The drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks is 8-hours long. In a sense Fairbanks is the entrance to the Arctic. There are three ways that you can enter the Arctic. You can enter by car, plane or boat. You could walk, take a dog sled, bike, or ride a unicycle (which we actually saw a guy doing) but let’s keep it simple.
We opted for the cheapest of the three (car, plane, boat) options and drove into the park. One of my friends, Catie, has a cousin who lives in Fairbanks and races dogs as a musher. We stayed with her for a night before continuing our drive north. She is a certified badass. In the winter she takes her dogs on 1,000 mile races across the Arctic. More amazing though is the care and concern that she puts into taking care of her nearly twenty sled dogs. They have to be fed and exercised. She has to know their strengths, both physically, mentally and emotionally. You want to have dogs leading your sleds that can handle the pressure; you also want them to be fast. It was incredible to see her interact with the dogs, they absolutely adored her, and she them. She had some puppies while we were there and we were happy to take them out for some exercise. She said that it was good for young dogs to interact with new people, because during races they were constantly being checked, poked and prodded by strangers to make sure they were healthy. Being introduced to strangers prepared them for similar instances in the future.
Lindsy, our friend from Glacier National Park was still waiting on her PT license to clear in Alaska and joined us for the journey north to the Arctic. When visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park there are several ways to do it. Most people elect to fly to Bettles or Anuktuvuk Pass and then go from there to continue their adventure. Due to our not having infinite finances we elected for a different and less conventional option.
There is a road, the Dalton Highway (The North Slope Haul Road). It goes 414-miles north from a town north of Fairbanks, Alaska called Livengood to the Arctic Ocean and a town called Deadhorse. The road was built in 1974 as a supply road to support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. If you have watched Ice Road Truckers then you may have heard of the Dalton Highway. It is known as being one of the gnarliest roads in America, if not the world. It was built in 1974 as a service road to support the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline that runs from the oilfields of Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay to Valdez where the oil is loaded onto ocean going tankers.
When you do research on the Dalton Highway it tells you to prepare for broken windshields and warns that you should have two spare tires in case you get flats. It warns you that snow can happen in any month and that you are dealing with a gravel road that feature truckers flying by at highway like speeds. As we pulled onto the gravel road we passed our first car. It happened to be pulling a trailer and sprayed up a ton of rocks, one of which made a ding in the windshield. We were 5-miles in and we were already getting rock marks on the window, this was not going to end well. Not to spoil the ending, but miraculously that was the only damage we sustained. No flat tires and no more stray rocks hitting our windshield.
Perhaps one of the most incredible things we saw on the entire drive was a man on a unicycle. We couldn’t have been more than twenty miles up the road when we saw a dude riding a unicycle down the road. It took about thirty seconds to register in our brain and we drove back to ask him if he needed any water, food or support. He was happy as could be and said that he planned to be in Fairbanks by the next day. Incredible.
We drove the first 175 miles to a place called Coldfoot, where you can find the Arctic Interagency Visitor’s Center. The National Park Service, the Forest Service and Fish & Wildlife have all combined forces to created a visitor’s center that features all of their offices and provides a multitude of services and information to visitors.
We camped just north of the visitor’s center at Marion Creek Campground. The campground hosts were having people over to their site for hot dogs, warm cheese sauce, chili and smores. I’ve always liked chili cheese dogs, but when you are cold and in the Arctic they are infinitely better.
The hosts were full of stories, the husband and I were talking and he let me know that he had just won a marathon. As he was a 60-year old dude, my eyes widened and I asked him which marathon?! He calmly replied the Sukakpak Mountain Marathon; he went on to explain that he had decided to run 26.2 miles north from Coldfoot to Sukakpak Mountain. He was first, last and everything in between as he was the only entrant. He also began telling me about runs around the area. Considering that we were in bear, moose and wolf country I was a little shocked that he went out running alone frequently. As he talked about his run along the pipeline he mentioned how he usually ran to Massacre Hill and turned around. I assumed that Massacre Hill was named because of how difficult it was to run. Wrong. Massacre Hill was named because a guy was taking out his dog sled team for a run one winter and an old scrawny bear that hadn’t gone in for hibernation killed 9 of the 10 dogs on his sled team. The man escaped and ran back to Coldfoot with bloody bear prints on his chest. The host didn’t believe the story until he had found ripped up pieces of dog sled harnesses along the path. Apparently the bear attack the dogs and the musher had attempted to get his dogs out of the harnesses as the bear kept coming back. It sounds like the most utterly terrifying thing imaginable; as a result I slept a bit less easy than usual.
The next morning we woke up hiked into Gates of the Arctic before continuing 100-miles up the Dalton Highway to Galbraith Lake. To get to Galbraith Lake we passed several exciting landmarks. At mile 235 was the Furthest North Spruce tree. The tree itself was cut down by a vandal several years earlier, so the pull out spot marked the geographic location of the former most northerly spruce. After that at mile 244 we went up and over Atigun Pass.
Atigun passed was snow covered when we drove it on August 20th. After that we truly entered the Arctic tundra, short grass and no trees. The wind was blowing and we passed a New Zealander (Kiwi) on a bicycle. He couldn’t have been happier. We stopped and asked if he need anything and he was grinning from ear to ear. We arrived at Galbraith Lake campground, mile 275, and set up next to some hunters who were in search of caribou.
It was a cold night, the coldest of the trip. I woke up early just to get moving and warm up. We drove up to Deadhorse for the day. We heard tell of Muskoxen but were unable to find any. We continued north to the Arctic Ocean and the most expensive gas we have ever seen. It was around $5.60 a gallon. It’s kind of ironic. We were in the spot were they are producing massive amounts of oil and it is the most expensive gas in the country. Obviously, they don’t have a refinery at Prudhoe Bay, so they can’t process the crude oil into something that our truck could use, but the prices were shocking nonetheless. We returned to Galbraith Lake for another night.
Our final day on the Dalton Highway was a long one. We drove the 275 miles from Galbraith Lake back to the beginning of the Dalton Highway. We stopped in Coldfoot to turn in our Junior Rangers programs and then made for Manley Hot Springs, in hopes of warming our cold Arctic bones in a hot springs the following morning.