PC 45 Alaska Part Two (Continuing!!)

Part of our planning was to be in Alaska/Yukon on the longest day of the year!! Get your mind around this: in Dawson City the sun set at 00:47 on a bearing of 345° and rose at 02:59 on a bearing of 15°. So strange but actually it was wonderful, to have these long evenings, staying warm with a strong sun until you went to bed. Driving on unfamiliar roads, it was comforting to know you wouldn’t be wending your way up hill and down dale in the dark.

Dawson City developed a reputation for lawlessness and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police took a tough line. Consequently some Americans, wanting more freedom and fun maybe, took off down river to a newly established outpost called Eagle, which was over the border in Alaska, America. There is some speculation that Eagle was developed on the back of a half-truth, that a couple of prospectors staked out 50×100 foot plots, went to Dawson City with a bag of gold, sold the line that there was ‘gold in them thaar hills’, and gullible chaps, unable to find a free unclaimed creek around Dawson City to work, bought it! Eagle became a flourishing township of 2000, living in log cabins and tents. Obviously the London Alaska Syndicate that employed George bought several claims, particularly on the Fortymile River and at Colorado Creek and George spent several months here in 1901 and 1902.

The road to Eagle initially follows the Top of The World Highway, which is aptly named. This is emptiness writ large.

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The view from the ‘Top of the World’ Highway

Mile after mile of dirt road, astride the tops of the hills. In every direction you see more of the same; trees, hills, greens, blues, golds ……. and sky …. and only one or two vehicles came in the other direction during our drive. We were blessed with wonderful warm weather and, driving along this unique road, we truly felt ‘on top of the world’. The entry onto this highway had been a ferry across the Yukon River, only open from late spring to early autumn due to the icing up of the river; also the snow of course would make driving on it during the winter months too difficult. Amusing to stop at the US Customs Post, go through the formalities, and drive onto tarmac – a modern surface, even boasting a middle yellow line ….. which stopped when you were out of sight of Canada and it reverted to a hard-packed dirt surface.

After some 170 miles, we turned off the Top of The World Highway and onto the 70 mile Taylor Highway. This was the one part of our trip I had felt might be rather daunting. The Taylor follows the trail developed by the gold prospectors who did not go down the Yukon River from Dawson City to Eagle. After 10 miles we crossed the Fortymile River, and followed the O’Brien Creek northwards. The road twisted around hills, down to the river and up over another shoulder, no wildlife visible apart from rabbits, on and on; sometimes the drop off the roadside was quite steep and there were no guard rails, so this was not a road to hurry on!

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O’Brien Creek on the Taylor Highway

Two and a half hours later we drove slowly into Eagle. You remember I said earlier that Eagle had had a population of some 2000? Well! They left!! Currently there are about 109 people living here, swelled in the summer months by tourists to, maybe, 116. If you wanted to live away from it, here’s the place to come … Eagle City, only about 150 miles south from the Arctic Circle!!

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The Settlement of Eagle City (2015)

George wrote to Eva after his arrival at Eagle:

“I think I may say that I have at last reached the outermost edges of civilization. Dawson looks to me now as a place of refinement and luxury. Eagle City is a settlement of about fifty huts (log cabins), two large iron stores, and a board house used for Government purposes, and a little way out log buildings, round a space with a long pole flying the Stars & Stripes, of the Military barracks. The town site is a great improvement on Dawson. The hills stand well back from the town with a handsome bluff on the left, at the foot of which fans out Colorado Creek. A good view up and down the Yukon gives a feeling of breathing space.”

Everyone we met, from Theresa the postmistress who doubles up as the local historian, Mary the librarian, Terry who gave us the guided tour (and hoped we would spend money in the museum’s gift shop), and Philip, who was in the Visitors’ Centre and who looked old enough to have known George when he was here, were unfailing helpful, courteous and engaging. Lovely, lovely people! The restaurant was being refurbished and we had to improvise supper. We could cook at our B&B, so we looked in the village store for some provisions. The store owners were stocking the shelves; we looked into the freezer. Well, funny ‘burger’ shaped blocks called sausages, chunks of meat of all sorts (Moose? Caribou?), all very suspect – particularly if you’re a vegetarian as Celina is!

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The old and the modern in Eagle

George trekked out of Eagle up to the mines they were working. He wrote to Eva:

“I can only describe the trail as the worst on earth. Mostly swamp – one moment nearly dragged off by the scrub, the next floundering in black mud. All the time the mosquitoes were in swarms, driving us both mad, the animals to madness. Really the mosquitoes question is terrible. We all wear netting and gloves, but you can’t keep them on always. We have to burn smoke fires round camp day and night, but still are covered with bites. I had been warned about the Alaskan mosquito – but dear me, I had no idea they could be so persistent and so hungry. They have learnt to climb through the netting; I watched them do it! The inside of our tent is splashed with our blood and squashed mosquitoes.”

After a lovely peaceful mosquito-free night (!) in the Falcon Inn B&B we left, filled up with petrol at Ron’s (See PC 43), and made our way back to the ‘Top of The World Highway’ and turned west. There is no record of George having been in this direction, so we mentally left him at Eagle, ruminating about his London-based syndicate and the uncertainty of the whole project. After a few hours we got back onto tarmac and drove into Chicken. Only in Alaska maybe would a place be called ‘Chicken’! And you know what? One night, as the prospectors sat around the fire after a hard day panning for gold at the creeks, it was agreed that their settlement was large enough to be christened. The area was abundant with a wild bird, the Ptarmigan, and this was the popular choice. Unfortunately no one knew how to spell the word, and when someone helpfully suggested that a Ptarmigan looked vaguely like a chicken, a show of hands adopted that name instead! (Nice story huh?)

The roadhouse shop and petrol station at Chicken was a favourite stop for the large Recreational Vehicles (RVs) – and the place was fairly busy. In an adjacent steamy café, the menu board had all sorts of fried this and fried that, fizzy this and that ….. but what I really wanted was a decent coffee. “What sort of coffee do you do?” “Fancy coffee!” “Do you do expresso?” “Yes, fancy coffee! In the roadhouse they don’t know what an expresso is, so they do ordinary coffee and we do ‘fancy’ coffee.” And this is the C21st!! Bless their little cotton socks.

I have mentioned RVs. In America everything is bigger and this includes RVs (and some of the inhabitants!!); if you live in Europe, I don’t think you will have ever seen the size of the RVs we saw in Alaska. The biggest ones tow the family 4×4 and are the size of the biggest coaches you will see in the UK! In Tok (pronounced Toke) we blagged our way on board one, to see just how big they are inside. The elderly couple proudly showed us around; expanding sides gave an extra 6 feet when you were parked up, the fully-equipped kitchen came complete with an ‘American-style’ refrigerator, and there was the king-sized bed and walk-in shower. Wow! “How much?” I rather cheekily asked. “$300,000, but we don’t own a real house; this is it.” One could see the attraction, sort of, and we had also met people in Whitehorse who toured Alaska all summer in their RV, before heading back to Florida for the winter. The Australian writer Tim Winton observed that many people in Australia bought a RV when their retired, and drove around the coast of their island continent. He called them SAD – See Australia (and) Die! If they completed the circumnavigation before one of them passed on, they simply reversed and went around the other way!

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A smoke-shrouded Delta River on the way to Fairbanks

We arrived in Fairbanks in the gloom – there was sunshine somewhere but smoke from hundreds of forest fires had reduced visibility to a mile at best; not pleasant! Alaska’s second city, Fairbanks is fairly modern, sitting astride the Chena River and roughly in the centre of Alaska. Go north along the Dalton Highway for 500 miles and you arrive at Prudhoe Bay on the Beaufort Sea, the largest oilfield in North America. The Dalton Highway has become famous as the road the ‘Ice Road Truckers’ travel on. After a night beside the river, we head down to the railway station and board the Alaska Railroad train, bound for Anchorage. Over twelve hours the train would wind its way through some of the remotest, beautiful and rugged scenery in North America, past the entrance to the Denali National Park and hopefully, if the visibility improved, there would be a glimpse of the highest mountain in North America, Mount McKinley (20,320ft), in the distance.

This journey was stunning and a fitting end to an amazing trip. We sat in the observation car, or stood on the open platform at the back of the carriage, watching Alaska unfold; around every bend, across rickety bridges, close-at-hand streams and woods and way-off the snow-covered mountains – the mournful whistle of the train forever announcing our presence.

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View from the train

People got on, people got off; it was a busy day – but what I will never understand was something they served at breakfast on the train – “biscuit & sausage gravy”. The biscuit is like the English scone …. and cold; the sausage gravy is warm, grey, with bits of unmentionables in it. Absolutely disgusting – and they had announced its inclusion in the breakfast meal with some pride! Over my breakfast plate we talked to Jason and Bob, two guys who had been hunting moose, and who were now making their way down to Denali to do some fishing. Jason hunted with a bow & arrow – proudly telling vegetarian Celina how he liked nothing better than to kill a moose, do all the butchery, and fill his family freezer in Montana. We didn’t check how many chest freezers he had but an adult moose regularly weighs 300kg! We had seen a mother and calf beside the road out of Tok – wonderful, powerful, magnificent creatures.

We arrived in Anchorage late in the day and prepared to fly down to Vancouver early the following morning. Our Alaska adventure was over. We had followed George for some part of his journey, we had driven over 1000 miles and travelled on one of the most scenic railroads; we had had virtually no rain in over three weeks and were blessed with hot sunny weather for the most part. We felt extremely privileged to have been able to visit this wild and beautiful state – and grateful to George for having planted the seed.

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Thanks George, my sentiments entirely!!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

P.S. You remember that Frank Sinatra song about traveling (?) “It’s very nice to go traveling, …. but it’s so much nicer to come home.” How true!!

P.P.S.   If you have read this and PC 44, and are tempted to go to Alaska yourself – GO!!

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