June 01, 2016

North of The Arctic

Today's tour "Arctic Circle Fly/Drive Adventure" will ultimately take me about 100 miles North of the Arctic Circle. Just before 5:00 AM I gather at the tour operator's office to check in. "Check In" means sign waivers that regardless what happens to you it is NOT the responsibility of the tour operator. Our carry along luggage is weighed to ensure that the plane is not overloaded. We order our optional box lunch which we will pick up along the way.

There are only seven passengers and our driver/guide in the 15 passenger van converted to a 12 passenger van. One younger solo passenger from Oklahoma, a couple from the East coast, Virginia I believe, and a couple from Mumbai, India with their teenage son. The wife is very ill. She lies down on a bench waiting for the van to load, and spends the majority of the day sleeping in back seat with her son and husband taking turns offering their lap as a pillow. Several hours into the trip she acknowledges that when they left the hotel her fever was over 104!

I share the 3rd seat with the other solo passenger, the couple take the second row seat, and the Indian family take the front passenger seat and the fourth row seat.

We leave promptly at 5:30 in a light rain. Our drive takes us North on a major highway headed towards the Yukon River. Our first stop is at "Wildwood General Store". There is no electricity here, in fact the power grid ended many miles ago, but there are several outhouses. The store is closed, the tourist season is just starting, but the driver knows where the keys are kept, on a nail by the door, and opens the outhouses for us. Actually they are amazingly clean. The store started with the children of the family selling lemonade to the truckers working on the pipeline. They sold the lemonade for $1 a glass, and were often given a $5 tip by the grateful drivers. Recognizing an opportunity they soon expanded the operation into a "general store". Today it is operated by the same family. We are back on the road after a 15 minute break.

The skies have cleared and the rain has stopped. Our next stop is at milepost #1 of the Dalton Highway, or "haul road" as it is sometimes referred to. The road was built in one summer to provide a means to transfer men, materials, and machinery to build the Alaska oil pipeline. A road that was constructed over the rugged Alaskan terrain at a completion rate of 2 miles a day.

After another 50 miles or so we stop at an easy access point to take a closeup look at the pipeline. Some of it is above ground, other parts buried. The technique depending on soil conditions. At the time, the pipeline construction was one of the largest construction projects in the world, and continues in operation today, many years past its design life.

The Dalton highway has been improved over the years since original construction. A good part of it is now paved, but we travel some sections where the road is nothing more than six inches of mud. I understand why rental car companies forbid rentals from being driven on the haul road.

About 5 hours into our trip we cross the Yukon River and stop at the Yukon River Camp to pick up our box lunch. We were offered a choice of ham, roast beef, corned beef, or turkey. A choice of several types of cheese, and several kinds of bread. All of the individual ingredients were individually wrapped in plastic wrap and then sealed in a zip lock. I thought a very good approach as this method kept everything as fresh as possible. After a trek to the rivers edge, we are back in the van and on our way. Eating lunch was a real challenge in the bouncing van. Everyone wore seat belts not to protect themselves in the event of a crash, but to keep us held in place on our seats. Yes, the road is rough.

We make several stops to stretch our legs and take pictures. The temperature fluctuates between the low forties and the low sixties. There is virtually no wind, and the mosquitoes are humongous. Being large they have a voracious appetite. Deet seems to work pretty well, I think I only get one bite on my cheek even though I had applied a liberal layer of repellant.

To entertain ourselves, we count the passing vehicles going the opposite direction. Over the course of nearly 11 hours of driving we are passed by about 40 vehicles going the other direction. That is about one vehicle every 15 minutes. Surprising I learn the road is easier to drive in winter than in summer. Ice fills in many of the holes so the surface is much smoother, and of course there is no mud.

Very similar to the TV show "Ice Road Truckers" everyone uses a CB Radio and seems to know everyone else on the road. The truckers tell us about vehicles, especially oversized ones, coming towards us, and recent wildlife sightings. The thought is what counts here. We see one squirrel and one moose footprint the entire trip. I am doing this for the scenery and to be able to say I was there, not for the wildlife.

About 200 miles into the trip we cross the Arctic Circle. Yes there is a dotted line marking the location on the ground. The driver made sure of this by laying down a red carpet with a dotted line on it. We are given a slice of cake to celebrate, and after pictures are soon back on the road again.

Our next stop is the Coldfoot camp, another location often featured in Ice Road Truckers. We learn that the tour company now owns the camp. Essentially a small remote truck stop where food and fuel can be purchased. Many truckers will layover here for a nights rest as driving all the way to Deadhorse is too far to go without sleep. This is also where there is a small airstrip for our plane to land and take us back to Fairbanks later in the day.

We rest here for about 30 minutes then head North for about another 50 miles before returning to Coldfoot.

At each stop the driver checks in with the home office. No there is no cell service, he uses a portable satellite phone. Improvements are in the works though, fiber has been laid to Coldfoot and they are working their way further north. I expect if it isn't operational to Coldfoot, it will be soon.

When we return our plane and pilot are ready. Only five of us returning today, the other couple are spending the night in Coldfoot, doing some white water rafting and then a river float on the Yukon before flying back the following day.

Our driver also has to lay over to the following day. Ryan has spent all his life in Alaska, and has one more year of college. He has worked for this tour company for four seasons. This is the first trip he has ever taken north of the Circle. And he has seen a wild bear only once, and that was 4 summers ago. He did a good job for us, but I for one am glad I'm flying back and not driving the haul road, eleven hours was enough.

Our plane is a twin engine Piper Chieftain PA-31-350 Navajo. I suspect the plane is probably over 30 years old. It is highly prized for service in Alaska because of it's stability, reliability, capacity, and short landing strip requirements. There is no equal replacement.

The hour and half flight is very enjoyable. I sit directly behind the copilot. We fly several hundred feet over the mountains, and the pilot points out a number of sights on our course back to Fairbanks. The sun is shining on Fairbanks as we approach the city.

Sadly the seating is much more comfortable than the seats on Alaska Airlines, and the landing is much smoother. I can't resist pointing this out to the pilot as I leave the plane. He chuckles with joy.

My plans for tomorrow will depend on the weather when I awaken. No alarm clock, but being 5 hours later than back home I expect to be up pretty early.

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