The Fourth of July picnic in Chicken, Alaska, attracts several hundred people, which for a town of 23 is an impressive turnout. In winter the population drops to seven, and between mid-October and mid-March there is no road in or out. “We're not snowed in,” one resident told me, in what felt a well-rehearsed line, “the rest of them are snowed out.”
The town of Chicken is 40 miles west of the Canadian border and 90 miles from Eagle, the closest, and more majestically-named, town. The story has it that Chicken is so named because its original residents, a ragtag bunch of gold prospectors, were unable to spell ptarmigan, the ubiquitous local bird, and ptarmigan tastes a little like chicken—close enough.
Canadians Jon Juneau and Richard Harris made Alaska's first significant gold strike in 1880. Within the decade there were 1,200 men and a handful of dancing girls in the burgeoning town of Juneau, and in 1906, when Americans' love of gold had overtaken the Russians' love of sea-otter fur, Juneau wrested capital status from Sitka, the capital city under the Russians. Strikes became rushes became stampedes, as 100,000 men from all across the globe flocked to Alaska. Gold was found in Chicken Creek in 1891, and a makeshift settlement grew up around the claims. At peak, the town had close to a hundred residents.
It is gold that draws them still. I met Bill Dunlevy, head of the Anchorage chapter of the Gold Prospectors' Association of America, a few weeks previously, at the miners’ weekly breakfast at Denny's. He had the tough, lined face of someone who had stared down many years of weather, and around his neck hung the five-ounce nugget that he found in 1992.
He was looking forward to their annual outing to Chicken, 400 miles away. “People do well out of it,” he said. “In one week last year one of our members got two ounces. Damn near pays for the trip. The women sit and gossip on the deck all day and tan. At night we have a potluck, get crazy, tell lies.” He invited me to come.
Chicken is little more than three identical buildings that function as bar, café and gift shop, all selling T-shirts, mugs, and bumper stickers that say: “I got laid in Chicken.” Out along the creek was gold-panning of all kinds, from lone men with metal detectors, to husband-and-wife teams panning in the sunshine, to huge dredging operations with bulldozers and ATVs and growing banks of pilings.
Yet Dunlevy, when I found him there, was in low spirits. It was the hottest summer since records began and the creek was so low it was nearly dry. He and the other prospectors had dug pools and were panning out of them, but most people had found next to nothing. One man showed me a small vial of the three-quarters of an ounce he had amassed in a week-and-a-half. At roughly $1,200 an ounce, this was still better than Alaska's minimum wage.
Born in Pennsylvania, Dunlevy joined the Air Force, and it was on a posting in California that a sergeant first took him out to pan. “The first day,” Dunlevy says, “the first tiny speck, I was hooked.” For five years, every weekend, in all weathers, Dunlevy was out in the creeks, doing 10- to 14-hour days. “These was the days when all they had was the 16-inch steel pans. You had to get them rough in the fire. Now they got the plastic molds with the riffles on the bottom. But the principle's the same. I don't care if you're using bulldozers or sluice boxes. The most important thing is to learn how to pan.”
He moved to Alaska in 1974, and now has 12 claims. The nugget around his neck he found in Turnagain Pass, just outside of Anchorage. He works that claim in a drysuit, diving underwater to reach the creekbed. Because of the current's strength, the water doesn't freeze until its temperature drops below 18 degrees, at which point panning becomes impossible. “We'll be sitting in the tent, watching the thermometer with the heater on. As soon as it gets to 18 we get in. You gotta pan quick 'cause the water freezes in the pan. The water gets in and runs up your arm like a knife. By the end of the day you're numb to the knees. The first day's okay 'cause everything is dry. Second morning you gotta get into that frozen underwear, frozen socks, try and warm them up. It's tough. But when we found that nugget, it was like a brand new day. We was warm as toast.” His eyes shone. “Gold mining is mostly luck. That and choosing a good placing.”
“Exactly. I say, 'the fishing was fantastic, but the catching wasn't worth shit.'”
Yet Dunlevy has never cashed in on his findings. He reckons he has upwards of $100,000 in gold, which he keeps in what he calls his bragging box. He toured a number of gold camps in the lower 48 two summers ago, traveling all the way down to Arizona. “I'd take out my bragging box and show it around. I could have got a fortune letting people wear this nugget and get their picture taken. There were queues outside the RV. But I wasn't interested in that. I was giving people the thrill of a lifetime.”
That thrill has drawn not just miners to Alaska, but TV crews as well. Filmed several hundred miles southeast of Chicken, the reality show Gold Rush has become wildly popular since it first aired in 2010—the first season’s finale was the most-watched program among men aged 18 to 49 on the Friday night that it aired. The show has been credited, along with the price of gold, for inspiring a new generation of miners.
I asked Dunlevy what he thought the attraction of gold was, beyond its monetary value.
“The attraction? It's just...gold. It's like liquid sun or something.” He said it as though he could still not believe, even after all these years, that it was his to go out and get. It was the astonishment that has drawn hundreds of thousands of people north, and not unlike the astonishment I felt when I learned that this way of life still exists.
* * *
In 1849, a fifth of the world’s whaling fleet set sail for Arctic waters in pursuit of a bounty of bowhead whales. Since then, the narrative of the state has been that of booms followed by inevitable busts. Within a few years, the whale population was decimated, and the discovery of kerosene meant the end of the industry. When oil was found in Prudhoe Bay at the end of the '60s, so many people flooded into Fairbanks to begin construction on the trans-Alaskan pipeline that the telephone exchange ran out of numbers. According to the 2010 census, only 39 percent of those living in the state were born here.
Now, Prudhoe Bay, once the largest oilfield in the U.S., is in decline. Production peaked at 2.1 million barrels per day in 1988, and 2013 saw just 531,000 barrels per day, with 312,000 barrels per day projected for the next 10 years. The pipeline is in the process of becoming, in Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell’s words, “the world's longest chapstick.”
With nearly 90 percent of the state’s revenues and a third of the state’s jobs coming from the oil-and-gas industry, Alaska is casting about for what could make up the coming shortfall. In the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas there is an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, as much as 13 percent and 30 percent respectively of the world's remaining untapped reserves. And on the North Slope there may be as much as one-eighth of the world’s coal. Yet accessing these, some of the most challenging and pristine landscapes in the world, would be extremely expensive—to say nothing of the environmental consequences.
“Our factories are our natural resources,” says Dunlevy. “Fish, gold, oil, wood, coal. We got 'em all. I love the environment. I just don't go out and take a picture. I go out and live it. I hunt. I fish. I'm the biggest environmentalist there is. I'm laying in that water all day, drinking that water.” Yet, despite this, he continues, “If it can be done safely and effectively, let's get it on. The land used to be vast. Now they're slowly locking it up, slowly taking these privileges away from us.”
In the far west of Alaska lies one of the largest gold deposits in the world, along with significant amounts of copper and molybdenum, all of which is potentially valued at $300 billion. The proposed mine, known as Pebble, has been divisive from the start, as its establishment could do irreversible damage to nearby Bristol Bay, one of the world’s richest fishing grounds and a significant source of revenue for the state. The difficulties in moving forward have led Rio Tinto and Anglo American to pull out of the project, leaving a much smaller mining company in sole charge. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed blocking development, and in May, the Pebble Limited Partnership responded by filing a lawsuit against the agency. Sean Parnell, the governor of Alaska, has criticized the EPA’s stance.
As the price of gold waxes and wanes, the projected viability of Pebble fluctuates too. From the first gold strikes until the 1960s, the price of gold had not gone higher than about $35 per troy ounce (the industry standard—close to an ounce), mainly because its price was regulated. An old-timer vet who moved to Chicken straight out of Vietnam told me that back then, if the nugget was smaller than your thumbnail, it wasn't worth your time. In 1968 gold was allowed to find its free-market value, and by the time Dunlevy found the nugget that he wears around his neck, the price had gone up tenfold. Since then it has quadrupled again. From a high of $1,913 in 2011, it has slid to just under $1,300 per troy ounce, but Dunlevy is wearing around his neck enough to exchange for a sturdy used pickup.
Across from me at Chicken's Fourth of July picnic sat three men, aged between 18 and 49, all adamant that they weren’t just here because they had seen Gold Rush. They were all three from Wisconsin. Yesterday, their first day of the panning season, they attempted to take all their supplies upriver and had got seven miles out before the creek got so low they broke their prop. “I MacGyvered something together to get us back out,” said the one named Plug, who had come up on a package trip with his dad a few years ago to learn basic panning skills. Tomorrow they were planning on trying again with a hovercraft.
We sat and ate amid the smoke of distant wildfires, the ever-changing skies, the endless sea of spruce forest. The culmination of festivities was the panning competition: Five small nuggets hidden in a bucket of mud and grit, the fastest to find them the winner. First, the kids, then the adults. The gathered crowd jeered, cheered, and commented on technique. It was my first Fourth of July in America, and I was assured by many people that there weren't many places where you could find it done like this. Beside me a guy cracked an ice-cold can of Bud. “I'll drink my usual toast,” he said, to anybody listening. “To Alaska.”
In the evening’s endless summer light, I walked down to the bar and found Dan, a fresh-faced guy with a thicket of beard. It was his 10th season in Chicken. The freeze had been so bad this spring that when he first arrived he had been unable to do anything except sit in his cabin and watch every movie he had on his computer. He'd had two bad panning seasons and if this continued, he told me, he'd need a real summer job.
I asked him if it would be easier to find something more reliable.“I reckon,” he said. “But the first time I got a piece of gold—I must have been about 10—it was only about as big as that”—he points at a fleck of cigarette ash on the table between us—“I got the gold fever real bad.” His wife wandered over to us. She sold sex toys for a living and had been hawking them to tourists as well as locals. She had been, she reported, surprisingly successful. The winters are long in Chicken.
I called it a night a little while later. I lay in my tent and listened to a woman singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," drunkenly accompanied. Suddenly she broke off, mid-verse, as a blast of dynamite rocked the hills and the ground beneath my head. For some, the work never stops.