The Dalton Highway was built in the 1970's after oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay. At first the highway was called the "Haul Road," because almost everything supporting oil pipeline development was hauled by tractor trailer rigs to its final destination. When we were here last the Dalton was only open to commercial traffic, but starting in 1994 tourist traffic was allowed all the way to Deadhorse, a few miles from the Arctic Ocean.
The idea of driving all the way to the Arctic intrigued us, but we heard nothing, but scary stories about the condition of the road and the necessity of bringing two spare tires. Because the road is still used primarily by commercial trucks and they are driving as fast as possible kicking up stones, mud, and dust, the drive did not sound like fun. We read a blog from someone who started the drive, turned around and drove back to Fairbanks. So when we heard about a tour that would bring us north and fly us back, we decided that would be the best way to visit a unique spot in Alaska.
To put it simply, we feel deceived. We have come half way to Coldfoot so far, just north of the Arctic Circle. The drive has been so easy, we probably could have brought the motor home and for sure we could have driven our own car and stayed at the sumptuous digs we are in tonight on our own at the northern most truck stop in North America. Much of the road is paved and where it's not, the gravel has been graded and there are very few pot holes. The drive we did to McCarthy was much worse. There are places to pull off the road, lots of explanatory signs, occasional picnic tables and vault toilets. The Dalton Highway is ready for tourists.
We've come over half way today, about 250 miles. The pipeline which caused this road to be built is a dominant feature and almost always within view. It zig zags next to us, since being built in a straight line would make it more vulnerable to earth quakes. Because this area had its first frost last night, we have had no mosquitos to deal with, a major annoyance most of the summer we've heard. The scenery has been awesome in a "big sky" sort of way. The trees and vegetation have gradually gotten smaller and more spindly, but every time I thought we had passed the tree line, there they were again. More important is the factor I cannot see - what is going on under the ground. Even this far north permafrost is patchy. Where the soil is deep enough and unfrozen, plants grow very slowly, but they do grow. The lakes we've passed nurture migratory birds. Researchers have counted bird from 46 different states. In rocky areas the stones appear to be arranged in circles, heaved up by the freezing and thawing of the ground.
The road is important year round. In the winter which will be here shortly, the road is sprayed with water and gravel. The water makes the surface smooth and the rocks provide traction. About three feet of snow fall a year, but it is light and fluffy and blows around making it difficult to see in the perpetual night. Most dangerous of all are the temperatures which can fall to 50 below.
Crossing the Arctic Circle was a big thrill, well documented by every camera. Our truck stop hotel used to be a trailer, housing pipeline workers forty some years ago. It was never very nice, but in this neck of the woods is as good as it gets. It gives us a place to eat and sleep. It sits in the middle of the Brooks Range, a line of mountains which separate the rest of Alaska from the Arctic.