspectives. Read about the safe and risky opportunities on Alaskan rivers.

  1. Alaska’s Different Types of Rivers
  2. Water Levels of the Rivers in Interior Alaska
  3. In the Old Times, Rivers Were Used for Transport in Summer
  4. River Tours in Fairbanks
  5. Interior Alaska’s Rivers Are Not Developed
  6. Use of Rivers in the Interior Today
  7. The Dangers of Interior’s Rivers
  8. The Physics of River Water
  9. The Nenana Ice Classic Bets on the Breakup Time of the Tanana



Alaska’s Different Types of Rivers

In Alaska, there are many rivers with a lot of sloughs and bogs. The latter flood occasionally when a river has high waters. Alaska has two types of rivers. Those that are glacier-fed like the Tanana River carry a lot of silt and look like latte. They have their highest water in summer when the glaciers release a lot of water. The other rivers are rain-fed. Typically, rain-fed rivers like the Chena River in the photos of this post have relatively clear water in the Interior. You may also see some foam on the rivers meaning they are healthy.

Water Levels of the Rivers in Interior Alaska

Rain-fed rivers have high water in spring during snow melt. In the Interior, they often have low waters in mid May to June. During that time, precipitation is still relatively low. In summer, the rivers may get temporarily high waters when there are many thunderstorms or a mesoscale convective system in their catchments. High waters are also caused when several Aleutian lows make it into the Interior over the Alaska Range or come in from the Bering Sea. In August, many storms reach the Interior. This rain season is called the “Alaska monsoon” by the locals. Thus, in August, the rain-fed rivers in the Interior of Alaska peak too.

Comes November the rivers freeze. Once the ice is thick enough rivers serve as seasonal roads for adventurers and survival relevant huge parts that can be transported by aircrafts or on boats. At some places, ice bridges permit shortages. While seasonal roads have regulation when they can be built, ice bridges don’t. This means that there is always someone who broke thru the ice bridge because of going on the ice too early or too late in winter.

One spring, I asked one of the waitresses at a restaurant close to an ice bridge how many cars broke in. Guess what her answer was? Three cars were down in the Chena. They can’t be towed out before all ice is gone. In my opinion taking the ice bridge was a pretty expensive shortcut for those three drivers! More on breaking thru the ice bridge.

In the Old Times, Rivers Were Used for Transport in Summer

In the old times, the Chena, Tanana and Yukon were all used for transport of supply, gold miners, trappers, lumberjacks, mail, and travelers. These rivers are all flowing thru the Interior of Alaska and belong to the Yukon River catchment. Since the Interior is a taiga landscape, there is a lot of wood. Thus, in the old times, the stern wheelers were wood fired and required a large lumberjack economy.

River Tours in Fairbanks

You can rent canoes at Pioneer Park or go on a river sightseeing cruise on the Riverboat Discovery. The Tanana Chief (ship in the photos) offers dining cruises on the Chena River. Boarding is down by the Parks Highway in a little bay-like slough of the Chena. The cruise goes to the joining of the Chena and Tanana and includes appetizers, dining and desserts. Reservation is recommended. Once a year, there is a Saturday Nite dance cruise.

Interior Alaska’s Rivers Are Not Developed

Today, there is hardly any shipping on these rivers. The rivers are not developed an bear a lot of risk for modern shipping as well as motor boats. Being frozen for 6 to 7 month a year, shipping is not an attractive business anymore in times of air traffic. Thus, the only “shipping industry” that can work with the short open water season and the often low waters is the river cruise industry that lives of the tourism season. In winter, the rivers may be seasonal ice roads.

Use of Rivers in the Interior Today

Nevertheless, rivers in the Interior are used widely by the locals for travel to communities that are off the road network. Except for Circle, all communities in the Yukon Flats between the Brooks Range and the White Mountains, for instance, can only reached by motor boats in summer and by small aircrafts that can land on grass landing stripes, water or snow in winter.

Another use, is recreation. Many locals have kajaks, canoes or water bikes. There is even a place at Nordale Bridge in the Pioneer Park where locals and tourists alike can rent swim vests, canoes, kajaks or boards to paddle down the Chena to the Pump House where they and the equipment will be picked up. They will be driven back to the Pioneer Park in a van after the floating equipment is placed on a hitch. At Pioneer Park, the floaters re-unit with their cars or rental cars. Paddle boards are in fashion now … and of course, Alaskans do weird things with the dogs. Thus, occasionally they are on the board too.

Many locals also use the river for fishing for grail and alike or just catch and release. Some locals even swim in the river. However, I won’t recommend doing so without a swim vest even when you are a good swimmer. Alaskan rivers are dangerous. One can get into a strong underwater current that one can’t escape from.


Tanana Chief passing the deck of a dining place by the Chena River. The sun light sparkles like little stars on the water surface while the sternwheeler passes the mooring where a motor boat docked.

The Dangers of Interior’s Rivers

Every year, you hear about people who became victims of Alaska’s rivers. A couple of years ago, two half brothers jumped from Wood Bridge into the Chena near Barnette’s Landing in downtown Fairbanks. One of them dipped into an underwater current and drowned.

In another year, a 17-year old high schooler found himself with a sudden on an ice float during break-up. He and his friend had played on the Chena’s ice when the piece he was on broke off. He finally was rescued by firefighters and police.

This year, a midlife couple and a young woman went down the Yukon with a motor boat. People assume that they hit some obstacle under water that was not visible to them. Such events can lead to toppling of a small motor boat like they are used in Alaska. Reportedly the boat did so. Due to the many sloughs and since there is no walking path along the Yukon River, it took the young woman to get back to the village for help. She was the only one wearing a swim vest. Note that the Yukon is very milky as you can see in the post at the link.


Alaska travel Yukon bridge
Composite of the Yukon Bridge at Yukon Crossing. The bridge is made from wood

The Physics of River Water

Silt settles into the pores and between the yarn of clothes thereby adding weight. Furthermore, the clothes take up water as well. This additional weight pulls down people who fall into silty water without a swim vest. For comparison the specific weight of silt is about 51 – 73 lb per cubic foot (817-1169 kg/m3) while that of water is 62 lb per cubic foot (1000 kg per cubic meter) at 39 F (4oC). The specific weight of a  human body is about 61.5 lb per cubic foot (985 kg per cubic meter). The specific weight of the styrofoam of swim vests is about 1-2 lb per cubic foot (16-32 kg per meter cube). Thus, a swim vest chosen appropriately for a person’s weight, can offset the additional weight of silty water and keep the person floating.

The Nenana Ice Classic Bets on the Breakup Time of the Tanana

Each year, the Nenana Ice Classics Office sells $2.50 tickets from November 1 to April 5 to Alaskans who want to bet on the breakup day, hour, and minute of the Tanana River at Nenana. The Tanana is a contributor to the Yukon. The winner of this breakup lottery known as the Nenana Ice Classics will get the jackpot. If there are several people who guessed the right time, the jackpot will be shared among them. If no one predicted the right time, the one who had the closest bet, will be the winner. Like with all lotteries, there are people who just go for the same day and time every year. People consider the measurements and the weather to come up with their bet.

Prior to the last day of selling tickets or as long as the ice is safe (which ever comes first) officials drill the ice on a regular basis to measure and publicize its thickness. This year, the ice was 22 inch (55.9 cm) and inch (86.4 cm) thick on February 6 and 20, respectively. Over the last two decades, ice thickness varied from over 51 inch (130 cm) to just 25 inch (63.5 cm) at around this time.

Photos, if not stated otherwise: G. Kramm

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