Tuesday, June 8, 2010

One of Chicken's colorful Sourdoughs...

One more piece of Chicken’s history was “pulled” into place this week, literally. The old Allis Chalmers HD7, which had belonged to Bob McCombe, a long time resident of Chicken, was drug out of the brush where it had quietly rested for at least the past 25 years and was moved to Chicken Gold Camp and added to the historical collection that compliments the Pedro Dredge.

 R.S. (Bob) McCombe, one of Chicken’s latter day pioneers, arrived in the Fortymile in 1938 at the age of 36, having been born at the Isle of Man and seeing a lot of the world as a young man. One of Bob’s early ventures in the Fortymile was in freight. He saw possibilities for supplying the miners of that time and started the Fortymile Freight Co, hauling merchandise from Dawson to Jack Wade, a rough 80 miles, for 3 cents a pound. Bob met and married Molly in 1940 at Jack Wade and shortly after found himself delivering old equipment to Whitehorse to construct the Alaska Hwy for the World War 2 effort. During the war years, Bob and Molly lived in Fairbanks and were involved in freighting enterprises on the Tanana and Yukon Rivers. 

After the war, they returned to the Fortymile, purchased a dozer to do some contract freighting for a dredge company in the 60 Mile and ultimately purchased the roadhouse in Chicken from the Power’s Estate to provide for locals and the occasional overnight visitors who flew into Chicken. Bob obtained a contract to improve the Chicken airstrip and other local airstrips with his Allis Chalmers dozer. Bob and Molly were eventually bought out by the F.E. Co, who used the roadhouse for their dredging operations on Chicken Creek. Bob and Molly then moved to South Fork and established another roadhouse. Bob later entered politics and was elected to the first State House after statehood. Though Bob had traveled the world, he and Molly called Chicken their home and lived out their remaining years on their mining claims along the Mosquito Fork.

During Bob’s residency in Chicken he wrote 2 books, “Capetown South Africa to Chicken, Alaska” and “Alaska on the Cover”. 

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Winter's silence is broken...

Interior Alaska is a land of extremes. The sub-arctic climate has but two seasons according to popular descriptions: summer and the rest of the year. From October through mid-April, the reign of winter is absolute.

The arrival of summer in late April/early May is announced by the thundering sounds of breaking ice on the larger rivers. After months of silence, the event seems as sudden as it is spectacular. First, the smaller streams and rivers thaw sending currents of water out over the river ice or swelling the flow from underneath. As the flow increases, the river ice is lifted and begins to move. Motion causes the frozen masses to splinter and shatter, releasing ice floes which tumble down the valleys shoving away everything in their path. As the ice slabs rush downstream knocking each other to bits, they often lodge together forming temporary dams backing up acres of water. Pressure builds until the dam collapses and the new torrent hurtles ice and uprooted trees over the river's banks. Watching the mountains of ice alternately building and falling, one is filled with a sense of awe and gratitude for the return of life and light to this northern land. Soon enough, the air will heat up to nearly 100 in nearly round-the-clock sunlight, but now, for a few brief spring weeks, the battle will rage between winter's fading grip and summer's coming triumph with snow squalls, hail storms, warm, sun-soothing mornings, icy cold-windy afternoons, brief cold rain shower and hot dry dust devils. 

During this brief interlude between the silence of winter and business of summer, it is not only the creeks and rivers that stir to life; the land and sky are alive with the migration of all who come to partake of the intense sub-acrtic summer. No longer is the silence of the land dominant. The constant murmur of creeks to the roaring of swollen rivers is a backdrop to the sudden beat of hooves of passing caribou, unmistakable calls of Sandhill cranes passing overhead in their seemingly effortless journey north or the drumming of the ruffed grouse in  their spring mating ritual. The ponds and lakes are busy with cackling geese and quacking ducks and soon, the noisy chorus of wood frogs and winnowing sound of the male snipe. It will be late September before the silence begins to return so might as well join in symphony...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Chena Hot Springs

After a week in southern Arizona, it felt good to back in Alaska scrambling to get as much done in Fairbanks as I could before heading for Chicken with 5,000 lbs or more of supplies for the rapidly approaching season. During the day, I connected with Bernie Karl and was invited out to Chena Hot Springs for the evening to have dinner and see Bernie's latest developments, so I left a few items on the list for Sunday morning and headed up up to Chena on a beautiful spring afternoon. The 60 mile drive from Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs is a delightful drive through mature birch and white spruce stands along the Chena River and it's various tributaries with sporadic views of the surrounding alpine heights and distant Alaska Range. The river and streams are just breaking up with the runoff from rapidly disappearing winter's snow pack and dotted with arriving ducks and a few geese and cranes checking out the newly open waters.

The small lakes and ponds interspersed between the meandering bends of the river are still ice covered with a few preserved moose tracks frozen in time.


After 30 miles of travel through the Chena River State Recreation area, an area rich in offerings for outdoor enthusiasts, the road ends at Chena Hot Springs (CHS), http://www.chenahotsprings.com/


Besides being a great destination for guests wishing to soak in the "healing waters", visit the Aurora Ice Museum (the only year round ice built palace on the globe) and relax in the oldest resort in Alaska, there are a number of research projects in agriculture and alternative energy, mostly tied to the geothermal presence.                        

I did not have time to tour the geothermal power plant, or the absorption chiller used to keep the Ice Museum frozen, but did spend some time with Bernie in the greenhouses and checked out his work on LEDs and solar tubes.  

After exploring the incredible green production in the geothermally heated and LED lit greenhoues, I had no choice but to order one of the super salads for dinner. Exquisite! A little over 10 years ago, when I first met Bernie shortly after he and his wife Connie first bought CHS, Bernie  would expound upon his vision for a self-sufficient resort entirely driven by the geothermal local activity. They have come a long way since then not only in direct geothermal applications, but also solar, wind, hydrogen, energy storage and LED research and manufacturing and a few other yet to be revealed pilot projects.
There are not many people who have gone as far out on a visionary limb as Bernie and made it all happen within a decade. Hat's off to you sir!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Welcome Home!

Ten pm (Alaska time), somewhere halfway between Seattle and Alaska the feeling of “going home” grabs me. I first made this flight to Alaska in 1972 and have made many since, mostly during the winter months. But I don’t think I have ever made the trip north in late April and never to Fairbanks. Leaving drizzle-foggy Seattle at 9 pm, the sky is dark in every direction, but now, halfway home, the northern horizon is beginning to show a dusky twilight as if we were headed east into a new dawn.

I love to travel and I am comfortable calling almost anywhere a temporary home. This particular trip, I am headed home from southern Arizona after visiting my mother in Tucson. Lou and I have made many trips to southern Arizona's Santa Cruz River watershed over the past 25 years. We have always been comfortable here in mid-winter and have often dreamed of making a winter home somewhere in the area. The last few winters, we have spent months camping in the various "islands in the sky" mountain ranges of southeastern Arizona and occasionally peruse the real estate market, particularly around Patagonia and Tubac. Last winter we got a little more serious about finding a spot to be more permanent than a camper in the mesquite, but after submitting an offer for a respectable deal and wading part way through the paperwork, it was not meant to be.

This winter, for various reasons, we didn’t make the journey south, but we continued to keep abreast of new real estate listings via the internet, which I now know, does not present a necessarily accurate picture of places for sale. I promised my mother that we, or at least I, would pay her a visit before spring, so after procrastinating all winter, I finally made the trip this week. The timing may have been perfect for various reasons...spring snowstorm in Chicken, desert flowers in southern Arizona and a possible connection with a potential winter retreat; we’ll have to wait to see. I spent some time checking listed properties and one, a foreclosed home on 5 acres in the Tumacacori mountains, felt like the right fit (and maybe the right price). After making a “steal it from the banks" offer,  I have spent the past few days enamored with the thought of a new winter place to visit and explore, even a mystical arch in the Tumacacori Mtns that reportedly provides entrance into another world, but even so, the feeling of my real home will probably always apply only to Alaska. Now, about a half hour after starting this scribbling (I’m a slow writer), the northern horizon is growing brighter with a layer of burnt umber topped by a light shade of yellow-green and then shades of bluish-turquoise before rapidly fading into the darkness overhead (you northern travelers will know what I mean); the light beckons, calling me to the only place I have ever felt was truly home. 

Now, another half hour has past as I have gazed out the window into the increasing light and dimly lit mountainous landscape passing beneath us. It is after 11pm and the light continues to grow; another happy homecoming. Welcome home! I never feel like a stranger in this place called Alaska.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A perfect night...almost


A perfect night! Absolutely transparent after several days of spring bloggy weather. Shining sliver of a moon is keeping Venus company in the fading twilight of the spring arctic sky. It's 10:30 and the afterglow of the sun setting over 2 hours ago is now more northerly than westerly as we move rapidly closer to the suns summer dominion over the north country. It's so so good to be here in this place! Not that this place has much of what most people desire; it's partly what it doesn't have that makes it a place that I am happy to call home.

This place called "Chicken" doesn't have a Home Depot or Walmart with or without a bomb scare in the parking lot; it doesn't have a swat team, police squad, not even a policeman. We almost never hear a siren of an ambulance or trooper and never from the fire department...we are too distant. We don't have a utility company; no water, gas, telephone or electricity and no monthly utility bills. We're off the grid...all the way off and I have no complaints. We each provide our own utilities, if we want them. We don't have a mayor, no city council and no city manager; we don't have local politics. Not missing anything there! No dog catcher, no attorneys, no bankers. We don't have a traffic light and never will. We don't have sidewalks, bike trails, golf carts lanes...don't need them. We don't have j-walking laws, parking authorities, speeding tickets; can't speed, the one and only road isn't good enough. We don't have pan-handlers or homeless shelters; nobody is homeless that doesn't want to be. No TV and no talk radio (unless you want to subscribe to a satellite provider); no Katie Couric, no Bill O'Reilly, no Diane Sawyer, no Ed Schultz and no Rush Limbaugh. No long commutes to work, so need to listen to the liberal-conservative yin-yang. And because we don't have or need any of these things, we don't have taxes; no sales tax, property tax, no income tax, at least not State. Sure, we still get our annual bill from Uncle Sam, but no where, not even Chicken, is perfect.

Some of the things that we do have, most people don't want. I try, but I know I can never put into words the feeling of living so far away in an ever encroaching zoo of humanity. It's not that I am anti-social; actually the opposite. I just prefer to have my space, my solitude and time to enjoy the natural world without the blemishes imparted by a busy man-world. I play my part in the operations of the State, the U.S. and the world as I'm sure all of the 10 or so residents of Chicken do. But I like the concept of being able to turn it all off when I want and at the same time being an integral part of the working whole...from a safe distance. Certainly technology enables us to be here, at a distance, and yet participate out there. And it provides ways to live off the grid comfortably and inexpensively. So to those of you "out there", it sure is an almost perfect night here.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A "town trip"...

For those of us who live in "the bush", or at least not in any community of any size, going to town, which for me means Tok at 78 miles away or in most cases, Fairbanks at 300 miles away, is generally an eventful ordeal. But yesterday's trip gave new meaning to "eventful". A town trip usually precipitates from one or two items on a growing list that is compiled continuously, that finally "tips the scale" in favor of making the trip now rather than tomorrow or next week. In yesterday's case, it was a few items that we were following on Craigslist or Alaskaslist that necessitated immediate response. So I left for town on a beautiful spring morning with every intention of enjoying the drive through Alaska's springtime magnificent scenery and returning the same day. The 78 miles coursing through the southern Fortymile and upper Tanana country was pretty breathtaking, even for someone who drives this road on a very regular basis. A brilliant, blue-sky morning of clearing weather from the previous day's snow squalls revealed crisp, freshly snow-capped mountains and numerous bands of caribou from the Fortymile herd grazing mostly on the higher slopes and showing no intention of making their way west and north which is normal for this time of year. Continuing on to Fairbanks from Tok, brought more incredible spring scenery which I pretty much had to myself. It is ironic, that the northern roads this time of year, when I consider Alaska and the Yukon to be at one of the peaks of annual beauty (the other being in Sept/Oct), are mostly empty and during the summer, the roads are busy with Rv's, campers, boaters and other travelers who come to see the scenery, all sharing a view of the back of the rig in front of them.

But the reason for the trip is not to sight see and I finally arrive at my destination. On this particular trip, I encounter the frustration of a dis-functional cell phone, which means that my normal 6 to 8 hours of eliminating items from "the list" is going to be more difficult and time consuming and in addition, time will have to be taken to visit AT&T to hopefully get the phone fixed (I don't have a lot of patience and understanding for digital equipment so would rather hand it to the experts even if that means that I totally underscore my ignorance). The largest bulk of my load was to be plywood, so I began tackling the list at Home Depot. As I approached the area in which Home Depot is located, the congestion was way beyond any I had previously experienced in Fairbanks but it wasn't until I had parked and had entered HD, that I learned of the reason. Some wacko gunman had been seen on foot in the vicinity, so the entire Fairbanks police squad descended upon the area and set up headquarters in the Home Depot parking lot. Of course, we went into a "lock down" mode and I was stuck for a few hours and stuck without a working cell phone. Consequently, my 600 mile one day round trip turned into a two day trip.

Fortunately, the weather and scenery were almost equally as beautiful on the return leg to Chicken so my frayed nerves were soothed by the time I arrived back home in "the bush". I have no misgivings as to why I live here....

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Just another mountain...

Having played road warrior last week with two trips from Anchorage to Chicken, I had the opportunity to snap a few pictures of the Chugach, Wrangell and Alaska mountain ranges. I made frequent stops, which is not my normal routine, and took a lot of pictures. It's easy to make the 400 mile trip and focus on the road and my thoughts, but not so easy to drive a fully loaded truck pulling a fully loaded trailer over windy, mountainous, frost heave roads while trying to take in every bit of scenery that is offered. Fortunately, there is not too much traffic this time of year, so I didn't cause any road rage playing tourist. I have driven this stretch of road with its incredible mountain vistas over 100 times, but rarely stopped more than a few times each trip. Last week I must have made nearly 100 stops as I had that many photos when I got home. It's a pretty incredible drive and even more so when one takes the time to really take it in....

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Silence before Spring

Of the time that we spend in Chicken, late March and early April is my favorite. The Taylor Highway, which has been closed all winter, is very quiet in the first month after it is plowed open. There are really no visitors and the number of people residing in the area can be counted on a hand or two. The silence of the country has not yet been broken with the songs of returning birds and waterfowl. The caribou, though beginning their migration to the summer calving grounds, are seen but seldom heard. The river and streams, still frozen. yield no sound. No leaves are there to flutter in a breeze which seldom stirs until later in the spring. The squirrels and other resident creatures, have not yet started their courtship chatter. The ruffed grouse will not start drumming for several more weeks.

 There are very few planes, no trains, only an occasional car or truck on the one and only road and no constant buzz or distant murmur from the machinery of man. The stillness is at once soothing, but also a bit haunting. We seem to grow accustom to a constant background noise in the all too civilized world to the point that removal from the buzz to a complete silence, or nearly such, at first creates somewhat of a light ringing in your ears as if there is some leftover noise in your head. It seems that you can actually listen to the silence or I find myself trying to anyway. The quiet landscape gives up a few barely audible sounds that would be hidden in most urban and even rural places: a few drips from the afternoon melting snow, a distant call from one of the few resident species of birds such as the grey jay, raven or chickadee and once in a while, the momentary stir of a light breeze, but other than that, almost "deathly" quiet.

With no TV, no radio, no phone, no dishwasher or washing machine, none of the sounds of civilized "on the grid" living filling the inner space of our home, it too is silent other than the crackling of the fire burning in the woodstove and the light tapping of my fingers on this noisy keyboard. We are not without a few electric tools and toys that require the occasional charging of batteries by a silence-breaking generator, but our use is light and short-lived. No doubt tomorrow at some point, I'll spoil it all with the running of some necessary contraption, but when I turn whatever it is off, the Silence will return, but only for a few brief weeks before the frenzy of returning birds and travelers, the croaking frogs, shrill drumming snipe and quacking ducks dim the silence until its return next fall.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Spring migration

Returning to Chicken each March/April  from our home in Homer or some other farther place has been an annual event for 31 years. Typically, it starts with a loaded down truck and trailer leaving Homer in a spring coastal snowstorm as happened yesterday, and takes anywhere from 14 hours (fast trip, few stops) to almost 24 hours (lots of stops, mostly in Anchorage). It sounds like a horrendous endurance drive, but I usually find it one of the most satisfying events of the year. Why? There are a couple of ingredients to this 600 mile spring trek north that set it apart from some ordinary cross country trip. I'll try to explain with a description of yesterday's journey.

As most long trips with heavy loads start, there was a few last minute additions, hooking up the trailer, checking lights, cinching straps, checking the list and finally off and within a block of leaving, an anxious thought that maybe this load is too heavy for the trailer, or maybe I should have re-greased the beaings, or a few other possible thoughts of paranoia. But after a few miles, the concern wanes and the road takes control. Yesterday, the trip north started in a coastal snowstorm, but having checked the weather at 3 or 4 locations going north, it sounded like just a coastal event with better weather farther north, which is usually the case in the spring and one of the reasons I like heading to the Alaska's Interior at the end of winter. The transition from winter to spring is more clear cut away from the coast.

The worst part of this 600 mile trip is usually Homer to Palmer with Anchorage scoring the highest on the "worst" scale. But there are several redeeming factors in this first leg, the incredible spring beauty of the Kenai and Chugach mountains, the allure of the Kenai River and the occasionally splendid drive along Turnagain Arm, with the world's second highest tidal change. Yesterday did not disappoint. The Kenai River begged me to take pictures in several places; the shores still fringed with ice, the fresh heavy snows capping the back-drop rugged mountain crags, and here and there a chest wader clad fisherman, just visible in the half sun and half fog tapestry. But I traveled on tasting the changing scenery as it unfolded until I reached Turnagain Pass, with it's snow loaded ridges just emerging from low clouds. I stopped briefly to take it in and snapped a quick picture of others taking it in... 


The drop from the mountain pass to Turnagain Arm and the next 45 miles driving along muddy icebergs racing with the out pouring tide was stunning, but the traffic and speed picks up as Anchorage is approached. For the next how ever long until I find myself leaving Palmer, the traffic and the masses contribute to why the rest of the trip is so magical. From Palmer east and north driving between the Talkeetna Mtns to the north and the Chugach Mtns to the south and then skirting the Wrangels before crossing the Alaska Range to the Tanana River valley and the Interior, the traffic rapidly thins out until finally leaving Tok and heading north up the Tayor Hwy, I find myself alone heading into a twilight on the northern horizon quite often changing into the faint dance of the Aurora or a ghostly moonscape.

 The beauty on this part of the trip does not diminish and never disappoints. The vast wilderness, the emerging solitude of the empty road north, the quietness of this space combine to create a focus I seldom am able to find elsewhere. My thoughts find no interference from the rest of humanity. I feel akin to the migrating birds heading back to a magnetic destination, but alone, but not feeling lonely. I make more frequent stops once I turn north at Tetlin Jctn. to immerse myself in the space. The silence of the north in the late winter and early spring, combined with the dry, crisp mountain air and forever vistas enriches my soul. Like a lone wolf singing to the moon, I am home.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Pedro Dredge

The Pedro dredge was manufactured by Yuba Manufacturing Co. of San Francisco in 1938 (dredge #133) and shipped in pieces from Oakland to Seattle on the SS Point San Pablo on April 1, then c/o the Alaska SS Co. to Seward and then to Fairbanks on the Alaska Railroad. It was delivered to Pedro Creek, 15 miles north of Fairbanks where it was assembled and began digging on July 11, 1938. It continued to work on Pedro Creek until finishing operations there in October 13, 1958. It was disassembled and trucked to Chicken Creek where it worked from September, 1959 until October, 1967

The Pedro dredge is a self-contained diesel-electric powered gold processing and recovery machine, a stacker dredge of conventional design. It is one of two of F.E. Co.’s pontoon style dredges with the hull made up of various sizes of separate pontoons. Its barge-like hull is constructed of 24 steel pontoons with a combined weight of 225,101 pounds. The hull is 85 feet long, 44 feet wide and 6.5 feet deep not including the side mounted pump houses. The 2 story superstructure is a steel and wood frame enclosed with metal sheathing which houses the engine room, main drive room, screen house, gold recovery tables and winch room. The dredge, when fully loaded had a draft of 5.5 ft and displaced 500 tons.

The electric dredge is powered by two Cat D375 diesel power plants with 480 volt, 185 KW generators. The bucket line, which is composed of 65 three cubic foot buckets, is driven at 29 buckets per minute around the 55 feet long digging ladder by the 40” diameter upper tumbler made of nickel chromium steel and turning at 4.7 rpm. The lower tumbler, four feet in diameter, is made of manganese steel. The dredge has two spuds for anchoring and “walking”, each 36 feet long and weighing 13,430 lbs. 

The dredged material is emptied from the buckets into a hopper that feeds a 30.5 feet long x 5 feet diameter trommel screen turned by a 25 hp motor. The fines passing through the screens pass across 1360 square feet of recovery tables. The steel transverse tables are set at a grade of 1.25 inches to the foot and the longitudinal tables are set at 1.125 inches to the foot. The boxes are all equipped with standard iron shod or rubber shod trap riffles and expanded metal over coco matting. On the bow side of the hopper is 100 square feet of save-all tables for processing the material spillage that misses the hopper. Water is pumped to a spray manifold running through the screens and to the recovery tables by a three pumps: a 50 hp high pressure 8” X 10” pump, a 30 hp high pressure 6” booster pump and a 30 hp 8” X 10” low pressure pump, all of which are primed by a 5 hp 3” pump. The operating flow rate for all pumps is approximately 6000 gallons per minute. The oversize material from the screens is deposited behind the dredge by an enclosed stacker housing a 2.5 feet by 80 feet conveyor driven by a 25 hp motor running at a maximum of 308 feet per minute.

The dredge is equipped with four line winches, a ladder hoist winch, two spud winches, a 7.5 hp jitney winch, 3 hp foot bridge winch, jib crane, 400 amp Westinghouse welder, miscellaneous mechanic and black smith tools, grease pumps and fire equipment. One of the pontoons houses a 18hp Kewanee oil-fired boiler which was used for heating the digging ladder, stacker, main hopper, recovery tables and save-all as well as cutting ice from the dredge pond each spring. The heat allowed for early spring and late fall operations.

The Pedro dredge produced around 58,000 oz  of gold during it’s time on Chicken Creek, which would equate to roughly 50 million dollars today. The dredge shut down in 1967, locked and  boarded up until 1998 when it's ownership changed. It was moved about one mile down Chicken Creek to its present location at the Chicken Gold Camp. The dredge was listed as a National Historic Site in 2006 and opened to the public. In September of 2009, it was moved again, but only 150 yds, to provide room for a thaw field display to be added in the summer of 2010. The dredge has finally found its permanent resting spot.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Creating new product...supporting entrepreneurs!

As a business involved in retail sales in a small local market, we are always striving to set ourselves apart from other retail businesses with unique offerings. We don't buy into the mass marketing of cheap, imported "tourist trinkets". We look for product that it is both made locally, within the context of our Arctic neighbors, and made by small businesses or individuals. We like fresh distinct items, especially when they are made from and represent northern resources and culture. Some of our product is manufactured by us, especially the items that incorporate local resources such as gold, ivory, mushrooms and the like. Some of our product is designed by us with the manufacturing outsourced. Simply put, we are entrepreneurs looking for product created by other entrepreneurs.

This winter we tried something new in cooperation with my sister-in-law, Deborah, who teaches entrepreneurship through NFTE at the high school level. NFTE, or the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, helps young people from low-income communities build skills and unlock their entrepreneurial creativity. We collaborated with Deborah and her class to produce button pins and bottle opener keychains with our designs. We provided some designs and agreed to buy the finished product at an agreed upon price that allowed Deborah to purchase the equipment necessary to manufacture the items, allowing the class to participate in the development and production. They gained some positive insight into building a business. Here are some of the finished items...
Recently, we connected with Erika Klaar, who was a 2009 finalist in the Alaska Business Plan Competition, an annual competition which provides a platform for Alaskan entrepreneurs seeking growth opportunities for their business ventures to showcase their business plan and seek venture capital. (One of the sponsors of the competition is TEAMa group of can do entrepreneurs, innovators, educators and mentors who create innovative business opportunities for Alaskans to which I belong.) Erika started E'Klaar Headwear, and creates brilliant, unique headware designs which have been a hot item lately. We like Erika's designs and products and her business story which we are going to get behind. We will have Erika's cool headware on our shelves this summer.                                          
Paisley Headband

Monday, March 22, 2010

The lost boulder of gold.

There are many notable personalities that spent years looking for their gold fortunes in the Fortymile. Those that spent more than a few seasons in the country, often settled down in one of the several communities that are now mostly ghost towns. One of the early characters on the scene was George Matlock, who made his way into the Fortymile country, poling his boat up the river, shortly after hearing about Howard Franklin's strike in 1886. Matlock and several partners staked or bought a claim on the South Fork in 1887 and spent part of that season mining. They wintered in the community of Fortymile on the Yukon that first year so they could whipsaw enough lumber to build boxes and flumes to work ground owned by Frank Bateau who had accumulated $3,000 in gold dust from the previous season's work. They survived on caribou meat, reportedly as many as 40, a bag or two of moldy flour, some moldy beans and a little dried fruit as the supply ship, the Arctic, had been damaged and could not make it up the Yukon before freeze up that year. 

In traveling through the Fortymile country, Matlock ran across a boulder on the Middle Fork, which he recognized as having extremely rich gold mineralization. Not having any way to break up the boulder, he made note of the location and continued on. He later learned that another miner had reported finding indications of a rich gold deposit on the Middle Fork, so Matlock returned but could not locate the spot where he had previously found the boulder of gold. 

George Matlock and his partner, Frank Bateau, continued their pursuit of gold at various locations in the Forlymile. They built one of the first successful flumes used to move dirt, which reportedly developed 24 lbs of head  pressure. Matlock eventually married Jessica Mathers of Eagle and settled down in Chicken. He continued looking for the rich gold he had seen that first year for the rest of his life, but eventually died in 1933 having never found it.  

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Officially spring....time for something extrordinary!

What constitutes the beginning of spring? The Vernal equinox on March 20th is the date accepted by most, but in the north country, the rapid returning daylight makes it feel as though spring has jumped ahead of the equinox. And now with daylight savings occurring before the Ides of March , the daylight increases are all that more noticeable. It's hard not to think spring has returned when the sun is still hanging above the western horizon after 8pm. For me, the end of the annual Iditarod means spring has arrived. And Lance Mackey just moved spring ahead by another day with his new record run to Nome with Hans Gatt and Jeff King close behind. Congratulations to a great competitor and welcome spring! Of course we will sill see more snow and wicked cold days before the pussy willow buds give way to actual leaves, but the annual rejuvenation that the returning sun brings to northern people (and most likely animals) makes any weather setbacks tolerable. It means the end of hibernation. Re-vitalization! An annual renewal that never seems "normal". Time for celebration with something extraordinary, like kayaking...in the the snow.....


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Jack Wade Dredge

Gold was discovered in the Fortymile River country long before the famous Klondike gold strike. As early as 1881, prospectors had found gold here. Discoveries in 1886 on Bonanza Bar and later Franklin Creek sparked the first rush to the interior Alaska. In the early days miners and prospectors walked, rafted, and rode horses to get to the Fortymile country. In winter they used snowshoes or sleds pulled by horses or dog teams. They mined by hand, using shovels, gold pans, rocker boxes and sluices. Trails developed and communities like Franklin, Steele Creek, Jack Wade and Chicken sprang up. The population rose to 1,000 and, for a time, the Fortymile Mining District was the richest mining area in the Yukon valley. After the initial rush to the Klondike, a second wave of miners arrived, using steam-powered shovels, dredges, drag lines and later bulldozers. The first dredge brought into the Fortymile Mining District was the Butte Creek dredge also known as the Russell King dredge, and later, the Jack Wade dredge.

The Jack Wade Creek dredge was originally known as the Russell King dredge after the man who contracted to have it built.. It was manufactured by the Risdon Iron Works of San Francisco in 1906. It was shipped to Skagway, then onto Whitehorse via the White Pass Railroad. From there it went down the Yukon on a paddle wheel river boat to the encampment of Fortymile at the mouth of the Fortymile River where it waited until the Fortymile froze. In the winter of 1907, the crates were freighted on sleds up the Fortymile, and South Fork to Walker Fork and finally assembled on mining claims at the mouth of Twelve Mile Creek on Walker Fork.

Unfortunately Russell King proved to be a better promoter than prospector and the dredging operation was abandoned in a couple years. It sat idle until 1912 when it was dismantled and relocated by horse-drawn sleds on the South Fork of the Fortymile River between Uhler Creek and Franklin Creek until the pay streak ran out, when it again was  abandoned on a gravel bar just above Franklin for 22 years.

1934, renewed interest in gold mining inspired Ed Holbrook and North American Mining Co. to move the dredge with sleds and small gas driven tractors to Wade Creek. They replaced the old open-connected bucketline with a close-connected line, which required flying 32 new buckets, weighing 700 pounds a piece, individually from Chistochina one bucket per load. The dredge started mining on lower Jack Wade in 1935. In 1939 it was sold, moved to upper Jack Wade and converted to diesel. The headline was replaced with a spud. However it still had the original rope drive, so when the rope frayed, none of the crew could splice the rope. But the worst problem was a cracked ladder that they repaired with steel beams. But the manor in which it was repaired concentrated the stress at the ends of the reinforcement. In the middle of the night in August 1941, the ladder broke and fell into the pond. It was that winter all the gold mining in the US was shut down for World War ll. The Jack Wade dredge was never re-started after the war.

Until 2007, the Jack Wade dredge was one of the few remaining historic monuments to Alaska's 'golden' years, the foundation of modern Alaska; a monument that was very visible, tangible and accessible. All but a few of its salvaged parts are gone as are most of the placer miners that built and operated them; all ghosts of a remarkable era. This picture was taken on the dredge's 100th birthday, the last year of it's remarkable life in the Fortymile:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

March Blizzards

We have finally finished digging out from the 2 back-to-back blizzards that started a week ago. Maybe as much as 24" of snow fell in the first raging storm with a short break on Sunday and then a 2nd stronger storm hit, described by weather forecaster Bob Hopkins: “It was a blizzard that just kept going. It seems like it should be some kind of record. What we are seeing is hurricane force winds of  more than 64 knots that sent out a wide-spread storm from the Aleutians to the Alaska Peninsula, to Kodiak and Kenai Peninsula.” The forecast had predicted a paltry three to eight inches of snowfall for Homer on Tuesday, turned into several feet of snow blowing into drifts of as much as 12 feet. 

It was one year ago in Red Deer, Alberta that we ran headlong into a "Alberta clipper" on our returning trip to Alaska. The day had started nice in Helena, but the wind was screaming as is often the case along the front range of the northern Rockies. North of Calgary, we began to see dark clouds on the horizon to the north and as we approached, the on-coming traffic began to show increasing snow. As daylight faded just south of Red Deer, we hit a wall of snow forcing traffic to drop to a blind crawl. We, as most, exited at the first chance and hunkered down. We sat the storm out confined to our camper for the next 36 hours. On the 2nd morning, with clearing weather, we were able to resume our trip north, but in a much colder world as the temperature plummeted on the back side of the storm. The next night we spent in Dawson Creek with the lows near -40. The rest of trip up the Alaska Hwy was cold and blanketed with above average snow pack but uneventful. A few shots along the way: 

Friday, March 12, 2010

Lost Chicken Dredge

In 1933, H.D. Cowden operating as the Alaska Gold Dredging Corporation, who had managed a mining operation on upper Walkers Fork, had Washington Iron Works in Seattle build a 3-foot dredge to be installed on the South Fork of the Fortymile. A camp was built ½ mile below the mouth of Lost Chicken Creek to facilitate the operations. The shipping of the dredge was delayed due to a labor strike but was finally shipped from Skagway to Whitehorse on the White Pass & Yukon railroad, from Whitehorse to the mouth of the Fortymile River by steamboat, and then during the winter of 1934-5, by Caterpillar tractors up the Fortymile River and South Fork to a point about 0.9 mile below the mouth of Lost Chicken Creek. The dredge initially burned coal obtained in the area around Chicken. It was soon converted to burn wood, however, due to the poor quality of the coal - not enough steam could be produced to power the dredge efficiently. The dredge had 64 buckets, each with a capacity of only 0.14 cubic yards, and it burned about 7 cords of wood per day. Thirteen men were required to operate the dredge, working in 3 shifts of 8 hours each.

In its first operational year of 1935, Cowden’s dredge (or the Lost Chicken dredge) mined around $40,000 in 24 days. At the time, Washington Iron Works dredges were yet untested in the field, so the dredge had its problems including machinery that not work cohesively and a week hull. Even so, the dredge did produce $76,000 in 1936 and $50,000 during its final season when Cowden’s company found itself with labor liens of $10,000 filed against the dredge by unpaid employees and back taxes of $15,000. That winter, the dredge was acquired by Northern Commercial Co who shut it down and the following year, the dredge and ground was optioned to Fairbanks Exploration Co. who acquired the dredge and additional ground the following year with plans to mine the remainder of the Mosquito Fork and all of Chicken Creek.  

Fairbanks Exploration Co (F.E.Co) continued their drilling program, which was initiated in 1939, and began designing an operation to be powered by local coal. A local power plant was planned, coal seams prospected, roads constructed and ground prepared until the beginning of World War 2 ceased all US mining operations. When F.E.Co resumed their operations following the war, their original plans were scrapped in favor of using one of their successful Fairbanks dredges to mine the Chicken placer deposit. The Cowden dredge and its future were abandoned; it remains grounded and slowly deteriorating in the active riverbed of the Mosquito Fork. The old camp, consisting of a string of connected cabins, is also abandoned and deteriorating. The dredge can be viewed from a trail which leaves the Taylor Hwy at milepost 68.3 and both the dredge and camp can be accessed by water from Chicken.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Okay, I asked for it...

Been taunting the weather gods the last 2 months and now its payday. It's snowed all but one day in the past week getting progressively worse with 2 back to back blizzards and the current forecast to continue a bit longer than it was forecast to continue, if that makes sense (I think it does for weathermen). It's one of those days that you either don't get out of bed (best idea), or you get out, start a fire (if you remembered to haul firewood in the night before...of course in this case the night before and the night before were miserable so the inside firewood supply...GONE!) make some coffee, make some more coffee and so on. But this morning, the trail to the woodshed had drifted to about 4 deep (never happened before), the doors wouldn't open until the drift was removed, the temperature was 9 (which was the high for the day as it was 5 by noon) and the wind was almost screaming at 40-50! The neglected bed idea has been haunting me all day.

But as happened since the dawn of mankind....fire and hot drink...better attitude. But it is now 13 hours past the forecast ending of this blizzard and nothing has changed but the forecast. So, as suggested on facebook, I intend to re-visit our status of one year ago which when we were camped in and exploring "Needles", a section of Canyonlands National Park 15 miles south of the "Island in the Sky", which I posted about a week ago when the weather was just beginning to enter this new arctic-blast phase. From Needles, you can look northwest across the Colorado River canyon to Islands in the Sky and vice versa. Needles is a labyrinth of jumbled red and white eroded sandstone pillars with many arches, domes, narrow canyons. The maze has many ancient Indian ruins and rock-carvings and offers hikers some great possibilities for extended hikes. The weather was perfect for the tasks at hand...camping and hiking. So have a peak, the show is infinitely better than what is showing at our current abode...

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Brian Burns, an Alaskan Scrimshander

In my last post, I mentioned Brian Burns, who works for Maynard at Dancing Man Knives and Ulus. One of Brian's contributions is his ability to scrimshaw. The art of scrimshaw takes the form of elaborate carvings or more commonly etchings of pictures and lettering on the surface of the bone or ivory, with the engravings highlighted using a pigment or ink. Originally, candle black, soot or tobacco juice would have been used to bring the etched design into view. The making of scrimshaw began on whaling ships between 1817 to 1824 on the Pacific Ocean, and survived until the ban on commercial whaling. It was practiced by sailors to create common tools, where the byproducts of whales were readily available. The term originally referred to the making of these tools, only later referring to works of art created by whalers in their spare time. Scrimshawed works on sperm whale teeth and elephant tusks were sought and traded, primarily by the Chinese, until protection of the endangered species was enacted.

Besides the work Brian does for Maynard, he has started producing scrimshaw work on his own. We first connected with Brian at the Alaska Wholesale Gift Show and have since been working with Brian to produce work for our store. We supply local mammoth ivory and bones from Chicken, which are remnants of the Pleistocene Era that have been preserved in permafrost for the past 25,000 years or more.

Brian then stabilizes the pieces by filling cracks and sealing the material with super glue. This allows the dry, cracked material to be polished in steps using finer grits which then provides a smooth surface on which to etch drawings.

Until we introduced Brian to the Wooly Mammoth, he had not attempted to scrimshaw a mammoth scene, but he was up for the challenge and in our opinion, mastered the art instantly. So once the surface is prepared, Brian scribes his scene onto the ivory or bone with a fine foredom scribe.

After the scene is finished, it is inked and allowed to dry. Different color inks can be used in steps to bring depth to the scene. Brian prefers working with one color which more resembles a fine pen and ink drawing.

Once thoroughly dry, the excess ink surrounding the etched scene is buffed away leaving a highly defined image.

The finished piece, depending on what it is, might then be added to a stand of ironwood, another bone, more ivory, etc. The lower foreleg bone of the Steppe Bison makes a good stand as seen below.

Some of the pieces that Brian had previously done, incorporated malachite or azurite found in Alaska, inlaid into the ironwood stands. We discussed the possibility of using the malachite to fill cracks in a Steppe Bison horn and skull; Brian made it happen and added a scrimshaw bison profile to the skull with rewarding results.

There are only a few reputable scrimshanders practicing their art on mammoth ivory. We think Brian has a great talent in this very special niche. You can find his work in our store this summer.