~Sunday, September 4, 2022~
Day 76 of Alaska Trip
For my geography buff husband, getting to the Arctic Circle has been a bucket list item of his for years. I remember in the early planning stages of our Alaska trip, I thought Jeff was insane to even think about entertaining the idea of driving our precious Hank on what’s known as the “Haul Road'' on the hit Discovery Channel show “Ice-Road Truckers'', this imaginary line. The formal name for this road is the Dalton Highway, designated as such in 1981, named after lifelong Alaskan resident and engineer, James Dalton. Dalton was a pioneer in northern Alaska petroleum exploration, and construction in permafrost environments, leading the way for building a road to support the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. the construction of this highway. For some reason, a bunch of summer travelers are all worked up about nothing, as we read many horror stories about the condition of the road. Leave it to Jeff and I to dispel any of those rumors. Yes…you have to come prepared with food, water, clothing, an extra spare tire or two, and a gas can. But other than that, at least in the summer, there’s not much to worry about other than keeping your eyes on the road and enjoying the stunning views. The Dalton Highway stretches for 414 miles to the Arctic Coast of Prudhoe Bay. Today, we’d be driving about 220 miles of it. Even though I’m not very geographically inclined, I must admit I was intrigued about it all, despite the Arctic Circle not being a visible thing. In other words, now that we’ve driven all these challenging roads, what’s another one, right? It didn’t take much convincing in the end.
With the exception of the terminus at Fairbanks and Deadhorse, the only towns along the Dalton are Coldfoot (population 10) and Deadhorse (population 22). I think the chances of finding a Peet’s or Starbucks are pretty much nil. Getting an early start for our 5-hour drive to the Circle, we had packed a few light snacks/waters and stopped in Fairbanks to pick up a few coffees and breakfast sandwiches for our morning sustenance. The first hour or so from our starting point was a paved highway, with all too common road maintenance. Why is it that they label the roads with warning signs when the road isn’t all that bad, and don’t when it is? And furthermore, a sign that reads “Damaged Road Ahead” doesn’t really shout out anything new. Anyway, it didn’t take long to arrive at the very primitive compacted gravel surface that we came to expect. No speed limits needed here…..common sense tells you to slow down to a 35-40 mph pace, that is if you want to keep your suspension intact. And honestly, gravel roads, as long as they're compact, seem to be an easier surface to drive on than pavement anyway this far north…..fewer pot holes, virtually no frost heaves, etc. It completely makes sense why they chose not to pave it…….the maintenance expense alone wouldn’t be justified for a population too small to support it. There’s no one else out here, except the truckers and curious stragglers like us. Most of the summer vacationers have already made their way south. But the ones who remain are either in regular passenger cars, vans or Class C’s…..no travel trailers. I can’t imagine bringing Billie Jean on this road. Too risky to tow a trailer, unless you’re a trucker.
Even if you’re a rural Alaskan, the preferred method of getting around is by air. The Dalton Highway is mainly used by truckers to get supplies to Prudhoe Bay. Because of the mountainous surroundings, there are many steep grades and tight turns, so to imagine what these truckers go through in ICY conditions…..well, I can’t imagine it now that we’ve driven it. One section in particular known as “Sand Hill '' requires truckers to get enough speed to make it up the hill without sliding back. 😳In any case, be it snowy/icy conditions or nice sunny weather, nearly 250 trucks traverse this road daily. We must have passed about 15 on our stretch. And we’ve all been kind enough to either move over or slow down for each other. It’s a very polite highway.
Man oh man, did we hit it right. The Fall display is in full swing up here….mostly oranges and yellows. The coniferous trees appear
stubby the further north we get, as they have a short season to rebound from such brutal winters. We had heard the Dalton Highway
crosses some of the most beautiful terrain in all of Alaska, which with the foliage change, is only enhanced. Taking this stretch of highway seemed to display the widest expanse of Alaska scenery we’d seen of the trip. Apparently, wildlife is a common sight on the Dalton, but sadly, we didn’t have the good fortune of seeing any. Even further up north, closer to Prudhoe Bay, it’s not uncommon to see polar bears where authorities will even shut down portions of the road if they're spotted. But the one thing we saw nearly the entire time was the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, as most of it is above ground, sometimes close to the road, other times way in the distance zigzagging over mountains through the Fall foliage, only to disappear at times in the sections that allow it to be underground.
One of the big landmarks on the way to the Arctic Circle is the mighty Yukon River. Nice to see it again since our last visit in Dawson City, AK, early on in our trip. To continue on the Dalton, you must cross it which we did via the E.L. Patton Bridge. Edward Patton was appointed president of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which was formed by a consortium of oil companies to design, build, operate and maintain the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. The pipeline he was tasked to build would start in a cold, northern arctic environment, pass through Interior Alaska with its seasonal temperature extremes, and terminate in a coastal destination with extremely high precipitation; seemingly an impossible feat. And as we all know, the project was met with intense scrutiny from Congress and the public with concerns of protecting Alaska’s precious ecosystem. The bridge itself was completed in 1975 and spans 2,295 feet linking the 2 road systems together, mainly in support of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline project. It was interesting to see the pipeline attached to the side of the bridge as both span over the Yukon.
Finally, after hours of driving, taking in all that wonderful scenery, we arrived at the Arctic Circle. Now we can say we DID IT!!
It reminded me of the feeling you get when you climb a really steep mountain, enduring the struggle to get there, only to enjoy the moment oh so briefly before having to turn around. I guess that means it’s all about the journey, not the destination (if I may borrow that phrase). But in our case, it really was both. We arrived at a medium-sized parking lot, not alone. A few others had already arrived, several having a celebratory beer to which Jeff said, “Now, why didn’t I think of that?” It was our moment as we got in front of the large blue/green globe for a quick photo op. Looking at the map, we never realized just how much ocean and land mass is actually above the Arctic Circle, which includes portions of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and the United States. In simple terms, the Arctic Circle, at latitude 66 degrees north of 0 (the equator), marks the northernmost point at which the sun appears above the level of the horizon on the winter solstice meaning on the shortest day of the year, the most sun you’d be able to see is just a sliver on the horizon. Above 66 degrees, the sun never comes up during a chunk of time (though you’ll see a little light). Pretty interesting stuff!
We had timed our arrival perfectly to take it all in before a passenger van pulled up with about 15 tourists to have THEIR moment in front of the iconic sign. We overheard the tour guide say that due to the harsh conditions this far north, the sign has to be replaced every 3 years. There are a few other interpretive signs on a viewing balcony that talk about the wildlife in the area (none of which we were privy to see). If we couldn’t have a beer, we could at least have a tailgate “party” of our own with our light snacks.
Curious about the sign reading “Campground-1 mile”, we decided to have a look. The Arctic Circle Campground, run by the Bureau of Land Management, is one nice campground….clean and spacious. Of the 19 sites, only 1 tent camper appeared to be staying there, complete with electric fence and all. 😬We read later that the BLM had closed the campground the majority of last summer to perform upgrades. You could certainly tell.
After about 30 minutes of enjoying the fruits of our driving labor, we began the next 220 miles of driving (my turn at the wheel) and taking in what was behind us on the first leg. This time, we turned off to check out the Yukon River up close. Of course Sadie jumped with excitement at the chance for a swim. Not this river……way too swift. A little ball time seemed to take her mind off of it. The fast moving silty water didn’t seem to keep the fishermen away. But then again, everyday is a good day for fishing, right?
Whew! What a day, finally making it back around 8:30. Hank did such a great job getting us there and back safely, and in much need of a bath.
The layer of dirt was so thick, you couldn’t even see our license plate or tail lights. I don’t think I’d ever seen it quite that bad. But in the end, it was so worth it!! And now we can say we’ve been at 66 degrees latitude, that is the Arctic Circle!!