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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Alaska: The Dalton Highway

On our trip to Alaska, one of our goals was to see the Arctic Ocean. Since we wanted to drive there, it left us with only one choice: the Dalton Highway.

Also known as the North Slope Haul Road, the Dalton Highway was built to supply the oil fields on Prudhoe Bay. It runs alongside the pipeline from a bit north of Fairbanks all the way up to Deadhorse, crossing over the Brooks Range and skirting the Gates of the Arctic Preserve. Except for a few miles of pavement, it's 414 miles of graded gravel road, fairly wide to accommodate the large trucks that use it to haul equipment and supplies back and forth to the oil rigs. The road has since been made famous on the Discovery Channel's Ice Road Truckers, but at the time it wasn't that well known.

After stopping for lunch in Fairbanks, we headed north up the Elliot Highway until we reached the turnoff for the Dalton. Alaskan highways all have names in addition to numbers; a great system when you only have about 10 main roads in the state. (Can you imagine this setup in the LA area? "You take the James, head west on the Davis, split off onto the Brown, then at the third exit take the Feinstein to the Schwarzenegger. What? You're lost? No, I said the James, not the Jones!")


2004 happened to be a particularly harsh weather year. It had been a very dry, hot summer (it was 80 degrees in Fairbanks when we stopped for lunch, and the locals seemed to be suffering for it) and there were some huge fires started by dry lightning in the surrounding areas. The policy up there was to let things burn unless it threatened development, so a thick layer of smoke was building up all around the city (by the season's end, millions of acres had burned in those fires: that's how big the uninhabited areas in Alaska are). We had heard on our way up that the road leading to the Arctic through Canada had been closed due to fires and were worried our chosen route might also be affected. It wasn't, so off we went.

When in Alaska, it's a good policy to fill the tank whenever you see a gas station that's open. Unless you're in a populated area, they are few and far between. The prices were actually lower than California's, even in the most remote corners. There are only three places to get gas on the Dalton and the first stop was right after crossing the Yukon River at a little truck stop/cafe. From the parking lot we were treated to our first view of the many wildfires in the area. It was a little scary, since we were filling up from a giant above ground tank of gasoline sitting in the middle of scrubby trees and dry brush, but the staff there seemed unconcerned. The forestry unit was keeping an eye on it, so they didn't think it was a problem.
Wildfire as viewed from the bridge over the Yukon River.
The traffic shares this bridge with the pipeline, which runs underneath the span.
We waited for a few big rigs to go by then started up the road again. We had read that it was best to keep your speed down and keep your eyes on the rear view mirror for the big trucks. The drivers are paid to haul gear up and back, and they do it as quickly as possible. They aren't known for their patience with the adventurous tourists and will pass them at breakneck speeds, spraying gravel in their wake. We decided to swallow our pride and slow down when we saw them coming, pulling as far to the right as possible. For the most part they were courteous and passed as far to the left as they could, giving us a wave as they went by. Since it was summer, the traffic volume wasn't really an issue. Most all of the work on the oil fields happens in winter, when the tundra is frozen and they can safely get around without getting mired in the muck, destroying their equipment as well as the ecosystem.

At this point it was around 3:00pm, usually around the time we would be looking for a place to stop for the day. There aren't a lot of choices on the Dalton, so we decided to drive until we reached a good stopping point.

We were used to gravel roads in our neck of the woods--if a road is lined with gravel in California it seems to turn into a rutted washboard nightmare within the month. I think the absence of rain, the fact that it was lightly used in the summer, and that it was maintained in part by the deep pockets of the oil companies contributed to the Dalton's relatively good condition. To prepare for the trip, we had purchased new all-terrain tires specifically to help deal with the rough roads we knew we would encounter. Gravel wreaks havoc on tread, and I think we left at least $200 worth of rubber on the Dalton, slowly grinding it away on the sharp rocks. The guide book had warned us to carry at least two spares, as there are very few (read: none) places to get a new tire along the way.
Following the pipeline.
At about 8:00pm we pulled up to the first stop on the road: the Arctic Circle. I can't explain how surreal it is to stand on an imaginary line that separates the upper thirty degrees of the world from the lower areas. We parked and jumped out to look at the roadside sign and were immediately attacked by the biggest, meanest crowd of bloodthirsty thugs I've ever encountered.

The books had warned us about them; how they lurked in the tundra, attacking innocent victims that were hapless enough to wander into their territory. And we had already met what turned out to be their meeker cousins in the interior. We were not prepared for the vicious cloud of the largest mosquitoes I have ever seen, or hope to ever meet again.

I have no idea how the mosquitoes grow so large in such a short season. The second we stepped outside we were surrounded, and they were ruthless. They would zero in and, I swear, drill into our skin without even landing. It was mid-air refueling for those suckers, skilled enough to impress even the most efficient Air Force squadron. It's said the caribou come down out of the mountains to graze the grasses on the tundra, then quickly return to the snow fields to escape these tormentors.

Pointing out our position on the map. Notice the tight smile--trying to keep the
mosquitoes from biting my lips.
At this point, it was still really warm, the sun was beating down with no sign of stopping, and we were tired. Driving in Alaska is really disorienting. It's hard to gauge the time when it never gets dark. Once we crossed into the circle, the sun was not scheduled to set again until September, so knowing when to stop was dependent upon our stomachs. Stop when you're hungry, sleep when you're tired, it's the best you can do. We made ourselves a PBJ, found a good spot to park and pulled all the curtains to try to block the sunlight and get some sleep.

All night long we were awakened to the sounds of a car pulling up, people jumping out, taking their picture in front of the sign, squealing about the mosquitoes, then jumping back in their car and going back to Fairbanks. Turns out this was a popular spot for tourists to visit, most of whom only want a picture to document that they were there. After a fitful "night" we got up and started driving once again. We were at the 115 mile marker, with another 300 to go before we reached Prudhoe Bay.

The vista before us: road on the left, pipeline on the right.
Next on the short list of stops was Coldfoot, population 10. It has the dubious distinction of having the coldest recorded temperature on the planet: -82 degrees F (unofficial). Just for the record, it wasn't cold at all when we were there. Coldfoot used to be a mining camp where prospectors hoping to strike it rich arrived, got "cold feet" and turned around. Now it's a rest stop/truck stop/gas station/overnight stay for the truckers and the occasional tourist bus. We filled our tank and went on our way, anxious to get to Deadhorse before the end of the day.

At mile 248 we hit Atigun Pass, crossing over the Continental Divide going through the Brooks Range. The road to this point had been fairly straight, with long sweeping curves going through the valley with a few hills sprinkled in. The pass got really steep really quickly as the road threaded it's way through the mountains. We kept our eyes glued to the corners to see if we could spot any dust clouds coming our way. Meeting one of those big haulers on a corner would have been suicide.

Dall Sheep, top of Atigun Pass

During the winter, in order to keep the pass open, avalanche control is carried out in a stereotypical Alaskan way: by shooting 40 lb rounds into the snow, forcing the snow down before it falls on some hapless trucker. We stopped at a pullout and checked out the gun placement before heading up. I can only imagine how puckering it must be to drive that pass in the winter. The grade is up to 12% in some places and the drop off is steep. That coupled with the possibility of meeting a huge truck barreling toward you is enough to pay more attention to the road than you ever did in driver's ed. The view from the top was fantastic though. From there it was smooth sailing to Deadhorse.

Gun placement at the base of Atigun Pass
Deadhorse is basically a company town for the oil workers of the North Slope. There's a post office, a store and a couple of places to spend the night. During the winter the inns are full of workers, but during the lull in summer they charge the tourists extraordinary fees for the accommodations. We thought about "camping" in the official "campground" (the gravel lot near the construction storage yard) but after reading the warning sign posted about a wandering polar bear and her cub that had been breaking into campers looking for food, we decided to check into the Arctic Caribou Inn.
The luxurious Arctic Caribou Inn
"Inn" is a funny word. In my mind, an inn conjures up warm fuzzy pictures of an older couple; the kindly grandmotherly-type cooking homemade goodies for the guests, and the slightly crotchety older gentleman maintaining the property. This inn was nothing like that.

Buildings in Deadhorse are very utilitarian. They have to be tough; the wind can come off the bay at over 100 mph and winter temperatures are often 40F below. There are no building materials available up there so everything has to be hauled in. The Caribou Inn rooms were actually a series of single-wide mobile homes all strung together with a long hallway down the middle. It was swathed in lovely dark brown indoor/outdoor carpeting and there was a bucket in the middle of the main hallway catching drips coming down from the ceiling. Our suite had two single beds and a private bathroom with a shower stall so small you couldn't stand in it without touching the walls. The floor in our room sloped, and we tossed a coin for the bed that was at such an angle you had to lay flat on your back for fear you might roll out. All this a steal for $125.00 per night.

Mark enjoying a gourmet meal in our suite.
We talked with the guy at the desk and signed up for a tour of the oil fields. All the roads north of town are owned by the oil companies; you have to be on an official tour to get to the water. He took our license numbers and called them in for a background check. Since 9/11, security at the oil fields had been tightened. In fact, we were supposed to make reservations 24 hours in advance but since it was a slow day, they gave us a break.

The weather was as good as it gets up there we were told: high 60s and a little overcast. We killed some time before the tour and checked out the store. It had a few gift-y things but was mostly stocked with supplies for the oil workers: hard hats, coveralls, gloves, candy, personal toiletries, socks, did I mention, uh, magazines? An entire wall was devoted to magazines that...let's just say Good Housekeeping was not among them. The one thing we didn't see was alcohol. I'm not sure if it's still true, but I had heard it wasn't allowed up there; it caused too much trouble.

The tour bus was driven by an ex-cop from Anchorage making a little extra cash in his retirement. It was an interesting tour; part PR for the oil companies and part genuinely cool information. We, of all people, could hardly complain about them, seeing as how we just drove 4000 miles in our 3/4 ton V10 truck to see it.

Oil rig haulers, waiting for the ice to form.
Lots of caribou were hanging around, grazing on the grasses between the roads and rigs. The natural gas burn-off flaring up here and there didn't seem to bother them at all. In fact, we had to stop to let them cross the road in front of us. The official policy is basically a restraining order: humans are not allowed to interfere with the migration in any way.




Fun Facts:
-Since most of the world's population lives in the temperate regions above and below the equator, satellites roughly follow that path around the earth. In order to pick up signals, the satellite dishes in Deadhorse were all pointed almost directly toward the southern horizon. There are times of the year they are unable to pick up some signals because of the tilt of the earth.
-The Prudhoe Bay area is actually considered a polar desert. Precipitation is very low, and what does fall tends to be drier snow. It just seems like more because it gets blown around so much, and it's so cold it doesn't melt very quickly. 

A male caribou lounging in the field near a supply yard.
At the end of the road we were allowed to get off the bus and walk on the beach, right on the Arctic Ocean edge. There was an eery light coming through the clouds, and you could see a line of oil rigs way out on the horizon, along with a line of ice that was still covering the water. We picked up a few rocks as souvenirs and stuck our hands in the water. The driver dared everyone to go swimming and one brave (?) soul took him up on it. He said it was like swimming in a glass of ice water but colder, and shivered all the way back to the store.
The light comes through the clouds over the Arctic.

Back at the inn, we ate yet another PBJ and watched a movie on our 12" TV. Life was good.

The road back to Fairbanks.
In the morning, we asked the guy at the front desk where we could fill up for the road back. He gave us directions to a collection of 55 gallon drums lined up next to a dilapidated shack. There was a gas nozzle hooked on the edge of one of the drums with a crude meter we had to reset before we pumped. We paid the nearest guy we could find what we thought we owed--we had to calculate it out ourselves. It was all on the honor system which was kind of a refreshing change.

The sun was fully shining and it was a gorgeous day. I jumped out to take the picture (above) and was concentrating on framing the shot when I heard Mark shouting "Close the door! Close the door!!" I had left the truck door open and found him sharing the cab with a cloud of mosquitoes. I jumped in and he drove like a mad man with the windows open for a few miles until the wind swept them all out. Just to prove how tenacious they are, check out this tough guy clinging to our windshield wiper at 40 mph:


We took our time on the way back, stopping in at the Marion Creek Campground for the night near Coldfoot. A beautiful new campground, it sits adjacent to the Gates of the Arctic National Reserve. There's a huge, informative visitor's center across the road, with brand new displays and interactive exhibits. We were the only ones there, and the staff was begging us to ask questions. I don't think they had seen anyone else all day. Back at the campground, we were one of two sites taken; the other 20 or so sites stood empty all night. The ranger at the visitor's center told us about a hiking trail at the back of the campground, so Mark loaded up his fishing gear and we headed out.

Looking out towards the Gates of the Arctic National Reserve, site of the infamous "Drill, baby drill" remark (although it hadn't yet been uttered). I have to get on my soapbox here and just say this: before you vote to start poking holes in the ground, be sure to go see the place first. It is one of the most incredible, awe-inspiring places you'll ever visit. It's one of the few places in the world that's been left to it's own devices, completely untouched and wild. It will make you feel small, but in a good, humble way. It will also make you realize just how much we've managed to screw up nature nearly every place else in the world.
The trail wasn't marked, and various little side trails kept petering out, so we ended up following the creek up the hill until we found an open spot. Fireweed was growing everywhere, its bright pink flowers a cheerful change to the uniform green we had been seeing along the road. No luck with the fish, but Mark had fun casting and I had fun with the camera.
Clark's Nutcracker

Fireweed













Mark's fishing hole.







We ended up being held hostage in the camper for the night, only running out to get water or go to the bathroom. At one point we looked up and found about 20 bloodthirsty mosquitoes staring at us through the top vent. Mark set the clock and got up at midnight to take this shot:
The land of the midnight sun, at midnight.
It was actually much brighter out, but the sun's glare made the auto adjust of the camera darken the surroundings. In the morning, after a headlong run to the bathroom, we packed up and headed back to Fairbanks.

Next stop: Denali.