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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

The use of Alaskan rivers has changed over the last century, but left them undeveloped and unpolluted. While this fact sounds great for every 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, the Use of Alaskan Rivers Was Transport in Summer
  4. River Tours in Fairbanks
  5. Interior Alaska’s Rivers Are Not Developed
  6. The Use of Alaskan Rivers in the Interior Today
  7. The Dangers of Interior Alaskan Rivers
  8. The Physics of River Water
  9. Healthy Waters Have Foam
    • Foam Stems from Lipid Molecules of Decay
    • How Can You to Distinguish Natural from Anthropogenic Foam?
  10. 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.


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. Taking the ice bridge was a pretty expensive shortcut for those three drivers!


In the Old Times, the Use of Alaskan Rivers Was Transport in Summer

During the pioneer times, the Tanana and Yukon served 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 burned wood, 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 undeveloped  rivers bear a lot of risk for modern shipping as well as motor boats. On rivers with ice-over 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. This branch makes use of the Alaskan rivers during the tourism season. In winter, the rivers may be seasonal ice roads.


The Use of Alaskan Rivers in the Interior Today

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

Another use of Alaskan rivers 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. There, a van with hitch picks them and the equipment up and drives  back to Pioneer Park. 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. Occasionally, the dogs get a ride on a board too. Fishing for grail and alike or just catch and release is another use of Alaskan rivers.


Tanana Chief river boat on the Chena an undeveloped river in Alaska
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 Alaskan Rivers

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.Every year, you hear about people who became victims of Alaska’s rivers. A couple of years ago, two half-brothers jumped from the Wood Bridge in downtown Fairbanks into the Chena . 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. Luckily, firefighters and police rescued him.

This year, a midlife couple and a young woman traveled down the Yukon with a motor boat. People assume that they hit some obstacle under water that they could not see. Such events can topple a small motor boat. Reportedly, the boat did so. Due to the many sloughs, and since no walking path exists along the Yukon River, it took the young woman three days to get back to the village. She was the only one wearing a swim vest. Note that the Yukon is very milky as you can see in the post on traveling the unpaved roads of the Dalton HWY.



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.


Healthy Waters Have Foam

Standing at Grael’s landing, I overheard many tourists over the years complaining about the “pollution” on the river. They were referring to small spots of foam up to a 5 cent size floating downstream in summer.

When you take use of Alaskan rivers to kayak or canoe or go fishing at Alaska rivers or lakes, you often see foam on river banks, or collected on fallen trees in the water. The foam is part of the river’s ecosystem, and no reason at all to worry about. Sure, it looks icky, but the foam is sign for a healthy river. The same aplies for foam that exists at all Alaska coastlines like the beach of the Artic Ocean and or the Beaufort Sea seen in the photo below.

foam on Beaufort Seacoastline
Foam at the beach. “Beaufort Sea coastline” by ShoreZone is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Foam Stems from Lipid Molecules of Decay

Don’t freak out about foam on the river, lake or at the beach. It is nature-made, and a sign of healthy waters. The foam builds during decomposition of dead animals like dead fishes, water insects, amphibian, larvae, feathers from water birds, etc., and plant material including leaves that fell into the water.

Foam consists of fat oil molecules so-called lipid molecules. They once were the waterproof walls of plant cells or skins of creatures. As you know, oils and fats do not mix with water. They are also lighter than water. Therefore, the lipid molecules float as a thin film on the water.

Chena and Tanana rivers flowing together
Two Alaska rivers, the Chena River (foreground) and Tanana River (background) with wind driven waves in the rain


Wind produces waves when it attacks the water surface. The waves stir the water and with it the thin oily film. Consequently, air mixes with the oily, fatty film on the water. Bubbles form starting the foam development.

In areas, where the flow is slow or (temporarily) absent like on beaches, river banks, at trees fallen into the water, or at beaver constructions, foam can accumulate. There, the water can look like someone had dumped their dish water. The foam is an unexpected view and experience for Alaska visitors.


How Can you to Distinguish Natural from Anthropogenic Foam?

Finally, bacteria feed on the foam and, so to speak, clean up. The life cycle of eating and being eaten closes again providing new material for new foam on the water.

While natural foam from decay is white, uptake of debris, pollen, spores, algae, silt and dirt can change its color. Yellow foam, for instance, most likely contains pollen.

Natural foam differs from pollution-caused foam. If the foam were from detergents or soaps, the foam would have some scent. Natural foam smells rotten, if at all.


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, they will have to share the jackpot 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. Other 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

© 2013-2021 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved

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