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Chicken, Alaska

Our trip literally took us to the top of the world. I have lived in Alaska for twenty years but had never been to Chicken. I heard about this tiny community, near the Canadian border, halfway between the Tok River and the Yukon River. The road that led there was sparsely travelled, partly because the Canadian border was closed due to a new outbreak of the pandemic in Dawson City. We took the advice given to us, carried an extra water supply and filled our gas tank before we started. We should be prepared to be on our own. Alaska’s inherent social distancing this year allowed us to be tourists in our own state. 

The road climbed to great heights and vistas. The northern terrain unfolded in a succession of ridges, in varying shades of grey and green. The fireweed alongside the road was blooming but on the higher slopes of Mount Fairplay snow still lay in patches. 

We were in Fortymile River country, named such because the river merged with the Yukon forty miles below Fort Reliance, an abandoned trading post. It was rich goldmining country. As we passed the tributaries and creeks – Logging Cabin Creek and West Fork and Dennison Fork -with water rushing and clear, we could imagine early prospectors drawn to them as a source of hidden gold. 

The terrain was also home to the famous Fortymile caribou herd, the largest herd of caribou in Alaska. Their migration followed the seasons. In the Spring they moved to treeless ridges to bear calves. They spent the summer on the alpine tundra, where breezes relieved them from the torment of insects. With the arrival of snow, they sought shelter in the lowlands, using their keen sense of smell to paw through the deep snow to feed on lichen. Every fall, the caribou crossed the very road we were travelling.

Chicken was tiny. It began as a gold mining camp at the turn of the century, but its inhabitants still continue to suction dredge in the Mosquito Fork for the much sought-after metal. An old gold dredge still stands tall. Some pan for gold the old-fashioned way, scooping river sediment into pans and sifting it until the sludge separates from the gold. A gold clean-up table attested to this. It was almost as though time stopped still.

Amused, we took in the sight. Downtown Chicken consisted of a café, a liquor store and a gift shop. We struck up a conversation with the young man that ran all three establishments simultaneously. He told us that his father was a trapper before he and his mother settled in Chicken. When his mother went into labor, she almost gave birth to him on a bush plane en route to Fairbanks. The same plane delivered mail twice a week, landing on a precariously narrow landing strip. There were no telephones. No overnight accommodations. No flush toilets. In the winter, when the temperatures reached 700 below, the road to Chicken closed.

“You just missed Chickenstock last weekend,” our new friend told us. “It was like the wild, wild West out here!” 

The folk music festival, Chicken’s proud claim to fame, was organized once a year by the owners of the lonely settlement. It drew in an eclectic crowd of people from all over interior Alaska, who proceeded to pitch up tents on the hillsides and park campers near the river. Bluegrass musicians took to the stage. Overnight, the typical population of Chicken rose from 15 to over 1500.

Just before leaving we could not resist taking a photo next to the community’s namesake statue. A giant chicken. There have been other places named after the farm fowl: Rooster Rock in Oregon, Clucker’s Hall in Illinois, Chicken Scratch in North Carolina, Hatch in New Mexico. The acquisition of the name of Chicken in Alaska made us smile. Evidently, the original gold mining settlers came across plenty of ptarmigans in the area. Not knowing how to spell the name of Alaska’s state bird, they opted for the easily pronounced “chicken” instead.

The Road to Teklanika

“I managed to get a road permit into Denali National Park!” I said to the kids, both home from college for the summer. “Let’s drive to Teklanika.”

It was a fantastic opportunity to see wildlife up close. Having lived in Alaska for many years, the possibility of seeing wildlife was always present. But in the park the experience was different. The area covered six million acres. A vast wilderness unchanged by humans. A single road wound its way back into the depths of the park. In an effort to limit interactions between wildlife and humans, the road was only open to sightseeing buses that drove in at regular intervals. Every so often, park officials hosted a road lottery, allowing winners to drive into the park in private vehicles as far as time and weather permitted. Naturally, having secured one of these sought-after permits, we brimmed with excitement.

We camped near Riley Creek. Sitting around the campfire that evening, we made plans for our drive into the park. We would pack binoculars and hiking shoes and a picnic. Our friends Wes and Tara, who had driven the park road before, told us stories about grizzlies and their cubs that walked right up to the park road. Unencumbered and free, moose strode through the taiga forests. Caribou migrated across the tundra. Wolves roamed in packs. We squirmed with anticipation.

“You just need to keep your eyes peeled on the landscape,” Wes told us. 

Earlier, we had walked along a trail near the campground. Ground squirrels chattered and snowshoe hares scampered. With effort we held back our dogs. Beyond a bend in the trail, we caught sight of a huge porcupine waddling along in front of us. If this was a preview of what tomorrow held in store for us, we were in luck! 

The next morning, grey rainclouds scuttled. The air was brisk. It was early in the season. We noticed that the souvenir shops at the “glitter gulch,” a strip of hotels and eateries near the park entrance, were still boarded up. Plywood covered the windows and the boardwalk in front of the shops was deserted. The tourist season had not yet begun. 

But we thought little of it as we piled into the car. We disregarded the forecast that warned of sleet in higher elevations. Typical of Alaska, it could be sunny one moment and wintry the next. We were not going to let the weather hamper our adventure. Fifteen miles into the park we stopped at the ranger station near Savage River to present our permit. Beyond the river, the vast, heretofore unreachable park beckoned. 

The gravel road wound its way through an immense landscape that unfolded before us. We kept a look out for Denali, the highest peak in North America, which could present itself in its majesty if we looked west. But the mountain, elusive as it was, had its own weather system that kept it shrouded from view today. 

Snow patches still lingered in the tundra. Mountain peaks towered, making us feel miniscule in our surroundings. Gazing out of our respective car windows, we scrutinized the spruce thickets and alpine meadows and creek beds for movement, a possibly signs of wildlife. 

Tara kept up a quiet chant: “Come out, Mr. Bear, let us see you.” But an hour later we had still not seen anything. Were the bears still hibernating?

Every so often one of us would cry out, “Look towards 2 pm!” and all of our heads turned that direction. With binoculars and the camera zoom lens we pulled the blob in question closer, only to learn that it was a rounded boulder, not a bear. 

“There!” Yanni said, triumphantly, and pointed to a ptarmigan sitting on the side of the road. And while we should have given Alaska’s state bird its due credit, we had seen so many of them in the course of our years in Alaska that the sighting fell short of our expectations. 

Further down the road we spotted a duck floating on a tundra lake.  “A bufflehead!” Wes exclaimed as he identified the waterfowl, tapping into his past experiences duck hunting. The kids yawned.

When we reached the Teklanika river, our turn around point, we still had not seen any wildlife. To cheer ourselves up, we picnicked on egg salad sandwiches and artichoke dip and pretzels. Immediately, our mood lifted. Even the kids agreed to go on a shorter hike down to the glacially fed, silty grey water of the Teklanika River. The wind picked up considerably as we started off, whipping about us unpleasantly. Our clothing was no match. Luckily, Tara had packed in most of her winter gear – parka, headscarves, hats – which she started to distribute to the rest of us. Thus clad, we walked briskly down to the river, took in the spectacular view and shot some photos of ourselves for documentation before hurrying back to the car.

Once again, we peered out of our windows. Hope was slowly dissipating.

“Are there any dinosaurs on this dinosaur tour?”

“I bet the folks on the sightseeing buses are having better luck,” someone suggested. “The bus drivers give each other hand signals when they pass each other on the road when they’ve spotted wildlife.”

“This day is a zero!” one of the kids decided. 

Slowly we drove back, skirting potholes and bumping over the gravel road. Helen’s head started to bob, drowsed by the slow rumble of the car’s engine. At least the landscape, even without animals, was an enchanting sight, well worth the drive.

Suddenly, around a high bend in the road that overlooked the Savage River, we spotted caribou. We had come almost all the way back to our entry point and there they stood, a group of five, in full view. Captivated, we watched as they moved slowly across the tundra towards us.

“There’s more!”  

We counted five, then ten, then twenty. All throughout the sweeping valley, they dotted the landscape. It was as though they had always been there, foraging on lichen and willow leaves. They migrated hundreds of miles, spreading their grazing so they would always find adequate food. Ironically, it had taken us all day, searching for something that was right in front of us. We did not need our road permit after all, we slowly realized.  Encountering caribou on their own land was a privilege not because we sought them out, but because they granted us the sight of them.

Snow in April

April is fooling with us. A winter storm has blanketed the Tanana Valley again. We gape at twelve inches of snow that have accumulated overnight. Is winter never going to end? We are not even asking for daffodils and tulips, like the ones we jealously regard in Facebook posts by friends in the lower 48 States. We would be content just knowing that great boulders of ice are jumbling and crashing as the frozen rivers break apart. It would reassure us that Spring is, indeed, on its way. Alas, nothing so far. No pussy willows clinging to stark branches. No crusted riverbanks re-emerging. No patches of dirt beneath the snow.

Instead, snow is piling high against the window ledges. Before long we’ll be able to slide off our rooftops with sleds. On Cleary Summit, Skiland has extended its season until the end of May. In Nenana, where a betting game has people casting their vote as to when the ice will go out on the Tanana River, people are changing their guess to early June. The sound of snowmachines fills the air again. Perhaps we put our snowshoes away too early.

We’ll simply have to outsmart winter, Rebecca and Tara and I decide. If Spring is not coming, we can still walk along the trails in the woods with the dogs. We are Alaskans. We will not succumb to a little snow. Our friend Dawn and her pup bowed out for our walk today. Thus, our typical group of four musketeers has dwindled to the present three stooges. Equipped with dog leashes and a resolve to tackle the snow, we set off with four bounding dogs. 

We encounter no one on the snowy trails. We are spared the humiliation of meeting the black labrador retrievers, a group of five dogs that we have encountered often on previous walks. They were so well behaved they put our mixed bunch of dogs to shame. While the black labs sat unmoving beside the trail to let us pass, not even twitching a tail and quietly heeding the commands of their owners, our dogs catapulted past them in a snowy cloud of general chaos, completely disregarding our reprimanding shouts. We have earned our name of “bad dog squad” multifold.

We walk in single file in the deep snow. Rebecca breaks trail. I follow. Tara is the caboose. Every so often one of us yells “Incoming!” as the dog chase each other and shove by us. We brace ourselves for impact as Fitz, the alpha female, whips by with a branch in her mouth. Buddy, Jack and Elias, the boys, are trying their best to get it from her. Knees bent, we exhale. We are still standing. We keep an eye out for moose, often a close encounter in the woods. Jack and Elias, the younger ones, would charge right after them. We yell at Fitz when she finds moose poop along the trail that she sees fit to eat.

“Can you shorten your steps?” I pant after Rebecca, whose stride is longer than mine.  I try to follow her deep imprints in the snow. “This snow is too much for me.”

Behind me, Tara grumbles. “I should have just stayed in New Zealand on the trip I took last year.”

Why on earth do we choose to stay in Alaska? I am the “newcomer” with twenty years under my belt. Tara has been here for close to thirty. Rebecca has called Alaska home for her whole life. Typical of long-term Alaskans, we gripe about the weather. Did we imagine, even for a moment, that we wouldn’t see snow again?

Today our walk took us twice as long as usual. Deep snow drifts made our plodding progress more slowly. We are soaked through with sweat at the exertion. When we emerge from the woods, however, we feel more energized than when we started. This is why we stay in Alaska. Sometimes it is enough to go for a long walk with old friends, even if the snowy day falls into April. We can be content to watch a group of dogs romp and wrestle. We still marvel at a landscape turned exquisite with new snow. Even as we shake the snow from our coats and mittens and load wet dogs into car trunks, we know that the gentler season is ahead.

“In the depths of winter I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus

Dogsled racing in Alaska

On a crisp, sunny Saturday the Summit Quest 300 race started in Pleasant Valley. February typically marks the start of the dog mushing races in Alaska. Temperatures hovered well below zero, but the chill did not stop the dogs. Eager to be on their way, they jumped and janked at their harnesses. Dog handlers restrained them with effort, preventing them from bounding down the trail prematurely. The dogs’ barking and breath clouded the frigid air. They were surprisingly small in stature yet unsurpassed in stamina and knew neither trepidation nor doubt. The broad, untamed winter wilderness beckoned. The challenge was on.           

Their energy was magnetic. I felt my own breathlessness, a fast pulse in my throat as I watched them run through the start chute. The gathered spectators cheered them on. They left at regular intervals, in teams of eight or ten or twelve. Their musher, standing behind them on the sled as they hissed by, raised a parting hand in greeting and in pride. Beyond us, they were on their own in the wilderness, left to their own devices and skill. 

The race was adapted due to the pandemic that has reached even the hinterlands of Alaska. Typically, the Yukon Quest traces a route from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, a distance of a thousand miles, following the historical trail of the Goldrush route. This year, with Canada’s border closed due to the pandemic, efforts were made to skirt and safeguard northern villages. While somewhat shorter in distance and contained within Alaska, the Summit Quest 300 proved to be no less impressive.

Mushers and dogs were tested to the extreme. The ascent was in front of them. For some veteran mushers, after a lifetime of successful runs and stories from the trail, this season was to be their last. Would they look back wistfully after a final run? There were “rookies,” new to the race, ready to take on the inhospitable northern landscape and the blackness of subzero nights with a young dog team. Perhaps they wavered in their decision to take on challenge, as they prepared their sleds and dropped dog food at checkpoints, when they heard the weather report of temperatures that would plummet to 40 below in the night. Would they have conversed with the seasoned mushers before the race, absorbing suggestions and a thimble of encouragement? Watch for frozen tundra hillocks and the glare of river ice on Birch Creek. It can disorient the dogs. Be sure to give them the mandatory rest at mile 101. Try doing squats on the sled to keep warm. And don’t forget to look for the northern lights. They are awesome this time of year! The newcomers, shifting again, smiled in return. Mushers and dogs, old and new, were all in this race together.

For many miles they would run, challenged by jumbled ice on the creek and a windswept trail that could easily mislead in inclement weather. There were two summits to overcome. Rosebud was said to be long and steep. Eagle Summit was well known for its treacherous descent. They would run for hours, left to their own devices, before reaching a checkpoint at Two Rivers and Circle and Central. Stopping to rest, mushers would feed their dogs a mixture of beef or high protein kibble or salmon before bedding them down on straw. They would take off booties, apply ointment, run their hands over paws. They would check in with vets to assess heartrates and hydration. Only after the dogs were attended to would the musher eat his or her own food and try to take a quick nap.

Running again, at times it felt as though they were the only ones out there, miniscule in a huge, unrelenting landscape. They would think of the other dog teams on the trail, all on a similar quest, even as they ran their own race. And when they reached the finish line with an expanded feeling in their chest, they would know that even after many miles on their own, they were all connected in the great race of the north.

Winterscape Alaska

In the Far North, it is called “Termination Dust.” It comes early to Alaska and settles in the hills, a powdery shimmer of snow in late autumn that tells us the gentler seasons are over. Much sooner than in most places, there is a brittleness in the air. The light angles low and golden through the spruces. It won’t be long before the real snow arrives.

When it comes, it does so formidably. Overnight, the mercury plummets to 200 below. It snows and snows and snows. By morning, the landscape is transformed. A heavy blanket swells and obscures familiar shapes, hushing sounds, muffling intrusions. The light at midday is metallic. The sun follows a shallow arc above the Alaska Range before it quickly sets again. 

It is easy to be disenchanted when December brings barely three and a half hours of daylight. Nine months of winter stretch long. Particularly this year, when Covid has put our nerves on edge and separations have lasted too long, we forget the pleasures winter can bring. A birch forest lays still and crackling, punctuated only by the laughter of a couple of friends as we follow a snowy trail. Routines have been upended, work interrupted, colleges shut down. But we can still remember the contentment of a game of pond hockey. The brevity of the day has to be taken advantage of. That is the season’s only condition.

The winter solstice is upon us with the longest night of the year. Before long the seasons will trade places again. While the evenings still come early, we have time to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book by the fireplace. There is time yet to learn how to play a Bach sonata on the piano. Or to perfect the recipe for Hungarian mushroom soup from Bon Appetit. 

In winters to come, long after the world has shed their masks and Covid is a distant memory, we will continue to mask up in Alaska. It’s about practicalities up here. Without a mouth covering, the hairs in our nostrils tickle as they freeze. It makes us smile. Perhaps it is winter’s way of telling us to take it all in stride.