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Stormy weather on the highway north

I was looking forward to heading back to the peace and quiet at Fox. It had been such a hectic summer, with so many guests at the fishing lodge in July, and the first trip had been a fantastic break from the hustle and bustle of work.

Imagine a week without phones, computer, electricity, running water (unless you count the stream at the bottom of the hill!) and you'll get an idea of what it was like at the gold mine.

We weren't completely without amenities - I brought a TV/VCR that ran off of the cigarette lighter, and a pile of movies. I also took along a port-a-potty that I set up in a shed. Okay, so I'm spoiled! There was a shower up the road about five miles, and Fairbanks was just 12 miles away, so it was a perfect mix of wilderness and convenience. The dogs loved the freedom too - Trick especially.

The Kenai Peninsula was blanketed with a layer of smoke from a fire just south of Soldotna, so I drove through the haze on my way out the morning of August 26. It was hazy most of the way to Anchorage, and north of Anchorage the Mat-Su valley was really smokey. About 100 miles past Anchorage I ran into rain - violent rain at times, pouring down with a vengeance. It was as if Mother Nature was trying to make up for the extreme dry conditions that Alaska had been in for the entire summer. It rained for about 150 miles, then shortly after that I hit the smoke from the wildfires in the interior. What a strange summer it had been.

Ten hours after leaving home, I pulled into the driveway to the mine. I could see the guys working down at the sluicebox. I let Trick out and she immediately went in search for a stick. That crazy dog is happiest with a stick in her mouth! She really enjoys her time at the mine.

I stayed for about a week, and spent a lot of time searching through rocks and playing in the mud and water. It almost felt like a regression into childhood! The rocks were fascinating. There was a large variety .. big chunks of quartz laced with dark and shiny lines, large flat rocks that shimmered silver, and thousands of pieces of iron pyrite - also known as fool's gold. Everywhere you looked, something would catch your eye. I searched through piles for anything that might have gold (dreams of a gold-laced chunk of quartz were wandering through my mind). But no such luck!

I brought home three buckets full of rocks, mostly for my Mom's rock garden. I also brought home a full bucket of gold-rich dirt from the end of the sluicebox. Did I mention that I'm spoiled?

The photo to the right is the view from the campsite. We estimated the amount of smoke by how visible the far hill was - it ranged from slightly hazy to completely invisible. Most of the time it looked like it does in this picture, although the morning I left it actually cleared up enough to be almost clear of smoke. People that live in that area were blanketed in smoke from mid-June through August from the wildfires that burned over 6 million acres in Alaska that summer.

The ever-present smoke gave the sun an eerie appearance. I snapped a picture late in the evening, about 9 p.m., as the sun was just dipping down behind the trees across the highway (below left).

Smoke or no smoke, work at the mine goes on. Above (middle) Fred and Rick work on the cat. Equipment is run hard there at the mine, and a lot of time is spent on maintenance and repair. At the right, Rick views the mine from the top of the sluicebox, where he was doing some welding to repair screens. The screens categorize the rock into different sizes, and move it out of the back of the sluicebox, leaving the gold-bearing dirt to come down the front (photo is of the front of the box).

I even had a lesson on the dragline this time. The dragline is the big piece of equipment with the crane that swings a huge box out to scoop up dirt from the riverbed (see the first trip for photos). A cable attaches to the top of the box, and another to the front of it. Each of the cables is controlled with a lever and a brake - so you have both hands and both feet working simultaneously. The brake pedals are very heavy and you have to use a lot of pressure to push them down. Rick had me swing the box out and drop it into the pond, and then pull it forward to drag a load of dirt up. I'm used to driving a stick shift, but still .. it would take a long time to get very good at managing the dragline! Rick is really impressive on it, and makes it look very easy.

Kylee had a great time at the mine too. I don't let her loose to wander much anymore, as she is nearly 13 years old and doesn't hear very well these days. But after being there a few days, I felt comfortable in taking her for walks along the mine property without a leash on her. I had to really watch though, as she blends in so well! I loved watching her trot around through the grass - she moves so fluidly for an old dog.

Trick spent most of her time running around chasing sticks. She enticed everyone that showed up at the mine to throw sticks for her. I kept her confined when the equipment was running, as I didn't want her to get in the way of the dragline or backhoe (and she surely would!). But being the great shepherd that she is, I could always depend on her being close by if I had her loose, and so whenever things were quiet she had the run of the property.

She started limping on about the fourth day. There were so many large rocks and she had been racing around so I suspected that she slightly sprained or strained some muscles. I restricted her freedom after that, much to her disappointment.

I reluctantly headed home on the 31st of August. The fishing lodge was scheduled to have twelve guests on September 1st, and I'd promised that I'd be back in time to help. It's always so hard to leave when you're having a good time, and it was nearly 3 p.m. by the time I drove away. I knew that would put me in the dark for the last part of my drive home, but it was just so tough to leave!

Just a few miles down the road was an access to the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline that transports oil from the North Slope to Valdez (southern port). I stopped and took pics of Trick underneath the pipeline. There were several tourist buses there, as that is a regular stop for tourists. Everyone got a kick out of Trick, especially when she ran down into the small stream next to the pipeline and attacked a giant stick.

I love Trick's enthusiasm! If I could just bottle it, I'd be rich ...

I let Trick play for awhile in the stream before calling her back to the van. I was tempted to head back to the mine. It's a ten hour drive home from Fox to Kenai, and I really didn't want to go.

The scenery south of Fairbanks is full of rolling hills and the sky had cleared to provide a touch of blue color to the browns and greens. I had driven the road enough to have a rough idea of where all the rest stops and towns were - Nenana, Talkeetna, Denali, Tatlanika. We stopped briefly at Troublesome Creek where the dogs and I took a bit of a break. I was feeling pretty stiff from sitting for so long! Troublesome Creek is part of the Denali State Park system. Kylee did a quick search for squirrels while we were there.

The scenery for more than 100 miles south of Fairbanks consists of many hills like these to the left.

Kylee explores at the camping area near Troublesome Creek, 225 miles south of Fairbanks.

Only one more stop on the way, to gas up in Anchorage, and we drove the last 150 miles without stopping. I didn't get home until after midnight and well after dark. The days of nearly 24 hour daylight were long gone and it was pitch dark as the Kenai Peninsula was still smokey.

With September here and the summer nearly over, this trip to Fox would be my last of the year. It was a good summer, with three fantastic trips (Whitehorse dog show and the two trips to Fox).

I am already making plans for next year's trips!

Click HERE for the first trip to Fox!