This past week, I embarked on an adventure that I’ve long wanted to try: driving the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay. My adventure began when I visited my dear friend Matthew in Soldotna (another little town about 75 miles north of Homer) last weekend to retrieve some items I had left with him last winter after our snowshoeing outing. We spent a fun day together, and as I was leaving, he mentioned a trip in the works to visit Prudhoe Bay, and wondered if I might like to come up to Fairbanks and join. I am simply unable to turn down a good opportunity to explore, so I immediately agreed. And thus began a journey of approximately 1,928 miles (3,103 kilometers) to drive from Homer to 110 miles short of Deadhorse, AK (the furthest north one can drive on the Alaska Highway System) and back. It was a total of about 35 hours of driving, and spanned about the same distance as driving from Seattle to Missouri, or about half way across the United States. Alaska is BIG!
I stopped for a quick bite in Anchorage and to fill up on gas, and pick up a traveler I’d met through the Craiglist Rideshare advertisements. Martin was from Colorado and was solo cruising Alaska for his vacation before returning to the Lower 48 (the term most Alaskans use to refer to the rest of the contiguous United States). I was happy to have the company, and someone to share gas and driving with.
The drive to Fairbanks from Anchorage covers a whole range of ecosystems and landscapes. Coming out of Anchorage, I’m usually distracted by the insanity of the highway and crazy commuters that go back and forth from Wasilla to Anchorage each day. Everyone speeds like crazy, and though there are extra troopers and police out during the summer, it still seems like all I can do to keep my Subaru chugging along at the breakneck pace. The Knik Arm (home of the controversial Knik Arm Bridge project) separates Wasilla and Anchorage, and is quite lovely with mountains rising right out of the river delta. Again, too busy white-knuckling the wheel to really see much, but Martin said he enjoyed it. I don’t have many nice things to say about Wasilla due to my political prejudices (Sarah Palin may or may not be from Wasilla), but I can say that if you are on a hunt for tasteless strip malls and the meth capitol of Alaska, then Wasilla is your place! I care to talk about it just about as much as I like driving through it (I’m happy to speed), so we’ll move on. Outside of Wasilla are several little roadside communities like Houston and Willow that host some lovely little woodsy homes and essentially are about as close as some people really care to live to Wasilla without getting inconveniently far away. Nice places, but not much in the way of scenery as most of the area is pretty heavily wooded with white spruce (Picea glauca) and paper birch (Betula papyrifera).
The drive continues to be very treed in, and at times it’s like driving down a long leafy corridor. This lasts for about 3-4 hours, before the landscape begins to change. About 20 miles south of Cantwell (the 2/3 marker of the drive), the land opens up and the trees become shorter and primarily spruce. This change reflects the differences between the coastal climate of Wasilla, Anchorage, and Homer, and the interior climate that Fairbanks experiences. Winters are colder, drier, and longer, and the summers can be surprisingly hot (it averaged 75 degrees F while I was visiting) with the days often sprinkled by thunderstorms. Along the highway, the vegetation changes and the first sightings of tundra are visible as the road enters a huge mountain pass. As it happened, Martin and I were bombarded with a freak thunderstorm. The drops of rain and chunks of hail hitting my windshield were huge and deafening, and I brought the car to a crawl for fear of the windshield cracking or running off the road from the bucketing rain obscuring my vision. The storm only lasted a few minutes, and as it abated we were treated to the most spectacular double rainbow I’ve ever seen. The colors were sensational and incredibly vibrant and to top it all off, we could see the whole arch! Turns out the rainbow ends at the Cantwell gas station, so we stopped to swap drivers and then carried on to the Denali Moutain Morning Hostel (which I would highly recommend, having stayed there myself on a UAF field trip) just outside of the park. I dropped Martin off, and carried on to Glitter Gulch, which is the seasonal boom town that springs up every summer to cater to all the tourists visiting the park. I passed right on through, not caring to mingle with the white Velcro tennis shoe crowd.
North of Denali, the highway goes through more mountains and crosses the last of the Alaska Range, passing through very windy areas where the plants are little more than shrubs. The road is usually not in the greatest shape here due to persistent frost heaves (I know I’ve included a lot of links in this post, but definitely read the frost heave article. So interesting!) that pop up each winter, but it makes for a roller coaster-esque ride and is barrenly beautiful. After another hour of driving, the road grows flat and the stretches of pavement lose their windy nature as the highway coasts into Healy and then Nenana. Large parts of this area have been mined for coal, gold, and now gravel, and some of the mountains still bear the scars from it. Huge portions of this area have also been burned in wildfires (of which about 90 fires are currently burning in the state), and in some spots on the road you can cruise by patches of blackened trees. Nenana is a little native community alongside where the Tenana River meets the Nenana River (which is a tributary of the Tenana). Nenana literally means “a good place to camp between two rivers.” On this trip, however, it was just a place to buy some more gas and stretch my legs.
One hour of winding mountain climbing and grand vista viewing later, I was in Fairbanks cruising across the UAF campus. I cannot even begin to describe how good it felt to be back. UAF has been my home for the last four years, and I missed it SO much while I was in Thailand. As I drove past the reindeer farm (yes, we have a reindeer farm) and agricultural fields, it felt like receiving a big, warm hug from my university. The first leg of this journey ended at Matthew’s house where he and his room mates were kind enough to lend me a place to park my car and rest my head for the night.
The next day, I headed up to the university with half a dozen bouquets of flowers to carry out the most important reason I had made the journey to Fairbanks: I needed to say “thank you.” As most of my readers know, I graduated (it’s official!) from UAF on May 16th, 2010. I didn’t get to attend commencement due to my being in Thailand (not a regret, just a fact), and while it would have been neat to walk with my class and such, my biggest sorrow for not being there was not being able to thank all my professors in person. Like I’ve mentioned before, they are my collegiate parents, and there are a few in particular that I felt needed more than just a thank-you note in the mail. I had originally planned to visit Fairbanks in September to carry this message, but felt that I couldn’t pass up this opportunity during this visit. Thus, I showed up in the School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences (SNRAS) looking like a walking florist shop on a mission to say, “Thanks!” Happily, most of my professors were around and coincidentally the thank-you cards I had sent from Thailand a few weeks prior happened to arrive on the day of my visit. Sometimes life just works out, I guess.
Needless to say, it was simply awesome to see my professors and advisers. They have done SO much for me over the years, and I had tears in my eyes more than once as I gave out flowers, hugs, and heard from them that the joy of being in their classes was a two way street. The day was pretty emotional, but it refueled my fire to definitely return to grad school at UAF and hopefully continue on my academic relationship with all these wonderful people. I’d love to write a blog about each and every one of them, but being the humble people they are, that may draw some protests. Thus, it must suffice to say that these are some of the most sensational educators in Alaska (and probably the US), and it is because of them that I had such a fantastic experience at UAF. I would, without hesitation, enthusiastically recommend the Natural Resource program at UAF to any and all students looking into attending University. Tell your friends. These people are awesome, and my experience defines what it means to get a “first rate” education.