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Grab a beer in Christmas country

  • Author: J. Besl
  • Updated: June 27, 2016
  • Published June 27, 2016

For many urban Alaskans, weekends are for peeling out of town, capturing drool-worthy Instagram posts and screeching into the office parking lot Monday morning smelling like a campfire. And for others, weekends are for getting a beer.

Surely there's an overlap here.

So whether or not you're escaping into the wilderness next weekend, why not seek out one of the crazy bars scattered along the rural roadsides of this vast and epic state?

Go on in. Chatanika Lodge is full of surprises. (Photo by Dev Dharm Khalsa)

At Mile 29 of the Steese Highway, about an hour north of Fairbanks, you'll find a sprawling fortress of Americana and wood paneling called the Chatanika Lodge. Though the rolling foothills of the White Mountains flank this patch of heaven, the real draws for Chatanika are completely unnatural.

The lodge, for one, is a hootenanny and a half. And across the street rests Gold Dredge No. 3, a hulking beast the size of a small cruise ship. Like a gift from the road trip gods, the two most curious sights on the Steese are right across the road from each other. So forget about nature—come to Chatanika to explore the change caused by the mining industry and the weird remnants it left behind.

The author scoping out Gold Dredge No. 3 near Chatanika Lodge. (Photo by Dev Dharm Khalsa)

Gold fever struck near Fairbanks in 1902, launching a migration of miners across the Interior. By 1907, a rail spur had reached a collection of fresh log cabins along the Chatanika River. But this original town site no longer exists; the Fairbanks Exploration Company razed the town in the 1920s, desperately hoping to find another vein of gold beneath the buildings.

The Chatanika Trading Post was demolished, but its owners decided to reopen as a roadhouse a mile down the road. Ron Franklin, the current owner of the Chatanika Lodge, purchased the business in 1974 … just months before the whole operation went up in flames.

"Squirrels burned me out," Franklin chuckled, launching into one of his countless stories. Within a year of owning the lodge, opportunistic rodents gnawed through the wiring in his attic, sparking a fire. As smoke curled through the rafters one Sunday morning in May 1975, he frantically roused members of a hungover bridal party to get them to safety.

The building was a total loss, yet Franklin was back in business by the Fourth of July. He moved his small horse barn over the ashes and built a bar along one wall, spending his nights on a recliner next to the potbelly stove. Later, after adding a game room, he slept on a foam pad specifically cut to fit his pool table. Franklin's construction binge eventually consumed a tiny cabin inside the bar complex. So although he's upgraded from the recliner and foam-padded pool table to real furniture, he still lives inside the bar (along with wife Shirley and pups Olly and Molly).

Domestic touches indicate you're in the Franklins' home, like the exercise bike overlooking the arcade games or the window into the garage where guests can view Franklin's '55 T-Bird like a critter at the zoo.

Chatanika Lodge owner and visionary, Ron Franklin. (Photo by Dev Dharm Khalsa)

In total, Franklin tacked on 14 additions to his original barn-bar, including a kitchen, a dance floor and—for a time—a post office. The construction boom ended when he married Shirley in 1982.

"She hid my hammers," he laughed.

The Lodge's overarching theme is kitschy Kris Kringle. Out front, you'll find a sleigh from 1918. Even the Big Mouth Billy Bass has a hand-sewn Santa hat.

Closer to Christmas, 36,000 colored bulbs entwine the bearskin rugs, the moose antlers and the central pillars harvested from Haystack Mountain.

"This one cost me two cases of beer, a bottle of Jack Daniels and a bottle of schnapps," Franklin said, lovingly tapping a burled beam.

Most decorations are up year round, including two taxidermied turtle doves. Why so much holiday spirit? Shirley paused, raising her eyes to the snowflakes above the bar. "Ron loves Christmas," she said with a shrug.

The ultimate Christmas gift, though, is Gold Dredge No. 3, looming like a giant iron dinosaur across the street.

From 1928 to 1968, this mechanical monster churned through the Chatanika River valley, scraping away the banks and dropping piles of scrap off its rearward conveyor belt like a geologic digestive system.

Today, the dredge sulks in the green waters of Cleary Creek, aided in its gradual deterioration by a devastating fire in 2013. Though it's private property—and obviously a tetanus breeding ground—the dredge is too tempting for many to pass up, as indicated by a sturdy-ish wooden ladder propped against the hull. Bursts of graffiti pockmark the exterior, but overall the dredge is remarkably trash-free. This awesome machine commands respect.

Nature is slowly reclaiming the mine tailings and abandoned buildings of Chatanika, but it's impossible to ignore the past. As you explore the area, look out for the inexplicable avalanche of rusty tin cans. It's like an archaeological dig of 20th century branding and design, featuring four-letter favorites like Spam, Nehi and Tang. Who left this massive trash pile? And why is it only cans? Franklin can't answer; he's never heard of the trash pile despite living across the street for 40 years. Though the gold is long gone, it seems the area still holds a few mysteries.

Remnants of another era near Chatanika Lodge. (Photo by Dev Dharm Khalsa)

Chatanika is a fascinating dot on the map, blending an incredible bar with an improbable landscape. The small section of otherwise empty road reveals a brief moment in Alaska history, and you could easily spend an entire weekend in a space the size of a football stadium. So sidle up to the bar between the regulars and the road trippers. If it's a slow night, you can pop in a VHS of A Charlie Brown Christmas and watch it on the big screen. If you drink one too many, sleep it off in one of the lodge's 11 rooms ($80 per night, just a quick stumble past the John Wayne memorabilia wall).

And, most importantly, get to know Ron and Shirley. It's pretty likely you'll see them. You're literally in their living room.

This story first appeared in the June 2016 Adventure Issue of 61°North. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.

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