Spent some more time out at the lake last week. I did do some work to the place, but mainly wanted to get out and enjoy some autumn solitude.
It was quiet out there, rarely did I see more than one other boat on the water, and we seemed to do a little dance where we kept the same distance between ourselves, as we fished various areas of the lake.
I did experience my first earthquake out there. It’s an interesting feeling as the wave flows through the cabin. The quake was centered down in the Willow area, so I’m a bit surprised I felt one from that distance, but after checking their website, the Alaska Earthquake Center had it rated at a 5.2.
No fox were to be seen on this week, but there were swans. One night, I ventured out to the end of the dock past dusk. Two white blobs were visible, and with the binoculars, I could clearly see that they were trumpeter swans. One swan had its head buried under a wing, but the other was at full alert, with head held high. The lookout was not looking in my direction, but I knew it was fully aware of my presence just the same. A further inspection brought two more swans into view.
By morning, I had 13 trumpeters just past the reeds from the dock. I watched them for much of the morning. None of them seemed to be too worried about me. When they paddled off, if a boat cut across the lake, they came back to where I was sitting.
We spent the morning in the Gulf of Alaska, just outside Resurrection Bay. The fishing was good, but not great. The jelly fish were thick, due to the warmer than normal water temperatures. When I say thick, I mean thick. Every time the lure was brought up, the line, bait & lure were coated in jelly fish snot. It was a mess. By noon, we were covered in the gooey stuff, and the side of the boat would need a thorough cleaning from the endless flicking.
In the afternoon, my companions tried to fish from shore, while I hiked about, camera in hand. There was no sign of cohos in the bay and I had no interest in catching any pink salmon. As a resident, I fully admit to being a salmon snob.
Two local pre-teen boys rode up to the creek mouth on their bicycles, and promptly snagged a pink a piece. There was a fair amount of grumbling from the people who had been at it for a while. The boys came bounding up from the creek with their haul, the youngest commenting that he couldn’t ride home with more than one salmon, when I asked why they had already stopped fishing. He rode off carrying his catch. The older boy had a better system: He hooked the pink salmon over the handlebar through the gills and peddled off with the fish nearly touching the ground.
All I could think of as I watched them peddle away was, “What an incredible place to grow up in.” They had life by the tail.
The road to Seward had an unexpected gauntlet north of the town of Willow, Alaska. Severe winds had knocked over a power pole, and the resulting sparks set off a wildfire along the Parks Highway.
The winds were still howling when we went through. Firefighters were on the scene, but things didn’t look good. By the time we made it to Anchorage, we learned that the fire had made the jump, and both sides of the road had flames. The Parks had been closed to traffic behind us.
A smokey Seward Harbor
The high winds continued on the Kenai Peninsula, as we drove south on the Seward Highway. The Swan Lake Fire had been all but contained, but the winds gave it a breath of new life, which closed the Sterling Highway, and left the taste of burning spruce in all of our throats.
Out on Resurrection Bay: Looking back at Seward Harbor
Once on the water, the smoke diminished some, but we didn’t really escape it until we were out in the Gulf of Alaska.
To date, Seward had seen 2.25″ of rain, which is unheard of. They normally see 64″ in a year. The town of Homer had been hit even harder still, with only 1.15″ of rain this season. Needless to say, the Kenai Peninsula is seeing drought conditions.
The fishing was good, and at times great. There was no rain in the foreseeable forecast, so no one had rain jackets. The temps were in the 70’s F, and we all ended up fishing in short sleeves. Out of all my trips to Alaska’s coast to fish, this one may have been the most surreal.
The smoke comes in from a new fire started by lightning
I knew it before I even went outside the cabin the next morning. I had left a window open to experience the thunderstorm, and now I could smell the repercussions.
Sure enough, when I walked down the boardwalk to the lake, the hills across the water were barely visible due to the smoke. No doubt the lightning from the storm the previous night had started another wildfire. No where in Alaska is safe from the smoke this summer.
It was around noon when I heard the buzz of the planes coming in. Two single engine aircraft flew directly over me at a height of only a few hundred feet. Under one wing, in all capital letters, was the word FIRE.
For the next six hours, the two planes skirted the lake, landing in a bay on the far end on their floats, filled up their tanks on the run, then took off again in the direction that they had come. The fire must have been close, as the raven flies, because the interval between water fills was only 10 minutes.
I went back out to fish, but hesitated from crossing the lake. I had hit the trout fairly hard the evening before on the other side of the lake, but I didn’t think I could cross in 10 minutes in the canoe. I ended up fishing my side until evening, when the flights stopped.
I sat out at the end of the dock, watching a family of ducks float about just past the reeds. The eagle I have seen since my arrival, was riding the thermals up high. The sun was slowly setting, causing the smokey sky to give off its wildfire glow.
After hanging out with me for the better part of a day, the ducks have grown used to me, and barely paddle off when I venture out in the canoe.
Thunder was building tension off in the distance, when I saw the eagle dive. I wondered if it saw a fish. No, I realized almost immediately that it wasn’t diving for a fish. The talons extended out from the golden eagle’s body, its large wings spread outward to slow down its impact.
Ducks. The eagle was in the mood for duck. There was a moment of intense squawking. Then silence. The remaining brood paddled quickly away, and the eagle settled down just past the reeds.
A minute later, I watched a raven come into the kill site. I could see only its black head, as it hopped closer and closer to where I had last seen the golden eagle. One final raven hop, and the great raptor rose up with wings wide and high. The raven hopped just out of range, but continued to harass the eagle while it ate.
We don’t get as many rousing thunderstorms as the Midwest. We simply don’t have the humidity. However, the one that came through as I sat out on the dock was a decent one. Lightning was all around the lake, and the thunder rolled over the hills and across the water. Only a few scattered drops of rain, unfortunately. All show, and no soak.
I went inside more to avoid the lightning than the rain drops.
I had no intention of even turning the valve open on the propane, but the severely darkened sky kind of forced my hand. It took a little while, but eventually the gas made it down the copper lines, and the familiar hiss of the propane lights filled the little log cabin.
The warm glow of the propane lights from outside the cabin, where the fox stared me down
I’ve missed these lights. They say “north woods” to me, and I have always enjoyed relaxing under their warm glow, and soft hiss. The added heat they bring in the winter is nothing to scoff at either.
So I wrote, and read under the lights as the lightning surrounded the cabin and the resulting thunder pounded down upon the hills.
I took several days “off” last week to head out to a local lake at a client’s request. They wanted me to check the place out, and see if it needs any work, and I wanted to wet a line or two and try for some trout.
Before I made even a dozen paddle strokes from the landing, I had an eagle flying overhead. It was high enough, and the sun bright enough, that I wasn’t sure if it was a golden eagle, or an immature bald eagle, but that didn’t seem to matter anyway. I was just happy to be out on the water, in a newly repaired canoe, away from cell phones, email and texts.
“When will you be back in town?”
My answer: “I have no idea. When the fish stop biting, I guess.”
On our tour of uniquely Interior Alaska, we made the drive out to the Republic of Ester. The first stop was the Golden Eagle Saloon, where you grill your own burgers. We sat out on the front porch, mingling with the regulars. But we didn’t venture out to Ester for a “grill your own”. We came out for the Malemute.
Gold was discovered in Ester Creek in 1903. By 1907, Ester had become a thriving mining community with a population of 200. Ester Gold Camp developed into a support facility for the F.E. Company’s gold dredges operating in the Cripple Creek & Ester Creek areas.
With dredging winding down, the F.E. Company sold the gold camp to local investors who turned the historic camp into a resort in 1958.
“Service with a Smile”, inside the Malemute
The F.E. Company used the old building as a garage, but the new resort owners turned it into the “Malemute Saloon”. Robert Service, the poet whose works include “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”, became an honorary patron of the Malemute. The bar inside the Malemute is circa 1900, and came from the Royal Alexandra Hotel in Dawson, YT. It was barged down the Yukon River and up the Tanana.
At its peak, the Ester Gold Camp had all you can eat crab, and meals were taken on long tables like the miners of the F.E. Company. It allowed visitors to interact, and residents were as common as the tourists. The Malemute would be packed to the rafters, with shows dedicated to Robert Service and life in the Interior of Alaska. I took my Dad out there a few times, and it became one of his favorite Alaska hangouts. With sawdust on the floor, Alaskana on the walls, and cold beer flowing, it was a favorite of many locals as well.
On this night in 2019, we ordered our beer at the historic bar, then went outside to sit on the deck, which had a significant lean down & away from the building.
The Gold Camp and the Malemute closed in 2008, although the Malemute Saloon does open on occasion. This year, it was open, serving Alaskan brews for the month of June.
The Ester Camp Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
The Shooting of Dan McGrew
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.
When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
There was none could place the stranger’s face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.
There’s men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard like a spell;
And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in hell;
With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done,
As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one by one.
Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he’d do,
And I turned my head — and there watching him was the lady that’s known as Lou.
His eyes went rubbering round the room, and he seemed in a kind of daze,
Till at last that old piano fell in the way of his wandering gaze.
The rag-time kid was having a drink; there was no one else on the stool,
So the stranger stumbles across the room, and flops down there like a fool.
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then he clutched the keys with his talon hands — my God! but that man could play.
Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you’ve a hunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars.
And hunger not of the belly kind, that’s banished with bacon and beans,
But the gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means;
For a fireside far from the cares that are, four walls and a roof above;
But oh! so cramful of cosy joy, and crowned with a woman’s love —
A woman dearer than all the world, and true as Heaven is true —
(God! how ghastly she looks through her rouge, — the lady that’s known as Lou.)
Then on a sudden the music changed, so soft that you scarce could hear;
But you felt that your life had been looted clean of all that it once held dear;
That someone had stolen the woman you loved; that her love was a devil’s lie;
That your guts were gone, and the best for you was to crawl away and die.
‘Twas the crowning cry of a heart’s despair, and it thrilled you through and through —
“I guess I’ll make it a spread misere”, said Dangerous Dan McGrew.
The music almost died away … then it burst like a pent-up flood;
And it seemed to say, “Repay, repay,” and my eyes were blind with blood.
The thought came back of an ancient wrong, and it stung like a frozen lash,
And the lust awoke to kill, to kill … then the music stopped with a crash,
And the stranger turned, and his eyes they burned in a most peculiar way;
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then his lips went in in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice was calm,
And “Boys,” says he, “you don’t know me, and none of you care a damn;
But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I’ll bet my poke they’re true,
That one of you is a hound of hell. . .and that one is Dan McGrew.”
Then I ducked my head, and the lights went out, and two guns blazed in the dark,
And a woman screamed, and the lights went up, and two men lay stiff and stark.
Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew,
While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that’s known as Lou.
These are the simple facts of the case, and I guess I ought to know.
They say that the stranger was crazed with “hooch,” and I’m not denying it’s so.
I’m not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two —
The woman that kissed him and — pinched his poke — was the lady that’s known as Lou.
The Chatanika Lodge in the heart of downtown Chatanika, Alaska
When in Chatanika, one really should stop in and see Ron & Shirley at The Lodge. It is a collection of Alaskana; along with some spruce burls, Christmas lights, and a few dollar bills thrown in for good measure.
The bar at the Chatanika Lodge
The Lodge was originally part of the F.E. Company holdings. The current owners bought the building in 1974, the place had a fire in 1975, but was rebuilt and back in operation within three months. They have been adding things to the walls and ceilings ever since.
The Chatanika Lodge Ballroom, or dance floor…
The Lodge has 11 rooms for rent, as well as the full bar and restaurant. The Dredge Burger is quite popular. It’s also a popular place to go for live music on the weekends.
The T-Bird room
There is a 1956 Thunderbird in the back of the restaurant in the T-Bird Room. The car was brought up to Alaska in 1992.
One of the highlights of March in Interior Alaska is Chatanika Days, and the famed outhouse races. Contestants build an outhouse on skis, and a team pushes the outhouse around a “track”. One team member must be sitting on the throne, within the outhouse, as the team scampers about the track. Life is good, if a bit odd, in the Interior.
A friend of mine had a couple of relatives in town this past week. They had shown me around Buffalo, NY when I paid that city a visit recently, so I took a day off to return the favor. They wanted to see some places that were uniquely Interior Alaska, so we ventured out the Steese Highway to the little mining community of Chatanika.
Mining equipment around the Gold Camp
The Fairbanks Exploration Company, or the more commonly used, F.E. Company, was the big player in gold mining in the Fairbanks area in the first half of the 20th Century. Their largest gold camp was out in Chatanika, with workers mostly working the gold dredges. The F.E. Gold Camp was built in 1925, and it’s a beautiful 25 minute drive, or so, from Fairbanks to Chatanika over Cleary Summit.
Gold Camp restaurant and bar
In recent years, the Gold Camp has been run as a restaurant, bar and hotel. As of Sunday, it will be under new ownership. The current owners would not give me any information on the new owners or their plans for the historic camp.
The Gold Camp wood cookstove, which fed over 200 miners at a time.
Being the Fairbanks area, we were greeted upon arrival by the camp dog. After the obligatory ear scratching and tail wagging, we were able to get a nice tour of the camp from a woman whose father cooked for the miners on the giant wood cookstove back in the late 1940’s.
FE Gold Camp guest room
I’ve been out to the camp many times, but this was the first time I explored the upstairs. There are 8-10 guest rooms on the second floor of the main building, along with two restrooms. The complex also has an adjacent bunkhouse.
The Men’s room, two showers are in the back, on either side of the room.
Between 1926 and 1957, over $70 million worth of gold was removed by the F.E. Company. During that time span, the gold camp had a population larger than Fairbanks with over 10,000 residents.
The Gold Camp is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.