“No, you are not going to drive.”
These are the first words that Vanessa said to me after learning that we would be traveling Alaska’s famed Dalton Highway.
And she was right, I wasn’t driving. But this time, neither was she. Hell, even ice road truckers don’t want to drive what is not only one of the northernmost highways in the world but also one of the most dangerous—especially in winter when ice and snow make it even more treacherous.
We were leaving the driving to the professionals—in this case, Ken Anderson, a 17-time Iditarod competitor. Having ranked in the top four in a few of those races, Ken knows a thing or two about handling ice and snow. Of course, that was with dogs and we were heading out in a 15-passenger van. But training is training, right?
The Dalton Highway Explained
Starting in north-central Alaska near the town of Livengood, roughly 80 miles north of Fairbanks, the Dalton Highway winds along a 414-mile route heading north to the Arctic Ocean. Built in 1974 to help support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, this highway brings an entirely new perspective to isolation.
There are only three permanent towns along the way: Coldfoot, Wiseman and Deadhorse. The biggest is Deadhorse—population 25. We were heading to the aptly named town of Coldfoot. And, there are no towns between Livengood and Coldfoot, so we were on our own if anything happened. As Ken said, “We’ll be traveling at our own risk.”
The man is a master of understatement.
Knowing that Vanessa would need to keep a close eye on the road because she’s a control freak, I ceded the front seat to her. She sat quietly staring through the already-broken windshield, counting down the miles. Which passed oh, so very slowly.
An excellent tour guide, Ken had plenty of anecdotes to share along with insights into the locals. “The further out from town you go, the crazier the people,” he told us happily. It wasn’t the most comforting thought, considering we might need some of those lunatics should we run into trouble.
He told us not to worry, though, because he had plenty of extra food and supplies should we get stranded along the way. This did add a bit of comfort, as I figured Vanessa’s silence was probably due to her thinking about who she would eat first if we couldn’t get help until the spring thaw.
Isolation and Abandonment—We Have a Theme!
While we’d been warned that there would be few people along the route, it didn’t strike home until we began following the Elliot Highway from Fairbanks to where it intersected with the Dalton Highway and saw our first sign.
Olnes, Population 1.
Seriously, why even bother to put up a sign when there’s no one else there to read it?
Fifty miles up the road, Ken stopped so we could check out the former homestead of Joe and Nancy Carlson, who were locally famous for parenting five children and adopting another 19 or so. The Carlson family homesteaded in what was known as Joy, Alaska, and operated the Arctic Circle Trading Company. But don’t expect to see any signage acknowledging the Arctic Circle Trading Company—the main building is labeled the Wildwood General Store…which bothers no one but very literal writers.
And don’t expect to meet any of the Carlson family, either. They’re long gone. But for some reason, their possessions stayed behind. There’s a truck in the garage, furniture in the house, who knows…maybe even beer in the fridge. But not a soul in sight.
Vanessa: There’s something really strange about a family moving and leaving everything they own behind.
Terri: I’ve moved a time or 10 in my life, and I’ve taken along most of my possessions. Although I did leave an ex-husband behind once.
Vanessa: Making him the happiest man ever?
Terri: You know, you could get left behind, too.
And then…the Outhouse
As we wandered around taking in the intriguing sights, including an old auto repair shop mounted with license plates from all over the world, Ken mentioned that we could use the outhouse if we wanted. Considering that our one-way trip was scheduled to take nine hours with rest stops few and far between, we definitely felt the need.
I’ve never been a fan of outhouses and the suggestion of using one when the outside temperature was -33 was less than appealing. Not to mention having to remove copious layers of clothes just to do the deed. I’m pretty sure it was the fastest outhouse visit ever—and I can assure that there was no sitting down on the seat because neither of us wanted to explain how we got frostbite on our butts.
Life as an Ice Road Trucker
Despite the danger that the Dalton Highway presents, approximately 250 truckers travel the road every day in winter. Portions of the road are concrete, others are gravel, and all of it is covered in ice and snow. Just to make things more interesting, it’s also only two lanes. So, it should come as no surprise that when there are accidents, you can be stuck waiting for hours for the road to clear.
As we were merrily rolling along, a call came over the radio warning us of a jackknifed truck ahead that was blocking the highway. Since there’s no alternate route, we rolled up to the scene like everyone else. Ken jumped out to lend a hand.
Since he left the radio on, I wanted to talk to the truckers, but Vanessa wouldn’t hand me the mouthpiece. She provided some lame excuse about them already being annoyed enough. Watching as everyone came together to put a massive chain on the wreck and yank it to the side of the road was pretty cool. It turns out when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, waiting for AAA is not an option.
Hot Food and Frozen Rivers
After making it past the wreck, we stopped at the Yukon Camp Truck Stop, a trailer-type building full of surprises. Though we expected “trucker” fare, instead we got incredibly delicious Asian food and all the convenience-type store amenities you’d expect—including, thank God, an indoor bathroom.
Ken suggested we take a minute to run down to the Yukon River for photos.
Vanessa: We can stand on the Yukon River? It’s that frozen?
Ken: It’s -33 degrees. Everything is that frozen.
So of course, Vanessa and I scrambled down the snowy hillside to the edge of the mighty river. Never taking into consideration that -33 on land could mean -40 on a frozen river, we ran out to take the ultimate selfies. Vanessa ventured further than me because I couldn’t move. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I was frozen…literally. All the way from my toes to my eyelashes which were individually separated—each coated with ice.
After Vanessa snapped me off the river like a rogue icicle, we made it back to the toasty van to continue our journey north. (Admittedly, the van could have been 20 degrees—it still would have felt like a sauna.) Knowing that we would be stunned by the landscape to come, Ken couldn’t wait to share the next stop. In the deep winter, the twisted trees of the boreal forest are covered by feet of snow that hang off of every branch, creating characters right out of a Dr. Seuss book. Completely entranced, we spent a long time taking pictures, only stopping because the sun went down. Reminding us that we were in the middle of nowhere with miles more to go to reach the Arctic Circle and Coldfoot Camp—the next leg of an incredible journey.
If You Go…
The Northern Alaska Tour Company provided our above the Arctic Circle experience. They greatly impressed us with their ability to get travelers to such a remote destination so safely and efficiently. And they make it so much fun!
We signed up for the Arctic Circle Aurora Fly/Drive Northbound Adventure, which is one of a number of packages they offer. The package included an overnight stay at Coldfoot Camp and an incredible aurora viewing experience in the Native village of Wiseman (more on that coming up!)
For the return trip, we boarded a teeny tiny plane, and although we had to swallow our pride and share our weight for balanced seating, the views of the frozen landscape below were worth the minor embarrassment!
To learn more about all they have to offer, visit www.northernalaska.com.
For more information on all the really cool things to do in Fairbanks and beyond, visit www.explorefairbanks.com.