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.

More Fairbanks and Fun Facts

We found Fairbanks to be a very interesting place – with the contrasts of very warm temperatures in the summer (it can reach 90 degrees) and very cold temperatures in the winter (-20 isn’t unusual, and it can get colder).  On this late November morning it’s a balmy 18 degrees there (according to Intellicast), and the number of daylight hours are quite short – with 30 days still to go before the shortest day of the year, and the sun will rise in Fairbanks at 9:50am and will set at 3:30 pm.  (Here in Petersburg the sun rose at 7:48am and will set at 3:30pm.)  We noticed that the thresholds at our Fairbanks motel were very high, and realized it was to accommodate winter snow accumulation.  We also noticed that EVERY vehicle had an electric plug hanging out of its front end.  The plug is for an engine block heater – an absolute necessity to keep the engine warm enough to start in the extreme cold.  Every parking lot had outlets to plug cars in, and in places where it would be normal to park a car for more than 5 hours at a time there was an outlet at every parking space.  You don’t want to be stranded with a car that won’t start in those temps!

Another interesting thing we saw in Fairbanks was a large number of pickup trucks with big poly tanks in the back.  People who live far enough out of town that they can’t connect to the city water supply need to provide their own water.  In most places you would just have a well to supply your home, but the land around Fairbanks has so much naturally-occurring arsenic in it that wells aren’t safe.  Those homes have a large water supply tank underground, and they either get water delivered, or they save a bit by hauling water themselves.

We travel because it’s a wonderful way to learn things.  Did you know that the hippocampus (part of the brain) of the chickadee grows by 30% in the fall so the bird can remember where it stored all its seeds for the winter?  Did you know that a moose – a pure vegetarian – can go up to 20′ underwater in search of its favorite vegetation to eat?  If you were designing a vegetarian animal that can go underwater, would it look anything remotely like a moose??

We took the opportunity of great weather to do a little hiking, and we chose the Angel Rocks Trail to enjoy the fall color and sweeping views.  Note the perfect fall color – this photo was taken on September 5th.20150905 0633 angel rocks view 2 r20150905 0653 angel rocks jim r20150905 0647 full frame fall 2 rAfter a good workout climbing up all those rock outcroppings we decided to head out the road to check out Chena Hot Springs.  Chena is a privately owned resort with natural hot springs piped to indoor and outdoor pools, as well as an ice museum – originally designed to be an ice hotel, but I can understand why that idea really didn’t catch on.  Despite sore muscles and tired feet, Jim opted for the ice museum rather than the hot pools so we took the tour.  The museum employs two ice carvers who repair and maintain some of the elaborate ice sculptures in the museum, and they periodically add new pieces.  The jousting knights on horseback were tough to photograph well, but they were incredible!20150905 0691 chena ice museum jousters r20150905 0708 chena ice museum jouster closer rThe ice museum was really fun, with an ice bar where you could get an appletini in an ice glass…20150905 0715 chena ice museum rr at the ice bar r…and where you could sit by a fake fire on an ice chair with a reindeer hide cushion to keep your tushie warm.20150905 0720 chena ice museum drinking by fire rIn one of the rooms they had a bed with a giant polar bear for a headboard, with raised paws to complete the effect.  I know there are some ice hotels in Scandinavia, but I couldn’t imagine staying overnight in one.

We explored all the major things on our list in Fairbanks, sadly missing the last of the migrating birds at Creamer’s Field since they were well on their way south in early September.  With an extra day before the next adventure, Jim wanted to see the car museum.  This didn’t sound like the most exciting way to spend a day, but we believe in compromise and he never complained when I dragged him around to look for birds.  He lingered outside looking at the odd snow tractor and I braced myself for a loooong day…20150907 0900 fairbanks car museum tractor jim r…until we got inside and saw a stunning collection of beautiful classic cars and period clothing, learning that all but 3 of the 91 cars on display actually run!20150907 0938 fairbanks car museum 2 r20150907 0903 fairbanks car museum 1 rWe thoroughly enjoyed this place – an unexpected delight.  The knowledge and care that goes into maintaining these lovely machines is impressive, and it makes us long for the days when cars had a lot more style.20150907 0915 fairbanks car museum detail 3 r20150907 0921 fairbanks car museum detail 2 r20150907 0932 fairbanks car museum motoring jim 3 rJim was even a good sport and showed us what it must have looked like to venture out in one’s motor car back in the day…

Fairbanks was an unexpected delight, though we couldn’t handle those weather extremes, even with the promise of so many clear nights to see the auroras in winter.


Road Trip – Alcan Highway to Fairbanks

The 1422 miles of the Alcan (now called the Alaska) Highway were built in 1942 to carry military supplies.  It took 15,000 men and 11,000 road construction machines to get the job done in only 8 months.  I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to build this road through such very wild country, but we’re glad it exists because we certainly enjoyed all the fall color and beautiful views along the way…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…as well as wildlife, such as these mountain goats just below the snowline…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…and this grizzly bear that was chasing something into the woods.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe saw a number of gray jays…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…but the fall color was the star of the show!20150904 0568 pretty fall color 2 rWe arrived in Fairbanks, the second largest city in Alaska, and lucked out with some gorgeous weather.  A trip up the hill to the University of Alaska Fairbanks was our first stop, to check out the Museum of the North.20150904 0542 fairbanks museum of the north r20150904 0543 fairbanks museum totem rEveryone who visits the museum is greeted by the large bear in the lobby – as close to a brown bear we ever hope to get.20150904 0544 fairbanks museum jim and big bear rIt’s a great museum with history and artifacts from all the Alaskan native tribes as well as natural history and art pieces.  As we were leaving around 5pm, we were treated to some of the last sandhill cranes migrating south for the winter.20150904 0817 fairbanks sandhill cranes 3 r20150904 0860 fairbanks sandhill cranes 6 rWith nice clear nights in the forecast, we stayed up late and headed out to see the aurora borealis – the northern lights.  Around midnight we saw some waves in the sky…20150906 0737 fairbanks aurora waves r…followed by the rising moon and some brighter activity.20150906 0762 fairbanks aurora 9 rThe later we stayed up, the better the light show got!20150906 0744 fairbanks aurora 6 rFairbanks is known to be a great place to view the aurora in the winter because there’s a high percentage of clear nights, though winter temps often get down to -20, -30, or even colder, and the thought of standing outside for hours in that kind of weather is a high price to pay.  We were lucky that the fall nights were cool, but not too cold.