Down the Dalton Highway

The Dalton Highway is a haul road – built to provide a way for big trucks to carry supplies and material from Fairbanks north to Prudhoe Bay on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.  It typically takes two days to drive the 414 mile road, only 1/4 of which is paved.  The only medical facilities are at the endpoints – in Fairbanks or Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay.  There is only one other place to buy fuel, at Coldfoot Camp about midway between.  Traveling on this road is not for the faint of heart, and you need to be very well equipped and prepared.20150909 1049 dalton hwy and cracked windshield rNotice the condition of the windshield – I took this photo out the front window of our tour van, and there were about 20 cracks or chips in it.  Unlike many states, it’s not illegal to drive around with a cracked windshield in Alaska, otherwise people driving on these rough roads would spend more on tickets than on replacement glass.

We started our journey in Deadhorse, where Alaska DOT was raising and repairing the road after an unusual spring flood washed out a section, rendering it impassible for 18 days.  Prudhoe Bay nearly ran out of food and fuel – an extremely serious problem, so that section of the road will be rebuilt 7′ higher than before.

tundra swansWildlife along the Dalton is varied – cackling geese, tundra swans, musk ox, brown (grizzly) bears, caribou, snowshoe hares and fox are common, along with other kinds of birds as we transited various ecosystems.  It was hunting season so the musk ox and caribou were hiding, but we did see some owls, peregrine falcons, and harriers.  We were surprised twice, seeing moose in tundra areas where they’re not normally found. tundra moose

The scenery along the Dalton was so varied as we moved southwards – flat tundra, with a beautiful ridge of low mountains called the Franklin bluffs, along with pingoes – uplifted humps on the land.20150909 1057 prudhoe franklin bluffs r

The northernmost mountain range in Alaska is the Brooks Range, and the Dalton (which shadows the Trans-Alaska Pipeline) crosses the Brooks Range at Atigun Pass – 4700 feet, and the only mountain pass that’s maintained all year round.  On the 9th of September, we encountered a blizzard coming over the pass, though the snow stopped when we got to the south side.20150909 1080 dalton hwy atigun pass blizzard r

The pipeline follows the path of the Dalton Highway, visible about half of the time, when it’s above ground.  20150910 1142 dalton hwy and pipeline wide r20150910 1149 dalton hwy pipeline in wild rThe road and pipeline crosses permafrost, and it’s important that the permafrost stays frozen, lest the structures built on it become unstable.  Different kinds of heat sinks are employed to protect the permafrost, as you can see by the fins on top of the pipeline supports here.

There aren’t many places to stop along the Dalton, despite the 150-250 trucks per day that travel on the road.  The primary overnight stopping point is at Coldfoot Camp, one of the few places north of the Arctic Circle that is accessible by road.  Coldfoot got its name from the gold rush period, where hopeful prospectors often lost their resolve and got “cold feet”.  Like Deadhorse, it’s a pretty spartan place, with an old, scruffy modular building that serves as a hotel, and a separate building that serves plentiful hot food.20150909 1097 coldfoot camp r20150909 1101 coldfoot trucks rYou can see the mud – every vehicle is quickly enveloped in mud driving on the Dalton, and our tour guide stopped several times a day to wash the windows on the van so we could see.20150909 1079 dalton hwy muddy tour van r250 miles south of Deadhorse we crossed the Arctic Circle, pausing at a little roadside signpost to commemorate the event (even though we flew across it to get up to Deadhorse).20150910 1130 arctic circle us rOur guide read a passage from Robert Service, and a little gray jay looked on.  It’s hard to describe the adventure of a trip down the Dalton Highway, but it was a magnificent journey – so much to see and learn about, and we were glad to have an expert guide to explain so much.  We crossed tundra, and taiga – Russian for “little forest” that describes the stunted black spruce that transitions from the Brooks Range to the boreal forest farther south.  It felt odd to return to civilization in Fairbanks after the desolation and industrial feel of Prudhoe Bay, the wide open tundra, the pipeline, forests, blizzards, mud and sunshine along the way.


The Pipeline and Prudhoe Bay

The 1973 oil crisis and resulting high prices made exploration of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields in Alaska’s far north feasible.  Finding plentiful oil, the Alyeska corporation constructed an 800 mile pipeline 48 inches in diameter to carry the crude oil from the shores of the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort Sea south to the town of Valdez on Prince William Sound.  The pipeline was completed in 1977, and has been pumping oil ever since.alaska road trip pipeline path closerAbout half of the pipeline runs underground and half is on supports above ground, adjacent to the Dalton Highway between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay (and adjacent to the Richardson Highway south of Fairbanks).20150906 0888 fairbanks pipeline rThe silver cylinders on some of the pipeline’s supports are there to protect the permafrost underground – to keep it from thawing and rendering the soil unstable.  All manner of special techniques are used to protect the permafrost, particularly where the pipeline is buried.  It runs across rivers and streams (about 500)…20150903 0521 pipeline bridge r…and it crosses three major mountain ranges (Brooks, Alaska, and Chugach).  Constructing a pipeline through very rugged and remote country that can withstand earthquakes and temperature extremes is an amazing feat of engineering.

Since oil is such a critical part of the Alaskan economy we wanted to learn more about Prudhoe Bay, and we also wanted to see the Far North region and some of the animals that inhabit the tundra above the Arctic Circle.  Friends strongly advised us not to try to drive up the Dalton Highway ourselves – it’s a rough haul-road that is almost exclusively used by large tractor trailers.  We signed up for a tour – the last one of the season, departing on September 8th, where we would fly up to Prudhoe Bay, stay overnight and get to stick our toes in the Arctic Ocean, then ride in a tour van for the two day trip down the Dalton Highway back to Fairbanks.  An adventure!20150908 0941 deadhorse by air 2 rThe photo above shows the tundra and typical overcast, gloomy weather over the town of Deadhorse, just outside of the secure fence around Prudhoe Bay.20150908 0943 deadhorse by air rAs far as I know, no horses were harmed in the construction of the Dalton Highway – the name came from one of the early subcontractors working on the road who abandoned one of their trucks with the company name “Deadhorse” on its side at the northern end of the road – and the name stuck.  The only reason to come to Deadhorse and Prudhoe is to work at the oilfields, and it’s a pretty grim place with absolutely NOTHING within hundreds of miles.  Oil workers usually work two weeks on and two weeks off, but the support staff often works 6 month contracts.  No alcohol is permitted, and that rule is strictly enforced.

Musk-oxen footprint

Musk-oxen footprint

In contrast to the bleak landscape, birds and animals are varied and interesting.  Herds of musk-oxen wander nearby, as well as caribou.  We didn’t get to see any since it was hunting season and many of the animals were hiding, though a large herd wandered right by our hotel a week earlier.  The tundra was in transition from fall to winter, with a few small plants still showing some color, providing camouflage for a little snow bunting.

We spotted a short-eared owl hunting, as well as this red fox.  Both arctic and red fox live on the tundra, though the larger red fox are becoming more dominant in the landscape.

red foxPlovers, gulls, ducks, and tundra swans were fishing in the tundra ponds and in the Arctic Ocean, where we went to stick our toes.  We were very glad to have a security guard escorting us to keep an eye out for polar bears.  Polar bears aren’t common this early in the fall (it was early September), but they are apex predators and they will hunt humans.  The guard had some interesting bear stories from his years working up there.20150908 0977 prudhoe bay 2 rThis is a bleak place, utterly industrial with nothing but flat tundra and gravel pads with modular buildings (note in this photo the buildings are up on stilts to protect the permafrost).  20150908 0990 prudhoe permafrost stilts rMost of the oil exploration is done in the winter, when the tundra is frozen hard and covered in snow to protect the plants.  Long strings of modular offices and living spaces are connected together to make “trains” that are towed across the frozen land to various locations for exploration, and the crews live and work there for extended periods.20150908 0946 deadhorse oil exploration trailers rYou can imagine that you need very large tractors to tow these trains around…20150908 0965 deadhorse big tractors r20150908 0948 deadhorse big cats rAside from oil workers and support staff, only a handful of tourists (like us) and hunters come up to Deadhorse, and we get to pay about $200 a night for extremely spartan accommodations in Deadhorse Camp.  20150908 0950 deadhorse camp 3 r20150908 0972 deadhorse camp boot rack rIt’s a muddy, messy place, so you have to either remove your boots in the lobby or wear heavy shoe covers to keep the floors clean.  This is a very basic bunkhouse with shared bathrooms at the end of the hall.  There are no amenities in your room, and you have to be courteous since some people staying there were working night shifts.  Food was expensive and basic, but very good.  I could not imagine living and working here, but I have the utmost respect for people who do.

Prudhoe Bay supports about 4000 workers, of which 15% are women.  In the busier winter season the population swells to about 7000.  Potable water costs 35 cents a gallon, and gasoline is about $6/gallon.  There is one main general store – hardware downstairs and snacks and a few necessities upstairs.20150908 0988 prudhoe general store rAre we glad that we spent the time and money to travel up to Prudhoe Bay, to see it and to see the Arctic Ocean?  You bet!  We learned a ton of things – our tour guide was very experienced and full of knowledge, and our fellow tour members were all educated, interesting and interested people.  Seeing amazing wildlife was well worth the trip, though we were disappointed about not seeing musk-oxen or caribou.

Next up – the drive down the Dalton Highway from Prudhoe Bay back to Fairbanks.