After our Fairbanks stop we headed north on the Dalton Highway with a number of objectives: to get above the Arctic Circle, to explore the increasingly arctic tundra terrain, and to pan for gold in the many streams along the Dalton that are open to the public thanks to the BLM.
The Dalton Highway is a mostly primitive road with few services, ranging from dirt/gravel (some portions with raging potholes) to some fairly well-mannered and smooth paved highway in the northern section.
The scenery soon changed to boreal forest – many sections with stunted growth due to permafrost. The road winds north through the Brooks Range between the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve on the west, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east, and is primarily wild and uninhabited lands.
All the way the Trans-Alaska Pipeline snakes beside it, and sometimes under it.
An intermittent rain set in and it was soon a rough and muddy ride…
Ric’s bike got trashed when the bolts on the bike rack loosened due to the rough road conditions, allowing the bike’s tires to drag on the road. (The front tire was, in fact, missing).
A passing trucker alerted us to the problem. Trucks are a big part of the story on the Dalton. It is a 414-mile haul road which begins north of Fairbanks and ends at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean.
It was completed in just five months to provide materials and access for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline which was being constructed concurrently in the years between 1974 and 1977. For a long time it was only accessible to commercial traffic and it wasn’t until 1981 that the public was allowed to travel on the road at all. The Dalton Highway trucker community is close knit and small – even today it only numbers about 150. They all help each other, and other travelers as well, because once you leave Fairbanks “you are on your own”.
Well, rather than subject the RV and its appendages to continued road abuse, we elected to hole up at Old Man’s Camp, an old road construction wayside just short of the Arctic Circle.
It turned out to be an awesome location for boon-docking. It was quiet, well off the road, and had awesome views of the mountains to the east. We would stay here for a few days – to give mail some time to get to us on the rebound trip through Fairbanks. The RV would stay there as a base camp while we explored farther up the Dalton in the 4-Runner.
The next day we set out north, making the obligatory “Arctic Circle” tourist stop, just a few miles north of our camp:
We then continued on up toward Coldfoot. On the way we stopped at the South Fork of the Koyukuk River, did a little panning and found a nice patch of blueberries that would serve as dessert for supper and blueberry pancakes for breakfast the following day. The sharp-peaked Brooks Range scenery was cloud-shrouded, but still beautiful, with clouds cascading down the mountain slopes…
Once in Coldfoot, we gassed up, got our “Arctic Circle certificates”, stamped our National Parks Passport book at the Gates of the Arctic Visitor’s Center, and learned a bit about Pingos and Palsas and Thermokarsts. We went a little farther north until fatigue and thirst set in, and then returned to have a beer at the Coldfoot Saloon – the “northmost watering hole in the US”.
We set out relatively early the next day to Bonanza Creek to do some panning and try out our newly acquired sluice box. After a short scouting walk we found a perfect sandbar attended by Ravens, who are always good company, they seemed happy with turkey breast (although we suspect they were hoping for a nice fish-head).
We set up our gold camp for the day, and had increasing success in winnowing out the fine gold and small flakes. Little by little we are getting better at the whole process. Rain ultimately drove us home, cold and wet. It would persist through the night and half the next day – so a rain delay took effect. No way to access a weather report here – so all we could do was use the “wait and see” method of forecasting.
On the way back to Fairbanks we stopped by the Yukon River Camp to gas up and have some of their most excellent salmon chowder and apple pie. Lin mindlessly left her purse hanging on the back of the chair. These folks are amazing… when she discovered it missing the next day we realized we were faced with traveling back to Yukon Crossing (about 150 miles round trip). We called the folks at the Yukon River Camp and they generously offered to bring it down with them to Fairbanks later in the day. Can’t say enough good things about these folks (and their pie) !!!
When we left the Yukon River Camp we were almost immediately stalled in a non-moving line of traffic which stretched into the distance over the next hill as far as we could see. We would sit there for about two hours. Later we learned that a motorcyclist had been killed there after losing control driving over a pothole on the rain-slicked muddy road.
Back in Fairbanks we added “take the Four-Runner and the RV to the car wash” to our list of chores…
This vast area intrigued us and we would like to explore it further – but that will have to wait for another year. Autumn is marked early here as leaves begin to change color in mid-August. That is only a week and a half away, and although we would like to explore this area in depth we can’t risk an early snowfall.