The Arctic Circle

If I ever had a ‘bucket list,’ I don’t really know. When I was a home schooling mom, I often wondered what it would be like to home school where no one could ever question your motive or your lifestyle. The only place I could find far enough away was Barrow, Alaska, the government seat of the North Slope Borough. Barrow, like Mt. McKinley, are now known by their native names: Utqiagvik (Inuit) and Denali (Athabascan) still, I never imagined when my children were young that I would ever visit Alaska nor have the opportunity to travel north of the Arctic Circle, but not quite all the way to Utqiagvik.

This summer during my husband’s rounds at the campground, he met a bicyclist camper named Tim. Tim loved the Kenai Peninsula, the Kenai River and just the campground itself. He stayed as long as he was allowed. My husband learned that Tim was a tour guide above the Arctic Circle in a place called Coldfoot. Neither of us had ever heard of the place before and it took a while for the name to stick in my head. Before Tim returned to the ‘land of the midnight sun,’ he invited us to visit Coldfoot and allow him to give us the grand tour via Northern Alaska Tour Company. We made plans for October.

The Alaskan Staple of Driving

For those wondering, we did not take our 5th wheel. We were warned by many Alaskans that the road above Fairbanks to Coldfoot and beyond was not suitable for a trailer like ours. So, we invested in a little car, one that seems to be the staple of life for Alaskans – a 2001 Subaru Outback. We made sure it was in good running condition so we would not find ourselves stranded in the great vast unknown. But that becomes the ‘rest of the story.’

We set out on our little vaca heading north toward Talkeetna. For the past four years I had returning campers who offered us a place to stay if ever we were in the area. We took them up on their offer and made our way to their homestead with a guest dry cabin south of Talkeetna. We were not disappointed in their hospitality nor their off-the-grid lifestyle! In fact, we asked them why they even go camping?! They love to fish and come south to the Kenai when the salmon are running. Otherwise, they remain at their home on 80 acres with a breathtaking view of the Talkeetna range and their dog, Stud.

We loved the little dry cabin that at one time was a musher’s cabin. It had some propane heat, electricity from a battery, and no water. We had a ‘honey pot’ for our personal use rather than the outhouse sweetly painted with fireweed, and a nice, warm cozy bed. Who could ask for more?

We left their niche in Alaska on a crisp, cool, clear morning anticipating a view of Denali. We were not disappointed. The ‘great one’ loomed large and distinct through the windshield. We had to stop many times because its grandeur wanted to be captured at every curve or straight-away. Eventually we found an overlook for a phenomenal southern view. I finally saw the highest mountain peak in North America with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet above sea level. And I thought Colorado’s 14ers were high!

Our final destination for day two was Fairbanks. We had traveled through the city when we visited Alaska many years ago. We had reservations at a hotel which required masks – something I just don’t wear. And, I didn’t. No one said a word even the girl wearing a mask behind the long plexiglass barrier. I had no worries as many other guests were mask-less as well.

We also know other campers who live in Fairbanks who told us to call when we got into town. Unfortunately, they thought we were going to be there when I first contacted them so they were out of town when we arrived. We had hoped they would know a good place for dinner; we ordered lousy Chinese food that was delivered.

The next morning the real adventure began. We made it out of Fairbanks via the Elliot Highway until we transitioned onto the Dalton Highway. This 414-mile road begins north of Fairbanks and ends at Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean and Prudhoe Bay.

Prudhoe Bay has the largest oil field in North America. In 1970 the Alyeska Pipeline was built taking oil from Prudhoe Bay 800 miles south to Valdez. The oil takes about one week to travel from the Bay to Valdez. The field was operated by BP with ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips until 2019 when BP sold its assets to Hilcorp.

The State of Alaska owns the actual land and leases the area to the oil companies. This is why Alaskans receive compensation for the oil produced in the oil field in the form of a Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD). For 2019, the dividend was low due to the world oil market prices and fewer barrels being pumped out, but it was still $1606.00 per person.

The Dalton Highway is also known as the Haul Road because it is on this road that trucks travel from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay hauling necessary supplies for the 1900 or so people who live and work there. In fact, we have met many people who have worked or do work on ‘The Slope.’ It is a major employer for many Alaskan families with people working weeks on/weeks off or even months on/months off. We had one camper who studied X-rays of the pipeline for fractures.

There are driving rules on the Dalton Highway, the most important being that trucks have the right of way. Every place we read about using this highway we were reminded to always pull over to allow trucks to pass in either direction. This allows them to get their job done, but the road is also mostly gravel. By pulling over there is less chance of having rocks thrown at your windshield – even though a cracked windshield is a symbol of a true Alaskan vehicle. We bought ours with the cracks in it!

Following alongside the Dalton Highway is the Alyeska oil pipeline. It goes up and down mountains, crosses under the road in multiple places, snakes underground in areas where animals like moose and caribou migrate, crosses rivers and streams with its own bridge, zig zags up and down hills to allow it to move where there are earthquake faults. It is an astonishing feat but, as we learned, it is 40 years old and in need of repair. Though it is inspected on a daily basis via ground and helicopter, there is corrosion happening in the pipeline giving rise to the possibility of serious cracks at any time.

Of course, I have to mention the pigs. When inspecting or cleaning the inside of the pipeline, devices called pigs are inserted into the line at a ‘pig launcher’ or an oversized section in the pipeline. The pressure of the oil pushes the pig down the line until it’s caught. Who thinks of these things?

There are many side roads to the pipeline every few miles and some of them have ‘headache’ bars. These bars keep oversized vehicles from getting close to the pipeline and knocking into it. There are pump stations that regulate the flow of the oil along with helping to stop the flow of the oil when repairs are being done.

Yukon River Camp

While driving toward our destination of Coldfoot Camp, we made a couple of stops. The first was Mile 56 at the Yukon River Camp. We have seen the source of the Yukon on the Alcan Highway and viewed its magnificence in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Now, we watched it flow in Alaska. On our way to Coldfoot, the weather was cold and windy, but on the way back, it was frigid transforming the Yukon River from free-flowing river to being filled with chunks of ice floating their way toward the Bering Sea.

One of the reasons we stopped at the Yukon River Lodge was to use the rest rooms. We entered through two arctic entrances before we got inside the actual lodge. The place was deserted except for the two of us and one other woman who was wearing a mask. Yes, I keep bringing this up because of the nonsense of dealing with ‘masks’ on this trip into the middle of nowhere. The restaurant area was roped off so there was no one there either. The woman asks if I have a mask and I say ‘no.’ She tells me to leave. I ask why I must mask up when there is literally no one in the place. She stands her ground. I returned to my car and put a scarf around my head like a Muslim woman would wear with the capacity of pulling it over my face. I returned to the empty lodge and pulled the scarf over my face until I passed the woman. I removed it from that point on, even leaving with it off my face. They had a wonderful gift shop and though I saw several things I would have wanted to purchase, I did not. Such foolish requirements doesn’t deserve my financial support. When we returned on the way back, the woman wasn’t there and the two people working were not wearing masks. Why is that?

One last thing, check out the price of gas at this lodge! On our way back, we realized that we had enough in our tank to make the whole trip without buying gas or anything else from the Yukon River Camp.

Finger Mountain

We stopped at Mile 98 and took a small half-mile hike at Finger Mountain. Mostly this was to get some exercise since the drive was nearly 8 hours from Fairbanks. Finger Mountain is not actually a mountain. It is a hill named for Finger Rock, a granite rock protruding from the surface. The trail to the ‘summit’ has alpine tundra and views of granite tors, jutting rocks formed by the freezing and thawing of the ground.

The Arctic Circle

Our second stop was at Mile 115: the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle passes through the Arctic Ocean, Norway, Finland Sweden, Russia, Canada, Alaska, and Greenland covering 4% of the earth. By arriving at this place, I stood where only 2% of tourists ever go and was still 300 miles from the Arctic Ocean and even further from Utqiagvik.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Roxanne with Steve Martin, you may understand the sandwich photo. The handsome dumb dude meets the ditzy bar gal and they discuss San Francisco. He says that he loves to go to the Redwoods and just be. He always takes a meat sandwich. So, we went to the Arctic Circle to just be. We had a PB & J.

Gobbler’s Knob

At Mile 132 we stopped at Gobbler’s Knob to view the magnificent Brooks Range not to spot a Pennsylvania groundhog. Gobbler’s Knob provides the perfect place to view the ‘land of the midnight sun.’ Though the Brooks Range blocks the sun for a short time, a hike up the hill on the summer solstice will provide 24-hours of daylight.

The Brooks Range stretches 700 miles from northern Alaska into the Yukon Territory. While the range is mostly uninhabited, the Dalton Highway and the pipeline line run through the Atigun pass on their way to the oil fields. The only settlements in the range are Coldfoot, Wiseman, Bettles, and Chandalar – all of which we would soon come to know.

Coldfoot Camp

By 4:30 in the afternoon, we arrived at Mile 175 – Coldfoot Camp – and the adventure continued. I don’t remember what the temperature was, but it was very chilly, clear and dry though while we were there, the weather turned even colder and it snowed.

We walked the path and went into the café to retrieve the keys to our five-star lodging. When the highway was being built, numerous trailers were brought in for the workers. Once the road was completed, the trailers had no more use – or did they? Our room-with-a- view consisted of one of those trailers with twin beds, a small bath and very tiny closet. But, it was warm. And when temperatures hover between -9 and 9, warm is good and hot showers are very good.

We met up with Tim to plan the evening’s activities. We ordered dinner from the café which had to be takeout due to some virus that is causing the tiny population in the Arctic to fear becoming sick? Because it had been a long day, we decided to take a nap and wake up about 2 a.m. to search for the Aurora Borealis.

The northern lights this far north are called the Aurora Borealis because you don’t look north to see the lights, you look overhead. This was the main reason I wanted to go to Coldfoot – to see the Aurora Borealis. I had never seen the northern lights, ever.

We did rise at 2 a.m. and walked a very dark and unknown to us path. Eventually, we looked up and saw a green snakelike light waving in the sky. It had a central bulge that grew and shrunk until the whole event ended. Because I was ignorant of all of this, I though that was it for the night. We should have stayed out in the frigid temperatures longer, but we went into our warm cozy room to sleep instead. What I did learn that night was iPhones are not sufficient to photograph the Aurora Borealis.

Part 2 – Tour Day One

Tentstake Ministries Publishing, all rights reserved.  No copying or reproducing of this article without crediting the author or Tentstake Ministries Publishing.

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