I headed out to the Chatanika valley North of Fairbanks this morning for a long walk. It snowed yesterday and the roads were very slick. I took it easy never getting above 40 mph after deciding I’d rather arrive safe than end up in the ditch. I parked near the Olnes Pond Campground just off the Elliot Highway about 15 miles North of town. It was around 25 F when I left the truck and with the heavily overcast skies, dark and somewhat dim at around 9:30 am. Earlier this week when I was planning this walk I’d wanted to head out to the lake and look for methane bubble formations to photograph. With the new snow hiding the ice that would be difficult. Instead I decided today to follow some trails out to the south of the lake. In all I covered about 3.5 miles today. On the trails I was walking it seemed much longer.
My path this morning started on the pipeline access road just past Olnes pond Campground and continued for several hundred yards before I headed off the road south on trails. The trails I chose are the same I take to the lake, but at the point where I normally leave the trails and cut through the woods to the lake I continued on. Also at the point where I normally leave the trail to the lake I crossed wolf tracks. The tacks were heading in the opposite direction I was traveling, but had followed the same path I was taking. In fact I ended up following them all the way till I turned around. In addition to the wolf tracks, there was also a set of what I think were lynx tracks also on the trail but going in the same direction I was and often crossed and traced wolf tracks. Many other tracks crossed the trail including hare, squirrel, vole, shrew, and some I was not sure about but could have been ermine or mink.
The trails I was following ran east of the lake. At a point South east of the lake the trail climbed a small hill to a ridgeline that ran South West and followed it up what I think is the Vault Creek valley. Soon after climbing up onto the ridge I noticed a 20 ft tall mound off in the trees. On further investigation I found it to be one of several tailing piles from old mines. I also found some of the old machines the miners had used around the piles. I suspect they have been sitting abandoned for over 50 years and possible much longer. Looking more closely at the woods around me I found many more signs that the area I was walking through had been heavily mined. Little remained except a few machines here and there, but the shape of the land under the vegetation was not natural in many areas.
I was talking to a man I know who is a local miner and amateur geologist several months ago. He mines further up the Chena river drainage but talked bout exploring the old mines in the area I was at today. He had told me how some of the mines on the same drainage I was walking today had been abandoned during WWII when private ownership of gold had been banned and many men had gone off to fight. He described coming across a mine where everything looked like someone had just stepped out for a minute but that minutes had been 70 years ago. In fact there was evidence today that there had been intent to come back. On one of the machines I found a can and a jar covering intake valves. I don’t think someone would have taken the time to cover them if they had planned to abandon them. I also found several wheelbarrows on their sides the wooden parts long rotted away.
In addition to the abandoned machines, and of much more concern to my safety was the two abandoned shafts I found. Mining in this area often entailed digging shafts down to bedrock and then drifting sideways looking for the gold that settled along that bedrock. Some of the mine shafts can be 30 ft deep or more.
The two shafts I found today appeared to be blocked, but I don’t know if they are filled in or as I suspect is more likely clogged with branches at the top with a long drop to the bottom just below. It is not an area that I want to be traveling through when the snow gets deeper. I can just imagine walking across one of those abandoned shafts made invisible by the snow, falling through and disappearing possibly forever. The trails through the area are safe, and if I come back when the snow is deeper I will make sure to stay on them.
I eventually reached the end of the mine tailings and rather than continue following the trail up the valley I turned back. Looking on satellite maps when I got home today I realized that the trail I was following appears to connect the Olnes pipeline access road to the next pipeline access road further south. The trail follows the valley bottom and after leaving the mining area I was at today crosses some more wild country for a mile or so before getting into some more active mining areas. I’ve followed the trail from the other side in years past but have never realized it continued through. Of course travel on this trail during the summer would be very difficult and making the connection to the southern end might not even be feasible. The cold weather the last few weeks has frozen the ground and all the water obstacles that I was able to walk over today rather than sink in or wade through.
Just after turning around I stumbled on the remains of a hare. I made a loop on my return, following a side trail that connected back to the trail I’d followed out about a quarter mile back. The hare was about midpoint on the loop. It had been killed sometime in the previous few hours as evidenced by the fresh state of the remains and the scavenger tracks in the fresh snow. In fact as I’d followed the trail from the East I’d seen several ravens in the area but had not connected them to the remains until I found the hare on my way back.
As I was approaching the kill I observed several jays feeding on the scraps. I decided to take a break and took a seat about 15 ft from the remains. I was hoping scavengers or whatever killed it might return so as I rested, I also tried my best to sit quietly and still. The jays I’d scared off on my approach did return, but nothing else. I heard squirrels calling, watched a woodpecker fly by, heard a raptor call, and listened as other animals moved quietly past in the woods on either side.
Walking through the woods wildlife can often seem scarce even thought often it is anything but. Take a seat in the woods, sit quietly, still your body, open your ears and listen and after only a short time you will start to hear the movement of life all around. Sometimes sitting still is intentional on my part, but other times not so much.
I remember several years ago when I was fishing on the Chatanika river a mile or two North of where I was today. I’d been fishing a particularly good hole for about 20 minutes. Casting, and reeling, catching and releasing. Although I was not sitting still, most of my body was hidden by the brush and most of the noise I made covered by the flowing water. At one point I was watching a grayling, trying to interest it in my lure when I looked up to discover a mother moose and her young calf crossing the river not far downriver from me. Mom was having no problem, but her calf was struggling in the current and I was afraid it was going to get swept away. After struggling across the current the little calf cuddled up with mom for a minutes while she protected it from the current and it took the moment to nurse; right in the middle of the river.
I’ve come to the conclusion that things like this occur all the time; we just don’t happen to come along at the right moment and the animals see or hear us coming and stop what they are doing and get out of our way. Today also was one of those days. Even though I did not see lot going on, I know a lot was and had been very recently going on. The snow was at most 24 hours old and yet I was backtracking wolf tracks, following lynx tracks, and had stumbled upon a fresh hare kill. The woods are not nearly as quiet or calm as they often appear.
After watching the hare kill site and getting some good pictures of the jays, headed back the way I’d come. Rather than go straight back to my truck I turned off the trail on my way back and walked out to the lake. The path out was much easier to follow today than it has been all summer. The lakes outflow stream that snakes it’s way through the forest was frozen and I was able to simply walk across at the point I hit it rather than hike along its bank to the one crossing I’ve found where a large log has fallen over. I made it out to the lake and found it frozen much thicker than I’d expected. I also did find one methane formation and while not the most spectacular, it left me wishing I’d been able to get out to the lake two days ago before the snow fell.
I eventually made it back to the truck by around 1 pm and headed back into town slowly on the ice roads. It had been a good walk, I’d explored new areas, found the remnants of the old gold miners, and discovered new trails to explore this winter.