What do you do when the 7 permanent residents of a place called Ptarmigan can’t agree on how to spell its name? You change the name of the town to “Chicken”. And you build a 10-foot tall metal bird as your mascot. It sounds like a story you’d read in some children’s storybook, but this is exactly the kind of thing you can expect in a place where just about anything goes: Chicken, Alaska.
Chicken wasn’t exactly on Henk’s or my bucket list when it came to destinations. But we were visiting the Yukon, and decided to drive a loop across the aptly-named Top of the World highway that would take us into the eastern part of Alaska and then south and back into the Territory. Breaking up the trip with an overnight stay was the plan, and the town of Chicken, Alaska, an hour or so southwest of the border, was literally our only option. As it turned out, this was exactly the kind of quirky place that appeals to my twisted sense of travel humour.
But first, the Top of the World highway….
If you are ever visiting Dawson City in the Yukon, a scenic road trip along the 127-km Top of the World highway is a must. Immediately after leaving town the road takes you up from the river valley and gives you a great view out over the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers.
There is also a charming little unmanned ‘welcome centre’ a little farther along where you can stop for a photo op or two.
As you continue along the highway it isn’t long before you understand why the Top of the World highway got its name: the gravel road literally runs along the tops of a string of rolling mountains, with nothing but clouds and more mountain tops in the distance. On either side of you, a few stunted trees break up the panoramic views, as the hills drop off on either side of the road.
Henk and I drove the highway the morning after a heavy rain just as the last of the mist was rising up from the deeper valleys, adding to the sensation that we were driving in the clouds. And with those mists disappearing into the sky all around us, it did seem like we were on the Top of the World.
As spectacular and picturesque as it is in the summer, the Top of the World highway is not one you’d want to drive once the winter sets in, and in fact you can’t – the highway closes in mid-September until mid-April much like its counterpart, the Taylor highway, across the border in Alaska.
The Most Westerly Land Border Crossing to the U.S.
Heading to Alaska from the Yukon’s Top of the World highway means crossing the border at the most northerly land crossing into the U.S. (which might be worth a few bragging points if that kind of thing is important to you.)
The entry point is a remote station with a few cabins adjacent to the guard booths where both Canadian and American guards actually live for weeks or even months at a time, since commuting to work every day would be unrealistic. After all, the nearest American town is hours away, and you can’t really count Chicken as a ‘town’.
TIP: Poker Creek border crossing is open from 8am – 8pm in the summer, and closes entirely in mid-September along with the highway. Always check the border hours before leaving Dawson just to be sure. Also note that Alaska is on a different time zone than the Yukon (1 hour earlier) so take that into account as well.
Staking a Claim in Chicken, Alaska
The best way to describe Chicken, Alaska is that it is a seasonal mining site where in the summer months, honest-to-God gold miners come to work their claim. This influx expands the area population tenfold, and when you add in curious tourists like Henk and I, the town’s few campsites and cabins fill up quickly.
Calling Chicken a ‘town’ is a bit of a stretch, (although they do have a legitimate post office), because once winter arrives, the road closes and the miners leave, and the permanent population shrinks to about seven people. During those summer months, though, Chicken sees a surprising number of visitors, mostly thanks to one woman.
Meet Susan Wiren, Chicken’s Real Estate Magnate
Chicken’s most prominent resident entrepreneur is Susan Wiren, without whom Chicken likely wouldn’t be a destination at all for anyone other than gold panners. Originally from South Jersey, Susan used to run a million-dollar bookstore business, but traded in her pearls and corporate suit 32 years ago for a different kind of adventure in Alaska with her then-boyfriend, Greg, a gold miner and outdoorsman. Two years after moving here, Susan learned that Chicken’s ‘retail strip’ (aka cafe/bar/giftshop) was up for sale, and being the savvy business woman that she was, she saw an opportunity and bought it and the 5 acres around it. It took years to turn around the bankrupt business, but hard work, tenacity and clever marketing paid off for Susan, who has been running the show for the last 30 years.
Today Susan wears a string of Cuban Santeria beads, not pearls, and she loves what she has made of her life in Chicken. Over the past 3 decades she has put this place on the map, and served thousands of visitors her home-made baked goods and reindeer and buffalo burgers. Bus tours regularly stop in here, many en route to the Yukon, and Susan’s skill at merchandising is evident in her gift shop which sells all kinds of chicken-related souvenirs and gifts, like T-shirts that boast ‘I got laid in Chicken, Alaska.”
Susan also owns the only liquor licence for miles, and her saloon is home to a unique attraction, even by Alaskan standards: Chicken’s infamous “panty cannon”.
The Panty Cannon
The local cook at a neighbouring campground had advised Henk and I to “bring a pair of panties if we were going for a drink at Chicken’s saloon”, but we didn’t understand why until we heard the story of the Panty Cannon from Susan herself. As she explained, her ex-boyfriend Greg was a Navy Seal who in her own words, ‘liked to blow shit up’. Every year he and his buddies (who formed what they called the ‘Hunting and Comfort Club’) would come to Chicken and engage in all kinds of reckless activity. One year they decided to build an actual cannon just for the fun of it. The cannon itself was a simple metal cylinder with a couple of holes in it, but it was the cannon fodder that made the ‘weapon’ unique – because what the guys decided to shoot out of it was a pair of underwear belonging to one of their buddies.
Chicken’s ‘panty cannon’ became a ritual for bar patrons and it soon attracted the attention of the local sheriff who was concerned with what projectiles were being fired. When he learned that the only thing being shot out of the cannon was underwear, he basically took a ‘carry on, then’ attitude and left Chicken to its signature form of entertainment.
Henk and I didn’t get to see the cannon in operation the night we spent in Chicken, but we did find evidence the following morning that it had been used (a pair of shredded black panties in the parking lot outside the bar). Apparently Susan’s son, the official cannon master, had been enjoying a few late-night cocktails and had fired up the panty cannon in the wee hours.
What to do in Chicken
There’s not much to do in Chicken, other than strike it off your off-the-beaten-path bucket list. There is an historic dredge (used for gold mining) that you can visit, some trails if you are interested in hiking the area, and a couple of gift shops where you can buy your signature t-shirt. If you time your visit for mid-June, you can catch the annual music festival called ChickenStock which features local Alaska music acts, plenty of beer and lots of fun.
One thing Chicken does offer, (and you can’t say this about too many places in this day and age), is the opportunity to buy an actual mining claim and try your hand at gold mining. This is, after all, gold fever country, and if you go by this ad posted in the Goldpanner’s gift shop, there’s still gold in “them thar hills!”
Whether you come to Chicken for the gold, are just passing through here on a road trip through Alaska and the Yukon, or have a fondness for quirky attractions, there’s probably no better place to stop than this plucky little roadside town.
So if you are asking yourselves, why did Henk and Jane cross that road? The answer is: to get to Chicken, of course!
TIP: Unless you like outhouses or have your own RV, the Goldpanner is the only place in Chicken that offers 3 (quite comfortable) ensuite rooms in their main building. For hearty food and delicious baked goodies, head to Susan’s cafe, and be sure to have a drink at her Saloon, too, if you are staying the night. (just remember to bring your panties!)
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.