An evening on the Walker Fork looking for grayling. Wildfire smoke plagued the skies during our midsummer visit to the Taylor Highway, and while things constantly smelled like a woodstove, the sunset views were unforgettable. Photo by Emmie Jackson.
I’m kneeling at the edge of a stream and cradling gold in my fingertips. Here, deep in interior Alaska where legends of riches reign supreme, it’s possible—likely even—that some miner stooped in this exact spot and swirled their fortune from a gold pan over a 130 years ago. My gold isn’t quite like theirs, though it’s not completely unlike it, either. It’s just as precious, just as wild, and just as alluring. With a flourish of her tail, the stream-bred arctic grayling melts from my hand and disappears.
Ten years before the famed Klondike gold stampede of 1897, pick-and-shovelers from all walks of life percolated throughout Alaska’s Fortymile River Valley (dubbed as such because it ran into the Yukon River exactly 40 miles below the site of Fort Reliance, a fur trading hub of the day). Sourdoughs and cheechakos alike combed the area’s gravel beds with never-before-seen zeal. Settlements like Chicken, Jack Wade, Franklin, and Steele Creek rose just as fast as their inhabitants could plant tent stakes, and the trails they made crisscrossed the taiga and eventually became wide enough to run mules and wagons on. Sections of these old trails roll beneath us as my wife, Emmie, and I slow for a truck that’s parked on the side of the road. Nay—not parked, we soon find out. Broken down.
Whenever we explore someplace new, especially a lonely Alaskan road like the Taylor Highway, Emmie and I do our best to meet a local. Not just any local; someone who knows the place and, in fact, epitomizes it in some quirky way. For us, that person was the miner who hopped out of the worn-out truck and introduced himself as “Billdozer.”
We gave Billdozer a jump (“My name’s Bill and I like to bulldoze things”), and soon discovered that not only did he practice yoga on a twice-daily basis, but that he was also a modern-day gold miner, as authentic as they come. By the turn of the 20th century, he informs us, many of the Fortymile miners had made east for the Klondike, leaving others to wonder if there was any gold left. Billdozer testifies that, yes, there was (and still is); miners just had to resort to mammoth-sized dredges to process the paydirt. The area experienced a resurgence of activity in the 1940s, which led to the highway’s construction during the winter of ‘45-’46. Things declined with the onset of World War II; then the 1970s saw a handful of miners—Billdozer included—returning to pick up the pieces and seek their own fortunes. Incidentally, over 17 tons of gold were mined from the Fortymile District back in its heyday.
The Taylor Highway itself, we learn over the next few days of traveling its length, is just as amusing, just as storied, and just as friendly as Billdozer. Chicken, the town where he resides, is somehow both quiet and ornery. There are several gold dredges to explore, shops selling all-things chicken (I bought a finger puppet to Emmie’s lasting chagrin), and even a themed music festival called Chickenstock, which draws thousands of visitors to the little hamlet whenever it takes place. Locals in 1902 get credit for the town’s name: they wanted to call it Ptarmigan for the abundance of birds in the area, but no one within shouting distance could spell it, so they settled on Chicken instead.
The Taylor Highway rolling into Chicken (some 60 miles from its start at Tetlin Junction) is mostly paved, but everything after that is gravel, narrow, and winding. Over the next several miles, I take the opportunity to sample another pastime that the road has to offer.
Fly fishing the Taylor is a refreshingly simple affair: just slip into hip boots and see what’s out there. Nearly every stream Emmie and I cross holds a summer population of arctic grayling, and most of these lovely specimens strike dry flies with an innocence that’s heartbreaking. One pool on the Walker Fork seems to cough up a fish on every cast—at least until a young caribou materializes on the bank and cannonballs into the middle of it. The only thing I can do is laugh and watch as he swims away. Then it’s back to our campsite for a dinner of hot dogs glazed in mosquito repellent.
The next day, we amble to the end of the highway and into its largest settlement: Eagle. Eagle City began as a boom town in 1897 but was bought by the U.S. Secretary of War the following year and transformed into Fort Egbert, an installation with the sole purpose of keeping law and order within the region. Nestled right on the banks of the mighty Yukon River, Eagle/Fort Egbert was well poised to do not only this, but to serve as a new hub for Fortymile, Klondike, and Nome-bound gold seekers. A federal court, in fact, was established there, though by 1904 it had moved to Fairbanks, and by 1911, the fort itself was mostly abandoned.
Fast forward to 2021, Eagle is only slightly different. It’s still inhabited by miners and trappers (some 80 of them who stay year-round), and it still seems as though you could look downriver and see a steamship chugging toward you at any given moment. We explore for the afternoon, buy some locally sourced and handcrafted gold jewelry from Yukon Ron, and decide that it’s time to head home. We’d like to stay forever, of course, perhaps just disappear into the bush and seek our fortunes like so many once did, but work obligations tug us urbanward.
We head south into the dusk, the sun like a blowtorch before us and the gravel billowing like a comet trail behind. Though we plan to head home, my hip boots are still on, and the fly rod is rigged in the backseat. There are even a few gold pans back there, and I have to say, this road has made me feel lucky enough to give one a try.