Northern AlaskaAugust 30, 2010
I had been hearing since 'way back in BC that the road going west from Dawson was washed out. Then I heard that it was open again, but only for escorted convoys. Rather than go back to Whitehorse I decided to try it.
The weather on the aptly named Top of the World Highway was dicey, rain and fog, but still magnificent. I crossed the border into the US at Boundary, Alaska, an incredibly remote location. I imagine this is where an INS agent might get posted if he really annoyed his boss.
Fog on the Top of the World Highway
The lonely border station on the Top of the World Highway
I managed to miss the noon convoy and had to sit there in the middle of nowhere and wait four hours for the next one. It was caribou hunting season in this area and I saw lots of ATV's bristling with guns and caribou antlers.
Waiting for the convoy at Boundary, Alaska
Caribou hunter in the Subsistence Hunting Area near Boundary
Then it was two hours at 15-20 mph in a train of vehicles. Just like a wagon train they had two escorts ahead of us (scout and lead) and perhaps two more behind (trail and sweep). Rain, mud, and fog the entire way.
Following the pilot car for 27 miles of muddy road
Looking in my rear-view mirror at the convoy
I camped in Chicken, Alaska, truly a bit of the old frontier, and the beginning of paved road again.
The log cabin post office in Chicken
August 31, 2010
I had a truly strange experience a few miles west of Chicken. I stopped at a viewpoint and a man came hustling up to me with an anxious look on his face, taking money out of his wallet.
He was quite obviously drunk (at 9 am), and explained that he was celebrating his brother's birthday and I would be "saving his life" if I would sell him a beer. He said he could not drive on to the next pub (pub sounds wrong for Alaska) because he might get stopped and loose his license, which would ruin his life. He assured me he was not going to drive, so I gave him my last beer, a Sierra Nevada that had been rattling around in the van ever since California.
We talked for a while. He was from Germany, very pleasant and intelligent. We took pictures, and he thanked me again for saving his life!
Saved his life with a beer
Soon after that I reached the Alaska Highway near Tok, wide and smooth and fast through Delta Junction, then on to Fairbanks, the main city of the interior.
Alaskan highway numbering is simple -- there are only eleven of them
After all those miles of back roads in prime moose habitat, I got my first good photo of one just outside Delta, walking alongside the highway
September 1, 2010
Fairbanks seems like a city of a million people, but in reality its population is only 30,000. But it has all the necessary services, which was to come in handy for me later in the trip! I spent a day cleaning up and shot a few panos around town. I also phoned ahead for my tour of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, which requires 24 hours notice for security check.
September 2, 2010
I hadn't really planned on driving the Dalton Highway, but once I got to Fairbanks I just couldn't resist -- it is the northernmost public road in the world, going well past the Arctic Circle. I have driven the Dempster Highway to the Arctic in Canada, twice in fact, so the Dalton seemed the logical next challenge.
The Dalton, also known as the Haul Road, was built in a single summer to support construction of the Alaska Pipeline. It was designed for heavy truck traffic and is laid out like a race course - no sharp corners or windy stretches. I was surprised to find that nearly half of this road has now been paved, including a brand-new section (still hot) north of Coldfoot. But it remains a challenging drive, narrow with no shoulders and a lot of big trucks going very fast. The pipeline parallels the highway, seldom out of sight, much of it elevated but other segments buried.
A typical stretch of the Dalton Highway with the Alaska Pipeline alongside, in an area of burned spruce forest.
Birch trees in full glory
The weather was changeable as I started, but improved and it turned out to be a beautiful drive. Fall colors increased as I went north, with the deciduous trees in shades of yellow and gold, the tundra purple and red. The first landmark was the Yukon Crossing bridge.
Just north of Yukon Crossing was one of my favorite stretches, Finger Mountain and the Kanuti River headwaters, with wonderful fall colors. I crossed the Arctic Circle at midday, weak sunshine and 62°.
Fall colors at the headwaters of the Kanuti River
The Arctic Circle sign on the Dalton Highway
I filled up my gas tank in Coldfoot at milepost 175 (248 miles from Fairbanks). It is the only supply point between the Yukon River and Deadhorse, and not much to look at. A few miles north is the picturesque hamlet of Wiseman, where a few old sourdoughs still mine for gold and tough it out through the long winter.
Log cabins at Wiseman
I camped at Marion Creek nearby. A bit cold, but very pretty. It seemed the perfect opportunity to see the Aurora Borealis, but no show.
September 3, 2010
The adventure continued - I was already well past the Arctic Circle but still had 225 miles to go. The scenery got wilder and the colors more intense as I drove deeper into the Brooks Range, along the Koyukuk and Dietrich Rivers, past the northernmost tree, and over Atigun Pass at 4739 feet.
Chandalar Shelf at the south base of Atigun Pass
From there it was a long downhill through the Atigun Valley and onto the rolling tundra of the North Slope, beautiful and serene.
North slope tundra near Slope Mountain
But I was certainly not alone. In addition to the truck traffic (a hundred trucks a day) there were hundreds of hunters, many with bow and arrow, stalking the caribou (with considerable success).
The weather continued clear and warm and it was one of the best driving days I have ever had. Perhaps the high point was when I saw two musk oxen butting heads in the middle of the road half a mile ahead. When they saw me they ran away, but stopped soon enough that I could get a good view of them, and also include them in a pano of the tundra.
One of the pair of musk ox I spotted in the tundra
About this time I noticed a gray ridgeline ahead, like a mountain range where I knew there was not one. It was the semi-permanent fog bank along the coast of the Arctic Ocean. When I eventually drove into it the temperature dropped from the high 50's into the mid-40's. By this time the terrain was dead flat and dotted with lakes, great for waterfowl and other wildlife.
Then there came Deadhorse - what a weird town. It is built on gravel pads in the tundra, nothing directly on the ground to avoid melting into the permafrost. It is more of an industrial park than a town, and is full of huge pieces of oil field equipment and specialized vehicles. There are no trees, no flower boxes or potted plants, no business district, and no real houses -- everyone lives in hotels or dormitories at their employer's expense.
I had dinner at the Arctic Caribou Inn, hearty fare cafeteria style, then camped in my van in their parking lot. There was good cell phone reception and excellent high speed internet, so I phoned and e-mailed my friends to say "guess where I am?"
My van at the Arctic Caribou Inn in Deadhorse on Prudhoe Bay\
The gps says it all - 70 degrees 12 minutes North latitude
September 4, 2010
First thing in the morning I took the oilfields tour, interesting enough, but not possible to take panoramas (or even regular photos) from the moving bus. The high point for most people was when they were allowed to get out and wade into the Arctic Ocean (35°F). I stayed dry and took pictures.
Wading in the Beaufort Sea at Prudhoe Bay
I drove around Deadhorse and took a few panos. Then I started the long drive home. This was truly the turning point of the trip - I had nowhere to go but back south the way I had come.
The weather improved slightly as the land rose up from the coastal plain, but I could see big clouds over the Brooks Range ahead and sure enough it was raining when I got to Atigun Pass - and snowing just a thousand feet higher.
The fall colors were wonderful south of the pass, but stopping for panos became increasingly difficult as the rain increased and driving took all my attention. I camped in a brilliant yellow aspen grove right on the Arctic Circle.
Rain in the Brooks Range, north base of Atigun Pass
The Dalton Highway in the rain
Fall colors in the rain at Grayling Lake
Camping on the Arctic Circle
September 5, 2010
The rain continued through the night and the next day, so I just drove steadily, relieved in a way to be almost done with this adventure. Little did I know what lay ahead for me.
Fall colors south of Yukon Crossing
Passing a 32-wheel truck in mist and rain
I got to the end of the Dalton Highway, mile 0, and paused to consider which way to go on the Elliott Highway - turn right for 76 miles of unpaved road to Manley Hot Springs, or turn left for Fairbanks. It was the rain that decided me on the latter.
The Elliott Highway from that point south to Fairbanks is wide, fast, and paved, but still very remote from civilization. So it worried me when the van started making strange noises, losing power, and the CHECK ENGINE SOON light came on, then started blinking urgently.
I hoped to make it at least to the edge of cell phone range, but no, it was not possible. It was several miles before I found a safe place to pull off the highway, into a gravel road leading up to Pump Station Number 7 on the Alaska Pipeline. Just in time, too - once stopped I couldn't make the van move at all.
I flagged down a contractor's pickup and they advised me to walk up the road to the pump station and use their phone. The security guard there allowed me to do this, and I called AAA for a tow. The tow truck arrived in just over an hour, and carried me and my muddy van back the final 56 miles to Fairbanks.
Rescued by Ron's Towing
The story continues with Don's Trip to the Far North - Part Three