Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Don't be Chicken

Chicken, Alaska's big bird landmark

Last week’s post was about the first half of the P & P 2013 Alaska Tour. (Sorry to report that we are out of tee shirts.) The primary purpose of the trip was to go to Chicken, Alaska to do a little recreational mining.  Along the way, we investigated the durability of my motor home by driving down as many major dirt roads as we could.

For those of you who might not be familiar with Alaska’s road system, let’s just say it is not a stellar example of the road building and maintenance industry. To support that, I offer up this little factoid: in Alaska, there are more miles of improved runways and landing strips for aircraft than there are paved roads. I would also point out that the word “paved,” when used in Alaska, is subjective. If a dirt path is graded smooth, smeared with tar, and then topped with a thin layer of crushed rock, it passes for paved road. 

“Hey Zeke, you get that road paved?”

“Sure enough, boss. Got twenty miles done today. Graded, tarred and rocked.” 

“You pack the rock down?”

“Nope, decided to let the traffic do it. Them motor homes do a really good job.” 

“Just checking. Don’t want you wasting any time when the tourists can do the work for free.”

Aside from almost losing the ladder to a road with serious washboard problems, and a thick coating of bug bodies, the Tarmac Tortoise suffered little damage. The ladder incident gave us a scare. When the bottom bolts holding the ladder to the vehicle finally sheared off, it sounded like we were dragging the back bumper down the road. A generous application of bungee cords to attach the bottom of the ladder to the thankfully intact bumper resolved the issue. (Wish I could say the same for the driver. I’m still looking for a few teeth that rattled out of my head. I’m guessing they bounced around until they settled under the floor mat.)

The Pedro Dredge in Chicken

What I didn’t mention in last week’s post is the weather. We jumped straight from an exceptionally cold spring right into an exceptionally hot and dry summer. While ninety degrees may not impress anyone in the Lower 48, it’s tantamount to standing in the very gates of hell to an Alaskan. By the time we rolled into Chicken, the thought of splashing around in a nice, cool creek to find gold seemed heavenly. When we checked into the gold camp there was a most unexpected problem, however. 

“You boys here to do a little panning?” the manager asked.

I resisted the temptation to reply that we were there strictly for the exciting night life of Chicken. “We were actually planning on using a hand sluice.” 

“Well, we got a little problem with that. We haven’t had any rain in over a month, and all the snow is melted off. There’s not enough water in the creek to use a sluice. A couple fellas are runnin’ highbankers, but they had to excavate a big hole to make a sump in the creek bed for the water to collect. Every half hour, or so, they can run the highbanker for about ten minutes before the hole goes dry.”

Highbanker in use... when there's enough water.

That news was a real shocker. Two years previously, when I was last in Chicken, the water in the creek had been a raging torrent. (Of course, it was also a year of record rainfall.) We retreated to the motor home to sweat, drink cold beer and weigh our options.

In the gold rush days, after feeding their sluices all day, miners would take their pokes of gold and head into Chicken to buy drinks and spend time with the fancy ladies. With the existing conditions the best my friend and I could hope for would be to spend all day in the hot sun and pan. If we really worked at it, we might be able to get enough gold to go into town, split a root beer and look at the risqué calendars in the gift shop. That prospect was not tempting. 

"Maybe we can split a root beer..."

We spent the evening checking out the sights, such as the Pedro Dredge and walking the street of Chicken. We left early the next day. Oh well, there’s always next summer.

Shameless plug: More Alaskan misadventures are available in my books, Of Moose and Men: A SkewedLook at Life in Alaska and Of Mooseand Men: Home is Where the Harm Is. My humorous novel Somewhere West of Roads revolves around recreational gold mining.

ALL of Chicken. Not often you can get an entire town in one snapshot.