Northern Adventures   12 comments

January 15, 2018 – Share a recent travel experience or anecdote.

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I heard recently that about 40% of Americans have never traveled outside of the United States and about 11% have never left the state they were born in. Wow! When you live in Alaska, which has no land connection to the contiguous 48-states, travel is sort of required to live.

The OP for this blog hop, however, says a recent travel experience. I flew down to Seattle a couple of months ago, but Seattle is just a gateway city for Alaska where my mother’s family happens to live. Kind of boring – Pike’s Market is only super exciting if you live in the vegetable-deprived northland, although I really do want to explore the Puget Sound area more thoroughly when I have time and a car and no relatives suggesting sights within Seattle’s urban environs. The west side of Puget Sound looks cool to me … a mystery that must be explored.

Alaska, however — most everybody thinks that’s sexy. So, digging back into our summer travels -we drove the Dalton Highway this summer.

I do say that living in Alaska is the adventure of a lifetime. Even our Sunday drives can be exciting. We realized that our son had never driven the Dalton, so we decided it was time. Brad has driven it many times as an electrician on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, but I hadn’t been above Yukon River Bridge for several years. Not a lot has changed since the days when we called it “the haul road” (because the Legislature took decades to name it), but memories fade and I was excited to renew an old acquaintance.

We got up early on Friday morning of the four-day weekend we had planned. It’s 400 miles one direction and this is not a road to be driven quickly, so we were prepared for it to take all four days. At 6:30 in the morning, the June air was crisp and clean and the sun was already up over the roofs to the east, having barely dipped below the horizon from midnight to 2 am the night before. It was sunny and the Jeep was packed. Really, all we had to do was put our toiletries kit and cooler in the car, let the dog and 18-year-old into the back seat and stop for breakfast. I always make a thermos and pack at least one meal before we go because there are not a lot of services outside of Fairbanks, but by tradition, we stop for mochas and something to eat on the way out of town. It’s like a final hurrah to civilization, even if we’re just taking the paved Parks Highway to Anchorage. We had filled up with gas the night before and Brad had checked all the tires, including the spare, and the fluids. We rubbed each other down with sunscreen in anticipation of the day and we made sure we had plenty of water and food. In case you’re wondering, our dog eats dry kibbles off the ground on road trips. As a final step, even though it was June, I checked 511 for the road conditions. You just never know with Alaska roads. A previously planned trip the year before had been canceled when the Dalton washed out at spring breakup.

The first 84 miles of the trip is technically not on the Dalton, which doesn’t start until you get to the mining community of Livengood. It’s a lovely drive on paved highway through alpine regions and we stopped in Livengood for an early lunch/late breakfast from the cooler at which point Brad decided he wanted a nap, so I became the driver with Keirnan shot-gun and the yellow Lab sitting on the floor in the backseat with her chin on Brad’s stomach.

Image result for image of yukon river bridgeThe highway parallels the pipeline for the most part. It’s one of the most isolated roads in the United States. There are only three towns along the corridor and fuel stops are few. The road is mostly gravel. Still, despite its remoteness, the Dalton carries a fair amount of truck traffic, about 160 trucks a day in summer and twice that in winter. Trucks have the right of way and I’m not about to argue with them about it. I signaled every truck that pulled up behind me to let them pass and pulled over whenever I could to make their lives easier.

I have seen the TAPS plenty of times and so has Keirnan, so we didn’t stop until we reached Yukon River Bridge. We went into the visitors center so Keirnan, who is a budding engineer could view the pipeline’s attachment to the bridge and I could use the port-a-pots. Goldeneyes took a dip in the river and Brad woke up. It was too early in the season to pick blueberries, but they were in full pink flower, scenting the air with their candy-like fragrance. We walked down the trail to the viewing deck to take some photos. Then we lost our minds at that point and decided to splurge on lunch at the Hot Spot Cafe. Great burgers, fresh salads, and homemade desserts. By this time, it was midday and we decided to let Keirnan drive since he has a learners permit and needs the practice.

Image result for image of finger mountain wayside alaskaIt’s boreal forest on both sides of the highway, some of which was devastated by forest fires in 2005 and 2006. There’s a lot of new-growth brush with charcoal trees standing above, like wicks in a tub candle. We saw a lot of scraggly black spruce, several moose, a fox, a lot of snowshoe hares, and a family of black bears. After a truck scared the daylights out of Keirnan, we pulled over at Finger Mountain Wayside and hiked the trail to the summit. We dawdled taking photographs and then we stopped and hiked to a small lake to fish for our 5-fish limit of arctic grayling. We stopped for the night (though it was pretty early) at the Arctic Circle. This is an undeveloped campground with a nearby viewing deck and picnic area. There’s no water, but there was an outhouse and trash containers.  We cooked the foil-wrapped grayling over a campfire with pan-fried potatoes on the side. Because this is bear country, we pitched our tent a good distance from where we ate and locked up all food in the car.

Related imageWe didn’t rush to get up in the morning. The sun never really went down, which isn’t a problem if you’re used to it. So we lazed about in the tent until the sun began to warm the air. Then we had eggs scrambled with cheese and thick slices of homemade bread slathered with butter and reloaded the Jeep for our second day of travel. We ate grapes during our morning drive.

We stopped at Gobblers Knob because Brad confessed he never had. I’d swear we stopped there once a long time ago, but he is apparently a victim of memory wipe. He had also never stopped (or more accurately, never gotten out of the truck) at the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center. It is such a quintessential tourist stop I just had to do it and we did learn about a fishing stream he hadn’t known about before.

Coldfoot was established as Slate Creek in 1898 by miners. In 1902 it was a toddling little town with two roadhouses, two stores, seven saloons, a gambling house and a post office. By 1912, it was a ghost town. The town revived for a short while during the 1970s during the TAPS construction and then faded. But in 1981, Iditarod musher, Dick Mackey set up a hamburger stand for truck drivers and now it’s an important stop along the highway, but since we’d blown our first day’s food budget at the Hot Spot, we just topped off with very expensive gas and ate sandwiches from the cooler instead. It’s on our return itinerary.

Image result for image of black jeep cherokee along dalton highwayWe stopped for photos and some short hikes along the way, finally pulling into Wiseman, which has about 20 people living in it these days. Most of Coldfoot’s buildings were sledged to Wiseman after the town died, so it’s still a lot of fun to poke around there. I do have some friends who live up in the mountains west of Wiseman, but the Jeep, which a great wilderness vehicle, is not a truly off-road one, so we decided not to attempt a visit. It would have taken us all the rest of the day to travel that far anyway.

We stopped at Sukakpak Mountain. Brad and I climbed it years ago and wanted to give Keirnan, an accomplished rock-climber a shot at it. I made dinner while they climbed and then Goldeneyes and I did a little bouldering while the fish simmered over a low fire. The mountain is an incredible limestone deposition of absolutely gorgeous marble.

Image result for galbraith lakeWe didn’t camp at Sukakpak because the mosquitos were a little heavy – marshy land surrounds the mountain — but also because it was still way too early to stop for the night. We continued northward to Atigun Pass, which is the Continental Divide of Northern Alaska, a narrow wind slot through the awe-inspiring Brooks Range.  Just south of there we passed the last tree on the Dalton Highway. That’s sort of a misnomer. North of there, the tundra doesn’t support tall trees, so trees you and I might know – birch and willow for example, only grow to knee height or so. The mountains to either side of the road are austere, beautiful in a lonely kind of way. Not far past Atigun, just at the start of the Arctic North Slope, is Galbraith Lake where another undeveloped campground with spectacular views of the Brooks Range awaited. We slept there. It was lovely ….

Sometimes during the night, the dog asked to come into the tent because she was afraid of dying of hypothermia. Keirnan had to towel ice off her fur before we could all go back to sleep. It was cold and rainy when we woke up the next morning. Not taking off our shorts and tank tops, we layered on our polar fleece and rain gear. We spent a good bit of the morning hiking around and didn’t leave until mid-morning.

The North Slope is a broad, mostly flat, treeless plain that tilts north from the Brooks to the Arctic Ocean. It’s a subtle place – a land of browns and tans and shifting shadows. Fog glittered around us when we woke up and then the sun peeked through the clouds, sending rainbows dancing.

Image result for galbraith lakeWe arrived at Franklin Bluffs by the Sagavanirktok River (we just call it the Sag). The east bank of the Sag is this rich yellow-tan-orange hue from heavy iron deposits. While I was utilizing nature for a natural activity, I spotted the young lady to my right. It’s not safe to interact with Arctic fox because rabies is endemic, but she was willing to pose for a photo.

Brad has been this way many times, so has more photos from more trips. Here are some of the sights he has seen along the Sag. Those are caribou, not reindeer and they were just a few feet off the highway when he snapped the photo.

Image result for sagavanirktok

But Keirnan got this picture while hiking away from our camp.

Related image

Yes, that’s a muskox. He was farther away than it seems. Keirnan has a telephoto. And we was also part of a herd of about five. No doubt there were more that Keirnan didn’t see.

By design we made Deadhorse in the early afternoon. You can go further north if you pay for a tour that will allow you to see the Arctic Ocean and we did – but I might want to use that tour of the oil fields some other time. The public road ends here. We had lunch at Brower’s Restaurant (the sweet tea was really good and we took soft serve ice cream with us).

And then we turned south and drove all the way to Coldfoot where we had two rooms rented for the night. The rooms are very pipeline man camp-ish and the only reason Brad wanted to stay there is that he can’t stand baby wipe baths for more than two nights. Keirnan and I have dry, curly hair, so it doesn’t bother us, but Brad likes to shower. The breakfast was GREAT and it was so lovely to wake up on the sunny side of the Brooks Range.

Related imageIt was now Monday morning and I needed to be back to work the next day, so we drove pretty steadily back south, taking turns behind the wheel, but stopping for photos from time to time and to get the dog wet. She is happiest when her fur is damp. We stopped at that fishing stream near the Interagency Visitors Center. It was a bust for fishing, but a pleasant place to picnic.

Technically, it’s not on the Dalton, but on the Elliott, but we stopped at Hilltop Restaurant and Truck Stop for dinner. Their pies are to die for – unfortunately, Brad and I are reaching the age where we do need to watch our calories. The sun was still above the trees to the west when we turned back onto the New Steese Highway for the last 10 miles to home.

“So what do you think, Keirnan?” I asked, as I was driving and he was my copilot (Brad having climbed into the back with the dog cuddled to his chest this time).

“The state just got bigger, Mom. I’m sort of use to the idea of it taking seven hours to drive to Anchorage and six hours to drive to Chitina (where we go salmon fishing), but now — wow.”

You can live in that state your whole life and never see all of it, which I guess is as good excuse as any for living here your whole life. I love to travel out and away, but there is something about the road untraveled in Alaska … I can just imagine what it must have been like for the early pioneers seeing it for the first time and smelling the blueberries in bloom and thinking “This is heaven.”

Heaven with the capacity to bite you on the bum anyway.

Posted January 15, 2018 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop, Uncategorized

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12 responses to “Northern Adventures

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  1. The black bears in Virginia have become quite good at vehicular breaking and entering. One poor guy left some donuts in the front seat of his work truck only to find the window popped out the next morning and the bag that had formerly contained donuts off in the woods. Let’s hope the Alaska bears don’t watch how-to videos!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think they have YouTube. Lots of campgrounds have “bear-proof”” containers to put your food in and we use those if we’re parked right next to the tent, but we were a fair hike away. And, I’m armed, so I have the means to scare the bears away. But we seal the food up pretty well, so there’s not a lot of odor to make them curious. It’s wrapped in plastic, inside the cooler inside the car. My husband did once have a tent shredded by a bear because he left a packet of sugar in one of the wall pockets. Fortunately, he was off hiking. He has learned his lesson now.

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  2. Wow, what a wonderful trip! You certainly describe the land very well – so different to the UK where we’re all packed in like sardines.

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    • I’ve been netflixing a British realty show – Escape to the Country. Mostly I watched it for those little snippets of history. But I was really surprised by how much open space Britain seems to have. I hadn’t expected country to actually mean you don’t have a neighbor so close you can hear their toilet flush. I figured it would be more like back East where you literally can talk to the neighbor through your kitchen windows, which is just way too friendly for most Alaskans.

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      • We live in the country, but we can definitely hear our neighbour’s toilet flush! There are lots of fields, but they’re for growing crops so we can’t walk on them. However, there are public footpaths we can use that run down the side of some of the fields. I prefer it to living in the city though.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Technically, we’re supposed to get permits for hiking in lots of places around here, but we don’t. The way I look at it is that the American people are sovereign – governance by the governed – and so public land belongs to us, so why should we have to get a permit to use our own land? But we don’t treat it like our own land. There we make improvements – we built a permanent fire pit last summer – but on public lands we strive to leave no trace we were there. But there are some established trails we like to hike. A lot of the land around here is muskeg – I think you call them “fens” –and getting lost in a million acres of wilderness could be deadly, so sometimes it’s just safer to stick to the established trails.

        I think cities are exciting. I love to visit, but I’m usually ready to head home after a week or two.

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      • I don’t know how I managed to live in London for 33 years. Life is slower here in the country. If I had the choice I’d move to Sark, where there are few people and no cars!

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      • That sounds like a lovely place to vacation. We have a lot of villages that are not connected to the road system (80% of the communities in Alaska have no road connection). Four-wheelers and snow machines rule the “roads” there.

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  3. Reblogged this on Stevie Turner, Indie Author. and commented:
    Enjoyed my fellow Open Book Blog Hopper Aurorawatcherak’s road trip.

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  4. We used to live in a smaller town about 45 miles North of where we are now in Green Bay. We thought nothing of driving the 90 miles round trip to eat or see a movie or the like. But, when we moved to Green Bay, people scoff at having to drive across town! 🙂 Now, after close to twenty years here myself, I’m the same way.

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    • We feel the same way in town. It’s not a huge town. It takes about 15 minutes in summer to drive across the urban area, maybe 30 minutes to get from west residential to east residential. But in the winter, it’s cold, which is tough on cars, and can turn dangerous if you break down, so people do whine about having to drive across town. But the nearest town that has actual stores is Anchorage, which is 380 miles away, so there’s at least one road trip or plane ride in every year. It’s 300 miles to Chitina, where we get our salmon for the year. It’s 50 miles to our land where we harvest our blueberries. It’s 70 miles to Chena Hot Springs, where we go to thaw out in the coldest part of winter. Basically, everything in Alaska is a long way away from everywhere else and I think most of us are glad of it. It makes for a slower pace of life and wilderness right on our doorstep. I can be in real wilderness 20 minutes after I leave my house.

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  5. Reblogged this on aurorawatcherak.

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