Colors of the Arctic

The Dalton Highway in September

[by Michelle Theall]


I SIT IN A RAPIDLY AGING TRUCK, bouncing along with six strangers. The seven of us ride as follows: two in the front, three in the middle, and two in the way back. We hail from all over the globe: one couple from Australia, a tiger conservation worker from India, a twenty-something woman from Ireland, and a single, retired traveler from Houston. Our driver is Swiss, unflappable and a veteran explorer of the Dalton and all parts North. The arthritic Ford Excursion has no small task: to transport us—along with two spare tires and the residual effects of 115,000 miles of harsh terrain on its axles and chassis—round-trip from Fairbanks to Deadhorse for a total of 1,000 miles. The Dalton might be best known these days from the series, “Ice Road Truckers,” as a deadly stretch of predominantly unpaved road winding through the Arctic alongside the trans-Alaska pipeline. It’s a wild, vastly uninhabited milieu, a little like going to the moon—if the moon had tundra and musk oxen. It also begs to be explored with the same independent spirit of the adventurous souls who carved out a life here before industry and oil made the region more accessible. And there’s no better time to drive it than in the kaleidoscope of fall.


After fueling the truck and stocking up on water, sandwiches and snacks, we say goodbye to cell service, the industrial traffic at Elliott Highway Junction and, shortly after that pavement. Rutted gravel, narrowing to a single lane in some places, carves out a path through permafrost-stunted trees.

 

We cross the Yukon River, the largest river in Alaska, flowing more than 2,300 miles from Canada to the Bering Sea. A few boats moor at its edges, while a team of men builds a raft out of felled logs, apparently in an attempt to haul a two-ton truck downriver for an episode of the Discovery Channel’s “Yukon Men.” The surrounding hills contain bright swaths of yellow from birch trees in peak fall color, and a rustic shack in the parking lot capitalizes on the prevalence of the wood by hawking “locally made, handcrafted gifts, mainly birch” along with boat rides.

 

The rain starts pounding and the temperature drops. A stop at The Hot Spot Café yields “Ice Road Trucker” and “I Survived the Dalton Highway” t-shirts, along with Arctic Circle memorabilia. The cafe’s buildings are cobbled together and kitschy with character. A sign posted next to the outhouse warns, “Just because you didn’t see a bear on the way in, doesn’t mean you won’t see one coming out.” Here, they serve up barbecue and ice cream to hungry travelers, and we welcome the opportunity to dry off.

 

We follow the trans-Alaska pipeline; it’s like a rope towing us through fog and drizzle. The terrain shifts to granite outcroppings, alpine tundra, and the surviving remnants of large, unglaciated bedrock hills. Finger Rock, a prominent, aptly named tor, dominates the landscape, and we hike out to it on an interpretive trail through dwarf shrubs for an impressive view of the Olsens Lake and Kanuti Flats.

 

A third of Alaska lies within the Arctic Circle, and crossing into it deserves recognition. Though the circle itself is an invisible line, the sign at the overlook here shows the polar region encircled by a dotted line, providing a perfect photo op.

While we’ve passed more than a few pit toilets, we’ve found some of them un”bare”able, including this one at Gobbler’s Knob, and despite the dropping temps, we drop trou behind the truck instead. That said: You can’t beat the view. Red, gold and burnt orange alpine tundra stretch across in all directions surrounded by the famed Brooks Range, snow-capped and dwarfing the other mountains with its 9,000- foot peaks. Our driver tells us that the coldest temperatures in Alaska were recorded just north of here: -80 degrees F, January 23, 1971.

 

Coldfoot, an old mining camp, may not look like much, but it’s a respite in a storm. Though only 12 people live here, it offers lodging, food, gas, an airport, post office and even a saloon. It’s also the launching pad for adventures in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

 

We step back in time with an overnight stay at the Boreal Lodge in the charming historic mining all town of Wiseman. Tucked away photos: michelle theall from the highway on the other side of the Koyukuk River, Wiseman’s buildings date back to the early 1900s. We bunk in simple cabins and cook in a common building, breaking out wine and beer to celebrate the halfway mark of our trip. That night, we rise in shifts to check the sky, and at 3am, we catch the northern lights dancing above the trees. In the morning, the sounds of mating spruce grouse wake me just in time for breakfast and a tour of the turn of the century post office and trading company.

 

We drive to the top of Atigun Pass, leaving treeline at 2,500 feet, exchanging spruce trees for blankets of snow and a high Arctic ecosystem with wetlands, rock glaciers and cirques. Bow hunters and semis account for most of the traffic over the pass. Crossing the Continental Divide, we find the Central Arctic caribou herd with calves in toe, migrating across the North Slope. A red fox darts across a stream. Dall sheep scale the ridge above us. The landscape is otherworldly, crisp, colorful and seemingly pure in a way that’s hard to explain.

 

Things flatten out as we move into the Arctic coastal plain. More caribou migrate through, visible through binoculars. Snow geese and tundra swans ride the air and water here, adding grace to the rugged, fierce Dalton Highway, which has started to break apart the axle and wheel of the Ford Excursion.

 

Through fits and starts of snow and sun, we pull over and watch a herd of musk oxen graze along the Sagavanirktok River. They are odd, prehistoric-looking beast that I’d describe as part bison, part mammoth, with long faces and hippie dreadlocks. We watch them as the sun goes down, until the colors of the Arctic fade into the remaining light of fall. We fix the truck in Deadhorse, and do it all again.

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