History and Natural Setting
The 1886 discovery of gold on Franklin's Bar on the Fortymile River touched off Interior Alaska's first gold rush. The mining boom ushered in a wave of settlement that forever changed the place, not only for its new residents but for the Athabascan Indians who occupied this region long before them. The miners who prospected nearly every creek in the region eventually extracted more than a half-million ounces of gold from the Fortymile, according to the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.
Accompanying the miners, and profiting from them, were traders, merchants and freighters. Before the Taylor Highway was completed in 1953, there were no established roads into the Fortymile region. Miners and trappers wishing to replenish their supplies either had to haul everything themselves by boat, foot or horse, or they had to hire someone to do it for them. John Powers was one prominent freighter who used horses to transport miners' supplies to their claims.
During the heyday of Fortymile mining, the community of Steele Creek played an important role. Located on the main overland trail between the towns of Chicken and Eagle, Steele Creek served as a community center and transportation hub. At one time it included a trading post, post office and restaurant. Several cabins and a two-story roadhouse still stand on the site, now overgrown with tall grass and willows.
|Steele Creek Roadhouse |
The military also figured prominently in the history of the Fortymile region. Reports of starvation and lawlessness among the miners resulted in the Army sending troops to the Eagle area to provide law enforcement in 1899. Soldiers soon began work on a trail from Valdez to Eagle. This trail, as well as construction of Fort Egbert in Eagle, did much to improve communication with the rest of the world.
In 1900 the military further improved communication through the construction of the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS), which followed much of the Eagle-Valdez Trail. Messages that once took up to a year to reach Washington D.C. could now be sent in a matter of days. Remains of this system, eventually replaced by the wireless telegraph station in Eagle, may still be found throughout the Fortymile drainage.
The landscape of the Fortymile Wild and Scenic River was formed over the past several million years as the river inexorably cut down through bedrock while the surrounding region underwent faulting and uplift. Signs of this downcutting can be seen numerous places on the sides of the valleys, where gravel river terraces are perched up to 800 feet above the current river level.
| Valley of the Fortymile River |
In many places bluffs along the river expose folded metamorphic rocks. Most prominent of these are steeply tilted beds of white marble interspersed with gneiss and schist.
Wildlife and Fish
The Fortymile Wild and Scenic River Corridor provides habitat for caribou, moose, Dall sheep, grizzly or black bear, furbearers, small game, raptors, waterfowl, and numerous species of small mammals and birds. One endangered species, the peregrine falcon, nests in the area.
The Fortymile caribou herd makes extensive use of the river corridor. Caribou are migratory animals, and the exact location of areas they use may change from year to year as herd size fluctuates and or migration routes change. The habitat is capable of supporting more caribou than currently make use of it.
The Fortymile River is home to a number of fish species, including Arctic grayling, round whitefish, and burbot.
Alpine tundra, tussocks and boreal forest are among the many different types of plant communities found along the Fortymile River.
Alpine tundra, found on ridges and mountain tops above the timberline, is characterized by dwarf shrubs, forbs, grasses, sedges and lichens. Near the timberline, there may be significant quantities of dwarfed white spruce.
Tussock areas are flat to moderately sloping with poorly drained soils that support a cover of tussocks, clumps of sedges and grasses growing from small mounds, as well as scattered or stunted spruce.
Lower elevations are vegetated with species typical of the boreal forest. Black spruce, sphagnum mosses, and scattered shrubs and willows are found in poorly drained areas where permanently frozen soil (permafrost) is near the surface. Better-drained hillsides and valley floors are home to white spruce, birch, willow and aspen. Blueberry and cranberry bushes provide vivid fall colors as well as tasty berries enjoyed by wildlife and people alike.
Wildland Fire in the Fortymile
| Porcupine Fire in 2004|
In 2004 unusually hot and dry weather sparked Alaska's largest fire season on record. The Fortymile region accounted for much of the 6.75 million acres burned in Alaska that year. One group of lightning-caused fires, the Taylor Complex, by itself accounted for 1.3 million acres, much of it around the towns of Tok and Chicken. Numerous other fires burned near Eagle. Visitors traveling the Taylor Highway or floating the Fortymile River will see signs of the 2004 fires as well as those of older fires.
While wildland fires can inflict disruptions and hardships on people, they also rejuvenate forests by providing ideal growing conditions. Burning mineral-rich wood to ash recycles and releases nitrogen and minerals such as phosphorus and sulfur into the soil. Fire opens the forest canopy and exposes the forest floor to sunlight, warming the soil and stimulating new growth from seeds and roots.