Friday September 1st was going to be our big day out at the Alaska State Fair, until we checked our tickets and realised that it didn’t actually open until noon. Luckily this happened the night before, so we had time to choose another local attraction to visit in the morning – the Independence gold mine. (We very nearly didn’t make it there either thanks to a Google mapping snafu, but happily the wonders of mobile technology set us back on track.)
The drive up was quite spectacular, as the road wound into the mountains – the scenery reminded me of Dartmoor, but dramatically bigger – and I was completely captivated by the mine’s setting towards the head of a glacial valley.
The mine itself was quite fascinating. Of course they don’t allow you to go into the tunnels, but the site is very well furnished with signs describing its history and the various processes which took place there, as well as more general information about the history of mining in Alaska. The mine closed in the early 1950s after some 50 years of operation, and the site was (presumably) left alone until it became a designated historical site in 1982. Since then, various buildings have been either completely or partially restored, but several are beyond repair and provide an evocative picture of desolate decay.
After a couple of hours rambling around the ruins it was finally time for fun at the fair. Our first impression was that it felt a lot like a county show back in the UK, all very local and friendly (which, given that the total population of Alaska is a shade under 750,000 is perhaps not at all surprising – to put it into perspective, basically the same number of people live in the Yorkshire city of Leeds).
We spent a few hours happily wandering around, enjoying a local Athabascan dance group, Loop Rawlin’s one-man wild west show, prize-winning farm animals, giant vegetables, and craft exhibits, while Tom took full advantage of the opportunity to eat all kinds of fair food along the way.
For the evening’s entertainment, we’d booked tickets to the demolition derby – a new experience for us both – which turned out to be a lot of fun. Thirteen or fourteen cars were competing for the prize, and the crowd enjoyed the various rounds of crashy chaos and mechanical mayhem which sorted out the wrecks from the write-offs.
Next up … our cruise!
However, before we get there, I wanted to reflect a little on the people we met along the way, as they were generally quite fascinating in a way I haven’t noticed elsewhere. Born-and-raised Alaskans have a real frontier mentality – not at all surprising when you consider their state capital is only accessible by air or sea (it sits on a 45 mile-long road which stops in the forest at both ends), and where having bears and moose among the wildlife in your garden is an unremarkable occurrence – and a good number of people choose (or are compelled) to live fully off grid. (Jumping ahead a little, our bus driver in Juneau had a story about how popular their local McDonald’s is – the only one for hundreds of miles – although his personal preference is for KFC, and the nearest one of those is in Anchorage.) It was also interesting to encounter all sorts of people who come up to Alaska for seasonal employment every summer – I don’t think it’s a place for everyone, but it clearly gets under peoples’ skin and compels them to return. Personally I’m quite fascinated by the idea of spending a winter up there, but not sure I’d deal well with the darkness.