Alaska: unfinished business, gold and mushrooms

“There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back—and I will.”
― Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses

After hiking for a day in Denali, we restocked in Fairbanks and set our minds to finishing our Pan-American highway. The only undone part was the Dalton highway that stretches from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay.

The navigation for the next two days was very, very easy. Just drive north and after 794 kilometres – turn right. 

Dead Horse is a small community in the Prudhoe Bay Oil field. There are between 25 and 50 permanent residents but with the oil field personnel, the population can reach up to 3000 people. The only way to get to this northern and very remote place is to drive on Dalton Highway.  The highway is built as a supply road for the building of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System.

If you hear the name highway, probably you have in mind a nice, paved multiline road, crossing the permafrost. The Daulton Highway highway is a bit different.

It is one of the most isolated roads in the US, stretching for almost 800 km, with only three small towns along it with populations between 12 and 50 people. At these places, you can refuel with gas and probably you can find some supplies. The road is mostly gravel, very rough in some places. You can find professional medical care only in Fairbanks or Deadhorse – a day’s drive from the middle of the Dalton highway.

So, when we stopped for gas at Coldfoot, the person at the general store asked us:

‘Where to?’

My proud answer was:

“Prudhoe Bay”

‘But why? There is nothing there.’

As a matter of fact, there is a lot to see around the Daulton highway. Our first stop was at the crossing of the Yukon River. If you grew up like me with Jack London’s stories about the gold rush, you would know that the Yukon River is not just some river at the end of the world. It is a symbol of human endurance and perseverance. Although, from the first glimpse – it wasn’t something incredible. Just some cold, muddy river in the middle of nowhere.

Our second stop was the Artic circle sign, where we stopped for pictures. And surprisingly – there was a small shack, close to the sign and there were … tomatoes. They were withered from the first frost (in August?) but they were there – tomatoes next to the Artic circle sign. For me, this is a picture of human endurance and hope. If you have the will and you are able to plant and grow tomatoes at latitude 66° 34′ N, there is nothing impossible for you. Encouraged by the tomatoes sighting, we continued our journey north to a place where we had nothing to do. Prudhoe Bay – here we come.

800 kilometres on a gravel road are not a one-day trip and we stopped for a night’s rest.

The tundra was beautiful. It is not some cold desolate dessert, as I expected. It is a colorful place with fierce beauty, blue skies and full of life.

Our main objective in Prudhoe Bay was to touch and dip in the Arctic Ocean. For some of us, the goal was to touch the ocean, but others were brave enough to jump into it. Ivan had already jumped into the Antarctic waters, so he really wanted to have a polar jump at the Artic. I am not so brave, cold water and I are not such good friends.

On the way back to civilization, when we stopped for the night, the tundra was bright and kaleidoscopic. But the morning surprised us with a white cover. I have tried as many ways as possible to escape the winter but it finally caught me in the middle of August.

Gold Rush

When in Alaska, you should do what Alaskans do.

So, after hiking the beautiful mountains, seeing the bears and enjoying the arctic tundra, it was time for digging for gold.

The biggest one-kilo gold nugget I found is now stored in a secret place. The few smaller nuggets will probably be enough for our future adventures around the world at least until we reach the Canada pension plan age. Do you think I’m kidding? One never knows…

To experience the spirit of the gold rush, you have to visit Dawson City. And if you want the experience to be real – you must do it in winter.

I don’t think I am so adventurous but Klondike in the summer is good enough for me. 

On the way there, we stopped in a town always noted in the lists of places with strange names – Chicken, Alaska.  The legend states that the gold miners in the late 19th century decided to give the proud name Ptarmigan to their small community. The ptarmigans were abundant around the place, and they are known as strong birds that can survive and thrive in the harsh northern environment.  The decision was taken and a celebration for the naming of the city took place. At the end of the celebration, when the papers for the incorporation of the city had to be filled, no one was able to spell the name of the damn bird. So, it became Chicken.

In Chicken, as expected, everything is chicken-related and relics of the gold-digging age.

I must admit that I always thought the gold rush was somewhere in Alaska. Very late in my life, I figured out the center of the stories was in Canada. 

Dawson city met us with the tourist rush of a famous place and its old western movies charm.

There are things that you cannot miss when you visit this city – Jack London Museum and cabin is one of them. The cabin, where the author lived in the winter of 1897-98, tried his luck in the gold-digging and have written some of the stories that would make him famous was not in the city itself but close to some small creek in the surrounding area. The cabin was rediscovered in the 1960s, dismounted and two replicas were built from the original material – one in Dawson city and one in Oakland California.

On the next day, we tried our luck again with some gold-digging. Our discoveries are safely stored in the bank.

The gold-digging might have been a joke, but the mushrooms were real. I believe the best mushroom in the world is Boletus edulis or King Bolete. They usually grow in oak and pine forests in moderate climate zones.

We went for a short hike, and… what a surprise, in the hills over Dawson city we found a bounty of mushrooms. I can proudly say that I have discovered mushrooms from Pali-Aike in Patagonia at 52° South to Klondike at 64° North.

That evening we had fried mushrooms for dinner.

And because our bounty was too big and we could eat everything,

we dried some on the window of our RV and brought them back home.

My friends were very amazed when I made a mushroom gravy with mushrooms from Klondike. I am pretty sure they had some gold dust in them. 

When in Klondike, do as gold diggers do.

It cannot be a real experience if you don’t spend your daily gold nuggets in one of the many saloons. And there is something that cannot be skipped in Dawson – The Sourtoe drink in Sourdough Saloon. The recipe for this cocktail is very simple – 1 oz spirit, I dehydrated human toe and a lot of courage. Ivan Sr couldn’t find the courage; I cannot drink hard alcohol and they refused to serve me the toe in wine, so it was left only to Ivan Jr in our company to do the deed.

Cheers to the bravery.

From Dawson City, we drove to Whitehorse and on the way stopped again to see the Yukon river. At this place, the river was blue and beautiful and it look more like the mighty river from my imagination.

When we planned our Alaska trip we prepared for a few highlights: bears – checked; gold rush – checked; driving to the end of the world – checked. What stunned me when I researched the trip was the Carcross Desert. Desert in Alaska? The Carcross Desert is often referred to as the smallest desert on Earth. It is only 1 square mile. Although it is more a series of sand dunes than a real desert, the area is significantly drier than the surrounding, allowing some rare species of plants to grow there.

There was one more important experience I wanted to try in Alaska – the Chilkoot trail. 

During the gold rush, this was one of the main routes from the coast of the Alaskan Peninsula to the gold fields in Klondike. The trail is 53 km and it crosses the treacherous mountain range. The Canadian authorities back then required every man to bring into Canada supplies for one year, so often the prospectors carried close to 2000 pounds of food, tools and clothes. I could say that the Chilkoot trail is quite easy. We hiked for only a day, and we almost reached the middle of it but of course, I only carried my camera and a bottle of water.

Driving back to Anchorage we stopped here and there and I can say that Alaska is truly beautiful.

It is vast, and wild, with cold glaciers, rough rivers, and many animals. It is a place to fall in love with and a place which you dream to return to.

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