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June 29, 2010


There are two roads out of Alaska.  One would take us back the way we had come in, and we remembered the rutted, potholed road from hell.  The second road leads to Dawson City high up in the Yukon.  It is called the Top of The World Highway.

 Since we had a late start out of Fairbanks, we didn’t reach Tok, Alaska until about 7:00 p.m.  By that time, a pretty good rain had started and obscured all the scenery we might have seen.  At dinner we debated which road to take back to Canada.  I was determined not to take the Rutted Road.  But the problem with the Top of the World Highway was that there were about 40 miles of it that were unpaved.  We opted for that despite our recent experience on the Dalton Highway—we would just have to take it slow and hope against hope for a dry day tomorrow.  But the first 60 miles was paved and after dinner we headed out onto it in the pouring rain.

 We knew that the border crossing would be closed for the night, and so our destination was a place called Chicken.  The paved portion of the road to Chicken had the potential for providing some really nice views, which we might have enjoyed had they not been entirely in the clouds, fog and rain.  Just before Chicken the Pavement Ends sign announced the arrival of the mud.

 Chicken is a modern day working gold mining camp and has a small town center consisting of 2 gas stations, a saloon, a post office and a café.  It may also sport a museum, but we were too wet and tired to look for it.  As we gassed up we learned a lot about the town.  The proprietor told us that in the winter there aren’t many people in town, but it expands in the summer to a population of 20.  We asked about the road out and he said simply, “It gets worse.”  “In what respect”, I asked.  He replied, “You saw the last two miles?  Well, there’s forty more of them to go.”  “How long after the rain stops does the road get hard?” “Oh, about two days”, he said.  “When was the last time it stopped raining for two days?” “A couple of months ago”, he said. We decided to stop talking about the road. 

He invited us to pitch a tent anywhere in the camp we could find, and pointed to a large lot across the creek from where we stood.  Most of the landscape is built on tailings from years of gold mining in the surrounding hills, and is littered with abandoned machines, equipment and discarded tools.  We found a grassy spot between an old dredging bucket and some oil drums of unknown contents, and pitched our tent in the rain.

 In the morning, we crossed the creek back to Chicken camp central

Chicken Camp Central

to purchase some souvenir glass chickens and talked with Rick the gas pump jockey. 

Miner Rick

Rick explained that when he is not pumping gas and fixing broken things for the camp, he is a miner who’s come up from Idaho to spend the summer working a few claims.  All of the land in the area has been claimed, but Rick explains that individual prospectors make arrangements with the claimholders to work parts of the land for a share of the take.  By and large, the mining is done just the way it has been done since the days of the Klondike Gold Rush, with sluice boxes, lots of flowing water, and panning.  He lives in a camper trailer that he brought up with him from Idaho.

Miner Rick's Trailer

Here are some of the other highlights of Chicken:

Chicken Fire Department and Auto Repair

Chicken Sidewalk (no WiFi) Cafe

We said goodbye to Rick and Chicken and headed up the muddy road to the border. 

More mud!

It was actually not nearly as bad as we had expected.  Overnight the rain had stopped, and it gave the road a chance to harden significantly.  We were able to get up to 35-40 mph except in the really soft spots.

 The road wound steadily upwards through forested hills and off and on rain and fog.  As it reached the top, the road began to follow a ridgeline above treeline.  The cloud layer started to break as we reached the border, and minutes after getting into Canada, the pavement returned, and the sun came out.   It occurred to us that Alaska had hidden virtually all of her treasures from us behind rain and clouds and left us to take on faith how beautiful it is.  We enjoyed our time there, had some adventures and met and talked with many wonderful people, but were disappointed at having missed so much of what we had come to see. 

The Top of The World Highway continued winding along the top of a mountain ridge with views down each side. 

On Top of The World

The weather steadily improved as we got farther east.  The road ended abruptly at the western side of the Yukon River where a short line of cars waited for a ferry to take them across to Dawson City on the opposite bank where the road continued.

The ferry rules required us to shut off our engines and I was a bit concerned about restarting. (By this time, I had resorted to push starting the bike because I had exhausted my supply of starter gears.  I was able to sweet-talk the Canadian Customs official into letting me leave the motor running because the border crossing faced distinctly uphill.  I’m not sure she completely accepted my expanation.)  But the deck of the ferry was pointing downhill, so I complied with the rules.  Of course, once the ferry departed, it leveled out and only then did it occur to me that it would be facing uphill at the unloading.   I tried to give myself a running start on the ferry deck, but the deck was slippery, my rainboots were like racing slicks and I could get no traction.  It must have looked quite ridiculous!  I duck-walked the bike off the ferry ramp and waited in embarrasment until Seb could dismount and come give me a push up the stony river bank to get restarted.

 Over lunch, we stripped off our rain gear and relaxed in the sunshine at an outdoor cafe and not so surreptitiously hung our wet clothes out to dry on the benches of the table.  The cafe was located at the spot of the first settled place in the town at the start of the Klondike Gold Rush.

After we had warmed,

Along the Yukon

we headed back on the road southeast to Whitehorse.  It was a long way and it gave the weather a chance to change again. By the time we got into our motel in Whitehorse, it was raining hard and, as we later realized, it was dark!  The day’s earlier coating of dried mud reconstituted itself.  The concierge was very good spirited and didn’t make a stink as we traipesed our filthy luggage and dripping wet bodies through the lobby and into the elevator leaving puddles behind us.  The forecast for the next day was for more of the same.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Claudia Chapman permalink
    July 3, 2010 7:29 am

    Ah ha! Made my day! Now I finally know someone who has visited Chicken ALaska!

  2. Sky Cole permalink
    July 3, 2010 9:06 am

    Still envious of your adventures even if only in an academic way.

  3. Debby permalink
    July 3, 2010 10:55 am

    Chicken, for such a tiny odd settlement, sounds fascinating and full of stories! Your continuing adventure is awesome to read about, but am glad you are now well on your way to Seattle. We’ve had lousy weather, cold and rainy, much like our many former years where we always said “Summer starts after the 4th of July” (for the last 4 years or so it started, uncharacteristically, much earlier), and that’s exactly what is expected: should be up to 88 by Wednesday! You’ll be here just in time for summer and the cherries in their full beauty on my tree! Hooray! Ride Hard! Ride Fast! Ride Safe!

  4. Jeff Jackson permalink
    July 3, 2010 3:43 pm

    Keep on pushing, hope you encounter some dry weather soon

  5. jan smick permalink
    July 5, 2010 12:09 pm

    So, why did the chicken cross the road? Package should be waiting for you in Seattle–don’t leave before you get it!! lots of love, Janny

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