I never get up ‘bright and early,’ so our tour days with Tim began mid-morning. The first day we were greeted with clear skies and bright sunshine. The second morning we had low clouds, snow and much colder temperatures. I combined two days of travel on the Dalton into one which is why some photos are clear and some have snow! Now you know why!
As we were the only guests at the lodge at this time, we had the tour van to ourselves. My husband sat in the front and I had a full back seat to myself. Just as my friend who drives vans to and from the airport, Tim had a step for me to climb into the van. As the exits and entrances progressed, I became ‘her royal highness.’ Yes, of course!
Our trek north continued on the Dalton Highway as it is the only road in the entire Arctic north. Our destination for the day was Galbraith about 150 miles south of Prudhoe Bay in the North Slope.
After leaving Coldfoot, we crossed Slate Creek and Mile 175. Tim took us to his summer lodging area nestled beside the creek. We also visited his winter hideout which is further from the cold river. Though he does have a warm room as an employee at Coldfoot Camp, he prefers the great outdoors in both summer and winter. He also enjoys his alone time. He is a true Sourdough, someone who has spent an entire winter above the Arctic Circle and protects his ‘sourdough’ through the winter close to his body. Though Tim doesn’t keep a sourdough starter, he did meet the qualification of spending several winters above the Arctic Circle.
We crossed Marion Creek at Mile 179 which has the beautiful turquoise color of the Kenai River though much smaller. Ice had begun to form over the creek giving evidence of the arriving winter temperatures. This area has a BLM campground, the furthest north public campground in America with a camp host. There is no satellite TV or even cell phone coverage – we lost service the first day and only had it at the camp. Maybe this campground should be our next camp host job?
Tim made an unexpected turn and took us down a snowy road to a miner’s camp along Minnie Creek at Mile 187. The miner had packed up his camp for the winter, but the remnants of his operation along with the sluice stood frozen in the chilled morning temperatures.
We crossed the Koyukuk River, a 425-mile tributary of the Yukon River in Alaska. It is the last major tributary entering the Yukon River before it empties into the Bering Sea. We have a friend who actually stops somewhere near the Yukon River Camp and boats up the Koyukuk to moose hunt. Now you know from whom and where we receive our stash of moose meat!
As we continued to travel north, we had majestic views of the Sukakpak Mountain with an elevation of 4,000 feet. This mountain is considered the traditional boundary between Eskimo and Athabaskan Native territories. All along the road, the pipeline weaves in and out and up and down. Some of the pipeline in this area is mounted on ‘shoes’ to allow flexing as the oil passes through the pipeline. Around the Sukakpak Mountain and the nearby Dillon Mountain are palsas or areas that look like avalanche tubes. In reality they are areas formed by ice beneath the soil pushing the vegetation and soil upward.
The Brooks Range Views
We continued to pass creek after creek, stream after stream. Along the road are many culverts that allow water from drainage creeks to pass under the road and not over it. Each culvert has a ‘thaw pipe’ – that green thing on top of the post. During the ice breakup in spring when water begins flowing, the water in the culverts is frozen. Steam is pumped into the tall piping which thaws the water and keeps it from passing over the roadway.
Each creek has private mining claims so access can be restricted. We passed Gold Creek from where 330,000 ounces of placer gold was produced and is still mined. We passed the Dietrich River at Mile 207 – the halfway mark on the Dalton Highway.
We entered the North Slope Borough. The State of Alaska is divided into 19 boroughs. We live in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Each borough has independent, incorporated communities within its boundaries. The North Slope Borough is the world’s largest municipal land area in the world with its central government located in Utqiagvik.
The road begins climbing as we head to the Chandalar Shelf at Mile 237. Treeline is at 2500 feet, not the 10,000 we had in Colorado. As we climbed the two-mile long grade, Tim heard on the radio something about caribou to the north. When we began our morning tour, he told us to keep our eyes open for wildlife. His ultimate goal for the trip was for us to see at least one caribou. Up until this point, we had only seen an owl and too many ravens to count.
At the summit of the Chandalar Shelf, we had the wildlife event of a lifetime. Hundreds of caribou crossed the road from a steep hillside on our left to a humongous flatter area – the Shelf – to our right. Just like the PB & J lunch break, we decided that watching hundreds of caribou migrate was a great place to stop and just be.
After watching the last of the caribou descend into the valley shelf to join their family members on the other side of the road, we continued toward Galbraith by ascending a long, steep, uphill winding road to the summit of Atigun Pass. The pipeline remained to our right in a buried, insulated concrete cribbing to protect it from rock slides and avalanches, and to keep the ground from thawing. Imagine constructing the pipeline in such conditions!
Though Tim told us to watch for sheep who like to eat the salt from the road, all we saw was the view of the road climbing up the pass. At the summit, Atigun Pass is 4,800 feet in elevation. It is the highest highway pass in Alaska and it crosses the Continental Divide. Though this pass is the highest pass, many of the mountains in the area exceed 7,000 feet in elevation.
From the summit of Atigun Pass, we descended north toward Galbraith, the pipeline following us the entire way. By Pump Station #4 at Mile 269, we actually had cell service for about 5 miles. I called my dad in Pennsylvania and told him I was 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. He asked what I was doing there and I told him I was on a vacation. His response, “WHO goes on a vacation to the Arctic Circle? It’s COLD!” Yes,that is true but he had to admit he had never received a phone call from anyone above the Arctic Circle before!
North of Atigun Pass, permafrost, a thick subsurface layer of soil that remains frozen throughout the year, is continuous. The vegetation also changes from trees to tundra which means ‘treeless mountain tract.’ Tree growth is especially hindered on the ‘north slopes’ by low temperatures and a short growing season due to the short summer sunshine and long winter darkness. Alaskans know exactly when they see the sun again after the winter. In Wiseman, Alaska, their first view of the sun after it sets in late November is January 9. Though many people think that Alaska has less sunlight than other places, on average Alaska receives 40 minutes more sunlight than the rest of the United States!
North of Atigun Pass
As we approached Gilbraith Camp, the sun shone on the lake in the glorious arctic sun way. Eventually we arrived at Gilbraith Lake Campground where we enjoyed hot cider and a stretch of our legs. We wandered around the campground taking in the frozen stream and photographing lichen, the food of the caribou. I also made a snow angel in the tundra wearing Tim’s delightfully warm beaver gloves. Before returning south to Coldfoot, we stood beside a post that delineates the road’s edge so snow plows don’t lose their way. It also marked the northern-most point of our arctic journey while the pipeline and the gravel road continued on to the Arctic Ocean.
Then, we saw him, the highlight of the entire day – a Cross Fox. This magnificent fox has the coloring of a red fox, but also has a long dark stripe running down its back, intersecting another stripe to form a cross over the shoulders. And, he had a beautiful white puffy tail!
Our return south up and over the pass brought snow and blowing snow. Fortunately, it wasn’t too heavy and the royal van inched its way back down the other side. As we passed through the valleys, across the now-caribou-less shelf, by mountains, and along the rivers and streams, Tim quizzed us on what we had learned. Each of us answered our one question right and received the prize! A peanut butter cup!
A final wildlife sighting along the Koyukuk River of moose standing on the ice shelf drinking water ended our day while the snow continued to fall, the temperatures dropped and the sun set. We knew with this changing weather that this would not be the night for seeing the Aurora Borealis. We hoped the next day would bring clearer skies.
©2020 Tentstake Ministries Publishing, all rights reserved. No copying or reproducing of this article without crediting the author or Tentstake Ministries Publishing.