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  • Writer's pictureKatja

Arctic Adventure

All statistics/information in this post is courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management (BLM);, and the Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT).

Over the past weekend, I fulfilled a childhood dream of crossing the Arctic Circle, seeing the Brooks Range, and spending time on the North Slope of Alaska. Originally, my partner Chris suggested we drive to Coldfoot Camp, located 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle. When we looked at the map and realized it wasn't "that much further" to the end of the road in Prudhoe Bay, we were hooked on the idea of driving the entire Dalton Highway.

According to the BLM, the Dalton Highway is 414 miles long and begins at Livengood (84 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska) and ends at Deadhorse Camp, an industry town built on and around the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. The highway was constructed for the building and maintenance of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in the 1970s and "belongs to the truckers," even though it was gifted to the state of Alaska by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company several years after completion and opened to the public in 1994. If you ever decide to drive this road, know that you are a guest, and the trucks, tankers, and road crews have the absolute right of way.

The Dalton Highway is primarily gravel, but different sections are paved. Smooth pavement can launch your vehicle airborne if you drive too fast due to the sudden rises and dips formed by the constant freezing and melting ground beneath. The gravel may be well-graded in some sections and then rutted and covered in mud moments later. Potholes of all sizes and shapes await the unsuspecting traveler, so be sure to keep your attention on the road at all times. We encountered several soul-jarring sections of the road and learned that it was best to switch out drivers periodically to give the hands a break from the death grip on the steering wheel and to allow both of us to gaze in wonder at the ever-changing landscape.

Chris standing ankle-deep in a 10' long pothole on the Dalton Highway (top). Bottom images from left to right: a paved portion edges with ice; fractured bridge planks across the Yukon River; graded gravel through tundra; a closer look at the large potholes.

There are seven maintenance camps along the highway staffed year-round by Alaska DOT and Public Facilities. Each camp is responsible for 60 to 70 miles of the highway. Even though parts of the highway are terrible, the intrepid crews are on the job seven days a week, working to maintain and improve their section so workers and supplies can safely travel to and from Deadhorse.

The pipeline is a constant companion along the drive and is an amazing feat of engineering. The pipeline is 48 inches in diameter and 800 miles long. It carries oil from Deadhorse to Valdez, Alaska, and is built to withstand earthquakes and extreme Arctic temperatures. Several pump stations along the pipeline keep the oil moving at approximately four miles per hour. There are maintenance roads and access for vehicles, airplanes, and helicopters, and a lot of attention is given to monitoring and maintenance to protect the profits, reputation, and environmental impact of the pipeline.

The two environmental disasters connected with the pipeline are the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, when a tanker at the southern terminus ran aground and spilled oil 10.8 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound, and when part of the pipeline ruptured and spilled a quarter of a million gallons of crude oil on the tundra in 2006. An interesting positive fact about the pipeline is that there are 25 sections where it is buried and 554 sections where it is elevated over 10 feet to allow for unimpeded animal crossing. In the permafrost areas, the pipeline is refrigerated to prevent the ground around it from thawing.

The scenery and the wildlife along the highway are spectacular. You start in the boreal forest, then transition into the tundra, and finally, the Arctic Desert of the North Slope. Wildlife sightings included foxes, caribou, muskoxen, porcupines, marmots, grouse, ptarmigans, migrating geese, cranes, hawks, falcons, and even owls! Fun fact: two diurnal (daytime) owl species live in Alaska. We were lucky enough to have a Northern Hawk Owl fly alongside the vehicle for a way.

There are too many photos to do them justice here, so please visit my Instagram page for several wildlife collections from the trip.

We successfully made it to the end of the highway in two days, spending a night at Marion Creek Campground in Coldfoot. Fun fact about Coldfoot: it is the northernmost truckstop in the world! Gas was close to $8 per gallon (ouch!) but the staff and other guests were friendly and welcoming, sharing travel tips and stories over hot cups of coffee and delicious food cooked to order. The campground was still snowy and we saw one other couple on the way up and had it to ourselves on the way down.

Winter conditions at Marion Creek Campground.

From Coldfoot driving north, you run next to the eastern edge of Gates of the Arctic National Park. The mountains grow increasingly beautiful, and then the park ends at Antigun Pass. Crossing the Continental Divide and Antigun Pass on the second day was mindblowing. On the south side, it was early spring; on the north side, it looked like winter. The drive through Antigun Pass was challenging. As we did not have a CB Radio with us, we pulled off and waited for a truck to come by that we could follow through. The truckers communicate before embarking on stretches like this to mitigate the risk of accidents, so following one helped us and them as we could not broadcast our presence ahead of time.

At the end of the second day, we reached the end of the Dalton Highway. We could go no further as the Arctic is still locked deep in the ice of winter, and continuing to the ocean requires special arrangements with the oil companies and being there at the right time of year. We enjoyed looking around Deadhorse Camp and talking to some of the workers (everyone knew we were "the folks with the "Washington Jeep"-- it is a very small community). After spending a "night" (it was daylight the entire time) at the Aurora Hotel and enjoying some delicious buffet meals with the workers, we set back out for the long drive south.

On day three, as we returned to Coldfoot, we made two wonderful stops. The first was at Wiseman, a collection of privately owned cabins (population 12) where a mining community was built around 1908. Now, the buildings are abandoned or have been updated to allow residents and visitors to stay year-round and enjoy the seasonal delights of the area.

The second was near Wiseman on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River. We found a safe place to scramble down to the river for an up-close look at the huge blocks of river ice, recently fractured by the seasonal breakup. What should have been a few minutes turned into a full hour of delight as we discovered that the river ice is comprised of thousands of vertical icicles that sound like windchimes when they fracture and fall. It was a blast to play with the melting ice, and it was only the grumble of our stomachs that finally pulled us away from the fun.

The fourth day was a good transition back to reality from the magic of the Arctic. As the snow vanished into the review mirror and the trees became thicker, it was a struggle to process that there is a frozen desert less than 400 miles away. The temperature leaving Deadhorse was 18 degrees Fahrenheit; by the time we arrived in Fairbanks a day later, it was 65. Some places in this world must be experienced to be understood. Driving the Dalton Highway and the journey beyond the Arctic Circle in the springtime defies my abilities to fully explain how wonderous it is. I hope this at least helps to share some of that experience, and that maybe one day you can make the journey yourself.

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