Roads to Alaska (Page 4)
The Alaska Interior

On Saturday, August 26, we left our beautiful spot at Yukon River Campground and started up that ridge called The Top of the World Highway.   Long before we covered the 60 miles to the Alaska border, we were alternately in and out of fog and drizzle.

This put a real damper on our ability to see the vastness that we knew was there.   And as we approached the Alaska border, the temperature was near freezing. Hoar frost covered the black spruces and intermittent light snow swirled around the windshield.

Perhaps you've heard the expression, "It's lonely at the top."   The Top of the World Highway was definitely lonely that morning.   But that's not necessarily bad when you want to soak up an Alaskan adventure.   Much of the lore of Alaska speaks of the loneliness, and remoteness of the interior.   For us the stage had been set; it was great!   Only January could have offered a better perspective of remote Alaska!

At a rest stop, we found a cute little cabin with sod roof.   It was easy to imagine a trapper huddled inside, waiting to check his traps.  

At the Alaska border, after the road turned to dirt, we were soon stopped at the tiny U.S. Customs station.   An officer emerged from his cozy, warm office into the miserable, cold drizzle to politely greet us.   After a couple of routine questions, he thanked us and bade us a good day.   Customs is open only from 9 A.M. to 9 P.M. and it is a violation to pass at any other time.

The Top of the World Highway ends at a junction with the Taylor Highway about 13 miles west of the U.S. Customs station.


The Taylor highway runs 160 miles from Eagle, on the Yukon River to Teslin on the Alaska Highway.
We joined the Taylor 65 miles south of Eagle and headed south.   It was a hard decision, but the road to Eagle was reported to be quite poor and the weather was not very nice.

This is the area of the Fortymile River system with all of its forks and creeks where gold was first discovered in the Alaska interior.   But when gold was discovered along the Klondike, most of these prospectors rushed immediately to Dawson City.

The history of this isolated area is a fabric of tenuous events and stories somewhat centered around gold discoveries and claims.   Two small settlements, Chicken and Eagle are still viable communities that feed on this history.

Eagle became an important place in 1898 when the population rose to about 1,700.   One story is that certain prospectors laid out their own gold claims in the Eagle area, then spread the "news" in Dawson when claims there were nearly all staked, thus luring more population to Eagle.   But many of the residents had come here from Dawson simply to avoid Canadian taxation.   So in 1900, Judge James Wikersham set up a courthouse in Eagle to bring justice to this lawless place, really to set up a U.S. Customs operation.   Then when prospectors began moving to gold fields at Nome and Fairbanks, Judge Wikersham's operation moved to Fairbanks.   The Eagle Courthouse was abandoned, but remains as one of the exhibits for tourists.

In 1901, Billy Mitchell (later a General) was assigned to build a telegraph line from Fort Egbert, at Eagle, some 400 miles to Valdez, Alaska.   The telegraph line, dubbed WAMBATS, was completed in 1902.   Eagle even has a monument to Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who was exploring the Northwest Passage in 1905.   He came to Fort Egbert, traveling 400 miles by dog sled, to use the telegraph to communicate with the world.   Eagle's population is now at 160, feeding, in this remote place, on such history.

At Chicken, we found some friendly(?) rivalry between two establishments, each claiming to be the real Chicken.   One was relatively neat and tidy in perfect view of the highway.   The other was a little more obscure, but with much charming, rustic clutter.   Both were suffering with mud everywhere from the rains.   There was the constant drone of the diesel electric power plant.   Chicken has no commercial power and no phones.

Mary wanted to tour the school house where Tisha taught.   The book "Tisha" by Robert Specht is the true story of a school teacher sent to Chicken, Alaska many years ago.   But tours were not being given due to the rain and mud.

South of Chicken, the clouds began to brighten and we noticed the brilliant tundra colors.   The remainder of our ride down the Taylor Highway to Tok was quite delightful.


Tok provides important services for Alaska Highway travelers.   All who use highways to Alaska must funnel both ways through Tok.

Two geological feature of this area cannot be ignored. The first is the Tanana
(Tan'-nuh-nah) River, a very important secondary river in Alaska. It begins southeast of Tok and runs generally westward until it empties into the Yukon about 125 miles west of Fairbanks.   The second is the Alaska Range that makes a big bend starting near Tok, running west then gradually turning south through Denali National Park and then farther south.

On our fairly direct and straight drive from Tok to Fairbanks, the friendly snow-clad giants of the Alaska Range kept close company on our left until Delta Junction.   At that point the mountains drifted off to a respectful distance, allowing the Tanana River with it's wide, shallow meanderings to become our escort into Fairbanks.

But just before reaching Fairbanks, the bright shiny Alaska Oil Pipeline caught our attention where it crossed the Tanana River.
Then just northeast of town we stopped at a pipeline viewing area where we could see a stretch of the pipe emerging from the ground and continuing for some distance above ground.

On Monday morning, August 28, I went on a tour of the NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) polar satellite tracking station, just two miles from where we were camping at Gilmore Creek, northeast of Fairbanks.

These polar orbiting satellites (POES) orbit at much lower altitudes than the more popular Geostationary Satellites.   They provide high resolution imaging of atmosperic and earth surface phenomena and unlike the stationary satellites, can cover all of the earth's surface.

The data accumulated is downloaded here and transmitted to various other places for processing.

Next, Mary visited a real Alaskan quilt shop.   What a nice time to visit and enjoy the work done on long Alaskan winter nights!
Our last and most intensive stop that day was at the University of Alaska Museum. For information about Alaska history and features prominent in Alaska, this museum is very good.   Unfortunately most of my photographic record of this visit was damaged.   However, I do have a description of the gold economy in the Tanana Valley that came from the museum.

Gold in the Tanana Valley

After the gold strikes in Dawson and Nome, thousands of miners poured into the interior of Alaska searching for gold.   Felix Pedro had been prospecting in this region for several years, and in 1902, thousands of people had reached the mining camps and communities of Chena City, Berry, Ester, Fairbanks, Chatanika, Pedro Camp, Golden City and Eldorado Creek.

Although the Tanana Mining District was to become the richest placer district in Alaska, the gold was not easily accessible.   The gold was deeply buried beneath frozen silt and gravel.   Unlike the strikes in Dawson and Nome, no one "got rich quick" in Fairbanks.   Pay dirt on the creeks outside Fairbanks yielded only 8 cents to the pan, but the paystreak on the richest claims ran 100 feet wide, 800 feet long, and 6 feet deep.

The difficulty of mining made this area different from other mining communitiees, and it attracted miners and businessmen who were veterans of other boom towns.   They had the determination to mine the gold and the capital to invest in equipment and labor.   Many settled in Fairbanks and started their own businesses to support the mining industry.

On our last night near Fairbanks, I was rewarded with a display of northern nights.   This night was perfectly clear as I looked directly overhead and saw a narrow band of light stretching northwest to southeast.   It was mostly white and steady, but would wiggle slowly and distinctly at random intervals. Later, at about 1 AM the lights were nearer the northeast horizon but were brighter and had some red color.

Background image is from a hillside south of Tok, Alaska, blazing with autumn color.
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