The Great Fairbanks pub paddle
Discover Alaskan local flavour along Fairbanks’ Chena River (Lee Foster/LPI)
Fairbanks is an Alaskan original – oddball locals, raucous bars and rolling rivers. And from a town of original character comes original adventure. One of the best ways to find authentic Alaskan experiences is by taking to the rivers for the Great Fairbanks pub paddle. This cherished local tradition takes you from Pioneer Park on down the Chena River to some of the town’s best riverfront pubs.
Most folks kick off their pub paddle from Pioneer Park, where you can rent a boat of your choice from Alaska Outdoor Rentals and Guides (they can also pick you up at the end of your trip for a fee). The Chena is amazingly flat here, and you can float the stretch on an inner-tube, raft, canoe, kayak or paddleboard (bring a life vest, and never, ever boat while inebriated).
Fairbanks’ centre for kitsch tourist appeal, Pioneer Park, is actually hipper than you might think. The park’s biggest attraction is the SS Nenana, an authentic stern-wheeler that once plied the Yukon River back in the Gold Rush days. There is also an over-the-top show that re-visits Fairbanks colourful past, a Native Village Museum that gives a perfunctory glimpse at “authentic” native Athabascan village life, and an air museum. Dawdle all you like – summer concerts are the norm here – before you slap on your personal flotation device and head on down the river.
Your first stop is the Boatel (4420 Airport Way). This locals-rule watering hole can get a bit gamy at times. But put on a smile, shake hands and avoid eye-contact, and you should be just fine. Really, one of the best attractions in places like Fairbanks (and across Alaska for that matter) is engaging with the local characters. Everybody here has a story, whether they are running from something, someone or someplace back in “the lower 48”, getting their team ready for the 1,023-mile Yukon Quest dog race, studying native Alaskan traditions at the University of Fairbanks, or living off the grid in a cabin they built with their own hands.
After you have had your fill of Alaskan Amber and Alaskan blabber at the Boatel, paddle your way down to Pike’s Landing (4438 Airport Way) for drinks on the patio, and maybe a pub game or two. Funny thing about Alaska, no matter what time it is, the bars always seem crowded. And in the Land of the Midnight Sun, last call sometimes does not come at all.
Nearly everybody finishes up their pub paddle at the Pump House. A national-historic site, this bar and grill is set in a converted pump house from the Gold Rush days and makes for a fitting end to a day on that old whiskey river. If it is still early, you can head out for a hike on the Pinnell Mountain Trail, get in 18 holes of golf at the North Star Golf Club or head into town for more drinks and tall tales in the rip-roaring roadhouses that set this unique corner of America apart. In the end, you have plenty of time, the sun will not set for good for another three months.
Not into paddling?
You can also cruise the Chena River on the Riverboat Discovery on a three-hour stern-wheeler tour, head out of town to get wet at the Manley Hot Springs (women are welcome too) or check out a 36,000-year-old bison at the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North.
Greg Benchwick is co-author of Lonely Planet’s Discover Alaska guide