Dawson City to Chicken, AK
Sunday, June 30, 2013
Mostly sunny, 75, some haze due to forest fire smoke
Today promised to be a memorable drive along the Top of the World Highway. We got on the road fairly early, by 7:20. Turned out it wasn’t early enough.
A caravan of 24 very large motor homes got started before us. Now, on the way out of Dawson you have to cross the Yukon River on the free but small George Black seasonal ferry; a ferry that can only carry three of the motor homes and a couple of cars each trip. On top of that, commercial tractor trailers and tour buses have priority over other traffic. Bottom line? We waited in line for 2½ hours.
The “Top of the World Highway” is a gravel road that runs mostly above the tree line to the Alaskan border and then continues as the “Taylor Highway” through our destination, Chicken, and beyond. Did I mention grit? It is touted to be one of the most spectacular drives on the continent. We haven’t done all the great drives but we agree that it is quite beautiful with spectacular views across the nearly treeless tundra. We were lucky in that the skies were reasonably clear with some sun although there was a bit of haze from the many wildfires that were burning all over Alaska.
There was a tense time during the drive. We suddenly began to hear a loud, raw, metallic squeal and found it to be emanating from the left, rear disc brake on the car. It sounded like something might be jammed between the brake rotor and the pad. A couple of folks stopped during the process of locating the source of the squeal to offer assistance. But there was really nothing to do but keep driving. This was about half-way through the drive with no services for many miles; a bit worrisome! So, we continued on, downshifting on the long downhills and braking in reverse a couple of times, hoping to dislodge a stone from the brakes if that was what was causing the problem. Finally the problem just went away. We’re going to get the car serviced in Fairbanks and will have the brakes checked at that time.
We crossed the border into Alaska at 12:35 pm and changed to the time zone used in most of Alaska, one hour later than Pacific time. We arrived at the day’s destination, Chicken, AK. Yes there really is a Chicken and they sort of make a big deal of it with chicken-shaped signs and sculptures everywhere. Like many other out-of-the way places we’ve seen, Chicken is off the grid. They generate their own electricity with small diesel generators. There is no cell phone and only minimal, satellite internet service.
Oh, yeah, “Why Chicken?” Legend has it that residents wanted to name the town after the ptarmigan, a chicken-like wildfowl that is Alaska’s state bird. However, no one knew how to spell the word so they settled on Chicken, the name commonly used in the area for ptarmigan.
Chicken claims a population of 15 year-round residents that swells to 30-50 with seasonal employees. There are three businesses in town: “Chicken Gold Camp RV Park” where we set up camp, another RV park and “Downtown Chicken”. People in business here seek to do all the business they can. So, each RV park has a very nice gift and supplies store, sells fuel and some kind of food service. Downtown Chicken looks like a tiny strip mall with a nice gift shop called the “Mercantile Emporium”, a wine and beer store, a cool “character bar” with a huge hat collection than hasn’t seen a dust mop in 20 years and a deli-restaurant called the “Chicken Creek Café” that is actually quite good!
The “Gold Camp” part of the name of the place we stayed is quite literal. People go there to camp and look for gold. They rent plots on one of the Gold Camp’s claims for the duration of their stay and set up their sluices, shovels and pumps for a few days or weeks of looking for gold. They all seem to have ATVs to get back and forth to their fairly remote plots and walk around in high rubber boots and are a pretty grubby looking lot by the end of each day. Alternatively, you can pay a few bucks for a couple of bushels of gold-bearing gravel and pan in a water trough provided for the purpose.
We had lunch at the Café, walked a short trail to the Chicken Creek Dredge Overlook, a smaller, unrestored version of the dredge we saw in Dawson, and had a couple of beers at the Downtown Chicken Bar with Bonnie & Leonard who we met in the campground. Bottom line: We really liked Chicken; nice people, good stuff, not much fluff.