On Top of the World
We started this day with the ferry crossing in Dawson City, Yukon (free and necessary if you want to continue on the highway). The ferry fits vehicles up to 83 feet in length and 17 feet wide, so it will fit any sized rig. Of course, this vehicle size limit is in place because this is essentially the size of the vessel, so we had to wait for two ferries to cross before we could fit on. The ride is quick though so we didn’t wait more than fifteen minutes before we were on the water. The staff was extremely friendly and one guy even offered to take our picture!
Here started the unpaved Top of the World Highway, which was in pretty darn good condition and took us along the very tops of the rolling green tundra hills of the Yukon. The drive was winding and we took our time on curves but it was an overall pretty easy ride.
Crossing the US Border and Getting Searched
After a few hours’ drive, we reached the US border crossing. There were no other people crossing at the time we pulled up to the booth, and I’m not sure they see a ton of traffic come through there. We answered the usual questions about firearms, where we were going, what we did for a living (always throws them a little!), and this time we were asked what produce we had or whether we had any firewood. We were told our few yellow onions were fine, but they seemed most concerned about apples, peppers, tomatoes, and citrus fruits.. We had made sure to go through all of these things before getting to the border and were glad we did – though we technically had some leftover fajitas in the fridge but I’m pretty certain they are only worried about any seeds or bugs in raw produce. We had been wondering about dairy, but they didn’t seem to mind the little bit of milk or cheese we had, nor the frozen chicken breasts or hamburgers we had bought in Canada.
We were then told that we had come up in the “lottery” to be searched. My stomach dropped a little. They seemed pretty easy going at this checkpoint but at this point we weren’t using our slide because it still wasn’t going in OR out properly (more on this saga later), and we had heard of some people being asked to put theirs out before. Luckily, the agent’s search was brief and mostly seemed to consist of looking in the truck’s doors and bed, the RV fridge and a glance into a couple of cabinets. As much as we want border patrol to be thorough for safety’s sake, we breathed a sigh of relief when we got the go ahead! (We then proceeded to go inside and check that doors were closed and everything was put away because on par with what we’d heard of others’ experience, the agent had left several cabinets open and things out on the counter…)
Welcome to Alaska and Our First Flat Tire
Our first stop in mainland Alaska was at the first pull off for the obligatory and much anticipated “Welcome to Alaska” sign picture. We were beyond excited to have made it!!
The road from here was beautifully paved for several miles, but eventually turned to rougher gravel than Top of the World Highway. It wasn’t horrible, but we definitely had to watch for rocks, dips and potholes, as well as work crews, and take our time on curves. About a half hour short of arriving in Chicken, the dreaded tire pressure warning light came on. (Okay, it’s really a wonderful light because we probably could have easily been driving along, oblivious that we had a flat for a while.) A few seconds later, we got the ding-ding alert that tire pressure was very low and watched it dramatically drop down a few PSI every ten seconds. And I had just been thinking how lucky we’d been to have no flats in a year of traveling! There were unfortunately no pull offs on this stretch of road, so John just found the widest straightaway he could before our PSI went down to nearly zero and parked us as far to the right as was safe.
We came out to that horrible hissing noise and discovered the likely culprit under our tire….
John unhitched (really not ideal to get a flat when hitched up!) as I set up our safety cones and flashers in the luckily passing rain. We soon realized we should have practiced accessing our spare before leaving because it was a little hard to find the access funnel that would release it. We eventually found it though (up and to the left of the access hole – I don’t feel bad about having trouble finding it) and got to work.
We had a total of six vehicles, including an Alaska DOT worker, stop to make sure we were okay. And this was out of probably only twice that many passing through. We had heard that people look out for each other up North but that percentage blew us away! We will definitely be repaying the favor…
We did take one Pennsylvania couple up on their offer to help just to have someone around in case something did go wrong. I mean, you never know out here and with no cell reception or significantly developed towns for hours it’s good to have someone with a working vehicle around. Plus, it’d been a few years since John had had to change a tire and I only hoped to stay away from the lug nuts in hopes of avoiding an “Oh, fuuuudge” moment. We were glad we accepted the offer. Not only was the couple super sweet, it turned out the man grew up in the same New Jersey town my mom has taught in the past 29 years. Small world!
An hour later, we were famished and finally on our way to the infamous tiny town of Chicken.
The town of Chicken was established in the early 20th century as a gold mining town. Rumor has it that it got its unusual name because the miners hunted and ate ptarmigan fowl, but couldn’t decide on the correct spelling. So they just called it, “Chicken”. Though we’re told it was once a slightly larger community, the town currently boasts a summer population of around 30 people, and under 10 in the dark winter months when the roads to town shut down with only snowmobile access to Tok. The businesses in town are essentially limited to a post office, an RV park that offers gold panning, and “Downtown Chicken” – a tourist strip that contains a gift shop, saloon and cafe.
Downtown Chicken is kind enough to offer free overnight parking in back. Granted, it’s not exactly luxurious quarters – it’s a small muddy gravel lot that backs up to the employees’ tent-cabins but hey, we’re not going to complain about free camping behind a saloon! Oh, and they do have one amenity…the “Chicken Poop” outhouse. The town has to ship in all of their water, runs purely on generator electricity, and is restricted by the government from installing septic systems so this is the bathroom for the whole establishment. We didn’t use it but it looked pretty clean and gave us a good laugh.
After a long day, we didn’t feel like cooking and wanted to support the business that was giving us free parking, so we ordered some food from the cafe. Prices were fairly high, but this was sort of understandable given their location and the tools they had to work with. I had the bison chili dog and John had a reindeer sausage for something unique to the area (though we’d have no shortage of opportunities for this in Alaska).
As the establishment is owned and operated as one entity, we were able to have a seat at the saloon next door and grab some cold Alaskan and Denali Brewing Co. drafts while we waited for our food. The saloon is packed wall to wall with memorabilia left behind by visitors – lots of hats, business cards, and panties. Yes, tons and tons of panties hang from the ceiling and are tacked to the walls. Not only that, they are burnt panties that have been shot from the homemade cannon at the bar. I didn’t donate a pair because with never knowing where the next laundromat might be, I cling to mine for dear life, but it’s definitely a novelty!
The ten-seat bar was super quiet at first so we chatted a little with Max the bartender who grew up in the area and whose parents founded the business. Now he only spends summers here and his winters in France, but he said growing up weathering the winters wasn’t all that bad.
Throughout the night, we were surrounded by a host of characters. Long time hardy locals complaining about how they wished they could have septic systems, a gold miner from California who proclaimed his wife to be one of the “best known gold panners around”, European travelers, a North Carolina couple who were camp hosting across the street, and a couple of so-called “sign girl” road workers with a bar tab to settle all came and went as we all huddled around the bar comfortably warmed by a wood stove on a chilly night. We’d heard from others that Chicken was a funky, unique stop, but we felt like we’d gotten a little more out of it. We couldn’t help but feel we’d experienced a sliver of authentic Alaska in this little unassuming tourist trap.
The next day embarking on the Taylor Highway south toward Tok, we endured the worst of the road through the dug up construction zones, and then alternated haphazardly between paved and gravel stretches up and down hills. No flats this time, we just took it slow.
Turning right onto the Alaska Highway was one of the most gorgeously paved roads we’d seen in a while, and we cruised into Tok. We picked up a bunch more promotional brochures and helpful maps between the Tok Visitor’s Center and the Public Lands Information Center and made our way up to Fairbanks with our first views of the Alaska Range off in the distance. We were officially in the thick of Alaska!