Saturday, June 11, 2005

Coldfoot to Yukon Crossing, less burdened

Obligatory Arctic Circle photo. Notice gaping hole where tent once rested!

Arrived in the camp about 1:30 a.m. this morning and I think it was around 11:00 when I regained “consciousness”. Felt “lousy”, with a slightly sore throat. First steps difficult and uncertain, then steady improvement. “Okay, I guess life is worth living after all…” The mosquitoes were horrible, and I wasn't quite prepared psychologically for this heat. Donned the head net and spread DEET on my hands.

The campground host drove around to check on his sole guest. “Don” was friendly and engaging. Another visitor from the Rochester area (actually Haskinville, in the Finger Lakes district of New York.) He and his wife Anita come out in the summer to volunteer at the Arctic Interagency Visitors Center in Coldfoot and host the campground.

At one time in his life, he had worked at Taylor Winery. Coincidentally, Taylor was also purchased by Canandaigua (Constellation). His son is now working with Miller Brewing, which he said was recently purchased by a South African brewing conglomerate. He agrees that some form of revolution is coming. Corporations are just getting too powerful, and the mounting greed that drives them cannot be tolerated much longer. I promised to stop at the center on my way out.

Considered turning north, to run back up the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk, rich in gold prospecting history. I didn’t want to leave Alaska without at least trying to pan for gold. But the softest gravel was between here and Wiseman, and I didn’t want to face it this morning. So, I reluctantly turned south.

Filled up at Coldfoot Camp, meeting two Czech characters as I was pumping gas. Then, on my way in to pay for the gas, I met "Rochester Janet" again. She made some motherly comment about driving safely (she sounded just like one of my New York cousins!) They had spent the night in Wiseman. I stopped at the Visitors Center. Saw Don again and met Anita. A German “birder” was having difficulty communicating with the staff. I was amazed at his passion for birds, something I can’t relate to. I listened for a while then tried to translate. Only then did I realize my German language deficiency. The German came out with English and Spanish uncontrollably interspersed. But he graciously thanked me for my interference.

Building thunderstorms to the south prompted me to move on. Crossed the South Fork of the Koyukuk and saw a river access road. Decided to try panning after all. Rode down the cobbled embankment to a spot directly beneath the pipeline crossing. (This seemed to cause those guys in the red Alyeska trucks some discomfort.)

Along the Koyukuk River, where I tried panning for gold. There are many forms of "gold". These are tiger swallowtails.

Collected buckets of water and doused the bike, trying to remove some of the accumulated mud. That task complete, turned to prospecting! Using my titanium dinner plate and stainless steel “camp trowel” (both for the first, but hopefully not last, time), stepped out into the rocky riverbed and looked for the likely gold hiding places. “Remember, the rocks vibrate, and the gold settles in crevices behind them,” the Deadhorse mechanic had confided. So I moved one of the larger, flatter stones I saw in the shallows and scooped up some gravel. Shook, swirled, culled the gravel until only the fine stuff was left, trying to figure out the “technique” that would reward me. After a few “pans”, I found a flake! It was quite elusive, but unmistakable. It seemed to cling to the tilted pan when others sediments settled lower. It required careful handling with a tweezers to pick it out. Within a short time, I had two flakes! Then nothing. “This is just like Las Vegas,” I grumbled to myself. I was giving up, when a truck loaded with equipment crawled down the bank. Two prospectors. “We were afraid you were cutting in on our claim,” one joked. The other remained silent, and looked away, clearly not interested in passing the time. The friendlier of the two took a look at my flakes. “Yep. There’s a lot of ‘fines’ in the area.” They had been working upstream this morning and were now headed to a site “down around the bend.” Before walking downstream, he turned and said “there’s a shovel there you can use. Just put it back when you’re done.”

I tried a few shovelfuls, but patience had flown by now. It was getting late and I was barely 20 miles into a 250-mile ride to Fairbanks. Put the shovel away and packed up. Surprised at the ease with which the BMW climbed the rocky bank, even though I barely had control. Racing south now, I looked in the mirror and noticed a pack sitting skewed. Pulled over and in shock, saw my tent was gone. I had failed to tighten the straps after washing the bike. I was about 5 miles from the river, so I raced back, expecting to find it on the river bank.

“I wasn’t serious when I said losing things lightens the load. This complicates matters.” The tent was not in the road, and not on the riverbank. That meant either someone had stopped and picked it up, or it went over one of the embankments and was along the roadside. Crawled back down the highway riding as close to the steep gravelly shoulders as I dare, “one eye in the mirror,” watching for overtaking trucks, looking for a bright red pack (which also contained my expensive “Keen” sandals.) In many spots steep ravines ended in dense foliage. “I don’t know what trajectory a flying tent could take, but it could be buried in the foliage.” Painstakingly explored the edges of the highway, stopping to climb down into some ravines obscured from the road.

About 3 hours and 30 miles later, it was clear that without actually walking the bottoms of these ravines, I wasn’t going to find it. And if someone had carried it off, the climbing would have been in vain. It was hot walking in the riding suit, and I wasn’t about to take it off and be swarmed, so the decision was made. “Move on. Lesson learned: never leave without a final gear check.” Just like a pilot’s checklist. I need to adopt that discipline.

Took one last run north past the river, on the chance that someone finding the pack would check its contents, then discard it up the road a bit. Nope. Pretty unhappy with myself, but I had to avoid letting the negativity distract from the still-demanding ride.

Returning south, I saw the prospectors leaving the river. I pulled over to share my tale of woe. But first I asked how they had done. “Friendly” showed me a pan.

“Why is your sand black?”

“That’s where the gold is. Black means it contains iron. And iron holds the gold.”

There were quite a few “fines” in the small sample of sand.

After sharing my lament, he said I could get a room at “The Hot Spot Café” near the Yukon River, “but you’ll have to get there before midnight.” It was 9:15. The quiet one said “good luck, mate.”

The now slanting light was actually better for reading the road surface. I was feeling pretty confident, so maintaining 50 to 60 mph was not a problem. As it grew more dusky though, my confidence was even surprising myself. “Remember what kind of surface you’re on.”

Far to the south, a towering thunderhead glowed bright pink in the twilight. Hopefully, it would not be in my path once I reached that point.

Arrived at "The Hot Spot Café" at 11:30 p.m. Off the road a few hundred yards, I had disregarded it on the way north. But now it was familiar. I had seen it in some publication. Walking around a trailer, found four people lounging around an outdoor table. “Does it look like we’re bored?” the blond woman asked.

“Does it look like I’m lost?”

After identifying myself, I asked if I could get a soda.

“Over there” said the woman motioning towards a cooler. “We make you work around here.”

A young couple also at the table. The fellow looked like a “hillbilly,” filthy. His friend, less so. “We’ve been out pickin’ morels.” Then I noticed the 5-gallon bucket of morel mushrooms at his feet. “These kids are doing it right,” Theresa, the proprietor, said. “They pick and dry their mushrooms, catch and jar their own salmon.”

Eric, the grimey young man, said he got the first grizzly of the season and showed me the bear claw necklace he had made “up at Jack’s (Reakoff) place.” The claws were huge. I was quickly having my perspective “adjusted”. Amazingly, Eric also came to Alaska from the Rochester area. He’s quite astute, and has studied resource management and wilderness survival, among other things. He was interested in my travels, and envious, he said.

I finally asked Theresa “Do you sell gas?”

“Sure. I’ll meet you at the pump across the way.”

She had to fire up a generator to run the pump.

“Just shut it down when you’re done and tell me the total.”

Meanwhile, some men had arrived in a pick-up and the ladies were back in the kitchen cooking up burgers to go.

“Can I order something?”

“It’s on. We’re famous for our burgers.”

“Can I make it a mushroom burger?”

“You got it, but it won’t be morels.”

They placed my (huge) burger on a table inside the dining trailer. “Fewer bugs in there.”

“There’s a bun under that burger. We have fresh Kaiser rolls made for us. If we go to bed, don’t worry. You can hang out as long as you want.”

“Should I turn out the lights or lock up?”

“No. Truckers come at all hours of the night.”

“What do they get?”

“Chips, sodas, cinnamon rolls. They leave money, or pay later.”

What a place! And the burger, heaped with mushrooms and mozzarella, was outstanding. I ate in the quiet, just looking around the trailer. The décor in restaurants along the Dalton includes photos of trucking mishaps – all kinds of them.

Placed a tip in a dish by the coffee maker and quietly left, snapping a photo before mounting up.

The gold prospectors mentioned this spot as a place to get a room for the night. It looks kind of quiet, but then it's 1:30 a.m.!

1:49 a.m. Crossing the Yukon River again. It never grew darker than this. The sun skirted around to the right, then popped up about 3:30 a.m. in Fairbanks.

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