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Destination Alaska Part VI: A 66-Day Trek to the Last Frontier

Giant chickens, gold dredge, and pipeline pigs

Monument to Chicken, Alaska (Photo credit Sheryl Gallup) Monument to Chicken, Alaska (Photo credit Sheryl Gallup)

By: Sheryl Gallup

This is Part VI of an eleven-part series

Click here for Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

No blog entry yesterday due to travel, sightseeing, and having to set up camp later than planned. But, what a fun day it was. We decided to take a detour off of the Parks Highway down the Talkeetna Spur Road and ended up spending a good portion of the day in a little town called Talkeetna.

It was a very charming town and one that definitely catered to tourists. It appears to be a stop for the “boat people” from various cruise lines, as well as tour buses. There were plenty of gift shops to please everyone. We had lunch there at a cute little place called West Rib Pub & Grill. The restaurant is cluttered with mountain climbing memorabilia and is named after the first ascent up the West Rib. I found shopping to be quite entertaining and had no problems parting with my hard earned cash for the trinkets that I purchased.

If you ever get a chance to visit the area, you should consider going to Talkeetna. The town has retained a lot of its historical buildings, including some log cabins. I loved the festive spirit of the town. Even the store clerks and wait staff performed their work in high spirits.

Talkeetna Main Street
Talkeetna Main Street

 

Our destination for today was Denali National Park. We woke up to rain and we knew that this was not going to be the best day to visit the park, but since it has been raining for almost two solid weeks, we decided that we just can't postpone any destinations because the weather won't cooperate.

The first thing we did when we got to Denali was to visit the boardwalk. This area is about three blocks long and is solid with restaurants, activities rentals and shops. We hit pretty much all the gift shops.

We had hoped that by first killing time at the shops that maybe the morning showers would pass. They did, but the threat of more rain hung over us all day and really put a damper on our day. We both agreed that the park was pretty much what we had expected. It was quite beautiful and the roadway into the park provided amazing views, but no wildlife sightings. We did far better with our animal encounters in Jasper, Banff, Kootenay and Glacier than we did at Denali. In all, we saw one red squirrel, one gray jay, and one snowshoe hare. Not one moose, one ram or one bear.

Denali National Park
Denali National Park

 

We decided to not even try to book a bus tour over the next few days because the forecast holds a promise of rain for the next four days. We opted instead to just travel the Parks Highway. Visitors are allowed to travel from the park entrance to Savage Creek, which is a 14-mile trip, before they get to the ranger station and have to turn around. Only buses can go the rest of the way into the park and those few smart folks who booked a special permit a year in advance to travel into the park.

Denali is beautiful and I am grateful that the magnificent six million acres of pristine countryside is protected and owned by the U.S. Park Service, which means it belongs to all of us to enjoy and share for generations forward.

The Magnificence of Denali National Park
The Magnificence of Denali National Park

 

While we did not see any wildlife in Denali today, yesterday we did see two cow moose and an absolutely enormous bull moose. Unfortunately, we saw them by car, and we couldn't pull over to gape at their pure mass and beauty.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Yesterday was all about travel, and it was such a rainy, dreary, mucky day that we did not stop to see anything choosing instead to just keep on trucking. By the time we pulled into Fairbanks, the truck and the trailer were covered in mud and our spirits were a bit low.

We opted to use the dreary day to tend to chores. It rained all day and all night and our hopes for sun and warm weather was fading.

Then, it was morning and with the new day came something we haven't seen much since we first pulled into Alaska – the SUN! It's amazing how just a little sunshine could not only brighten our day but our mood. Both Woodzjoe and I had a spring in our step and a whistle on our lips this morning.

Today, we decided to venture down the Steese Highway outside of Fairbanks. Woodzjoe thought the drive would be nice (it was) and that panning for gold might be productive (it wasn't).

We panned along the Nenana River in an area friendly to gold panners; meaning that no one would chase you off with a shotgun, since the area we were in is open to the public. We only have one gold pan, so Woodzjoe panned while I was active with my own hobby, looking for rocks. With every “gem” that I found, my pockets got closer and closer to my knees. My treasures are slowly filling up my rock bucket.

The trophy for the day was not something Woodzjoe found, but rather, I was the lucky one. As I walked around in the rocks I found a huge slab of pure quartz. I told Woodzjoe that I found this incredible find, but it was too hard to get out of the ground. I asked him for help, to which he smiled and replied, “Sure” and he hands me the shovel. I worked on that rock for I bet 45 minutes, but I finally unearthed it from the packed dirt and pried it out with the shovel. I ran back to the river, elated that I unearthed my treasure, and I asked him if I could bring it home. Once again, his answer was "sure."

Now, what I forgot to mention to him is that not only was it buried, but it is a big piece of quartz. After Woodzjoe decided to call it quits on the gold panning, I dragged him over to see my rock. He laughed when he saw it and shook his head. His body language told me that the rock was not going into the truck. My body language was saying, “wanna bet?”

It took two of us to get that rock into the truck. Actually, Woodzjoe told me that if I could pick it up and carry it to the truck that I could bring it home. Determined, I bent down at the knees, rubbed my hands on my pants to make sure they weren't slippery, and with all my adrenaline pumping, I lifted that beauty out of the ground and grunted and moaned my way over to the truck. Once I got it there, he helped me lift it safely into a nice little corner in the truck. Honestly, I don't know how much it weighed but I would say at least 50 pounds. I think it is safe to assume that I will only be allowed one rock like this one for the remainder of the trip. What an incredible treasure.

As for Woodzjoe's gold panning, well, only a couple little flakes and still not enough overall to pay for the $20 gold pan he bought. But, he is having a blast trying to make his fortune.

Woodzjoe panning on the Nenana River, Fairbanks
Woodzjoe panning on the Nenana River, Fairbanks

 

Friday, July 12, 2013

It is 11 p.m. and we are tucked into our campground at Tok. Even at this late hour, I am still able to work off of my laptop outside at the picnic table in full light. As a night owl, it thrills me that it never gets dark here in the summer.

Today was a travel day from Fairbanks back to Tok where we were just about 20 days ago. We made a few stops today along the way, but our first stop outside of Fairbanks was a town called North Pole. We figured it would be a little bit too “cute” and it was, but we respected that a town named North Pole made the most of it. The Santa Claus gift shop had a real-life Santa, and with his natural white beard, rosy red cheeks, and the Ho Ho Ho rumbling from his chest, he almost had me convinced that there really is a Santa.

North Pole Gift Shop
North Pole Gift Shop

 

The next stop on our journey was Delta Junction, which marks the end of the Alaska Highway. We traveled the entire highway from Dawson Creek, Milepost 0, to Delta Junction, Milepost 1422. Just standing there next to the milepost it felt like such an accomplishment. I remember how weeks ago, when we first set out on the Alaska Highway, how in awe I was of the history of the highway. Now that I have traveled all of it, I am so grateful to the 15,000 men who used 11,000 pieces of equipment to build the $115,000,000 road. Until you see the terrain that they had to bulldoze and blast their way through, you really can't appreciate it. This to me is one of the great wonders of North America.

Delta Junction
Delta Junction

 

End of the Alaska Hwy Milepost 1422 Delta Junction
End of the Alaska Hwy Milepost 1422 Delta Junction

 

Also, at Delta Junction was an old “pig.” We had been reading about these mechanical pigs as they relate to the pipeline, and it was fun to see one up close. This is not the modern version, but this mechanical device was used to scrub the inside of the 48-inch-wide pipeline. Workers would put a pig in the pipe and it would shoot down the pipeline, scrubbing out interior deposits as it went. At our July 4th picnic on the Kenai Peninsula, we talked to several retired pipeline workers who shared stories about the pigs. They said that pigs would be brand new when they entered the pipeline and by the time they went through all the clappers along the route to the end, they were seldom ever in one piece.

Alaska Pipeline Pig
Alaska Pipeline Pig

The rest of our day was a pleasant, hassle-free, sunny, and just a nice drive through the countryside on the last part of our trip in Alaska. Tomorrow we leave for the Yukon.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

We have been on the road now for about 42 days and about 6,800 miles, and through all the rain, the road construction, trailer repairs, saber-tooth mosquitoes, I can honestly say that in spite of all of that, they were all still good days on the road. But, today, I had to really search deep inside myself to find the silver lining in this travel day.

When Woodzjoe told me as far back as a year ago that part of our trip would include something called “Top of the World Highway,” I knew that this was going to be a challenge for someone like me who suffers from vertigo. What I didn't know was that I would have to try and maintain this calmness for more than 100 miles, most of it on gravel, over 11 hours, on the worst road I have ever been on in my entire life. Everyone had been telling us that if we drove slow and easy, our trailer could handle the road. Well, Woodzjoe went slow (max speed was 30 miles per hour, I think), and the trailer did handle it … but me? Well, not so much.

When we first started out, the road was steep, winding, but indeed beautiful. I was fascinated by the massive landscape mostly charred by a wild fire in 2004 that burned 1.3 million acres. For as far as the eye could see, the landscape was covered with charred trees, but yet the mountainsides and roadsides had this brilliant pink color due to all the Fireweed. What I learned about this brilliantly colored pink flower is that it is called Fireweed because it is the first thing that begins to grow among the ashes. The root system is so deep that it doesn't get destroyed by fire.

Fireweed Top of the World Highway
Fireweed, Top of the World Highway

 

About the time that I thought I was going to have to lay in the backseat to avoid any more windshield time, we finally reached an odd little town called Chicken. I liked Chicken. They made the most out of their town name and had a Chicken Mercantile, Chicken Liquors, Chicken Café and Chicken Gas.

The town of Chicken was once a mining town and was named by early miners who wanted to name the town Ptarmigan. Unfortunately, no one was in agreement as to how to spell the word, so they named it Chicken instead, which is the common name for ptarmigan.

Monument to Chicken Alaska
Monument to Chicken, Alaska

 

Chicken also had an old dredge and it was fascinating to see one up close. It looks nothing like the one that the Hoffman's used on Gold Rush, but it amazed me with how big it was.

Gold Dredgr Chicken Alaska
Gold Dredge, Chicken, Alaska

 

I really enjoyed this little town, and I stocked up on Chicken souvenirs, including some really cool chicken socks.

We were also fortunate enough to have an opportunity to see a cow moose feeding in a marsh near Chicken. She seemed to have no interest in us or in the tour bus in front of us that stopped to watch her feed.

Moose outside of Chicken Alaska
Moose outside of Chicken, Alaska

 

Now that we were rested from our engaging visit to Chicken, we were back on the road of terror and once again, the tension returned.

After a couple more hours, we both really needed a break and Woodzjoe really wanted to pan for gold. We found a great spot in the valley of the highway that was along the Jake Wade Creek. Woodzjoe, armed with rubber boots, shovel and pan set off to try his luck while I walked along the shore looking for rocks. Woodzjoe's luck changed and he was able to find about five little pieces of gold. Considering that they had to be picked out of the pan with tweezers I think it is safe to say that the gold profit will not pay for our trip. He had a blast, and it was a good release for him to focus on something besides the horrific road and a freaked out girlfriend.

The excitement for the day was seeing the Yukon River from the top of the ridge and the village below, knowing that we were finally at Dawson City. The ferry ride across the Yukon River was very short, but it was really rather enjoyable for both of us.

Memories of the day, with photos to match, will be with us always, but, I went to sleep tonight comforted by the fact that I survived the Top of the World Highway and that it was something I would never have to do again.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

We slept well after our long and stressful day at Top of the World Highway and were able to actually sleep in today. We knew that today would be relaxed and slow-paced since our only plans are to tour the quaint little town of Dawson City, Yukon.

We both rather liked this little town, primarily since they pay tribute to their history instead of bulldozing it down and building modern buildings. If you could look past the modern vehicles, everyone walking around talking on cell phones, and avoid the souvenir shops, you could almost imagine yourself back in the early 1900s. The downtown area still has dirt roads, and many of the original buildings are still in use. Some of the buildings may now house gift shops, offices, or drugstores, but the buildings still stand proud on every street in town. At the visitor center, I asked if any of the buildings had been moved or rebuilt. I was told that many have been stabilized and restored, but very few were moved or torn down. Even the newer buildings in town were conscious of their surroundings and have been built with architectural elements that match their neighbors.

Westminster Hotel Dawson City Yukon
Westminster Hotel, Dawson City, Yukon

 

Woodzjoe and I decided to have lunch at one of the old hotels in the Jack London Café. As it turns out, authors, Jack London and Robert Service both lived in Dawson City. Their homes are still there and are part of the historic tour.

After we walked around town, we decided to head to the waterfront and walk along the Yukon River. I fell in love with this river. It is quite beautiful as it meanders its way through town and down through the valley. We watched one of the riverboats as it paddled its way downstream and for a moment I felt it was 1900.

Yukon River Riverboat Dawson City
Yukon River Riverboat, Dawson City

 

The history of Dawson City was quite entertaining. As it turns out, gold was discovered long before the stampeders arrived. By the time they arrived, many of the claims were already taken. For those that couldn't make their living from mining, it was even tougher to find work. If miners could find jobs in town, they were paid only about $10 per week and it cost that much just to live.

Dawson City was a bawdy town in its time. There was plenty of entertainment from saloons, dance halls, hotels, restaurants, brothels and card rooms. Woodzjoe and I decided to check out the entertainment for ourselves and we wandered over to Diamond Tooth Gertie's for some casino action and to take in the live show with Gertie herself. It did seem odd though to see her dressed in periodic costumes, standing on the stage, in this old saloon and belting out Barbra Streisand songs.

At the end of the day today we decided to drive up to the top of Dome Road at midnight. It is very high and winding, but we were promised by the visitor's center earlier in the day, that the road is paved and not scary. It was a nice drive up, but at the top it was far too scary for me.

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