Monday, July 13, 2015

Dallying along the Dalton Highway

Greetings All,
After our raft trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge we had a few days to kill in Fairbanks so decided to do a road trip up to Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope.  It was no trivial side trip mind you but a 500-mile journey up the Dalton Highway with very few services along the way.

Dalton Highway Map
We left Fairbanks around 10:00 on the morning of June 30th following the Steese Highway north for the first 11 miles before joining the Elliott Highway.  We passed one of the many forest fires currently burning in Alaska. The fire crews were working hard to put this fire out.  Fire is a natural part of the ecology of the boreal forest but when they threaten homes or the Trans-Alaska Pipeline they are extinguished.

Forest Fire Along the Elliott Highway
We travelled another 73 miles north on the Elliot Highway before finally reaching the Dalton Highway.

Sign at the Start of the Dalton Highway

Up to this point the roads had been paved but the start of the Dalton Highway is gravel.  "Why would anyone build a road through such a remote area with little or no human habitation?" you may be wondering.  The answer is simple, black gold or oil that was discovered at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope of Alaska in 1968.  The nation was in the throes of an energy crisis in 1973 and desperately needed to get this oil from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez 800 miles away!   The Trans-Alaska Pipeline was approved to transport the crude oil and the Haul Road was built in just 5 months to get workers and supplies north to the oilfield.  Today the road is now called the Dalton Highway and attracts tourists as well as truckers still hauling supplies to Prudhoe Bay.

Truck Along the Dalton Highway
The first major impediment to building the road was the mighty Yukon River which winds nearly 2000 miles from Whitehorse in the Yukon to the Bering Sea.  Athabaskan people traveled this watery highway in birch-bark canoes and gold seekers ferried supplies in wood-fired stern wheelers.  But in 1974 the river was an impediment to builders of the Haul Road.  To build a bridge across the river workers first constructed temporary watertight shafts called cofferdams.  Twenty-five feet below the river, workers formed and poured the piers in an eerie gloom.  Now we could drive over the only bridge in Alaska which crosses the Yukon River in a matter of minutes.

Yukon Crossing
Two hundred miles from Fairbanks we reached 66 degrees, 33 minutes north latitude, the only place in the U.S. where you can actually drive across the Arctic Circle!

Us at the Arctic Circle
Sixty miles further along the road we reached Coldfoot Camp, our destination for the night.  Originally a gold rush town, Coldfoot was resurrected as a pipeline construction camp in the early 1970's.  Coldfoot Camp was dismantled after the pipeline was completed and many of the trailers used to house construction workers were sold and turned into the Coldfoot Hotel and Cafe.  We settled into our basic but comfortable accommodations for the night.

Our Room at Coldfoot Camp
The next morning we left early to continue our journey to Prudhoe Bay now only 240 miles away.  The smoke from the recent forest fire had settled in the valley obscuring the views in a thick haze.  We made our way up and over the Continental Divide at Atigun Pass, the highest point on the highway at 4739 feet.  We didn't linger too long in the smoky haze but once on the other side the skies began to clear.  The boreal forest was replaced by endless stretches of Arctic Tundra.  We were hoping to see musk oxen or caribou on the tundra but saw only long stretches of the pipeline instead.

Dalton Highway & Trans-Alaska Pipeline
Regardless of how you feel about the pipeline, you have to admit it is an amazing feet of engineering.  Ed Patton led the 70,000 men and women who built the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline.  In August 1970, Patton was appointed the president of the Alyeska Pipeline System Company, a consortium of oil companies created to design, build, operate and maintain the pipeline.  The oil begins its long journey through the 48-inch steel pipeline at the oilfields in Prudhoe Bay.  The crude oil is hot (155-180 degrees F) when it comes out of the ground and the pipeline has to be elevated and insulated to prevent it from melting  the permafrost!  Radiators are also used to remove heat from the support pillars in the ground.

Close-up of the Pipeline Showing the Radiators

The elevated pipeline is constructed in a zig-zag pattern to accommodate expansion and contraction as well as to withstand earthquakes.  Where there is no permafrost, the pipeline is buried.  We finally arrived at Deadhorse, a mere 498 miles from Fairbanks and 8 miles from the Arctic Ocean, the furthest the public is allowed to go.  Deadhorse is the industrial camp that supports the Prudhoe Bay oilfield.


We filled up with gas for the return trip to Coldfoot.  Amazingly among all this industrialization were ducks and geese swimming in tiny ponds!

Northern Shoveler (male & female)
We followed the same route back to Coldfoot.  As we were re-crossing Atigun Pass, two Dall Sheep clambored down some cliffs and crossed the highway behind us.

Dall Sheep at Atigun Pass

The skies had cleared and the views of the Brooks Range on the way back were impressive.

Brooks Range from Atigun Pass
As we neared Coldfoot Camp, a Grizzly Bear ran across the road and disappeared into the willows.  I could see him standing on his hind legs to check us out but he was too far away for a photo.  We arrived back at Coldfoot Camp after a very interesting 12-hour drive to Deadhorse and back.  The next day we returned to Fairbanks.  Our journey was humbled by a South African cyclist we met at the start of the Dalton Highway who was carrying 140 pounds of gear on his bike all the way from Anchorage!  His plan was to head up to Deadhorse then back through Canada and the U.S. to Mexico.  He was on a 5-year journey to explore Europe, Asia, North America and South America by bike!  Our 3-day side trip up to Prudhoe Bay via a SUV paled by comparison but was still an exciting adventure for us!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

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