On Thin Ice

Day 13: Fairbanks to Wiseman, Alaska (266mi, 5317mi total)

So started the next stage of our adventure: the notorious Dalton Highway. The northernmost road in the Western hemisphere, the Dalton was built as a trucking road, to bring loads to the Beaufort Sea oil operations in the winter, and provide maintenance for the Alëska Pipeline, which carries crude oil south from Prudhoe Bay to the refineries in Valdez. Tourist travel on the Dalton wasn’t even allowed until 2003, and was never any more than a total afterthought, with a 400+ mile dirt road to nowhere being so far out of the average American’s vacation plans.

South of the Arctic mountains, it looks a lot like Canada…

This rock formation, located at the Arctic Circle, is called the God’s Finger for its appearance as a hand pointing upward.

The “Oh Shit! Corner” is a particularly sharp turn, which causes its share of problems in the winter. The things one learns from watching Ice Road Truckers…
Oh Shit

Coldfoot is the only “town” on the Dalton, with a population of about 10, centered around the truck stop. It’s supposed to be a great place for breakfast and a chance to meet real ice road truckers.

Wiseman is a few miles off the highway, on the Koyokuk river, which many people mistakenly thought held gold. It didn’t, and the town mostly disappeared after the last gold rush.

Staying here is best described as interesting — hundreds of miles off the grid, everything is either brought in by truck or self sustaining, so electricity and plumbing, while both work, do not work in normal “southern” ways. Same thing with phones: no cell service, just land lines with two-digit numbers to call within Coldfoot and Wiseman, and theoretically some way to dial out, that just makes the old dial-up noise and doesn’t connect the call. That and the fact that even at midnight it’s still just as bright as any other time of day. Which shouldn’t be that amazing but it is, even knowing exactly this would happen! So I started to get some ideas… maybe THIS was how I could get out and experience some nature, see just a taste of the Alaskan wild, no one would suspect me sneaking out?

Day 13½: Gates of the Arctic national park, unknown mountain

So I stayed up reading until 1:30, made sure my parents were asleep upstairs, and wandered out into a mosquito-ridden Arctic morning. These mosquitoes are hell on earth! Right out the door, and a hundred or more started swarming. Oops! I had no choice but to go back in and look for bug spray. Making it out the door again, I looked around for a good target. I figured I may as well pick the obvious one even though it was across the ‘river’, which to my delight was about 100 feet wide, but 6 inches deep at most.
River and Mountain

The climb reminded me of an Adirondack at first, the same stilted, unruly trees that clog the summits approaching tree line. Beyond that, the upper reaches though were distinctly Arctic, only clumps of grass sticking out of soft pyramids of bare dirt. (The scale of this picture, believe it or not, is only tens of feet from one side to the other… behind the summit in the last shot, there are dozens of these mini-peaks)

From the top, the view belied the tiny height of the “mountain”, which couldn’t have been more than 400 feet above river level, and took less than an hour to climb, even stopping to look at every interesting plant and rock. Even the tall, snow capped peaks are barely 2000 feet above the river, or 4000 feet elevation, which puts tomorrow’s Atigun Pass (4300 feet or so) in perspective as to just how cold and snowy this region can be even in June!

I wandered back toward the cabin, trying to savor as much of wild Alaska as I could knowing this was my only chance for the trip… and knowing that someday I’ll need to come back! I’d love to spend a week wandering these mountains, bugs and all (amazingly, the bugs quit around tree line). I was back in the cabin and asleep by 4:15; my escape, successful as it was, had to end before I took too many chances, as much as I wanted to keep climbing, keep exploring.

Day 14: Wiseman to Deadhorse to Arctic Ocean to Deadhorse, Alaska (261 miles, 5578mi total)
This was to be, in a sense, the peak of our trip: the northernmost, wildest, most isolated place, quite literally at the world’s end, with nothing between us and the Pole. My fascination with the far north pulled me here, and to my surprise thanks to IRT my parents wanted to see the end of the road too. This is the mountain at the top of the infamous Atigun, which despite only being 4000 feet is the highest pass in Alaska, and coldest in the US.

Beyond Atigun, we were truly in the tundra, north of the tree line despite being at sea level, in the bizarre landscape of ice, water and alpine grass. Most wildlife seemed to know better and stay south of this area, but the road was lined with these caribou for at least a hundred miles. While I never tried it, I feel like I could have walked right up to one of these beasts and petted it, without it even caring. One of the weirder road signs of the trip was here as well: apparently it is illegal in Alaska to shoot more than five caribou at a time from your truck, as if drive-by reindeer hunting is a problem here.

Deadhorse itself, the second northernmost settlement, and end of the northernmost road, in North America, is an incredibly utilitarian place. Everything here must either be flown in, or trucked from Fairbanks on 400 miles of bad road. Houses and buildings are non-existent, replaced by prefab structures resembling shipping containers more than civilization. It is a town where time does not operate in the normal manner either; while nominally on the Alaskan time zone, 5 hours behind the eastern US, the oil fields work on a 28 hour clock, with workers on for 14 hours and off for 14 hours every “day”, causing the few businesses in town to be open at very odd hours for tourists. For our tour, we had the choice of starting at 7:30pm, 10pm, 1:30am or 4am, since that happened to be the “afternoon” here today.

At the Arctic Caribou Inn, the only “hotel” in the town (which also forbids alcohol, guns, and going outdoors in temperatures below -50), we met our tour group to go to the oilfields and onward to the beach. After an obligatory hour of oil company propaganda, we were shepherded onto a convoy of short buses for the ride to the ocean. Ostensibly this was for security purposes when driving over pipelines like these

And here we were, at the brightest, sunniest beach on the Arctic coast!

I ventured out on the ice at one point to try to get up close to a muskox (presumably behind me in this photo)

The predictable thing happened. This ice, while somehow able to support a well practiced muskox, decided it was time for me to take the Polar Plunge. I barely felt the frigid water at first, and thought maybe the ice just moved a bit, then I realized I was suddenly on a tiny little iceberg. Just like a cartoon, as I screamed “FUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCKKKKK!!!!!” the 28-degree saltwater took me in. And I splashed right out of it, Of course I only managed to go in exactly balls-high

And just like that it was time to begin the journey south… we had gone as far as we could. I couldn’t help feeling just a bit wistful leaving Deadhorse, not that I ever would have wanted to stay there longer than I did, but more that there was no farther to go, that the rest of the trip would become a voyage OUT OF the unknown, even while there was plenty of unknown yet to go. Like how to use the gas pump at Deadhorse Camp. Apparently even an engineer cannot figure out how to pump gasoline at 70°N.

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