Into the Arctic

From My Article For Travelhoppers

Arctic bear
The King of the Arctic (Photo by Steve Winston)

As we gathered in the Fairbanks offices of the Northern Alaska Tour Company – 17 half-awake people in the dim summer light at 4:00 a.m. – there was a palpable sense of excitement. I’d been to Alaska before. But this time I was about to check a  major item off my “Bucket List” – the Arctic Circle!

I was carrying layers of polar clothing (well, as “polar” as you can find in Florida!). And so were the sleepy collection of 15 other Americans, Aussies, and New Zealanders gathered around the coffee machine.

Even as a child, I had devoured everything I could read about the exploits of the Arctic explorers. And now, I was about to become one. For a short time, anyway.

Our destination was a fuel-stop/bar/trading-post/general-store/bathroom-stop at a junction called Coldfoot (pop. 10), about 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle. We’d be going there by bus, and returning by bush plane.

As our intrepid group of explorers boarded the bus, I tossed my “polar” layers across an empty seat, piled my food on top of them, and got comfortable for the ten-hour ride.

If you’ve ever seen the History Channel series called “Ice Road Truckers,” you know the road. It’s the Dalton Highway, threading the thousand miles from Anchorage to the North Slope oil fields, through Arctic tundra and immense jagged peaks with their tops shrouded in clouds.

It’s driven every day by some of the toughest men and women in the world, who brave 20-foot snow drifts, 30-below-zero temperatures, and white-out blizzards in winter. And in summer, a winding, rocky road on which the only signs of human life are occasional roadside outhouses painted with funny messages, and ramshackle wooden trading posts where you can get hot coffee, food, and additional “polar” wear if you need it.

Oil pipeline
The oil pipeline runs across a thousand miles of mountains, forest, rivers, and Arctic tundra. (Photo by Steve Winston)

It doesn’t take long before you come upon the Alaska oil pipeline. We’ll drive alongside it pretty much the rest of the trip. It runs only 5-10 feet off the ground, looping over an Arctic quilt of ice-blue rivers, grassy mountains, forests, and mud flats. After a while, the driver stops the bus, and we go outside to touch the pipeline and take some photos.

Every hour or two we stop at one of the isolated trading posts to pick up coffee or use a bathroom (or one of those colorful outhouses if there’s no bathroom).

When the pavement ends just north of Fairbanks, so does the auto traffic. For the next nine hours, we’ll be riding on lonely, bumpy, pock-marked road. And pretty much the only vehicles we’ll see will be oil tankers speeding by us in their rush to get back to the North Slope for another load.

A roadhouse along the Dalton Highway
A roadhouse along the Dalton Highway (Photo by Steve Winston)

As the hours pass, the landscape changes from tall, green mountains and rolling woodlands to shorter, rockier mountains with fewer (and smaller) trees, and more rolling, open land. We cross the bridge over the mighty Yukon River, bordered by huge gray mud flats. Our guide/driver says there are Native villages here in the interior, but no roads to get there (which is why bush planes and pilots are the lifelines of these villages.)

Then, finally, we arrive at the marker for the Arctic Circle!

We get off the bus and it’s surprisingly warm. We take the obligatory photos at the marker, and then several of us chat with the older couple who volunteer for the Department of the Interior. It occurs to me that we’re probably the only people they’ve seen all day.

As we continue north, a shout alerts everyone on the bus – there are two bears to our left! We see another one on the right a while later. And later on, yet another excited shout; a lone wolf is watching us from a rocky promontory just off the road.

An hour later we stop again, this time to explore some granite outcroppings emerging from the tundra and the permafrost, the permanent layer of ice only a foot beneath the surface in Alaska. As we clamber over the dramatic rock formations, we’re attacked by hordes of mosquitoes apparently intent on making us their lunch.

The mighty Yukon River
The mighty Yukon River (Photo by Steve Winston)

Standing here, you may as well be on the moon. Nothing grows here. The bushes and small trees are gone. The tundra is covered by isolated tufts of short, emaciated grass. The jagged, rocky mountains are bare.

Other than the buzz of the mosquitoes, there’s no sound, either. This land seems to flow on without end in the loudest silence I’ve ever heard.

An hour later, we arrive at Coldfoot – end of the line - and step out of the bus into a balmy 70 degrees! And off comes the rest of whatever polar wear we still had on.

We’re in the middle of the enormous Brooks Range now, with brownish-green mountains surrounding this tiny settlement of a few trailers and wooden homes, home to the “Population 10” who man the gas pump and the beer tap and the general store.

Coldfoot, Alaska
End of the line…Coldfoot, Alaska! (Photo by Steve Winston)

Before we board the bus to go to the air strip, I stand alone for 15-20 minutes, taking in the vastness and emptiness of this place.

A few months from then, drifts from whipped snow will be as high as the old cabins and the two trailers. And the tanker drivers who stop here for a warm cup of coffee will have just experienced dangers the rest of us can’t even imagine.

Soon, we’re winging back toward Fairbanks in an 8-passenger Piper Chieftain aircraft, operated by a young Native-Alaskan bush pilot who normally flies supplies to isolated villages. We have to wear headphones, otherwise the noise from the engines – just outside the window - would be deafening. And you have to shout to be heard by the person just across the tiny aisle.

We bob and weave in between huge mountains – with plenty of snow – and over winding silver rivers. And we can see isolated Native villages by rivers which provide a large part of the local diet.

After 80 minutes – as opposed to the ten-hour bus trip - we’re touching down at the Fairbanks airfield.

Now, more than ever, I can attest that Alaska deserves the nickname its Native peoples gave it ages ago – “Alyeska” (The Great Land).