Chicken, Alaska

By Edgar Castillo

It’s 1886, and gold mining starts in the remote eastern edge of Alaska, close to the Yukon border. Nothing major has been found, only small crumbs and flakes of gold. Ten years pass and local prospector Bob Mathieson strikes it rich along the South Fork of Alaska’s Fortymile River. He has found gold. Not a little—a lot. He quickly stakes his claim and builds a cabin nearby. Word spreads of the lucrative deposit. Gold diggers, money grubbers, and adventurers flood to the region to make their own fortune.

The area becomes a central hub for mining activity and more than 700 miners arrive in the boomtown. The landscape changes. Crude structures and tents sprout up like weeds. Nearby, new mines are dug every day and the local streams are filled with working forty-niners, diggers, haulers, and surveyors. Following these rugged men are family, friends, and vagabonds that fill the wretched saloons and brothel. The once secluded outpost is now a makeshift settlement.

Every day, miners flush mottled brown and white chicken-sized birds, which are so prolific that they are a nuisance, completely ignored by the new tenants. Only the native Athabaskans, who refer to them as “dilgama,” know their value and hunt them year-round. The locals call them “ptarmigan.”

The lucrative gold panning summer months soon turn into a long, dry winter. Daylight is minimal. Extreme cold sets in. With an influx of people, supplies crucial to sustaining the inhabitants wither away. Personal caches don’t last either. Food becomes scarce and survival becomes real. A small band of hunters venture out into the wild. The goal: kill anything to keep themselves alive. Success is minimal. An occasional caribou, moose, or even bear is found and shot. It is not enough and a reliable food source is needed if the tenderfoot townsfolk are to survive.

Another hunting party is formed and sent out. They scatter into small groups and explore the vast wastes of muskeg, clumps of willows, and black spruce forest. The men are armed with an array of firearms including rickety rifles, pistols, and a couple of blunderbusses (shotguns). Hunters come across clusters of ptarmigan. The white birds have changed color and their coal black eyes and beaks appear as small dots against the colorless backdrop. They scurry about atop the crusty snow by using their built-in “snowshoes.” Black accented tails are seen only when flushed. One of the men shoots his musket. The string of pellets kills seven of the snowbirds. The hunters have an epiphany: the once disregarded bird is found everywhere and is easy to kill.

The men fan out and find coveys of ptarmigan throughout the copious amounts of willow in the area. Within no time at all, heaps of birds pile up. Returning to the mining camp, bundles of ptarmigan are passed out to everyone. The odor of cooked birds’ wafts through the entire post. Hunting the plentiful gamebird becomes a daily routine and goes on through the winter. The miners and their families keep themselves alive by hunting ptarmigan and the occasional Spruce grouse or fool hens that perch themselves motionless on tree limbs.

With lessons learned, the citizens survive well into the new century. 1902 arrived and with it a post office, and the official incorporation of the town, the second to do so in Alaska. According to legend, many of the miners suggest “Ptarmigan” for the new name. They argue that if it weren’t for the bird, they would have all perished. The assembled men like the idea and agree but feel the quotation marks are too presumptuous and are removed.

Soon, more infighting begins as no one can agree on the correct spelling of ptarmigan. The new town doesn’t want to be a source of confusion, ridicule, and laughter, so they unanimously decide on “Chicken.” The nearby gold-producing stream is also renamed Chicken Creek.

What’s become of Chicken, Alaska since? Well, the area is still very wild; the willow ptarmigan became the state bird and mining operations are still in effect today, leaving it one of the few surviving gold rush towns in the state. However, the tiny village has dwindled in size and boasts a whopping permanent population of 12.

And the ptarmigan? They are abundant as ever and offer up superb hunting opportunities, and will serve you well if you find yourself in a survival pinch in Chicken, Alaska.

From the FE Films Archive

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