Chicken? Not our taste, though many find it “eggs-ellent.” Instead, we flocked off down Alaska’s Taylor Highway for seventeen miles to a camp spot more natural, more scenic. To Milepost 49, on the Dennison Fork of the Fortymile Wild Scenic River, to West Fork Campsite.
On our way to Tuktoyaktuk, we drove the Top of the World highway from Dawson City, Yukon, planning to camp at the funky town of Chicken, Alaska. It was mid-June, late afternoon when we parked Rove-Inn and had a look around.
Why would anyone name a town Chicken? When it was being incorporated in 1902, the 400 or so residents wanted to name it after the most common bird in the area—but they couldn’t agree on the spelling of ptarmigan! Now they explain the name by saying the gold nuggets found here are big as chicken corn.
Quickly deciding Chicken Gold Camp was too commercial for us, we opted to have a coffee and look at our options. But first, we’d check out a store called Downtown Chicken.
“Hello,” I said to a wiry woman with a sun-aged face sorting through a bin of jumbled T-shirts with sayings like I had a Cluck’n Good Time in Chicken! and I Got Laid in Chicken Alaska.
“Stayed on after the festival?” We were silent. “Chicken stock,” she said, her raised eyebrows messaging how dumb we were. (Were our overalls to blame?)
“How was it?” I asked, smiling at a comedian’s goldmine of assorted rubber chickens.
“I made a lot of money,” she quipped. “Fifteen hundred people here.”
Magellan and I looked at each other, our eyes communicating, “Whew, we got lucky,” thinking of the noise, traffic and crowds lining up for the only biffies in town, the three spots in the Chicken Poop.
Chickenstock is an annual music festival started by the owners of Chicken Gold Camp. In Chicken, where the road is often closed for eight months of the year and the population dips to single digits in the winter, private planes land by the dozen during Chickenstock. “Come shake your tail feathers under the Midnight Sun” the pitch goes for this year’s fifteenth anniversary, June 11-13, 2021.
“How long have you lived here?” I asked, and when she answered thirty years, I realized this woman was Sue Wiren, owner of Downtown Chicken and the Chicken Creek Saloon. She designs the T-shirts herself and is famous for her home-made pies sold at the saloon.
Foregoing any purchase, not even bumper stickers with phrases like, “The last one to Chicken is a rotten egg!” or “There is not a single mosquito in Chicken, Alaska they’re all married and have raised very large families,” Magellan and I went next door to the saloon.
Even Sue’s son Max is quoted saying it’s “the epitome of a dive bar.” Walls feathered (sorry, I couldn’t resist) with baseball caps, business cards and panties with the crotches shot out, the saloon sells mainly liquor and beer along with espresso coffee, bison chili, reindeer sausage and assorted fruit pies, although I have to say, the blueberry filling tasted canned.
Perusing our 82-page copy of The Last Great Road Trip and a few other sources, we chose a place to roost for the night: Mile 82 Km 132, only seventeen miles away on the Dennison Fork of the Fortymile Wild Scenic River.
West Fork Campground is located between Wolf Creek Pass and Pagosa Springs. This secluded 10-acre campground has 28 campsites offering both sun and shade There are 15 reservable sites with the remaining first-come, first-serve. Most sites are suitable for large RVs. A few are next to the West Fork of the San Juan River. Services include potable water, trash pickup, vault toilets, picnic tables, and fire grates.
…in a rugged, heavily forested, remote wilderness area that features a network of rivers and creeks that thread through the region. Visitors can expect to see beautiful wild scenery, and may possibly encounter local wildlife including grizzly and black bears, moose, caribou, deer, and Dall sheep, as well as peregrine falcons and eagles. The West Fork campground consists of two loops with 25 individual campsites. There is potable water on-site, and vault toilets. The larger campground loop overlooks Oxbow Lake, where moose and trumpeter swans are often spotted.
Rove-Inn could hardly wait.
Almost as soon as we arrived, Klaus, the tall, beefy and personable host of the camp spot, drove over in his ATV. Bearded and dressed in a red-checkered shirt and frayed jeans, Klaus is a keener. Behind wire-rim glasses, his inquisitive eyes take in you and your circumstances, barely concealing an elusive sadness. “Best spot in the place,” he said, confirming our choice of site 22. “Need some wood? It’s free you know.”
Klaus told us how many years he’s been managing the place. Thirteen? I can’t remember. He filled us in on the area’s history and how much he enjoyed his job working for the Bureau of Land Management up here at this gorgeous camp spot. “I don’t think the people living there were all too anxious to have the road built and people poking their noses into their community,” he said when he told him we were headed to Tuktoyaktuk. “Yes, of course,” he said when Magellan asked if he could give Rove-Inn a wash in the river, an hour’s job.
Klaus gave us time to settle in before returning with firewood. Clearly, he wanted to chat. “My old dog’s not good. She hasn’t been eating,” he said. “I may have to take her to Fairbanks for one-last visit to the vet during the night if she doesn’t get better.” Although we knew he had a gun to protect the campsite from bears and wolves, he wanted her to go peacefully in his arms with the blessing of a veterinarian a five-hour drive away. “That will be my truck you hear if it happens tonight. If I go, I’ll leave the gate open so you can leave early in the morning.”
Two large RVs arrived, scouting out the best sites around us. One couple was our age, the other a generation younger. It seemed odd they didn’t want to be in side-by-side camp spots.
In time, the oldies came over. The woman introduced herself and her husband. It was our turn to be curious but before I could ask, she explained.
“Our daughter doesn’t like camping but her girlfriend (maybe she said her name was Laura?) and her husband do. So, we travel together and come here almost every year.” From Germany, they fly into Whitehorse, rent RVs and enjoy the natural grandeur of the north. They didn’t attend Chickenstock either.
We stayed up late hoping to see the full moon. But when it’s summer solstice at latitude 64º the midnight sun holds to its sovereignty. Until the wee hours of the morning that is, when nature called and there above the spruce trees, silm: shimmering moonlight on the river.
Philosophically it is said the world belongs to those who can satisfy their hunger. How do you compare what we planned, akin to deep-fried chicken nuggets, to this free-range fire-roasted feast for the senses on Fortymile Wild Scenic River?
Klaus came by the next morning, a big mug of coffee in hand. “She seems better,” he said. “We’ll see how the day goes.”
Next up for us was the town of Tok. It gets no fanfare, so we didn’t plan on stopping. That’s unfair because, as we discovered, Bohemian Brew has great coffee and home-made bagels.
For more on Chickenstock, here’s the Facebook page.