Leaving Valdez we headed to Central, the home turf of the groom of the wedding we just attended. The small town of Central is, well, basically in central Alaska as a matter of fact. It’s about three hours North of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway (NOT to be confused with the Dalton Highway/Haul Road to Prudhoe Bay) just short of where the road ends in Circle on the banks of the Yukon River.
As an aside (because it has nothing to do with Central), on the road from Valdez to Glennallen we were treated to perfect views of the Wrangell mountains - a sight I didn’t get to see last year due to the clouds. It was stunning. Freaking incredible. 11600′ Mt Drum, 16000′ Mt Sanford, massive, rounded 14000′ Mt Wrangell and 16000′ Mt Blackburn. Not only are some of these peaks higher than any in the continental US, but the road we were on was only at about 2000′. I’m not sure what it is about large, dramatic, geographic relief, but I love it. It’s powerful, and Alaska is loaded with “it”.
Anyway, Central is where, one year ago, I had floated Birch Creek with Luke and three others. This time there were about 14 of us who came up after the wedding so there weren’t enough boats for a river trip (or enough time). So what to do in Central with 14 guests? Well, the Tyrells have some bush planes, and everyone wanted to take a ride in them anyway, so a plan was hatched to use the planes to ferry everyone out to a camping spot for a few days. That way everyone would get a short flight and we could all experience a little “real” Alaska by getting off the road system!
They thought of the perfect place to fly us out to: the Yukon-Charley National Preserve. Not only did the Preserve have one of the closer landing strips, but it’s on the Yukon River and has an old gold mining dredge and other things to check out as well. What’s the difference between a National Preserve and a National Park you ask? Basically, you can hunt on a Preserve. 10 of America’s 18 “Preserves” are in Alaska, unsurprisingly. The Yukon-Charley Preserve is one of the Tyrell’s bear hunting spots, which is why they were familiar with the area and knew it would be a good place to take some tourists.
So we got our camping gear in order and one plane load at a time we were all dropped off in Yukon-Charley. There were actually three planes involved in Operation Montana Tourists: the Tyrell’s Cessna 180 and Piper PA-12, and their friend Phil’s Piper Producer (a modified PA-22/Super Cub thing, I think). The first night we camped right near the landing strip beside Gold Creek and had a good old time swimming in the tailing ponds and hiking up the strip to the old gold mining camp, which is now a Park Service depot.
The second day we hiked down the old road towards the Yukon. Along the way is the old Gold Creek Dredge, a well preserved example of the many floating dredges which replaced panning as a more efficient way to extract gold from Alaska and the Yukon. These beastly “gold factories” were brought in via riverboat and horses piece by piece toward the end of the gold rush. They were assembled on promising streams and dredged up and down these remote waterways, pulled around by caterpillar tractors and digging themselves the ponds they floated in. They are impressive machines and a LOT of fun to climb around on. :)
After the Dredge we continued to the Yukon where we planned to stay at Slaven’s Roadhouse, a historic site where travelers going along the Yukon by dogsled or boat could stay and get a hot meal. It has been converted into a public use cabin and is very well cared for by the Park service, complete with interpretive information. We missed the turn off the road to the Roadhouse right before you hit the river, and since the ice in the Yukon had just broken up we found ourselves climbing over huge beached icebergs while trying to get to the river. It was a bit of a hassle with our packs on, but amazing since I’d never seen anything like it before.
Swimming in the Yukon and the rest of our stay at Slavens was very enjoyable, but many of our Montana party had to catch flights soon so we left after one night. We hiked back to the landing strip and were soon home in Central again. I cannot thank the Tyrells enough for what generous hosts they are. Even with 14 guests!! But even though most of the MT crew had to leave, some of us were able to stay a couple more days, and, let me tell you, from what I can tell the fun never stops in Central… :P