Monday, June 1, 2015

Manic Mondays #2--Chicken...What's for Dinner?

Alaskan outhouse!

When most of you think of chicken, you picture the white or brown or black little fowl that run around farms and homesteads clucking and pecking at the grass and the bugs (or each other—disgusting carnivorous beasts).  Or quite possibly you picture a bag of breasts from the freezer department or a whole chicken waiting to be stuffed with lemons and roasted (yum) or your grandma’s absolutely perfect fried chicken that you’ve tried to recreate but have missed the mark every time.  When I think of chicken, almost inevitably I think of the quirky dot on the Taylor Highway that is Chicken, Alaska.  

Sadie and her friends Tanada and Archer Walker in front of the big chicken.
Like with a lot of Alaskan communities, if you look it up on a map, it may not be there and you will definitely not learn about it in your geography class.  So, for all you homeschoolers (or just people who love to learn…which I hope is all of you), come join us on our field trip we took last week with our program REACH Academy to one of my favorite places on Earth…Chicken, Alaska.

Chicken was founded like most other obscure places in Alaska by the discovery of gold around the time of the gold rush that had thousands scrambling up the Klondike to Dawson City.  In fact, by the convenience of modern roads, one can get to Dawson in about 3 hours or so from Chicken since it is only 108 miles away.  However, in the gold rush era, it would’ve taken you days traveling by creeks and the Yukon River or horribly difficult horse trails. 

Maddox and I giving a tour of Tisha's schoolhouse
Once gold was found, despite the difficulties, people flocked to the area, some accounts say in the thousands of people.  They cut down trees, pitched their tents and started digging for buried treasure.  After gold continued to be pulled from the permafrost soil, business men came setting up a roadhouse, general store and other convenient ways to alleviate the miner’s of their findings.  Families arrived, some building cabins, others staying in tents, and the desire to have a school became a reality when Ann Hobbs was hired as Chicken’s first teacher.  Her schoolhouse that was divided equally into a schoolroom and her living quarters, can still be seen and walked through, along with the general store, the roadhouse (aka restaurant), the freighter’s stable, and several cabins.  I was able to give a tour of the original town to our group.  It’s truly amazing how much stuff has survived the 100ish years since the rush started.  Ann’s story, though I’ve been told has some deviations from reality, is told in her novel Tisha.  Even with the parts she misrepresented, it’s a wonderful accounting of the hardships of Alaskan living, the racial tensions of the era and the hardiness of life needed to survive in Chicken even today.

How to tell a 4th child?  He's allowed to suck on big rocks!
Living in Chicken was no picnic, and continues to be a place that, come autumn, all but a handful or less migrate from for easier living.  With temperatures dropping to -60s or less in the winter, no electricity or phones and permafrost trying to sink your house into the earth, anyone who lives here year round has to really love it.  Ann describes that intense cold in her book in hilarious stories like having to sleep with the potatoes to keep them from freezing and a young student disappearing to the outhouse only to be found with his little tush frozen to the seat.  Some of the men in the community had to take off the boards and carry the boy and the seat into the classroom so he could sit by the fire until he thawed.  We have an outhouse here at our property, and I can tell you that 30 degree mornings are a bit of a shock to the system…better than a cup of coffee at waking one up.  I cannot imagine using an outhouse at -50!!

Eventually the boom moved on to the more golden fields of Fairbanks or Nome or any other number places in Alaska.  Miners without patience are always looking for the next big strike.  Some stayed, others came and went.  In the middle of the century a mining company out of Fairbanks brought in the Pedro Dredge and worked their way up the Chicken Creek a mile for about 9 years creating another summer boom of people. 

Pedro Dredge
Dredges are very interesting machines, and we got a tour of the Pedro Dredge from Mr. Mike Busby of The Original Gold Camp.  They are massive digging beasts that carve their way up a waterway, moving their pond habitat with them as they go.  They chew up dirt and rocks, filter it through their innards sifting out the desired gold within, and then excrete the waste out its backside.  The one in Chicken ran 24/7 for 6 months or so each year, traveling an average of 1000 yards a year.  But the amazing thing about this marvel is that it only took three men to run the thing!  It was so loud inside with the machinery running and rocks digesting that they had to communicate with a system of bells and horns.  Tucker said the most important signal being a single horn meaning “Emergency All Stop!!”    

We really had an incredible day with the 35 or so people that went.  Our day started with a tour of the original town, which had kids running from building to building asking questions about the silly and weird things they found.  We then ate chicken (because, really, what else can you eat while in Chicken!) at the Goldpanner made extra special by my good friend Ruby.  We then journeyed up the hill to the Original Gold Camp for the dredge tour and gold panning from the pile Mr. Busby brings in from his mine.  While no one got rich, Tucker caught the gold fever and had to practically be dragged from the goldpan to go home.

A few interesting facts about Chicken before I conclude:
Titus panning for gold.
  • ·      Chicken has two stories as to how it got its name.  One being that the miners wanted to name it after the wild “chickens” they lived off of.  However, they couldn’t agree as to how ptarmigan (with a silent ‘p’) was spelled.  Not wanting to appear illiterate, they filed the town name as Chicken.  The other story is that because the gold that is pulled out of the area resembles chicken feed, they named the town Chicken.
  • ·      The Chicken area is one of the top producing gold areas in Alaska (if miners can be believed…their stories resemble those told by fishermen.)
  • Mr. Busby teaching Tucker to find gold.
  • ·      Individuals still actively mine gold each summer by both placer mining with big equipment like dozers and mini-dredges that are floated in the creeks.  The dredges suction up the creek bottoms, then miners take it to the shore and sift through it.  While placer mining with big equipment is a big investment mining operation, recreational dredge mining in relatively inexpensive, as mining goes, and can be pretty profitable.

If you look really close, you'll see gold.

Tourist season runs from May to August, with hunting season in August and September.  What brought us to Chicken originally was mining for tourist.  We have been blessed to work two different summers at the Goldpanner gift shop.  They have been two of my favorite summers ever.  It was great meeting the tourists that travelled through, learning about where they’re from and their travels.  It was incredible getting to know the miners that most find grubby and odd but I find fascinating.  I could sit for hours, and have, just talking with them and sharing a cup of coffee.  So if you are ever in the Tok area and want a great day trip or you want a fun place to explore for the weekend or week, a journey to Chicken should be a must on everyone’s bucket list.

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