We’ve been out of contact for the last few days as we were staying in the little settlement of Wiseman, 120 kms above the Arctiic Circle on the Dalton Highway which is locally known as the ‘Haul Road’. Wiseman has no power or phone service.
The Haul Road runs 666 kms north of Fairbanks to Deadhorse on the Arctic Ocean. It is one of the two most remote roads in the entire USA. There are only three settlements along the entire length of the road – Coldfoot at 281 kms, Wiseman at 302 kms (439 km from Fairbanks) and Deadhorse at 666 kms. There are only three places where fuel is available along the entire length of the road.
We left Fairbanks by driving along the Elliot Highway for about 110 kms until we reached the turnoff to the Haul Road. The Elliot Highway is a bitumen road but in exposed places it is very buckled and twisted by frost heaves. These make driving as if you are on a roller coaster and remind you very quickly that you should not exceed the speed limit of 50 mph (80 kmh).
Mile posts in Alaska start at the beginning of the highways and our destination at Wiseman was 189 miles from the turnoff, that is 304 kms from the Elliot Highway The road was built in 1974 to service the Trans Alaska Pipeline and to provide services to the Arctic oil fields. It is the most maintained road in Alaska as it the state depends on oil for its income.
I had read horrible stories about the Dalton Highway. I expected it to be narrow, rutted, potholed and a terrible road to drive on. In fac,. the road is made for about 60% of its distance to Attigun Pass, although about 1/3 of this is badly potholed and eroded. The remainder is a dirt road with is compacted and graded to be very smooth. Mostly, the dirt sections are smoother than the potholed and eroded made sections, although when wet they can be very slippery. The rules of the road require car drivers to drive with headlights on at all times and give way to trucks. This means stopping and pulling over to the side as a truck passes. This not only makes it safe, it also means that you don’t get stones thrown up all over your car as a truck passes.
For the first 100 kms, the road travels through arboreal forest of birch and spruce trees. There are huge areas where wildfires have burnt the environment and it takes around 140 years for the forest to fully recover. The road parallels the pipeline and it is almost always in view.
At the 56 mile point, we crossed the Yukon Rover on a bridge that is almost 1 km long. Vehicles were previously transported over the river by hovercraft This enormous river drains most of Alaska and I think that we will next see it when we reach Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon Territory in a few weeks.
Just up the road from the bridge is the Hotspot Cafe. It serves a pretty mean hamburger but for a very expensive price. It is run by a lady named Theresa who admits she is a bit crazy. She has a pink semi automatic rifle that she uses to keep the bears and anything else that upsets her at bay. She wanted to know if I’d like to see it but I said that she needn’t bother as I was more interested in getting something for lunch. A sign on the wall of her restaurant says that you are welcome to use the outhouse – but just be aware of local bears. This is obviously real frontier country!
After the river crossing, the forest pretty much exclusively turns to black spruce. These narrow trees reminded me a little of the pencil conifers that we saw in Tuscany. They are about 3 -4 metres high and very skinny. There are millions of them in the forests around here. We stopped at a number of interesting points including the crossing of the Arctic Circle. This is at 66.33 degrees north and marks the southern most point at which the sun shines for 24 hours in summer, and conversely, does not appear in winter.
After driving for over 8 hours, we finally reached our accommodation at Wiseman’s Arctic Getaway B&B around 5.00 pm. We were very happy to see it after such a long day. The owner’s house is the original miners hall from the early 1900’s and they have three cottages as part of their B&B.
I had overestimated the population of Wiseman. I thought that it had a population of twenty, or so people, but it actually has only eight permanent residents. It is very remote and isolated. People began arriving there in 1908 after the Klondike and Yukon gold rushes had finished. Many of the buildings are from that time and they look like it too! When the gold ran out, of course everyone left and there were very few people living there by WW2. Our hosts, Bernie and Uta HIcker are originally from Germany and have lived at Wiseman for the past 33 years.
On our second day, we decided to drive about 150 kms north, over the Atigun Pass. This pass is the highest point on the Haul Road and where it crosses the Brooks Range. It was not only the most scenic place on our trip up the road, it also marks a delineation in the environment and vegetation. The spruce forest stops at the pass and on the northern side is the tundra. This treeless area is not only a sign of the the colder climate, but is also caused by the significant level of permafrost. In many places north of the range it is over 700 metres deep. Imagine that – perpetually frozen soil to a depth of 700 metres.
We drove a little further on to Galbraith Lake, which was still frozen. By now, we were more than 200 kms north of the Arctic Circle. We found an airport at the lake that services the pipeline workers. It was complete with a little control tower, waiting room and refuelling facility – a mini airport facility in the middle of nowhere. We stopped by the lake’s edge and had a picnic lunch out of the back of the car in an attempt to avoid the wind. The temperature was fine – about 14C, but the wind was cold and bracing.
Our host, Bernie, had suggested we drive a little further on to a lookout on the top of a high hill. The view from there was fantastic. It felt as though we were on the top of the world! This was the scenery that I had come to Alaska to see. To the south we could see the Brooks Range curving from east to west, to the north we could see the rolling foothills of the range that extended as far as the eye could see and to the west we could see the frozen Lake Tilhook where the Alaskan University maintained an Arctic research station.
We had been blessed with two days of bright sunny weather and felt thankful that we been able to see this remarkable scenery on days with great visibility.
Today, when we were scheduled to return to Fairbanks we woke to find it raining steadily. The temperature at Wiseman was 4C and thankfully, the rain was very localised. At least it washed some of the mud off our car, although later stretches of road just built it back up again. We stopped at the remote town of Coldfoot to refill our fuel tank and then travelled through intermittent rain showers all the way back. We didn’t take as long to return to Fairbanks as we had taken most of our photos on the way up and, as well, the weather wasn’t as kind. The temperature did increase as we traveled south and by the time we reached Fairbanks it was a very nice 20C.
Our last act of the day was to put our car through a car wash and make it clean again. It was well worth the $20 to remove the mud and save getting mud on our clothes as we got in and out of it.