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Alaska Trip: Days 9-11

Day 9 – July 17
We started the day with a lovely Polish breakfast (pierogies and kielbasa) at the inn, stopped to buy some fishing gear, then headed north. We hit the Dalton Highway around noon and headed up. The road is in pretty bad shape. It’s a mix of gravel and asphalt, liberally seasoned with potholes, mud, washboard, and frost heaves. We had our first flat tire about 115 miles in, right at the Arctic Circle. Of course, it was raining.

The surrouding countryside is beautiful, though we can’t see more than a mile or so in the rain and fog. It’s markedly different from the terrain we’ve crossed so far; there are many rocky outcroppings and the effects of arctic weather on the landscape are quite noticeable. Also, the road parallels the oil pipeline, so it is our constant companion along the way (though it is usually 50-500 yards away from the road, with service roads crossing over at intervals). It reminds me of a dragon’s tail as it snakes through the forest and disappears over a hilltop.

The most common wildflower in this region is the fireweed, so named because it often appears soon after a forest fire, and because of its brillant red-magenta color. Entire hillsides look bright pink, which makes a striking contast with the standard green-brown-black-grey of the scrubby little arctic forest. We’re north of the real forests, although we’re not yet into the true tundra of the far north.

6:00 – We stopped for dinner and a tire patch in Coldfoot, roughly halfway up the Dalton. The truck stop there had a lovely buffet with shrimp and cajun chicken for $18, but that’s way beyond the price range of some of our group. We had Lipton noodles on the truck stop’s back porch. Then back on the road after a stop at the visitor’s center.

7:30 – Stopped at Koyukuk River for the night. We took advantage of a break in the rain to set up camp. I finally had a chance to break out my fishing rod, but unfortunately I didn’t even get a nibble in 2 hrs.

Day 10 – July 18

On the road at 7:15. We’ve still got 7+ hours of driving today, and a 5:00 PM reservation on the tour bus that will take us the last 10 miles through the oilfield to the Arctic Ocean. It’s still raining.

8:40 – Crossed Atigun Pass, the pass through the Brooks Range and the highest point in our drive. I’d say it was amazingly beautiful, but it’s still raining and foggy. A few great views, though. As we dropped down the other side, we left the scrub forest behind, and crossed into the true Arctic tundra. It’s not entirely unlike driving through North Dakota, thought the current temperature is a balmy 39 degrees. We haven’t seen any wildlife today except a few ravens and the occasional gopher.

10:45 – Flat tire #2! Hooray!

1:30 – Arrived at Prudhoe Bay. It’s an industrial town, with little attention paid to aesthetic concerns. With all sorts of bizarre Arctic equipment sitting around, I’d love to spend a week poking around the various shops and storage yards. After stopping at the tour office, we went to the tire shop to fix our flat. Unfortunately, we’d rolled on the flat for too long before we noticed it, and the sidewall was shot. Even better, he didn’t have any replacement tires of compatible size, new or used. Checking around town found that (gasp!) there were no minivan tires to be found. Our options then were to wait 2-3 days to ship one up from Fairbanks or to buy a few cans of Fix-A-Flat and a tire patch kit (we already had a mini air compressor), drive slow, and take our chances with our remaining doughnut spare. After equipping ourselves for the return trip, we headed back to the tour office to see the oilfields and the Arctic Ocean.

The tour left at 5:00 and headed out into the restricted area of the oilfield itself. A pair of tour guides gave us a thorough introduction to the fascinating world of life in an Arctic oil camp, which I won’t cover here. The highlight of the tour, of course, was when we actually made it to the Arctic Ocean and went for a (very brief) swim. The air temperature was about 40 degrees, and the water itself was about 34. Jump in, splash for a minute, then jump out and put your clothes on as fast as you can before hypothermia sets in. Rachel and I were the only people out of our tour group of 20 who actually jumped in; others just stuck in their toes or fingers. The ocean itself was unremarkable; cold, grey, and just murky enough to not really be beautiful. Afterwards we headed back to the hotel for a shower and a big dinner. Then, back on the road south. There’s nowhere to camp in town, so we headed about 2 hrs. down the road and camped at Happy Valley, an airstrip and former construction camp. The weather’s cleared up a bit, with alternating partly cloudy and overcast.

Day 11 – July 19

After a leisurely breakfast of cocoa and shredded mini-wheats, we got back on the road at 10:15 AM. Mostly cloudy sky, 47 degrees.

About 1:15, we passed a lovely little mountain stream, and we decided to go for a brief hike. Rachel decided to stay with the car to work on her reading. The other 3 of us headed up. We hiked up the valley for about 90 minutes, before turning back. The weather’s continued to improve, to mostly sunny.

Shortly thereafter, we again crossed Atigun Pass. This time, we stopped near the top and had a snowball fight. Snow in July, yay!

8:45 PM – We stopped in Coldfoot to cook dinner and use the (flush!) toilets at the Visitor’s Center. After we crossed Atigun Pass, we rediscovered the drizzly rain.

We continued south to Jim River, where we camped for the night. The rain continued through most of the night, and the mosquito population was amazing.

Day 12 – July 20

The weather’s let up a bit; no rain this morning. On the road about 9:30.

10:05 – As we crossed Bonanza Creek, we saw a great horned owl sitting next to the road, chewing on a ground squirrel. Cool.

1:30 – Recrossed the Yukon River, headed south.

We arrived back in Fairbanks around 5:15, and immediately headed to KFC for some real food (nuts and twigs get old after a few days).

Tonight, we’ll be staying in Fairbanks, before heading south to Denali tomorrow. Alan should be flying up to Anchorage, then driving to Denali to meet us there.

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