This post is a continuation of the last one detailing my recent trip up to the northern parts of Alaska and back. Without further ado, the story continues:
Matthew, a mutual friend, and myself all left Fairbanks on a Friday afternoon headed for the North Slope (officially called Prudhoe Bay on the north shore of Alaska) to discover what the emptier half of Alaska had in store for us. I’d like to take a moment to talk about just how big Alaska really is, and how empty (people wise) it really can be. Most people know that Alaska is big, but did you know it’s approximately 1/3 of the size of the contiguous continental United States? I’m am constantly amazed when I meet people from the Lower 48, and they have to give it a moment of thought to realize where Alaska is actually physically located. Usually I get something like, “That’s up by Canada, right?”, or “Alaska is a lot bigger than it looks on a map, right?”. The answer to both questions, consequently, is ‘yes’ (though I know that you, dear reader, already knew that), but I don’t think most people really understand just how big and “up by Canada” Alaska really is.
Alaska is 586,412 square miles (1,518,800 square km) stretching from Canada to just 60 miles shy of Russia (and no, Sarah Palin can NOT see Russia from her house) and boasts a population of just under 700,000 people. That comes out to about one person per every .82 square miles. When was the last time you were that alone? And, if you take into account that about half of the state’s population lives in Anchorage, that really thins things out in the rural parts of the state. North of Fairbanks there are no major metropolises (not that Anchorage or Fairbanks could really be considered a major metropolis to begin with), and most communities are fewer than 1,000 people (many are less than 500). I think most of us have been to sporting events with more people than that. Needless to say, Alaska is pretty huge, and pretty empty (again, that’s in terms of people), and most of we Alaskans really love it that way. As you might imagine, the prospect of heading up to one of the most sparsely populated and remote places on the AK road system was pretty exciting to me and my traveling companions.
We headed off north bound on the Steese Highway and passed through the tiny community of Fox before eventually turning onto the Dalton Highway. Just before turning off, we pulled over for an impromptu firearms lesson with Matthew’s .45. I’ve used several guns before and tend to be a pretty decent shot, but I had never shot a .45 and since it was our main avenue of bear protection (besides hoping that my companions run slower than I do), Matthew thought it might be a good idea to give it a shot (Ha!). Shooting on the Dalton Highway is prohibited within five miles of the highway as a measure of protection for the pipeline (more about this later), so we stopped short by a few miles and spent a few minutes putting a few holes in a pop can.
After our shooting lesson, we continued on up the road. The first few hours weren’t too exciting, albeit beautiful, with the exception of the state of the road. The Dalton highway (also known as the Haul Road) is a sometimes paved two-lane highway that winds 500 miles to Deadhorse, the furtherest north city on the AK highway system. It’s pretty well maintained as it is the only year-round land access to that part of the state, and is frequented by huge semi-trucks that haul enormous loads of goods back and forth from Prudhoe Bay to the more heavily settled parts of the state (i.e. Fairbanks and Anchorage). However, despite the constant maintenance, the road is riddled with frost heaves, loose gravel, and the occasional arctic ground squirrel. We definitely had to keep our attention on the road to avoid being thrown airborne by an errant pothole or squishing a furry rodent.
Our first exciting moment came when we crossed the Yukon River about 70 miles north of Fairbanks. I had never seen the Yukon, though I’ve read countless stories and poems about it and the role it played in Alaska’s early settlement and gold fever days. It took us by surprise as we crested a hill and suddenly found ourselves on a wood and concrete bridge built (get this) at an angle to cross the Yukon. Let me tell you, this river is HUGE! The largest in Alaska for certain, and impressively large both in length and width (at least where we crossed). I was immediately drawn to the idea of floating the distance from the headwaters near Whitehorse (in Canada) to the bridge we were crossing. But, that’s another adventure. At the moment, I was thrilled to be seeing it for the first time, and to see our first great views of long stretches of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
Our next exciting moment came when we crossed the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle is the invisible circle of latitude on the earth’s surface at 66°33′ north, marking the southern limit of the area where the sun does not rise on the winter solstice or set on the summer solstice. It’s from areas north of this circle that Alaska gets its reputation for having months of unending daylight. It’s true that in the very furthest reaches of northern Alaska that full months of daylight or darkness (depending on the season) do occur, but for most Alaskans in lower climes, we simply experience prolonged periods of each daylight and darkness rather than one extreme or the other. Regardless, we used the marker as another excuse to get out of the truck and stretch our legs and take cheesy pictures.
Heading north, the first sign of civilization we reached was Coldfoot, a town that is made up of a gas station, truck stop, diner/cafe type eater, contracted post office, and for the ambitious tourist, a visitor’s center. We only stopped for a few minutes to fuel up and swat a few mosquitos (they grow exponentially in size the further into the Alaskan interior one ventures), and then continued on. About an hour later, we passed our last spruce tree and the road suddenly entered an entirely new ecosystem. The land was entirely made of tundra and low shrubs, and the views became increasingly spectacular as we began our ascent into the Brooks Range.
The Brooks Range stretches approximately 700 miles across Alaska and Canada and is almost completely untouched by humans. Other than a few named mountains, a couple of outpost communities (Coldfoot and Wiseman among them) and a single road and pipeline, the Brooks Range stands completely wild and untamed across Alaska’s interior. Actually, it generally is accepted to be the northern boundary of the “interior”, beyond which the northern arctic climate takes hold. I’ve always wanted to see these intimidating and foreboding mountains capped with year round snow and formidible to even the most intrepid explorer. They defy summer’s warmth and stand strong against the shrieking winter winds and driving snow. Rivers divert around them, and any adventurer who dares to enter their midst finds themselves without recourse should something go amiss. No cell phone service, no refuge, no mercy; simply a seemingly endless stretch of craggy peaks and marshy tundra dotted with the occasional grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis; I’m not making this up), massive herds of caribou, flocks of sheep clinging to the mountain sides, and perhaps worst of all, giant, incessant, merciless mosquitos that leave giant welts on your skin as they drink from you. If you are unlucky enough to walk into an area that hosts swarms of the bloodsuckers, they can almost instantly drive you to the brink of sanity with the buzzing in your ears and manic itching of your skin as needle after tiny needle deposits their itch-inducing saliva and leaves you frantic to scratch yourself into relief. These mountains command respect, and so with all this in mind, I stared in awe as they rose up around us as we wound north along the gravel road.
We stopped and took pictures of the phenomenal landscapes, and began to debate where our campsite should be. It was getting late, and with the setting of the sun came rapidly cooling temperatures. Originally we thought about hiking up a nearby mountain and pitching our tent, but a few steps into the marshy tundra had us realizing that that “nearby mountain” was actually a few hours of hiking away. We decided to press further north in the hopes of a campsite near Atigun Pass, a place Matthew had visited before and was hoping to explore the next day. I now regard this decision as one of the best we made on the trip, as the views in Atigun Pass in the fading sunlight were some of the most magnificent I have yet seen.
Atigun Pass is where the Haul Road and the pipeline “cross” the Brooks Range and is the highest elevation of the road at 4,800 feet. The road winds its way along the sides of mountains, lined with a guardrail that stands as a thin and thoroughly beaten barrier between you and a perilous plummet into the rocky gorges below. This pass is the bane of most semi-truckers as it is known to host blinding white-outs and black ice in the winter that make driving it a very seriously life-threatening task. More truckers are killed in this pass than on any other road in Alaska, and some of the chassis of trucks still lie at the bottom of the cliffs the road creeps along. With this inherent danger, however, comes some soul-stirring views. The beauty is simply incomparable, and one is made to feel so small and swept up in the grand majesties of nature that I feel inadequate to properly describe it. We stopped to take many, many pictures, and then had to continue on down and out of the pass as it wasn’t very suitable for camping, and the hour was growing late.
Note that the sun is still high in the sky!
Now, I’m not sure if I’m part reptile, part yeti, or just have terrible circulation, but I get very easily cold. This presents a bit of a problem since I love the cold, and so I’ve learned to deal with it by wearing a ridiculous number of layers year round. In the middle of summer, I can often by found wearing a down vest, and even on the hottest day of the year I tend to dig for my long sleeved shirts. This night was no exception, so while I was pulling on long johns and extra jacket, Matthew boiled up some water for one of my favorites suppers: Top Ramen.
This story continues in Part III.