Before we headed to Alaska many friends asked us what we were going to do up there. Many offered wonderful suggestions of great places to visit and things to do. As usual, we didn’t pay enough attention, study ahead or make many plans. Our only goal was to drive to the top of the continent. Since we’ve driven as far south as one can go in the Americas, we figured we just had to drive as far north as allowed just to balance things out.
We decided we’d get this northern itch out of the way first, and then, if Charlotte was still willing, we’d check out what else this State has to offer. We first stopped in Fairbanks in the center of the State. It is the third largest city in the Alaska with a whopping 32,000 people. We hung out a couple of days, wrote the previous blog and stocked up on provisions for the big 500 mile trek north to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay.
The Dalton Highway officially starts roughly 84 miles northwest of Fairbanks. Here the pavement ends and it’s 415 miles to Deadhorse. The Dalton is also known as “The Haul Road.” It was built in the ‘70s as a supply line during the building of the Alaskan Pipeline. This infamous and controversial pipe dissects the entire State delivering crude oil from the North Slope oil fields to the shipping port of Valdez in the south on the Gulf of Alaska/Pacific Ocean. The majority of the vehicles on the Dalton are semis hauling goods to the working oil fields up north. There aren’t many other travelers on the road except for hunters and curiosity seekers like us. This welcoming sign was plastered with stickers from other overland travelers doing the road for the same reason we were. Of course we had to add our own.
Lots of interesting signs at the beginning like these two: Speed Limit 50 Next 416 miles! Others we liked were: “Pavement ends” “Heavy Industrial Traffic, Proceed with Caution” “Next Services, 240 miles” “Ultra Low Sulphur Fuel Not Guaranteed Beyond This Point” (Don’t bring your fancy new diesel pickup I guess!)
The graded road surface was in good shape and we could clip along at around 40-45 mph when it was dry. They spread a lot of Calcium Chloride on the surface for ice control in the winter. This time of year it makes the road muddy and greasier than snot if it’s even slightly wet. Since it seems to rain every day, it’s always wet! The pipeline is visible from the road most of the time but sometimes it vanishes underground or can be seen way off in the distance, far from the road.
Of course we had to touch it the first chance we got (having negotiated Charlotte around a nice red keep out gate to get there!). The pipe itself is 48 inches in diameter. Most of the time it is elevated above ground on pylons. The oil flows through the pipe at around 150 degrees. It is above ground because the heat would melt the frozen tundra and cause the pipe to sag, crack and leak. The aluminum finned towers on top of the rusty steel pylons are filled with Freon and designed to keep the pylons cool! Evidently the pylons can heat up from the heat of the pipe and then melt the ground causing things to sag.
After 115 miles something happens! You reach the Arctic Circle. We spent the night here in the provided campground.
The next morning we did 60 miles to Coldfoot and the Trucker’s Cafe for a big greasy trucker’s breakfast. Coldfoot is not a town but an outpost with food, fuel, rooms, showers and camping for travelers on the highway. It lies at about the half way point on the road.
We ran in to Demis (Switzerland) and Nancy (Mexico) at Coldfoot. They had flown their bikes to Deadhorse and were riding to Fairbanks!
Heading north from Coldfoot it started to get colder as the road got steeper. Although there wasn’t a lot of traffic, every time a truck came along, throwing stones, we cringed for Charlotte’s windshield, waiting for the “big one” to land in our laps. In the end she suffered six “bruises” but no cracks, so her Mexico and Belize insurance-sticker-infested windshield lives on!
We headed into the Brooks Range, a major eco-changing point along the road.
At the top of Atigun Pass while crossing the Brooks Range. It is the highest pass in Alaska at a whopping 4,800ft!
First look at the famed North Slope.
More tundra. Note the flexible horizontal road markers. We asked the truckers why are they sideways? They told us sometimes in the winter there are whiteouts and they can’t see the road so they drive from one marker to the next, slapping them with their trucks in a kind of drive-by-brail process to find their way.
Not fit for human habitation. If it weren’t for the pipeline no one in their right mind would come up here. Since we weren’t there for the pipeline, just the end of the road, I guess we are not of right mind – but you knew that already! We did, however, meet some young military guys who had been hunting for a week while camping in tents. Talk about nuts…
Close to Deadhorse, the Sagavanirktok River was breaking up with the spring (?) thaw.
We made it!
Unlike Ushuaia, Argentina at the other end of the world, there was no fancy park or big sign marking the spot. We had to settle for this stop sign where the Dalton runs into Lake Colleen, a holding pond for all the runoff from the muddy roads around Deadhorse. Deadhorse itself is an industrial wasteland of pre-fab buildings, heavy equipment parking lots, oil tanks and gated compounds housing offices of the many companies doing business in the oil fields.
This screen shot from our map app on our iPad kind of puts it all into perspective! Charlotte’s done about 35,000 miles now going top to bottom.
The gas station in Deadhorse was a 24 hour self serve affair. No one would want to stand around selling gas in this weather. The tanks were above ground as the whole place is built up on top of the tundra and frozen water that makes up the area of Prudhoe Bay.
There was A LOT of very expensive, cool (literally) equipment just sitting around stockpiled. We were told things are very slow because of cheap oil prices. It costs too much to bring oil out of Alaska when Middle Eastern prices drop.
Double Decker office moving. No worries about overpass clearance up here!
Legoland? Premium high-rise apartments for oil workers. Who in their right mind would want to live up here?
Who picked THAT number?
The parking lot at the Aurora Hotel featured electrical plugs in every space so you can plug in your engine block heater. No cars anywhere. All pickups. All Chevys, Fords and Dodges. Not a Toyota in sight – and certainly no Volkswagens!
Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay skyline.
The light never changed. This shot was taken around midnight. It didn’t look any different than 12 noon!
We stayed in the parking lot of the Prudhoe Bay Hotel after eating in their cafeteria and yes, the food was just what you’d expect… The two “hotels” in town are really more like dormitories for transient oil field workers.
That’s 9:25 PM. The sun is still high in the sky. It never did set.
Charlotte is not equipped with black out curtains. I took this shot of Kat snoozing away with her blackout mask on – at 2AM.
Just after leaving Deadhorse we had our first caribou sighting.
Musk Ox are only found at these northern arctic latitudes. They were hunted to extinction in Alaska by the 1920s but in 1930, thirty-four were re-introduced from Greenland. Now they are doing well enough that we are sending them back to Russia to help their dwindling populations. The truck drivers said they are the only critter they are afraid to hit! “They’re like cinder blocks with hide,” we were told.
About halfway back down the Dalton we took a little side road to the only “town” along the road. Wiseman (pop 16) is an old mining town that dates to 1916 and its location just happened to be situated close to the pipeline route. We knocked on the doors of several log cabins but couldn’t find any life. It was Sunday, so maybe all 16 of them were sleeping off the night before when they were undoubtedly contributing to their totem pole building project!
Our first stop after finishing the Dalton was Chena Hot Springs just outside of Fairbanks. A hot springs seemed like just the thing after the frosty arctic.
So what is the first thing we do at the hot springs? Go to their Aurora Ice Museum where it is 26 degrees inside the building that houses it.
They had some pretty “cool” sculptures in there.
And a bar that served appletinis in hand cut ice glasses.
The date was May 16th, our first anniversary! So we had an ice cold anniversary toast.
And finally, a nice warm soak.
Caged reindeer at the hot springs. We were told reindeer are domesticated caribou. This guy was pretty friendly, but he needed a red nose.
China Hot Springs has its own geothermal plant than supplies power to the resort as well as the neighboring community.
Back in Fairbanks we met with some folks from the local antique car club for dinner at The Pump House, a famous Fairbanks eatery.
The closest we want to get to a grizzly.
I was blown away by the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks. Willy Vinton, the museum manager, gave us a personal tour. They have a collection of pre 1915 cars unmatched by any I have seen. There were also many early local Alaskan vehicles complimented with great displays and photos depicting their lives in the rough and ready early 20th century Alaska Territory.
After leaving Fairbanks we headed south down the Richardson Highway to the turnoff with the Denali Highway. We can’t stay away from dirt and the Denali is 134 miles of it. It runs east towards Denali National Park and used to be the only way to get to the park before the modern George Parks Highway was opened in 1971 connecting Fairbanks with Anchorage. The Denali is closed in the winter and had just barely opened when we crossed it. None of the resorts and roadhouses along its length were open yet.
We took a hike along this ATV path to get some exercise…
…and crossed paths with this moose cow and her yearling calf. Yikes, glad they were running the other way!
Heavy traffic along the Denali Highway.
We next visited Denali National Park, home to North America’s highest mountain, 20,310 foot high Denali (formerly mount McKinley.) The park covers approximately 6 million acres and the mountain itself is buried deep within, making photos of Denali very hard to get without an airplane. Also, the mountain is often shrouded in clouds, as it was when we were there, making even distant mountain sightings rare. We took this nice photo instead, somewhere just inside the entrance, to prove we were there.
We also suddenly found ourselves in a people-overload haze. After turning off of the Denali Highway onto the Parks Highway were overrun by tour busses and all that goes with them. Before Denali, we were living in a northern dream world of few cars and fewer people. Everywhere we’ve been since leaving Vancouver, BC has been quiet and half awake from a long winter’s nap. Many places, and attractions have not been open for the season yet and we’ve been taking the solitude and peace for granted. Then BAM; the George Parks Highway and Denali National Park. Traffic, stuffed tour busses, crowded restaurants; ahhh, the summer people are here!
But, visiting the park had its payoff. Grizzlies!!! Two of them at once. These guys were eating roots in a riverbed just off the road and seemed unperturbed by all the tourists taking their picture.
One even lay down and posed!
In Healy we checked out the bus used in the film Into the Wild. It’s a replica of the Fairbanks City Transit System Bus #142 that Christopher McCandless died in. Locals told us the real bus is still out in the wilderness, 35 miles west of Healy.
After Denali we continued south down the Parks Highway towards Anchorage. We took a side trip to the touristy but fun town of Talkeetna where we camped at the baseball park and partied to this blues band at the historic Fairview Inn.
Our last stop before Anchorage was the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters in Wassilla. (We could have looked up Sarah Palin, but we were told she moved to Arizona for better political posturing.) The sled dogs were way more interesting. We watched a movie on the history of the race and learned the importance of sled dogs and their history in Alaska. We checked out old race sleds, kissed babies, posed with in-harness dogs and then took a (fast) ride in a cart pulled by the eager dogs through the forest. It was a very worthwhile stop.
We are now in Anchorage, holed up in a motel for showers and to write this blog.
Stay tuned for more adventure as we explore the Kenai Peninsula, maybe try some fishing, and then on eastward to Valdez…