Pretend Your Name Is Keith

Original posted in London to New York, May 20, 2010

Chicken, Alaska

YOU did read that right, we are cooped up (boom, boom) in a town called Chicken.

Well, for town, read small collection of buildings built around gold mining – a one chicken town you could say.

The locals don’t seem to mind the jokes about their town’s name. The café in which we are currently sat – taking advantage of an internet connection that won’t let us download or upload anything – has a rubber chicken hanging above the counter which you squeeze to attract attention.

Mike has just purchased a badge which reads “What goes on in Chicken, stays in Chicken”. It’s just quite hard to see too much happening in Chicken, as there doesn’t appear to be too much around or too many people.

Downtown Chicken
Downtown Chicken – All Of It

There is talk of an underwear cannon at the saloon next door which fires bras and knickers across the car park. A full report in the next instalment.

What you need to know about Chicken (and it is my duty to pass on as much information as possible) is that, according to the sign in the café, it is so called because none of the locals could spell Ptarmigan, the bird which inhabits these parts.

The same sign informs me that the winter population is around 15 (although the locals put that at around nine), a figure which swells to 30-50 in the summer as the gold rush hots up.

And the town has a three-legged half collie, half huskie called Tucker who, rescued from a life dodging planes in Edmonton, lost one leg in a collision with a GMC truck.

Chicken Facts
Everything you wanted to know about Chicken but were afraid to ask…

Apart from that, and the fact that the post arrives on Tuesdays and Fridays – weather permitting – there’s not an awful lot more to tell you about Chicken, except Mike says the cherry pie he bought with his badge was very nice.

We rolled into Chicken mid-afternoon on the fourth day of our tour around the Alaskan interior, which has been blessed with some quite remarkable weather.

Not when the sun goes down. The first night under canvas was, to put it reasonably politely, chuffing cold. No, sod being polite. It was fucking freezing.

But when the sun has been out, which it is from about 6-7am until around midnight – only getting close to dark for about an hour around 2am (and believe me, when you are shivering fully clothed in a sleeping bag with your hoodie top pulled tight over your head, you notice these things) – it has been glorious.

This has its drawbacks, particularly a constant application of sun cream and mosquito repellent.

Sorry, where are we again?

The sun cream appears to be working, not so the disgusting smelling anti-mosquito spray.

Amused myself while lying awake on the bus last night by trying to count the number of bites, the count was up in the 20s until the need to scratch beat the desire to count.

They seem to like the fact that my hair does not obstruct access to my head too much and somehow they have got huge symmetrical welts on my knees, despite the only time my legs have been exposed being when they were underwater.

But the best bites to date are the two, side by side, between two of my fingers which had me scratching all night. A lot like having very painful paper cuts.

The weather has had its major upsides – not least the staggering views.

Pick of these, and the one we were repeatedly warned we would be lucky to see, was Mt McKinley which, at around 20,300ft, is the highest mountain in the USA.

Mt McKinley
On A Clear Day – Mt McKinley

One guy when we pulled up at the very plush – and decidedly empty – Talkeetna Lodge told us he has worked there five years and only seen the top of the mountain about a dozen times.

We were treated to a completely unobstructed view – mosquitoes apart – of the entire surrounding range under a perfect blue sky.

There were more treats to come when we pitched camp in the Denali National Park.

Having eaten at the bus parked up in town, a group of us were walking back to our campsite just before midnight when two moose crossed our path and set the cameras clicking.

Mine clicked, hiccupped, sputtered, refused to flash and then turned itself off informing me of a dead battery.

Mother and baby moose walk through our camp in Denali. Not taken on my camera

Insult was added to injury when an even bigger moose and companion wandered slowly across the edge of our camp site in the morning and my camera was still very much in dead mode.

In between, we had shivered our way through the night. My abiding memory, apart from the desperate attempts to warm up, was the sight of Marlo pulling himself deeper and deeper into his sleeping bag alongside me until only his cold breath was visible.

At which point he pulled himself closer and closer to me…

The temperature dropped remarkably quickly, but thankfully it rose just as rapidly the next day, helped by a roaring fire which went from welcome heat to annoying point of conflict as the camp pyromaniacs threw everything they could get their hands on (including the next night’s firewood) into the flames.

The town of Denali, two miles down a forest trail from our campsite and home to the bus for two nights, is not that much bigger than Chicken.

Riley Creek
Not a bad place to wake up – Riley Creek runs round the back of our camp in Denali

It does have a few shops, hotels and food places, most notably the quite remarkable Salmon Bake bar and restaurant which was celebrating St Patricks Day when we first arrived – it is only open for 117 days a year and crams all major holidays into that time – and while others tackled a few of the major forest trails, walks to town and back  was enough for me(with a slightly warmer afternoon nap thrown in).

Thankfully, having learned from our errors and helped by a slight rise in evening temperatures, our second night under canvas was not so cold, but we were still up and about early for our next port of call.

First up was the town of Fairbanks and the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska. Very interesting and informative, but we still haven’t worked out quite what “The Place Where You Go To Listen” was all about. Maybe we should have listened.

From there, we headed to Chena Hot Springs, just 140 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

Chena Hot Springs
Chena Hot Springs – Roger joins the dip at the northernmost point of the trip

There was a veritable rush for the warm outdoor pool, even with the slightly tangy smell of sulphur, and much of a glorious afternoon and early evening was spent wallowing in the warm water.

An evening meal cooked in the open air, a few drinks in the bar, a final dip – just before midnight – for those willing to put up with wet kit on the bus and a quick re-opening of a fumigated Nick’s Bar in the RV Park and it was back on the bus for our first night on the road.

By the time driver Matty emerged from a few hours kip in his box sometime after 1am, we were sprawled all over the bus in a variety of sleeping holes.

Sleeping on the road has been anticipated with some excitement, a fair amount of trepidation and no small amount of tension as people bagged their berths and tried to store their bags in the optimum spot.

Chena at midnight
Midnight At The Oasis – Late night at Chena Hot Springs

Some of those up in the bunks had less than perfect nights, but having wandered on with most of the spaces taken, dropped my stuff in an available space and settled down with iPod and sleeping bag, it was a perfectly acceptable night’s sleep – certainly better than anything on the train.

Remarkably, the moment Matty fired the engine, all the snorers among the early sleepers immediately fell silent.

And as tonight’s volunteers start tackling the evening meal, we prepare to pick the bones out of Chicken…


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