North of Coldfoot on the Dalton
We packed up our jeep with all the essentials – lunch, bug spray, water, and Belle. It was a beautiful day and the temperature was already in the 60s. We headed north on what had to be the best road in Alaska. We hadn’t believed the owner of the Hot Spot Cafe when she told us that but she was right; for 30 miles the pavement was the smoothest we had seen so far. The dirt/chip seal after that was also very good – it must have been done within the last year. We managed to make very good time heading north.
We passed the “Farthest North Spruce” which no longer existed due to vandals, and the few straggling spruce that managed to grow just beyond that. The clouds gathered. As far as we know, there are always clouds over the Brooks Range. The mountains seem to suck up and trap all moisture for miles.
We had been worried about Atigun Pass and the stories of its dangerousness; it was why we didn’t take the RV further north. Well, it wasn’t as bad as we thought, at least in the jeep. We were the only ones in it on the trip up and so, other than the threat of rain, the passage was uneventful. It was beautiful though.
The Alaska Pipeline is a constant companion on a run up the Dalton but north of Coldfoot, it is almost always in sight of the road and takes a prominent position in the landscape.
We got our first views of arctic tundra. We continued north, through construction, just taking in the views. With an up and back route, we tend to go to our ‘destination’ making our stops on the passenger side of the road, leaving the other side for the return trip. This gives us a gauge of how much time we will need on the way back.
Our ‘do or die’ spot was Happy Valley Camp. When we reached there, we would have to decide if we would go all the Deadhorse or turn around – we needed to make sure we had enough gas for the return trip. It was 2PM when we reached Happy Valley. It had taken us about five hours to get there, with a lunch break. We decided to turn around.
We took some time to enjoy the view and wander around before turning back south.
There was one five mile stretch of road where fireweed grew with an unimaginable abundance on one side of the Dalton. The color was so vibrant, if I stared too long, green splotches clouded my vision.
One thing the Dalton has is a lot of truck traffic relative to its traffic in general. And much of that traffic is wide loads. The Dalton, for the most part, is 28′ wide. In most parts, that includes the shoulder even if it is slanted down into a ditch. Twice, we ran into 21′ loads.
Luckily, for this one, we were in a very, very wide part of the road – it had just been redone so it was also smooth. The second time, the shoulder into the ditch wasn’t so slanted and soft so we were able to hide out there, as the road wasn’t wide enough for both of us. The pilot cars of the extremely wide loads called us on the CB (yes, we bought a CB just for this) to give us a chance to find a place to stop. It probably would have been a problem had we been in the Short Bus; chances are it would have rolled right off the highway at that slant.
The return trip through the construction zone was a little slower this time – about a 45 minute wait. We talked to the motorcycle guy we would run into two more times later. He also made the trip from Key West to the Arctic though he took three and a half weeks to do it instead of nine months like we did. He decided the Dalton did him in and, when he got back to Fairbanks, he would ship the bike back. I think a lot of that had to do with the 500 mile days he had to do to get there that quickly.
Nearing the Brooks Range, the clouds began to gather again.
The Pipeline was almost always in the landscape. But, without the pipeline, the Dalton wouldn’t exist, and vice versa.
As we started into the pass, it began to rain. Not too hard but enough to have us worry about road conditions – we didn’t know how long it had been raining. The pass was mostly uneventful, save for the speeding semi on the wrong side of the road. We missed him and he missed us, so we consider it a success.
We thought about taking the side road to Wiseman but it was late, we were hungry, and I’m pretty sure Belle had had enough. She endured the drive like a champ but was getting restless in her kennel in the back seat.
We returned to camp, fed Belle, and then headed back to Coldfoot Camp. I really needed a beer and Mike wanted to hit the buffet again. The beer was excellent (Silver Gulch Copper Creek Amber), just what I needed to get the dirt out of my throat. The buffet was again very good – Ahi tuna, beef shish kabob, pizza, veggies, a salad bar, and more heavenly desserts. We again ate too much then toddled back to camp tired.