After the previous week’s whirlwind trip to Kenai Fjords, we were craving a relaxing weekend in Fairbanks. We spent Friday night having drinks at Ursa Major, a distillery in Ester, AK (we’ll post about Ursa Major sometime in the future – we love this place for its cocktails and close location to our apartment!). Our Saturday was filled with visiting the Tanana Valley Farmers Market, errands, and grilling.
We made plans with Regine, Dave’s supervisor, to canoe and kayak down the Upper Chena River on Sunday. After a casual start to the weekend, we were excited to float on one of the many rivers near Fairbanks. Regine has a two-person canoe that she and Leigh used. David borrowed a kayak from our landlord, who conveniently works at a local outdoor sports shop. After a delicious breakfast of sourdough pancakes made by Regine, we tied the boats to the tops of our cars and were on our way.
The Chena River flows right through Fairbanks and is easily accessed from our apartment by following a short bike trail. Many people canoe, kayak, boat, and raft down this portion of the Chena, although this is a relatively calm and very populated stretch of the river. To access a more interesting and less populated stretch, we drove about an hour away to the Upper Chena River. After unloading our boats at Mile 44 on Chena Hot Springs Road, we dropped another car off at our anticipated stopping point at Mile 39. We donned lifejackets, secured everything to the boats using carabiners, waded into the water, and started paddling to our destination.
The appearance and level of difficulty of the Upper Chena River changes drastically depending on the amount of water flowing. On our trip, the water level was quite low due to less-than-average rainfall in the previous weeks. While a shallow river is easier to navigate in some respects, there were many obstacles presented by the low flow. Huge tree trunks and branches stuck out of the water throughout our journey, requiring some quick paddling in the canoe to avoid. Seeing the immense size and quantity of trees that had been swept into the river helped us imagine how powerful it is when water levels are higher.
We did not see or hear another person throughout the entirety of our float. We kept our eyes focused on the banks of the river for signs of wildlife but were not rewarded with any bear or moose sightings. Focusing our gaze on the water proved much more rewarding; we spotted many enormous, bright red salmon swimming upriver to spawn. Typically, mid-July is the time of year that the salmon swim upstream to their birthplace to spawn and die. According to Regine and other locals, if we had floated down the river a week or two later, we might have experienced the unpleasant smell of hundreds of dead fish as we floated. Luckily, all salmon we encountered were still alive and swimming hurriedly upstream.
Because we paddled for most of our journey, it only took us about 2.5 hours to reach Mile 39. Had we not paddled or set a more relaxed pace, this float could have easily kept us entertained for 5-6 hours. Once we successfully pulled our boats out of the water and retrieved the other car, we packed up our things and were back home within an hour. Being able to drive only a short way away to immerse ourselves in nature was incredible, and we are looking forward to our next float trip with Regine. Fairbanks is fantastic for day adventurers!
Leigh joins me in writing about our adventures living in Alaska.