EAGLE, Alaska - On a crisp September weekend, tourists aboard the $4 million riverboat Yukon Queen II took in the blazing yellows and burnt ochers of aspen and birch leaves as they sipped wine and nibbled turkey tetrazzini. Down at the waterline, the trip was a bit more turbulent.
Powered by four 1,000-horsepower engines, the 99-foot ship travels at 40 mph along the Yukon River on twice-daily, 100-mile trips from Eagle, in eastern Alaska, to Dawson, in Canada's Yukon Territory. Kicking up a powerful wake, it sends swells lapping to the shoreline.
The boat dwarfs everything else on this stretch of the Yukon, including canoeists, kayakers, fishermen and recreational boaters in skiffs and rafts. A number of people who ply the river say they've been swamped by the Yukon Queen's wake and fear that an inexperienced boater will eventually drown.
''It's a dangerous situation. Sooner or later, someone is going to get hurt,'' said Mike Sager, who runs a canoe rental business out of his log cabin in Eagle. About half of Sager's clients return with horror stories about their encounters with the tour boat, he said.
The Yukon Queen's skipper disagrees.
''It depends on your point of view,'' said the captain, Al Bruce, who describes the wake as ''a very gentle roll.'' Holland America, the boat's owner, says the vessel is operated safely and is an economic boon to the area.
But locals on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border complain they've had skiffs tied to shore tossed up onto the beach and damaged. Others say they have had their fish wheels and nets uprooted and sometimes lost.
''I had a 28-foot riverboat with two outboard engines. The Queen took it out and smashed it against the rocks,'' said Eagle resident Greg Birchard. He considered a lawsuit but figured it would cost him more than the damage was worth.
Bruce has heard the stories before and feels they're exaggerated.
''It's a very safe river to navigate. There's not very much traffic. We'll go for weeks at a time without seeing anyone,'' Bruce said from his perch in the wheelhouse.
When it crosses paths with another boat, the Yukon Queen always slows to minimize its wake, Bruce said, and the vessel even shifts into neutral if it appears the boater is heading to shore where the wake will be bigger.
Not only does the Yukon Queen always slow for others, it cuts the throttle when passing cabins, environmentally sensitive areas, historical sites or boats tied to shore, he said. The vessel always has at least two or three crew members watching for boaters, Bruce said.
But problems arise when the Yukon Queen fails to spot a boater in time. The biggest danger seems to occur when people panic and head for shore. While instinctive, that's the more dangerous course; it's safer to remain in deeper water where the wake is smaller, said Bruce and others.
''I always warn them and give them a lecture not to go to shore,'' said Colm Cairns, who rents canoes at Dawson City Trading Post.
The 110-passenger Yukon Queen II went into service last summer. Holland America buses cruise-ship passengers north along the Top of the World Highway to catch the boat.
Before 1988, another riverboat, called the Klondike, also took passengers on day trips between Eagle and Dawson, and by most accounts, the captain made no effort to accommodate other boaters. The Klondike was not owned by Holland America.
The company has gotten a bad rap because of the Klondike even though it had nothing to do with that vessel, Bruce said.
The Yukon Queen was built in western Australia by a company that specializes in designing high-speed, low-wake ferries. Boats similar to the Yukon Queen operate in busy ports like Sydney and Tokyo that have ''no-wake'' rules, Bruce said.