I don’t know what Fairbanks, Alaska is like when there isn’t a pandemic going on, but it didn’t put its best foot forward on my visit. That was disappointing, because at first glance, downtown was promising. The Chena River flows right through with a handful of pedestrian bridges crossing. There are nice little parks along the river, and the kind of density in building stock that usually means a downtown will be full explore. In practice, the parks were made a bit less welcoming by packs of aggressive and intoxicated homeless people and all the buildings were boarded up. There were exactly two restaurants in the area, and one had gone out of business to turn into a bar. I had planned a bit of a visit, but after an hour of walking, we were done.
So, first thing in the morning we jumped in the car and set off on the craziest part of our Alaska trip. The eight-hundred-forty-mile, gravel road odyssey called the Dalton Highway. Originally, I had intended to make an open-ended trip up the Highway with no deadline to get back. But when we tried to go to Denali National Park, we found that because of Covid restrictions on daily visitors, we could only get tickets for the shuttle bus on one day. So now, we were headed into the Alaskan wild needing to be back in three days. Not ideal, but I was not willing to miss Denali, so there it was.
The Dalton Highway essentially exists to get oil trucks between Fairbanks and the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. It only opened to private vehicles in the nineties. As soon as I saw it on the map, I knew we were going to drive it. Even to get to the Dalton, you have to drive more than a hundred miles north of Fairbanks on the Elliott Highway. While I was anxious about the quality of the gravel road, it turned out that the paved miles of the Elliott were worse. Something about the geology or climate this far north creates buckles in the asphalt deep enough to create violently jolt any vehicle moving more than forty miles an hour. I learned this the hard way and we heard our gear slam into the ceiling of the truck more than once.
The landscape along the Elliott Highway is filled with beautiful and green mountains. In summer, it is hard to imagine why there aren’t people living all over the Alaskan countryside. It seems empty and enticing. But I haven’t seen winter here. It would have been interesting to explore the area, but with 828 miles of gravel driving in three days, I decided to save our stops for the Dalton. The night before, I had found an excellent PDF with mileage and some suggested highlights along the way. So, there was going to be a lot of stopping. I also took a thirty-second video of the road through my bug-splattered window every ten miles.
Following my checklist, we stopped at the first mile of the highway, a high view of a lonely, possibly bear-infested creek, and at a strange tundra geological feature called a pingo. These features only happen in permafrost environments and are essentially like an ice pimple or even an ice volcano, that pop up and create weird cones in an otherwise flat landscape. The pingo itself wasn’t much to look at it, but it was an introduction to the power of subterranean ice, a concept that is entirely foreign to me. Yet another way of reminding us of how strange and exotic Alaska is.
Our constant companion on our route was the Alyeska Pipeline. Occasionally, it would dip below ground to get through some obstacle, but it would appear again, snaking its way through the forest and over the mountains. We followed it as we drove north. About twenty miles from the pingo, we came to the dramatic crossing of the Yukon River. The south bank is on a high cliff and the highway crosses at a downward angle. The bridge is at least a hundred feet above the river and is surfaced with wooden planking. It looked rickety but obviously was capable of supporting massive oil rigs in all weather. As I crept along, filming every foot, the huge river, white with glacial runoff ran fast under our tires. Nearly 2,000 miles long and thus one of the longest rivers in North America, the Yukon is only crossed by four bridges. That fact was yet another reminder of how harsh and remote this region is. Under me was a river that looked as big as the Mississippi, but we were two hundred miles from the nearest decent-sized settlement. The fifth longest river on the continent toils in obscurity. We stopped at the north bank of the Yukon for pictures and to read some historical markers. They told us about the river’s use as a highway in winter. Far back into prehistory people have used its frozen surface to haul goods. I want to come back with skates and do a long skate/hike. Do people do that?
A swarm of bugs drove us back into the car and we continued north. We crested several massive hills along the way. Each one has a name like Sand Hill, Roller Coaster, Beaver Slide, and Oh Shit Corner given to them by the ice road truckers. We had fun coasting down Roller Coaster, but I had to imagine how terrifying it would be in an eighteen-wheeler in January. The highway began to climb as we approached the foothills of the Brooks Range. Suddenly we were high up on treeless plains. I imagined we were getting a first taste of the tundra. As it turned out, that wasn’t far off the mark from a visual perspective. But when we got out to take a short hike, we were able to hop from rock to rock, avoiding the squishy terrain in a way that would prove impossible north of the Brooks. I was constantly grateful that we didn’t need to worry about snakes. The kind of broken ground we crossed would be perfect habitat in New Mexico. We picked our way across the treacherous pits and were able to reach a landmark called Finger Rock, which really does look like an index finger of granite pointing at the sky. A few pictures, a bit of scrambling on the boulders, and we were on our way again.
To be Continued…