Roadtrippin': River bank restoration in the Golden Heart City, Part 2

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTUU) - As dependably as the Chena River flows through Fairbanks, multiple groups in Alaska's second largest city have been coming together to help preserve the waterway for generations to come.

"It’s not only where we operate our business, but we also live on this river," said Wade Binkley, whose family has run tourist spot Riverboat Discovery since the 1950s. "We have a vested interest in keeping this river healthy, making sure it lasts for generations to come."

At Binkley's place of work, throngs of people and racks of fish - both of which are seen every day - were at risk when erosion began damaging a bank along the river.

"Quite a few years ago, we experienced a problem," Binkley said. "We were experiencing large amounts of erosion all along the river bank, and were having a hard time docking our vessels right up close to the bank. It was becoming a safety issue as we were pulling in."

Erosion was eating away at precious land. The original repair plan was to install a massive sheet pile bulkhead, but especially for local species of fish, that just wasn't going to fly.

"Instead of pulling up to some rip-rap or steel piling, the Binkleys took it upon themselves to put in a natural bank," said Mitch Osborne, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The answer? Root wads, to stabilize the land and protect the local salmon habitat at the same time. They can help create high-banked walls serving as barriers to water and in turn, erosion.

"We take those root wads, pick ‘em up, flip ‘em over, and start to create this root wad wall," Binkley said "As you place one and the next and next, you tie them all together to make sure they’re sound. Put the earth back over the top, and you’ve got this beautiful wall."

Binkley's property includes two layers that make up the wall, one disguised by water and one sitting above, and his guests are able to safely cross from water to land at the river's edge.

But with that wall, the newly strengthened riverbank also perseveres as a link, serving quite literally as a bridge between modern-day tourism and traditions of old.

"It’s truly an honor to be able to do this," said Noah Lovell, an area tour guide for Riverboat Discovery. "So many people come here, and they come to learn about our Alaska Native people. It’s amazing to be able to show them a little bit of my culture."

Lovell, who's spent much of his fishing time working and learning under his father, said it's a family tradition to be working with salmon. He said he also enjoys sharing Athabascan traditions with visitors around the world.

As for the Chena River, it's a no-brainer when it comes to importance and need for restoration and preservation.

"This river is kind of life to Fairbanks," Lovell said. "It goes right through the heart, and Fairbanks is nicknamed the Golden Heart City. This could be the Golden Heart River of Alaska."

Video by photojournalist Ben Gauthier.

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