©Bert Gildart: Over the years of exploring Alaska Janie and I have met a number of people who have managed to forge a life in some of the state’s most unlikely areas. One such settlement is Chicken, and not just anyone could have succeeded here; but forty years ago Mike Busby began generating experiences that would enable him to establish his “Chicken Gold Camp.”
Located about 70 miles along the remote Taylor Highway from Tok, Alaska, Janie and I parked our Airstream at his RV park and can now say that we could have spent the summer and not done it all. As it was, we camped a week — panning for gold and enjoying several tours of his Pedro Dredge, which is now on the National Historic Register. We photographed moose, biked and hiked, and we ate Lou’s (Mike’s wife) delicious homemade meals at their “Outpost.”
We listened to stories of how this improbable business came to be – and a little about how Mike Busby “came into the country.”
BACKGROUND OF ADVENTURE
Mike has always loved the outdoors as is apparent from his early background in Colorado. In 1972, after spending a couple years enrolled at CSU, he signed up with National Outdoor Leadership School for a 35 day kayaking trip of Prince William Sound in Alaska.
In September, he hitched back to Colorado to return to CSU but after one semester left for a NOLS winter mountaineering course in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. He stayed on and became an instructor. The following winter, tragedy struck on an attempted ascent of the Grand Teton and a massive snow slide killed three people, one a good friend. Saddened by the deaths, several months later Mike escaped to Alaska, traveling up what was then a rutted, twisty, snow-packed Alcan Highway arriving in Fairbanks at Thanksgiving amidst the Alaska pipeline boom.
Having no interest in living in construction camps, he enrolled at the University of Alaska (we toured it this summer) to continue his studies in anthropology which provided an opportunity to participate in a bowhead whale study in the Eskimo village of Point Hope.
Upon completion of the study, Mike joined two fellow researchers to float the Fortymile and Yukon Rivers from Chicken to Eagle. Upon returning to Fairbanks and the university, he ran into a close friend, Professor Ernie Wolfe, who convinced Mike to accompany him to a placer mine in the Circle District for which he was consulting. The lust for gold and lure of outdoor adventures grabbed hold and he worked in several gold camps from the Brooks Range to the Yukon Territory.
During the winter he would drive back to Colorado to visit family and friends always to return before spring. One cold trip north in December was made in a ragtop Jeep with his sidekick “Kutchin,” a Great Pyranees who provided more windshield frosting than the defroster could keep up with, so most of the trip was made with an ice scraper in gloved hand. In 1978, Mike returned to Colorado, and in December of that year he married Lou.
One month later the couple loaded their possessions in the back of a 1975 Ford truck and trailer and, again, struck out for Alaska along the winter Alcan. This man you might say is either stubborn or he’s determined!
GOING INTO THE COUNTRY
In those days, travel along the Alcan was slow and their timing as he recalled, wasn’t the best. “We hit Tok, Alaska, in February,” recalls Mike, “and that’s often the season’s coldest month. Temperatures dropped to 50 and 60 below but the endless winds made it seem 120 below.”
CLICK TO SEE ENLARGED VERSION AND MORE INFORMATION. L to R: Gary and grandson Josh mined enough gold on Meyers Fork to pay for a year of college; example of month’s take; Gene Gildart shows his yield.
Destination was Homer, Alaska, where he had built a cabin. After settling in for a week, the two newlyweds were off chasing gold stories from one prospector’s cabin to another across the state in search of a possible prospect of their own. “At the time,” said Mike, “we lived in back of a topper – and that was really an experience. Cold, that’s what I remember most, the cold.”
Later that winter, at the instigation of Professor Wolfe (his mining mentor), Mike began work on Willow Creek, which is 30 miles west of Chicken. At times, he hunted, and moose and caribou formed a portion of their diet.
CLICK TO SEE ENLARGED VERSION AND MORE INFORMATION: L to R: From control room, Mike explains how levers function to control buckets and the gross movements of the dredge; old tools of the trade symbolize 75 years of toil; evanescent fire weed contrasts with historic structure that continues to endure the seasons.
Fast forward now a few more years, and with a background of mining and outdoor recreation and the addition of two children, we find that Mike has made several mineral purchases and, then, a little later, launched full scale into his Chicken Creek Gold Camp mining business, which contains several components. For those who want something quick, we found you can pan at stand-up troughs with pay dirt provided from his operation adjoining the RV park.
If you want something more promising, but which requires more effort, visit Myers Fork. That’s what we did and as reported previously, we found a little gold and learned how the area has treated Gene Gildart, a distant relative. As well Mike offers shuttle services for river adventures and if kayaking and canoeing are of interest, this is the man you’ve gotta’ visit.
In fact, we’ll be staying in touch with Mike as his adventures on the Forty Mile sound outstanding. Want to catch fish; or watch moose along the banks? Chicken and the surrounding wilderness sound like the perfect place to stake a claim. But just wait ‘till winter when the summer population of hundreds drops to about seven. That’s when you’ll really learn about yourself – and what it takes to come into the country.
Most conspicuous of Mike’s investments is his Pedro Dredge, which now helps to recount a significant aspect of Alaska’s gold mining heritage. As Mike says, “It’s the most complete bucket line gold dredge in Alaska and perhaps North America.”
We joined one of Mike’s tours and soon learned the huge old structure was originally owned by the Fairbanks Exploration Company, and shipped to Pedro Creek north of Fairbanks in 1938, where it operated until 1958. The following year it was disassembled, trucked to Chicken over an old dirt road, and then reassembled. Here, two to three men operated the huge 500-ton dredge until October 1967, at which time “it produced its final cleanup.”
For 31 years this “tired old workhorse” sat idle, but in 1998 Mike and his partner bought the Pedro Dredge and moved it to its present location at the Chicken Gold Camp & Outpost, where the dredge was quickly recognized as one of the state’s more significant artifacts from the mining era. In 2006 Mike held a Grand Opening of the Pedro Dredge and the same year the dredge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, rounding out some of his major business objectives.
You can access the Chicken Creek Gold Camp from the Taylor Highway from Tok, Alaska, or by departing Dawson City in the Yukon Territory and then driving over the Top of the World Highway. That’s another adventure, one we’ve reported on, and which serves to reinforce the notion that this is a remote part of the world requiring a special type of person to succeed.
Certainly Mike and Lou and their Chicken Gold Camp fill the bill, for they’ve not only come into the country, but they’ve stayed in the country.