I officially moved to the ‘banks in 2004… mostly. Actually I first “moved” here in the autumn of 2000 but then left in the spring of 2002. However, that was sort of a fluke and I hated it most of the time… for a lot of reasons. When I came back in 2004 it was with purpose and I have not left since. So, very shortly it will be 10 full years that I have been living here. In that time I have learned to call the place home.
Anyways, for those of you that may not know, the ‘banks is officially in what is referred to as “the Interior” of Alaska. Gold country. Cold country. A land of big rivers and permafrost, of tundra and taiga, of long and bitterly cold winters countered with hot and dry summers (we will just go ahead and ignore this particular summer thank you very much). For the most part I like it here. That said there was a defining period in the not so distant past where I had a series of experiences that caused me to gain a more significant and deeper appreciation for “the Interior”.
It all started back in… boy that sounds cheesy.
Anyways. OK, so it was the spring of 2012. Life had just taken a major and mostly unexpected turn. I fled into the woods as has often been my wont when under duress. I went first to a favorite camping spot out on the Chatanika River and had a lovely time with beer and a campfire and the dogface. The next day brought reluctance to return home (and a bit of a hangover) and so I ventured further out. I ended up driving a road I had been by, but never had followed to its end and it was remarkable.
Driving over US Creek road into the Nome Creek valley is pretty spectacular and is a drive I have undertaken several times. I particularly like the White Mountains in general and most places out the Steese northeast of the ’banks. But I had never taken that left turn after the bridge to drive down to Ophir Creek. It was like driving back in time, crazy as that may sound.
Maybe it was my state of mind, maybe it was the time of year, maybe there was something in the air. Who knows? Seriously though it felt like any minute I might round the next curve and see mammoth or something grazing out in the sprawling grassland. But I am getting ahead of myself here.
Nome Creek, like so many in this part of the world, was “turned upside down” as they say, during the search for gold. The area around the bridge there is advertised as a good place to do some recreational panning, a fact which I knew (I had tried panning there once before I had any idea what I was doing… not that I really do now, but that is beside the point), but I was not aware that there once had been a dredge. Sure enough though, not far out the road there is a viewpoint where one can see the characteristic tailings, although the dredge is long gone. I had seen plenty of tailings before, (hell take a drive through Fox) but never any quite so tidy… if one can use such a description for tailings. Go see for yourself and you will understand what I mean.
The road is not quite in the highlands, but neither is it really down in the forest, as I mentioned there are grasslands out there. It reminded me at first of being in Yukon-Charley, in the Yukon-Tanana uplands, but this was different. It felt, well, older somehow. And the further I went out towards Ophir Creek the more that feeling struck me. Something about the place seemed very old. I hiked to Table Top mountain, through an old burn in the taiga (the land of little sticks) and up this great rocky promontory.
It was like Amon Sul before the watchtower had been built, or at least that was the feeling I got.
The dogface chased the wind and the ptarmigan and looked even more like the wolves she was likely descended from. We were the only ones out there.
The last bit of trail on the way back to the road had recently seen some upgrades, complete with elaborate stone work. It made the whole thing feel that much more like the remnants of some long gone age.
So we drove the rest of the way down on into the Ophir Creek campground. There we stopped only briefly as there were a few too many mosquitos for my liking. Rather we headed back up the road to a pullout that offered a good lunch stop with a view. While there, the dogface discovered a trail that was mostly hidden in the tall grass just off the road and so we followed it. Down it went, switchbacking through the trees and there at the bottom of the hill, at a bend in the trail was a grave. Marked with a simple wooden cross and bearing a name and a date. It looked newer than the date claimed and so I expected it had been reconstructed at some point. “Odd” I thought and continued down the trail.
The trail ends at the creek and there stand the ruins of a small homestead. A sign described the frontier life of a solitary gold miner named “Two Step” Louie, the unfortunate (or perhaps not) fellow now laid to rest back up the trail. Turns out old “Two Step” was one of those guys that came to the Great Land seeking his fortune. Judging by the serenity of the place where he chose to spend his last days I would say he found it, but perhaps not in the way he was expecting. Funny how things turn out sometimes.
There was no boomtown out Nome Creek way. It was no Klondike or Coldfoot. Even the little dredge that once churned up the world back upstream was short lived. Sure there was gold, but only so much apparently. “Two Step” found a place to call home, a place that he could mine on a seasonal basis and support a subsistence lifestyle of hunting and gardening. His is an amazing spot, at a small bend in the creek with stunning views of the valley to the south. I am no expert, but I do have some experience with old miner’s cabins and this one — this place — did not have that air of squalor or desperation. It was not just a shelter. “Two Step” lived here and you can still sense that in the place. I guess as both he and his friends that laid him to rest sensed, even in his passing he still lives here; he always will. I did not know him, nor could I have; he died long before I was born. I had never heard of him and had no idea that this place was here before I stumbled onto it. Yet in that place, after driving that road and climbing that hill and seeing that country I understood.
This is the Interior and there is no other place like it. “Two Step” may have found that, I do not really know. I do know that through him — and that place that he had called home — I certainly did. I think I found a lot of things out there that day, not the least of which was a way back “home”; back to my self. As I noted earlier, life had recently been turned a bit upside-down and I was unsure how to manage it. Something happened to me out there though that told me I had to find that out along the way. I had to discover it for myself. So too with life in general; we all have to make our own way and figure it out as we go along.
I am not going to tell you in any more detail how to find the place. I do not think I could really. Sure I could give you directions to go see old “Two Step” and his home, but to find the place? Well, I believe that can only happen through self-discovery. Like so many things really.