|“The Alaska Range,” oil on canvas board, by Carol L. Douglas|
Neither rain nor snow nor threat of sleep deprivation shall keep us from our appointed rowdiness.
Mary and I coined that as our trip’s slogan. It’s insane. Mary has a cold and I’m feeling an irksome scratchiness to the throat. We can afford for one of us to be ill, but if both of us are down, who’s going to drive?
These long days are taking a toll. We are up at 6:00 AM, and in bed late at night. Even with this, we’ve made little forward progress, at least on the map. Still, we’re making some progress. One more day to clear Alaska and be back in the Pacific Time Zone.
|16th century illustration of placer mining. The Gold Rush prospectors used essentially the same technique.|
Yesterday, we followed the Richardson Highway south and east from Fairbanks. This road tracks the Tanana River through the richest gold strike area ever found in Alaska.
Gold was first found here by Russian settlers in the 1850s. Sporadic attempts to prospect and mine were made throughout the 19th century but it was not until the Klondike gold rush of 1896 in neighboring Canada that the madness was on.
At Big Delta, the Tanana River spreads into myriad fingers of water and gravel bars stretching into the far distance. This area must have seemed irresistible to placer miners trying for the next big strike. In 1902, gold was discovered here. It would end up being the most lucrative strike in Alaska history.
A spur trail was built from Gulkana on the Valdez-Eagle route to the new mining areas around Fairbanks. Rika’s Roadhouse, north of Delta Junction, is one of the few tangible remnants of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail.
Enterprising men panned for gold, and other enterprising men and women provided support. Rika’s was built in 1910 by John Hajdukovich, who sold it to his manager, Rika Wallen, in 1923. She paid “$10.00 and other considerations.” We might conclude that John owed his manager money, or worse. Wallen ran the roadhouse into the late 1940s and lived there until her death in 1969.
|Swank digs: a picnic table and a fire pit!|
Compared to the Dalton Highway, the Richardson Highway is downright luxurious—it’s completely paved, and there are occasional gas stations. Still, it’s easy to see how miserable conditions were for those old prospectors. It’s still summer and temperatures are dropping into the 30s overnight. As calm as the Tanana looks from a distance, walk down to its edge and you realize that line of shadow on the closest bar in the river is actually a high, overhanging bluff. The river is large and boils along like milky chocolate. Those men deserved every penny they wrested from that inhospitable earth.
We resolved to not drive at night any more in moose country, so at twilight we stopped at Moon Lake and paid the princely sum of $18 for a camping site. Ah—the precious luxury of a chemical toilet and a fire pit! Still, both of us are feeling a bit gamey right now and a hot shower is starting to seem like the Holy Grail.
|Just set it and forget it! Campfire risotto.|
At dusk, I painted a small study while Mary cooked dinner. The only other visitors in the park were four young German tourists. After we exchanged greetings, they ambled off and got high by the light of the setting sun. Marijuana is legal in Alaska, and evidently it’s a tourist attraction.
|“No Northern Lights tonight,” oil on canvas board, by Carol L. Douglas|
My goal for this trip was eight hours of painting and driving per day. That was not very realistic, and the pace is part of the reason we’re flirting with head colds. After my summer in Waldoboro, I should have remembered that everything takes longer off the grid.