Alaska’s Dalton Highway – Gateway to the Arctic

In mid-August of 1997, I boarded a Delta Airlines flight to Anchorage for a vacation, following another very successful Esri User Conference. After checking in to the Regal Alaskan Hotel that evening, I took a long walk around Lake Hood and watched the seaplanes taking off and landing. Lake Hood is the world’s busiest seaplane base!

Lake Hood Seaplane Base – Anchorage

For dinner I had a superb, fresh pan-fried trout served with a tart lemon cream sauce over wild rice. A chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc complemented dinner very well. The next morning, I started the day with a delicious breakfast of Dungeness crab cakes and eggs, along with sourdough toast and huckleberry jam. Then it was time to return to the airport to board the Alaska Airlines flight to Deadhorse, the northernmost airport on the North Slope at Prudhoe Bay. The route of the flight took us directly over the summit of Mt McKinley, affording us absolutely spectacular views of the 20,320 foot high peak, as well as the surrounding 18,000 foot mountains of the mighty Alaska Range, extending over 300 miles southwest to the Aleutian Islands! The mountains were covered in a brilliant, thick white carpet of snow and ice, as well as numerous glaciers. The captain told us that we were very fortunate to see the mountains so clearly, since thick clouds normally obscure them over 75% of the year!

Leaving Anchorage – Chugach Mountains
Mt McKinley and the Alaska Range
The North Slope from the air

Upon arrival in Deadhorse, I checked in to the “Prudhoe Bay Hotel” – essentially a collection of modular “bunkhouses” with shared toilets and showers. It mainly houses oilfield workers and the few tourists who venture this far north. In years past, it was part of a larger complex of accommodations for workers employed in the construction of the “Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline” that stretches 800 miles across the state from the Arctic Ocean in the north to Prince William Sound in the south.

Prudhoe Bay General Store – Deadhorse

While the hotel rooms were small and spartan, the “Dining Hall” served massive amounts of hearty, basic food 24 hours a day – all included with the room! The only downside was the lack of any beer or wine, since the entire North Slope, including all the native villages, is dry! Before sitting down to dinner, I joined a small tour of the massive Arco/BP oil field operations complex – a huge construction and operational challenge, where literally everything must be built on gravel pads 3 to 5 feet thick, so as to avoid thawing the underlying permafrost, which is only 1 to 2 feet below the surface. However, it can be over 1000 feet deep.

Arco/BP oil drill rig on the tundra
Arco/BP operations at Prudhoe Bay
“Tundra Trucks” used for oil exploration on the North Slope

Not far from the “hotel” was Mile 0 of the oil pipeline and the beginning of the Dalton Highway, extending 445 miles south to Fairbanks. A few hundred yards to the north lay the Arctic Ocean, and as we approached the coast, the massive ice pack was visible about a mile offshore. Suddenly, while we stood on the “beach”, an Aussie in our group stripped down and dived into the icy water for a “quick dip” in the ocean! (No one else followed his lead however)

Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline – Mile 0
Arctic Ocean

By this time the dinner bell sounded and we all headed to the dining hall for a huge meal of steak, BBQ ribs, shrimp, potatoes, and an array of salads, as well as numerous dessert options. No one left the dinner table hungry that night!

Early the next morning, after a hearty Alaskan breakfast, our tour group of six people and our driver/guide,” Andy”, piled into the 4WD van and began our two-day journey south on the Dalton Highway. (During the construction of the oil pipeline, it was simply known as “The Haul Road”, where every year hundreds of huge trucks hauled everything north, from heavy pipe and gravel, to everyday essentials like food, office supplies and even toilet paper!) On the North Slope, the highway is a 6 foot thick pad of gravel 18 feet wide that lays on top of the Arctic tundra for over 100 miles, from the Arctic Ocean to the foothills of the massive Brooks Range. Light rain was falling as we left Deadhorse, yet the snow covered peaks of the Brooks Range to the south shimmered in the distance.

The Dalton Highway – Mile 0 (Next Services 245 miles)
Brooks Range in the distance
Big rig with heavy load headed north
Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline parallel to the Dalton Highway

As we travelled across the perfectly flat tundra, parallel to the oil pipeline, we began seeing lots of wildlife. Among the hundreds of birds, we saw snow geese, loons, and jaegers, as well as some marsh hawks and a great snowy owl – all of which were within the extent of the massive oil field! As far as animals were concerned, there were arctic fox, grizzly bears, and caribou, the dominant animal of the Arctic. As we approached Pump Station #1, it could be heard at least several miles away, as the huge Rolls Royce turbines powered the massive pumps that were necessary to move the vast volume of oil up the steep slope of the Brooks Range. Yet, despite the incredibly loud noise, we continued to see wildlife not far off the road, including two young grizzlies digging for lemmings and ground squirrels, with the oil pipeline in the background! Meanwhile, a couple of stupid tourists were “stalking” the bears ! (would “tourist” also be on the bear’s dinner menu tonight?)

Young Grizzlies digging for lemmings
The beauty of the Arctic tundra on the North Slope

Further on we spotted a beautiful lone caribou bull with a huge rack of antlers being stalked by a bow hunter. To be sure, it was tough stalking across the flat, treeless wet muskeg. It would be no understatement to say the odds greatly favored the caribou! Soon we encountered the foothills of the mighty Brooks Range and it was time to stop for lunch – a cold one of fried chicken, as we stood at the foot of the mountains, in sight of a lone glacier.

Lunch along the road approaching the foothills of the Brooks Range
Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline at the base of the Brooks Range

Back on the road, we began the long, slow climb up to Atigun Pass, among the rugged, barren mountains, the highest peaks being covered with fresh snow. Just as we began the ascent of the 4,700 foot high pass, we were instructed by radio to pull over and wait for a very wide (20 feet) load to descend down the steep grade. Meanwhile, there were lots of truckers chattering away on their CB radios. As the wide load passed us, Andy got on the radio and said “northbound lowboy, this is the tour van – how’s the weather to the south? Have safe trip”.

Approaching Atigun Pass
View from Atigun Pass

As we crossed over Atigun Pass and began the long descent down the south slope of the Brooks Range, we suddenly became aware of the tree line, marked by the “northernmost” spruce tree, on the edge of the road, along with a large sign marking its unique place in the world.

Northernmost Spruce Tree

Atigun Pass marks the “other” Continental Divide which separates rivers flowing south to the Pacific Ocean from those flowing north to the Arctic Ocean. As we descended from the Brooks Range, we entered the broad Chandalar River valley, and as evening approached, we came to the tiny community of Coldfoot.

Entering Coldfoot, Alaska

Although originally established in 1902 as a mining camp called Slate Creek, it got its present name when some gold prospectors coming up the Koyukuk River would get “cold feet” and turn around. At its height in 1912, Slate Creek (Coldfoot) had two roadhouses, two general stores, post office, seven saloons, and a gambling house. Much later, during the construction of the Dalton Highway and Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, Coldfoot became a huge truck stop, being the only services for 245 miles. So, it was pretty clear that this would be our overnight stop, along with a couple dozen truckers. A sign outside the one and only café/hotel read: “lowest recorded temperature – 82 degrees (with a picture of the thermometer) and highest recorded temperature +97 degrees (an amazing range of 179 degrees!) Our tour group checked into the only hotel, named the “Arctic Acres Inn” – a collection of typical “modular” units, the same as were used extensively on the North Slope during the pipeline construction.

“Arctic Acres Inn” hotel and cafe
Moose hunters and truckers in Coldfoot

The café/hotel also advertised itself as the “farthest north bar in North America”, but on this day it was closed for lack of beer! Rooms were very small for $125 a night, but there was no competition for at least 135 miles in any direction! After finding my room, a small 10ft by 10ft unit with a tiny 2ft by 4ft cubicle that was the toilet and shower combination, I walked around the area, taking photos of the gorgeous forest floor. It was covered with beautiful wild flowers, colorful mushrooms, and delicate lichens.

Wild cranberries and lichens
Mushrooms on the forest floor

Meanwhile, dozens of idling big rigs were lined up in the muddy parking lot outside the café. Inside the café it was very busy, as the dinner hour approached. The food was basic but very good, and my order of baked halibut was excellent, despite the canned green beans alongside. For entertainment, there was a single TV set in the café, but judging by the blank screen, it appeared to be out of commission. So we were invited to the BLM/NPS/USFWS Visitor Center nearby to watch their new slide show about the national parks, preserves, and wildlife refuges on the North Slope and in the Brooks Range. It was essentially the only entertainment in town, but it turned out to be fascinating! I retired to my room for the night at 11pm, though it was still daylight outside.

Early the next morning, we began with a huge breakfast buffet that would last us all day. Then we piled into the van and drove back north for 13 miles to the tiny old mining town of Wiseman, population 22! It was in fact divided into North and South Wiseman by an old feud that everyone had long since forgotten.

Map of downtown Wiseman, Alaska

The old abandoned post office was a log cabin that had sunk halfway into the permafrost. Inside, old books and official records still sat on the counter – as if time had stopped in 1956 when the Postal Service closed it. As we toured the old cabin, I spotted a telegram preserved from the early 1950’s that protested the “atrocious” mail delivery service from the village of Bettles. Leaving the old post office cabin, we paid a visit to a long time resident, George Lounsberry, who still mined for gold, together with his brother. (Well known author Bob Marshall once wrote a book about the town, titled Arctic Village, and gave each of the residents a share of the royalties, which ended up to be $18 each) Besides mining for gold, George managed a small “museum” in the town’s old saloon. He was especially anxious to show us some of the original bar credit tabs for regular customers, many of whom were prostitutes, whose names were recorded as “sports”. (Mamie Sport, Lucy Sport, Amy Sport, and so on!) George was a most interesting old fellow, but he refused to say how much gold he had found! Before we left George, he insisted upon showing us where he kept his beer, a small cellar dug into the permafrost beneath the floor of his cabin. On another historic note from George, the very first airplane to land north of the Arctic Circle was flown by Albert Wien, who later founded Wien Air Alaska, that eventually merged with Alaska Airlines. He landed the plane on a narrow gravel bar in the Koyukuk River near the town in 1928. Up until the late 1940’s when a permanent landing strip was built, all the food and supplies for the town had to be brought up the river. In summer, shallow draft boats were pulled by horses, and in the winter, tractors and sleds brought supplies over the ice. In 1979, the town was finally connected to the rest of the world by the Dalton Highway. As we left Wiseman and continued our journey south, I was able to photograph some Moose, not far off the road near the Kanuti River, with the ever-present oil pipeline in the background.

Moose along the highway

A short time later, we crossed the Arctic Circle and celebrated with a group photo beside the new sign marking its exact location! Then our driver/guide Andy brought out “tundra and perma-frosting” cake. (pieces of dark chocolate cake topped with Cool Whip!) Before we departed the Arctic Circle, Andy recited the complete classic Robert Service poem, “The Spell of the Yukon”, entirely from memory! (he also had a large collection of stories in memory, including a hilarious one about a “dancing Moose”)

Crossing the Arctic Circle

Continuing south, we finally reached the half mile long Yukon River bridge that carries the highway and the oil pipeline across the mighty Yukon River. On the far shore we passed a large “fish wheel” and stopped at a small Athabascan fish camp where members of the local Koyukuk tribe were drying and smoking fresh caught salmon to feed their family and sled dogs over the long winter.

Yukon River bridge
Yukon River
Athabascan fish camp on the Yukon River
Smoking and drying Salmon for winter

We were invited into their camp to watch them work, and while we were there, a cute little Athabascan girl showed us some of her art work. There were some really beautiful pieces, and I ended up buying a lovely “sun catcher” that she had made that morning. She was quite surprised when I said that I wanted to buy it. I found out that she spends the summer months with her family on the Yukon River, and the winter months at an Alaska native school in Fairbanks, almost 100 miles to the south. As we left the fish camp, the family resumed their activity of preparing for winter. Further south, we reached the junction with the Elliott Highway and mile 0 of the Dalton Highway. We stopped to take a photo of the sign “Dalton Highway mile 0 – Deadhorse 445 miles”.

Dalton Highway south of the Arctic Circle – Deadhorse 445 miles north

A few miles further south, we pulled into a very small homestead called “Joy, Alaska”, where we found the “Wildwood General Store”, an old log building in a small forest clearing. The Carlsson family homesteaded the property in the mid-1950’s and adopted 24 children over the following 30 years!

Welcome to Joy, Alaska
Wildwood General Store

It was a place of fascinating history, and one of the Carlsson children, who came to Alaska at the age of 4, took us on a short tour of the homestead. All of the buildings were constructed of logs from the surrounding forest. At one point, he stopped to point out a classic “permafrost refrigerator” – a 55 gallon oil barrel buried 24 inches below the surface. It maintained a constant, year-round temperature of 38 degrees, and included an ingenious pully system for access. As we were returning to the General Store, one of the Aussie ladies in our group insisted upon taking a photo of the outhouse, with her friend posing in it as the “model”! (Perhaps there are no outhouses in Australia?) Then it was time to continue our journey to Fairbanks, our final destination. Not far from the city, we spotted a couple of Moose, casually grazing in a meadow close to the road. Arriving in downtown Fairbanks, I bid farewell to my tour companions and checked in to the “Captain Bartlett Inn”, a classic Alaskan log structure. Within the hotel were two of Fairbanks’ historic places, the “Sled Dog Saloon” and “Slough Foot Sue’s Café”. Here is where I enjoyed an excellent, fresh King Salmon broiled in lemon garlic butter and served with wild rice. The cold pint of local Fairbanks Ale went very well with dinner. After dinner, as I sat at the bar in the Sled Dog Saloon, I noticed all the log walls were covered with dollar bills stapled to them, each having been signed with a unique name, such as “Buckeye”, “Pixie”, “Mixer”, and so on. In addition, there were several bras hanging from the ceiling, all of which were quite large and, also personally autographed!

Alaska Railroad Depot – Fairbanks

The next morning, I rented a car for the one-way drive to Anchorage, via the spectacular Denali Highway. But that’s another story to be told.

Denali Highway

As I reflected on the amazing journey to the North Slope and the long gravel road from the shore of the Arctic Ocean, across the Brooks Range to Alaska’s second largest city, I had to marvel at the incredible numbers and variety of the wildlife I had seen along the Dalton Highway – the northernmost road in North America! It was a trip of a lifetime and one that I will not forget!

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