I Don’t Want To Wait…

Original posted in London to New York blog, May 22, 2010

Dawson City, Yukon, Canada

“One of your guys looks like he’s been Chicken’d”

IT may be the smallest town any of us have come across, but the settlement of Chicken, Alaska, has left its mark on our band of weary travellers.

The top count was nine buildings of any major note – and four of them were toilets, or Chicken Poops as they are known at the bar – but its legend has obviously gone far and wide.

The guy who ran the hostel which housed us in our next stop, over the border in Canada, had no doubt about where we had been.

Heart of the action in Chicken

It wasn’t the Chicken T-shirts which have appeared throughout the group and should really require us to check what each other is wearing in the morning to avoid clashing (they have certainly been crucial in a week without any washing facilities).

No, he took one look at one our of younger members looking much the same grey as the rock he was sprawled on for much of the day and uttered the above words of welcome.

Sadly, his identify has to remain a secret due to the threat of a high-powered legal team being sent my way.

But suffice to say, Freddie (oh sod it, here come the legal letters) was merely the worst affected from a cracking evening in Chicken. You could say he got roasted.

Caps and remnants of underwear adorn the Chicken Saloon

It is a tiny town. There are a few houses tucked away somewhere, but Downtown Chicken – as it is proudly titled on a road sign – consists of three wooden buildings in the middle of a dusty, dirt area.

On one end is a café, linked via a chicken coop – complete with ‘Beware of the Attack Chicken’ sign – to a tiny bar which was not big enough to hold all of us that evening and a gift shop which we raided for Chicken paraphernalia.

Apart from that, there is the campsite at the old gold mine (very Scooby Doo) where we stayed, complete with a small café and shop.

And that’s all folks – nothing more to see or do, yet it provided us with a truly memorable short stay.

We arrived four days after much of the town (settlement? hamlet? fork in the road? shed?) had opened for the season, just as the first of the gold miners who head this way each spring have started to trickle into town.

Yep, that is a runway with a chicane on the Alaska-Canada border

But, sadly, a day before they had taken delivery of any gunpowder for the cannon used to fire underwear over the car park.

The torn remnants of knickers and bras hang from the ceiling of the tiny bar, along with hundreds of baseball caps, signed and donated by past customers.

The room also crams in a pool table which requires anybody playing half seriously to read the break to see which way their balls will run.

Having started off with five straight wins in our two visits either side of dinner, my form deserted me as Mike took control of the table for much of the evening.

The rest of us settled in to chatting at the bar, raiding the shop, meeting the locals and assorted summer visitors (which is where it all went a bit wrong for Freddie) and waiting for it to go dark.

We gave up sometime after midnight, with it still light, and went to bed.

Little Gold CreekEarly the next morning we bade farewell to Chicken (and a litany of bad puns) via the Top of the World Highway and into Canada, via the smallest, remotest border crossing any of us have seen.

I now boast a stamp from Little Gold Creek in the Yukon Territory in my increasingly full passport. Just try to find it on a map.

From there we rolled off the top of the world and down to Dawson’s Creek, where we were subjected to endless hours of teenage angst, played out by a bunch of all-American looking actors who left High School years before, who never get round to sleeping with each other and are incapable of using one word when an entire page of script will do… Oh, hang on.

Sorry, this was Dawson City, our first stop in Canada.

It wasn’t exactly a creek either, more of a bloody great river – the Yukon, scene of one of the great gold rushes of the 19th century. Back in 1898, the population was estimated at around 35,000, now it is a shade under 2,000.

Dawson City
The main street in Dawson City

How 35,000 fitted into the narrow strip between the river and the mountain backdrop is anyone’s guess, but it explains why (helped by a typhoid outbreak) the city spread across the Yukon (a river, does indeed, run through it) and why we needed to utilise the free 24-hour ferry between the two halves.

And well worth taking it is – not that staying back on the west bank hostel wasn’t a good option with another of the hugely relaxing early evenings spent sat out in the sun overlooking the scenery with appropriate iPod accompaniment (a bit of the Be-Good Tanyas).

But we headed east, first for an afternoon stroll into the delightful, small town and then for an evening sortie with the original plan of descending on Diamond Tooth Gerties Saloon for a burlesque show.

As usual, however, only a few made it as Nick, Mike, Barry and I were distracted by the delights of Bombay Peggys.

Moon over The Yukon

What was, again, meant to be only one dragged on rather longer as we settled in with the locals. Our excuse is that we are completely disorientated by the fact the sky is still a perfect blue at midnight.

As our numbers were swelled by refugees from Gerties (Pam and Marlo waving certificates to proved they had downed a Sourtoe cocktail – complete with mummified human toe), most of us eschewed an onward trip to The Pit, heading back through the 1am twilight to bed – in my case a cubby hole on the bus courtesy of the main sleeping area being stripped of mattresses by the tent dwellers.

Where one of those who did go to The Pit slept is anyone’s guess…

The Yukon
The Yukon under the midnight sun at Dawson City

NB Mosquito update: The nasty little bastards are still taking their toll. My right knee now looks like some complicated constellation is tattooed on it.

But the most concerning area is the collection of bites around the base of my back and, to put it bluntly, the top of my arse.

Travel tip: Don’t wear low-slung jeans when travelling in mosquito areas (or ever, if my fellow travellers had their way).

Next time: My turn on cooking duty – half the bus is ill. Are these facts linked?


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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