ABOVE THE ARCTIC CIRCLE
Just to do something a little more exotic, we booked a trip to travel WAY UP north above the Arctic Circle, the southernmost latitude where the sun can remain above or below the horizon for 24 straight hours. We would fly out of Fairbanks to a glorified truck stop called Coldfoot (population 33), and drive 255 miles back to Fairbanks on the half paved / half gravel Dalton Highway, seeing the sights along the way.
Based in Fairbanks, Northern Alaska Tour Company offers many air and highway adventures to some of Alaska’s most untamed areas. They offer tours to Barrow and the Arctic Ocean, native village tours, polar bear tours, northern lights tours and many more all year round. We chose the Arctic Circle fly and drive. Our adventure began as we climbed aboard a 9-person twin-engine prop plane and took off from Fairbanks. We flew above the White Mountains, across the Yukon River and the Arctic Circle. From the aircraft, we saw the Alaska Pipeline, a native village inaccessible by road, and several caribou walking on the still snow-capped mountains. With Alaska’s northernmost mountain range in view, we landed on a gravel runway in Coldfoot, Alaska, well above the Arctic Circle and about 200 miles south of the Arctic Ocean. Our tour van drove onto the runway to greet us. We were about to drive over 250 miles south on the Dalton Highway. The word “highway” is a little misleading. Built as a supply road for the construction and maintenance of the Alaska Pipeline, the rough, primitive road is largely gravel and has some steep grades. The posted speed limit is 50 MPH, however the extremely bumpy road surface usually necessitates a slower speed. Rental car companies do not allow their vehicles to travel the Dalton Highway. There was only one dusty gas pump on our route back to Fairbanks and almost
no other services. Despite the perils, the Dalton Highway carries a sizable amount of truck traffic, and it is advisable to allow them their space. The highway was frequently featured on the reality series “Ice Road Truckers”.
Before we began our drive, we spent some time in Coldfoot. One building houses a restaurant, gift shop and post office. Although we were above the Arctic Circle, the temperature was 87 degrees that afternoon, and the building was not equipped with air conditioning. A portion of the restaurant was sectioned off for “truck drivers only” as they grabbed some coffee and a bite to eat after refueling.
Our first stop was the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center, a collaboration between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. It is the visitor center for Gates of the Arctic National Park. The large facility seemed out-of-place in such a remote area. Our tour guide and his four passengers were the only visitors at the time. The clean and attractive visitor center includes wildlife dioramas, and exhibits about the Arctic Circle, Alaska Pipeline and Gates of the Arctic National Park.
Our next stop was the Arctic Circle itself, where we documented our Arctic Circle journey with a photograph next to an Arctic Circle sign. We traveled further south, stopping at scenic locations along the way. Our dinner stop was at Yukon River Camp at the edge of the mighty Yukon River, the largest river in Alaska and Yukon.
Although the drive paralleled the Alaska Pipeline for most of the journey, we stopped for a closer look at a spot next to the highway, where we were greeted by the legendary Alaskan mosquitoes.
We rolled back into Fairbanks well after midnight, but it was one day before the summer solstice and still quite bright outside. Our Arctic Circle journey had ended, but the experience will remain with us forever.