DALTON HIGHWAY -- Although it was early June, snowflakes were drifting down the unforgiving slopes of the slate-gray canyon. The only way up the Chandalar Shelf was a muddy, washboard-like gravel road with sheer drop-offs on our right. Our driver checked the CB radio. No one was heading down the hill, so at 15 mph, our van crept up the narrow S-curve into a cloud.
A golden plover flew in front of us and posed on a snow-covered rock. We were 4,738 feet up and, had Atigun Pass not been fogged in, the view over the Brooks Range would have been spectacular. Everything about Alaska is big, including the supersize mountain ranges and a wilderness so vast that many of its peaks have no names.
We were driving the Dalton Highway, last frontier of the Last Frontier, on a 414-mile road trip across northern Alaska. Alongside it is the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, a major feat of engineering that was built in just over three years, from 1974 to 1977, and at its height was pumping 2 million barrels of oil a day.
In the months before this trip, I had been teaching journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and had heard stories of an industrial highway that wound through the top third of the state. People told me of its sweeping mountain ranges, brilliant northern lights, millions of acres of tundra and caribou herds, all ending at the Arctic Ocean.
Ever hear of the boreal forest that circles the northern third of the globe? This road goes through it.
And so I signed up for a tour of one of America's most remote highways. The James B. Dalton Highway is named after an early Arctic engineer and referred to as "the Dalton." Many locals call it the Haul Road. It has a reputation for blowing out tires, not to mention the avalanches, steep grades and speeding trucks that throw up enough gravel to crack your windshield. The road hit the news last spring when flooding near its terminus at Prudhoe Bay closed it for 18 days.
I picked the Northern Alaska Tour Co., which was advertising 2 1/2-day trips up the road. They would do the driving, put us up for two nights, then fly us back from Deadhorse, a commercial settlement a few miles from the Arctic Ocean.
We met our guide, Robert Weeden, on a cloudy June morning at the company's offices near the Fairbanks airport. It was 56 degrees out, the warmest we'd be for the entire trip. Our Ford Escape van was equipped with snacks, bug repellent, a satellite phone and a CB radio. Six passengers -- a couple from Taiwan, two women from New Zealand, a man from Chicago and me -- clambered in to head 73 miles up the Elliott Highway, the feeder road to the Dalton. Within a few miles, we were off the power grid and bereft of any decent internet connections. Following us the whole way was the pipeline, snaking up and down mountains like a silver ribbon.
Building it was quite a process. From the time the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was approved in 1968, it had taken several years to settle Native American land claims and get the necessary permits to build a road through 40 million acres of wilderness. Before an 800-mile pipeline could be built over three mountain ranges and 30-some rivers and streams, a road had to be built to maintain the pipeline plus get workers, heavy equipment and supplies to the North Slope oil fields. They couldn't be boated in, and it was too dangerous and expensive to fly. They had to be trucked in.
And that is how this massive route over the Yukon, one of the country's largest and most remote rivers, came to be.
Seventeen billion barrels of oil and 41 years later, the industrial supply route has turned into an artery for thousands of tourists, researchers, wildlife biologists, trekkers, artists and hunters.
There are no ATMs, hospitals, banks or grocery stores in this wilderness of taiga, deciduous and muskeg forest. Once on the Dalton, we pulled aside briefly at Milepost 76 to touch one of the 78,000 supports for the pipeline, which is 10 feet above the ground. Designed to last 30 years, it has lasted for almost 40. Oil companies have agreed to remove the pipe when oil runs out, but the Haul Road will stay put.
Then we drove over the only bridge in the United States that spans the Yukon, the third largest river on the continent but one that most Americans never see. I walked down its stony bank and found the water silty and frigid to the touch. Squatted next to the river was the Yukon River Camp, where there's gas and rooms in what looked like a bunch of beige freight containers. We stopped for lunch at a cheery cafe with red-and-white-checked curtains, where we were waited on by a Virginian who was the first of many seasonal people we met working for the summer in rural Alaska. He found the job on CoolWorks.com, a site for work in exotic locales.
Across the parking lot were bluebells, cottony willow plants, white-flowered Labrador tea, mountain avens and blue forget-me-nots. A ways down the road we found equally varied botany: dwarf willows, crowberry plants and alpine bearberry shrubs that would turn crimson in two months. Spring, summer and fall are compressed here. Tons of blueberries appear in July, but by mid-August, the light is fading and the first frosts start to hit. During the rest of the year, the foxes, voles and ptarmigan that survive here endure several feet of snow, 80-degrees-below-zero winters and hurricane-force winds.
As do the truckers. We would see them fly by in a cloud of gravel, and Weeden always pulled over so they would not have to slow down. The rules of the road are that the truckers' needs come first, as they haul everything -- food, pipes, chemicals, boats -- to the oil camps, then haul the trash back to Fairbanks. They're the legendary folks of this area, immortalized in reality shows such as "Ice Road Truckers" and "America's Toughest Jobs."
For such an isolated piece of real estate, there were a fair number of public restrooms along the way, plus exhibits explaining the wildlife, botany or history of the pipeline. I noticed how Weeden never went over 50 mph and often drove much slower than that to avoid getting a flat tire.
We pulled up to the official marker for the Arctic Circle, the point at 66.33 degrees latitude where the sun stays above the horizon the whole day during the summer solstice (June 21) and stays below the horizon on the winter solstice (Dec. 21). Weeden produced a red carpet bisected by a white dotted line to show our ceremonial crossing, and we all laughed and snapped photos. From there we could see the first peaks of the Brooks Range glinting in the sunlight, a fantastical sight like some ancient Tolkienesque tableau.
Just before 7 p.m., we entered its gentle U-shaped emerald and brown valleys shaped by glaciers. These were once the bottoms of ancient oceans. We began to climb. The peaks swept up in graceful waves, and the early-evening sun glinted on far-off peaks. We were at 67.15 degrees latitude three weeks before the solstice, so it was quite light out. We pulled into Coldfoot, population 10, which is so named because of the gold miners who showed up a century ago and then got cold feet at the thought of wintering there. Our lodgings were old pipeline-construction housing at a spot at Milepost 175 called the Coldfoot Camp. Its two drab corridors included a laundry room, TV room and a place to leave muddy shoes at the entrance. The bathroom and shower were down the hall. At the no-frills Trucker's Cafe across the driveway, a large bowl of chili was only $4.95.
After dinner, we all crowded into the modern visitor center across the street to hear a presentation from a local ranger.
"Life is hanging on the edge here," Heidi Schoppenhorst told us. "The climate is changing. The last few years, we've gotten a lot of precipitation in June, which causes things to grow more. It's making a big difference to have less snow here."
Temps were in the 40s the next morning, so off went the light raincoat and on went the ski jacket and scarf. An ominous sign, "Next services 240 miles," warned us as we set out that we were on our own. We headed down a side road lined with cottonwoods and willows to Wiseman, population 13, a town settled in 1908 by gold miners. We toured a chapel and cabins that looked like movie sets with their ancient stoves. Jack Reakoff, a trapper who hunts wolf, fox, lynx, martin and wolverine, gave us an entertaining spin on life where it's below freezing for seven months and in the minus-40s for weeks on end.
"There's only 34 mammals here because of the severe climate," he told us. All students in this part of the state are home-schooled, he added, as 10 kids are required for a school.
Reakoff boasted that Wiseman has the most intense aurora displays in the state and that the spring equinox is the best time for it. Visitors, many of them Japanese, will fly in for two or three days, stay at one of the two bed-and-breakfasts in town and luxuriate in the brilliant night colors.
By Milepost 204, we were approaching Sukakpak Mountain, a massive rock wall rising 4,459 feet. The road had reverted to packed mud. Bright-violet lupine bloomed everywhere, and more peaks came into view, though at odd angles.
Then we drove by a frozen debris lobe, one of many huge clumps of partly frozen dirt and rubble called "geohazards" because they are slow landslides carrying an immense volume of material. Scientists and geologists brought in to examine 23 such lobes near the highway haven't a clue what to do about them other than move the highway 400 feet to the west. But that would only buy a little bit of time if these lobes, which we stopped to gape at, keep moving. One of them has averaged 150 feet per year over three years. The closest one, containing 22,000 tons of debris, was 85 feet high and only 128 feet away from the highway.
We were following the Dietrich River at this point, and as we climbed, the snow line crept down like confectioners' sugar on dark-green and brown hills.
Then came the climb up the Chandalar Shelf, a 10 percent incline up a cliff. It was my turn to be up front for the terrifying trip. From there, we headed over Atigun Pass and across a plateau, halting at Galbraith Lake for lunch, as there's a picnic area with toilets there. Snowflakes continued to float lazily through the air, and our guide suggested that the cold weather was a blessing -- otherwise we'd be swarmed by mosquitoes. White Dall sheep stared down at us from a high ridge. The region was covered by warm, shallow seas back in the Precambrian and Paleozoic eras, which is why we found plenty of fossils in the creek bed.
At this point of the Dalton, the eastern edges of Gates of the Arctic National Park are only a few miles from the western edge of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
We next headed through the tundra. When we walked around, it was like treading on sponges. The North Slope, which undulated in graceful green and brown curves to the north, would take us six hours to cross. Clumped around the silver pipeline were musk oxen, one of the hardiest mammals on Earth in terms of their ability to withstand cold climates. We found a herd of 17 near a stop known as Happy Valley.
The Dalton was now a huge gravel-and-asphalt trail through an Arctic swamp.
Around us was wetland 8 to 10 inches deep, and underneath that, permafrost, some of it 2,000 feet thick. We could see loons, Canada geese and caribou. As the Franklin Bluffs -- slate-gray hills with snowy peaks -- hove into view, Weeden told us the history of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated 1845 Northwest Passage expedition.
Then, 20 miles out of Deadhorse, at Milepost 394, we saw a flagman overseeing the re-graveling of the road, which was closed for two weeks last May because of flooding. Sea gulls appeared in the marsh, and my iPhone buzzed. For the first time since Fairbanks, there was internet.
We came into Deadhorse, which is built on a group of large gravel pads. On them were rows of dump trucks, cranes, buses, plows, drill rigs, derricks, forklifts and miles of pipeline and cable. All the cars in sight were a dirty brown, as water is expensive and dirty water, we were told, must be collected and taken to Fairbanks.
We pulled into our lodgings, a two-story building known as Deadhorse Camp that looks like a large container. (There are other hotels in town, such as the newly built Aurora, which get kudos on Yelp but fill up quickly with oil-field workers.) After we threw our bags into our rooms, we met in a small canteen serving meat-and-potatoes dishes, with few fruits and vegetables in sight. Here, "you take what you get," the cook told us.
After dinner, we drove around to see a massive hardware store that has to be one of the best-supplied outlets in the world. It's open 24 hours for whatever needs come up on the oil patch. Deadhorse is the bedroom community for the area, and some 6,000 people work there in 12-hour shifts, two weeks on and two weeks off. We went to bed with the sun -- well above the horizon -- shining through our windows.
On our final day, we jumped into a shuttle van (which came with our tour but which other riders could pay $69 to join) for a trip to the Arctic coast, in closed-off Prudhoe Bay. When we asked the guide why access to the beach is limited, his response was "Because of 9/11." America's oil production facilities might be a sitting duck for someone determined to wreak destruction. Everyone had to present identification to be allowed in.
The guide mentioned that grizzlies and polar bears show up in town in April and at the end of August. During our time there, we saw swans and king eider ducks, sandhill cranes, sandpipers, pintailed ducks, spectacled eider and gulls everywhere. In July, thousands of caribou wander through town. People from Belgium and Germany joined us on the bus and told us they had camped their way up the Dalton. We pulled up to the driftwood-strewn beach. The clear blue sky and the Beaufort Sea -- with pack ice out some 30 feet from the shore -- merged at the horizon near the top of the world.
One of the Germans donned a two-piece suit and jumped into the frigid water; she lasted maybe 30 seconds. We posed for group pictures, then headed for the tiny airport, where a nine-seater took two hours to fly us over the tundra and jagged peaks and past the undulating hills back to Fairbanks.
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Duin was the 2014-2015 Snedden Chair at the University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism department. She now writes from Seattle.
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If you go
Before you go
Buy a copy of the Milepost, a thick catalogue that offers mile-by-mile descriptions of every road in Alaska plus the Alaska-Canada Highway. This bible of Alaska road-tripping includes descriptions of every conceivable sight along the Dalton Highway and plenty of tips on where to fish and camp and which bad spots on the road to watch for. It's for sale everywhere in Alaska or can be ordered at themilepost.com.
If you want to brave the Dalton on your own (as many do) and are good at changing tires, try these car-rental agencies in Fairbanks. Keep in mind that national car-rental companies do not permit driving on the Dalton.
3820 University Ave. South, Fairbanks
This company offers Ford Escapes, which are midsize crossover SUVs with good mileage. Rental rates are $179-$229 a day.
GoNorth Travel Center
3713 South Lathrop St., Fairbanks
907-479-7272 or 866-236-7272
Rents pickups, motorhomes, RVs, campers, trucks and vans. Rates for large SUVs range from $132-$198 a day, depending on mileage, plus tax and a collision damage waiver. Smaller SUVs are $102-$168 a day.
Where to stay
Arctic Getaway cabin rentals
The owners speak English and German and serve breakfast in a 1910 Gold Rush dance hall attached to their home. They rent out three log cabins with kitchenettes. Groups can rent here. Cabins range from $120-$295.
Milepost 175, PO Box 81512
Offers 81 rooms. This is the largest of the roadside camps and the only one whose beds have bedspreads. No lamps, however, and shared bathrooms are a bit of a trek down the hall. Singles and doubles are $219 a night, except for certain weeks in December and March in which they are $249 a night.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing