"It's a warm place in the hearts of the people around"
A Summer 2015 Yukon Prospector Web Extra.
Alaskans aren’t strangers to hard work, you have to work hard to survive in the North. Chicken Alaska’s “Chicken Sue” is no exception. For 28 years Susan Wiren, as she’s known officially, has been toiling away in the great northern wilderness. Sticking out 8 of the brutal winters, and raising two kids partly in the area.
Currently, she owns the entirety of downtown Chicken. That is, the café, bar and gift shop which make up one of the locations eight or so functioning buildings. She’s a tall woman, with dirty blond hair and a mischievous glint in her blue eyes. At 5 pm on a mid-August day, she’s sporting a weary smile.
Susan wakes up 7 days a week at the crack of dawn to bake her world-famous cinnamon buns and pies for Chicken’s visitors. While this might seem like drudgery to some, it’s a labour of love for her. At least it was eventually. “The first 10 years, while I was married, it felt like a prison sentence,” she says. But after her ex moved away she realized how good life was in the north.
The couple had originally moved to Alaska after the pipeline was finished, in hopes of grabbing some cheap land. They spent a year living the bush, then in Fairbanks, and eventually bought downtown Chicken for a song. “The people who held the place in trust from the bank were shooting at the Health Inspectors, so they shut them down,” Susan says.
That sort of disregard for authority has kept many people coming to the area. Susan herself recounts the times they used to shoot targets in the parking lot of her place. “But with all the RV’s coming by now, we can’t do that,” she says.
While this scene might evoke images of backwater hillbillies yucking around in the bush, Sue can put those notions to bed by demonstrating the achievements of her two sons. One having finished a boat builders certificate in Maine, and the other finishing a degree in Economics at the Sorbonne in Paris. Her family is bilingual.
But Chicken still manages to keep the off the wall charm it was founded on. Even the name, often touted as one of the most unique in the world, has a zany origin.
"[Chicken] isn’t an easy place to live, but it’s a warm place in the hearts of the people around. You just have to have a warm coat."
“The miners who founded the area wanted to call it ptarmigan, because there’s tons of those around, but they didn’t know how to spell it,” says Susan.
Her bar follows suit. Inside the knotty-wood arches, hundreds of hats line the ceiling and walls, giving the place a warm, den-like feeling. “I have no idea how those even got here. People just like to leave stuff,” she says. Her favourite hat is one left, and signed, by a group of Amish folks.
People pour into the place from all over. Some to grab a cinnamon bun, others to parch their throat at the only bar in a hundred-mile radius. Chicken Sue will likely keep the lights on for awhile. Although she winters in warmer climates now, the one-of-a-kind nature of Chicken will keep her coming back year after year.
“[Chicken] isn’t an easy place to live, but it’s a warm place in the hearts of the people around,” she says. “You just have to have a warm coat.” Y
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