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Aurora tourism heats up above Arctic Circle as winter approaches

Scott McMurren
The trans-Alaska pipeline parallels Alaska's Dalton Highway, also known as the "Haul Road."
Scott McMurren photo
The Yukon River Bridge is the only span across the river in Alaska. It's 2,295 feet long and 30 feet wide on a six percent grade. The bridge features a wooden deck for ease of repairs.
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Photo opportunity as travelers cross the actual Arctic Circle! Northern Alaska Tour Company guide Larry Terch welcomes a visitor to the "True North."
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A big rig exits the Dalton Highway for a stop at Coldfoot Camp.
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Driver and guide Larry Terch rolls down the Dalton Highway with a picture-window sized windshield framing the pipeline, Haul Road and Alaska's vast wilderness.
Scott McMurren photo
Breakfast of Champions at Coldfoot Camp.
Scott McMurren photo

As fresh snow dusts the top of the hills, many travel companies look forward to the end of Alaska's busy tourism season -- and seasonal workers start mapping out a winter vacation.

But Brett Carlson is just getting warmed up. That's because his company, Northern Alaska Tour Company, offers year-round travel packages in the Arctic. Carlson, along with business partners Matt Atkinson and Lee Kenaston, use the Dalton Highway -- also known as the "Haul Road" from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay -- as the corridor for most of their adventures.

In the summertime, traffic is brisk with folks visiting Fairbanks who want to cross over the Arctic Circle. Northern Alaska Tour Company has a fleet of vans and coaches for folks who want to make the day-long journey by road. And it's a long day: leaving early in the morning and getting back to Fairbanks between 10 p.m. and midnight, depending on road conditions. 

There are plenty of stops along the way to get an up-close look at the trans-Alaska pipeline, walk on the tundra, share a meal at the company's "Yukon River Camp" just past the Yukon River bridge. The Yukon River crossing was built for the pipeline. It's the only bridge across the river in Alaska -- and it's a doozy: a half-mile long, at a 7 percent grade. Then there is the obligatory photo-op at the Arctic Circle itself.

While forests can be dense around the highway near Fairbanks, there are fewer and fewer trees and shrubs the farther north you go. Our driver shared details on the permafrost, frost heaves, mining history and oil development along the way.

If you cannot face the prospect of an 18-hour road trip, the company offers flights up to Coldfoot Camp, 55 miles north of the Arctic Circle and home to the world's northernmost truck stop.

That's where I bumped into Carlson last week as he flipped burgers for a group of Haul Road truckers huddled in a section of the café -- with its own coffee pot and TV. Later in the year these drivers will become "Ice Road Truckers," but in late September the road is still pretty muddy, though there were 5 fresh inches of snow at Atigun Pass, just 60 miles north of Coldfoot.

Travelers who fly north on "Air Arctic," a sister company of Northern Alaska Tour Company, are met at the airport on the banks of the Koyukuk River. From there, a driver takes you up to the small village of Wiseman, which started as a mining encampment. 

Local resident Jack Reakoff offers an informative stroll around "town," which consists of a few homes, a chapel and a lodge. Reakoff offers insight into the Bush Alaska lifestyle and shows off his solar panels, his recent moose kill, his garden and other projects essential to getting ready for winter. Jack and his family, including his sister and mother, make up about half of the year-round population of Wiseman.

After the Wiseman trip, travelers can return to the camp or fly back to Fairbanks. Others opt to overnight at Coldfoot and drive south to Fairbanks the following day.

'The Aurora Oval'

During the fall and winter, travelers are napping in the afternoon, getting ready for aurora viewing between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.

Coldfoot is right under the "Aurora Oval" according to Carlson. "That means that on 100 percent of the dark, clear nights, you'll see the northern lights," he said. 

The aurora viewing season lasts into April and a typical tour is three days and two nights. That offers a chance for travelers to go dog mushing -- a new option this winter -- and to go on an Arctic Mountain Safari up to Atigun Pass, which at elevation 4,739 feet is the highest drivable mountain pass in Alaska.

Most of the trips north from Coldfoot are summer-only, including drives up to Prudhoe Bay, day-trips to Anaktuvuk Pass or Barrow.

In order to make sure their guests had rooms to sleep in and food to eat, Northern Alaska Tours formed a subsidiary to own and operate three camps: The Yukon River Camp (42 rooms), Deadhorse Camp at Prudhoe Bay (50 rooms) and Coldfoot Camp (109 rooms). The camps are modular housing (ATCO trailers), left over from the pipeline construction era. These are not luxury accommodations by any stretch of the imagination. The rooms are basic, but the sheets are clean and the staff is friendly. And the food is really good! 

After working with local Fairbanks aviation companies for more than a decade, Carlson and his partners purchased Warbelow's Air Ventures earlier this year. With its fleet of 13 Piper Navajo aircraft, Warbelow's offers scheduled air service to many rural communities from Fairbanks. Several aircraft are dedicated to flying aurora tour viewers and Arctic adventurers on tour with Northern Alaska. 

What started in 1986 as a single van offering driving tours to the Arctic Circle and back has become vital infrastructure -- from gas, to propane, to coffee, to cheeseburgers, to motels and communications -- on America's northernmost road. Both the state of Alaska and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. have camps and facilities along this road -- but they are not available to the public. 

MORE INFO: Northern Alaska Tour Co.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com or follow him on Twitter for breaking travel news.