Dalton Highway: Notebook

The Dalton highway was opened for private vehicles the year before we arrived in Alaska to shoot our ‘Off the beaten path’ adventure series. There were very few tourists that attempted to drive the highway because it really wasn’t a highway but a dirt and gravel ‘haul road’ for the truckers that supplied Prudhoe bay. Originally built in 1974 to aid in the construction of the Trans Alaskan pipe line. Today hundreds of trucks a day travel the 1,000 mile round trip between Fairbanks and Prudhoe bay. They carry 98% of everything needed to continue work in the oil field.

When we were preparing for this episode before we left for Alaska, we tried to think of every conceivable thing we would need for the drive up the road. Back in 1995 when we first shot the Dalton segment the books we read and the people we contacted recommended caring two extra tires, gas cans and enough food a satellite phone and supplies to last for the entire trip. When we, just recently, re-shot the Dalton in beautiful HD quality not a lot had changed. Today there are long stretches of paved road, but you still need that spare. Gas is available in four different locations, but they tend to not be open all the time, and there now are more places to stop for food along the road, but two of them are not always open. One should not forget however that you will be traveling for hundreds of miles with no contact with the outside world, so if anything happens you are truly on your own on Americas highway to the top of the world.

Now I am not saying you need a tractor trailer or a Humvee to make the journey, quite the contrary. Today one can find small cars and even motorcycles traveling up and down the road. What I would suggest is to ‘be prepared’, you never know what you will encounter on the trip. And remember that once you leave Coldfoot there is absolutely no services of any kind for the remaining 240 miles, until you arrive at Prudhoe Bay.

During our journey up the Dalton, my son Anthony, the camera operator and owner of the production company, IEBA Communications, that produced the Wilderness series was doing a review of two different HD cameras for a magazine he writes for. This gave us a flexibility we did not have when we first drove up the haul road. It soon became evident that one camera held a more stable shot, but the other had richer colors. (to read the magazine review of the two cameras click here)

Anthony the cameraman, with the two test cameras.

Day #1

Our first day on the road would take us from Fairbanks to Coldfoot, a small town midway on the Dalton highway. A good portion of this part of the trip would be on paved roadway. Our goal today was to capture as much of the highway from the drivers point of view as possible. We did have a few major stops that would require time, those being the Yukon river, finger rock and Coldfoot. Our cameras worked pretty much problem free. Although this portion of the trip is where we learned that one camera was better holding a stable shot than the other.

At the Yukon river we spent time shooting the visitors information building, and the surrounding area, set up by BLM. We then went across the road to the Yukon river camp which was the first food and gas stop since the Hilltop truck stop, now 125 miles behind us. Our next major stop at mile 96 was Finger rock. A collection of tors, one by chance shaped like a finger and pointing, the bush pilot’s tell us, towards Fairbanks. Tors are outcrops of granite which are quite beautiful when viewed against the moss and low berry bushes that cover the mountain.

Next stop was the Arctic circle, a busy tourist stopping point. Everyone it seems wants to get a picture of themselves crossing the arctic circle. At the circle there is a campground and some picnic tables, away from the large Arctic circle sign.

From here to Coldfoot are hundreds of streams and lakes to fish in, but we were on a job and did not give in (yet) to the temptation. The road is somewhat paved from just before finger rock to Coldfoot. I say somewhat because though paved the roadway was like a minefield with gaping holes that we had to swerve to avoid and that did not make for a steady camera shot. Towards evening we arrived at Coldfoot, where we were to stay the night. Coldfoot at mile 174 is the last food and fuel before Prudhoe Bay, and it is the only stop on the highway open 24 hours. It is a major stop for all truck traffic on the road and is usually packed with big rigs especially around meal time and at night.

Just across the road from Coldfoot camp is the interagency visitors center. A truly beautiful building in its own right, and when you add the information it holds within I would say with out a doubt a must stop for all visitors traveling the highway. The center has road conditions, a realistic natural history exhibit, hunting and fishing information, a movie theater, a book store and help for backcountry hikers.

Day 2

Greats us with heavy clouds and some morning fog. Our first stop on the road is the farthest North public camp ground in America. The Merion creek campground operated by BLM has 11 pull through sites and 3 raised tent sites. We shoot our footage and as we are crossing Marion creek on the roadway we see our first grizzly bear. He was just out for a morning snack of berries and ignored us completely. After a short side trip to the gold mining town of Wiseman we rejoin the Dalton where it crosses the Koyukuk river. I have held out long enough and we decide to show what it would be like to stop at one of the many rivers that cross the highway and do some fishing. After the cameraman lets me know he has the shots he wants, I figure I am here why not get serious and see if I can find any fish. As I cast my way back to where the highway passes over the river I get a hit. And land a nice Grayling. Knowing this was done with almost no effort makes me realize that a visitor that likes to fish would indeed have a good time traveling this highway.

The cameraman & his dad on top of Atigun Pass.

 

With the Brooks mountain range surrounding us we are entering the most spectacular, I think, portion of the journey. Entering the foothills of the range you have to major climbs to get up and over the pass to the North slope. The first climb is up to the Chandalar shelf, a 2 mile long climb up a 10% grade. As you round the top of the climb it reveals an truly beautiful panorama of the Brooks mountains. This being only the first step in the climb we are soon greeted with Atigun pass the highest mountain pass in Alaska. This 3 mile 12% climb when traveling up seems quite tame, it is the drive down the pass that tends to make one get a little tense. The view at the top follows the foot hills down into the North Slope’s total flatness. It is a sight that will remain with you for the rest of your life.

View looking down Chandalar Shelf

On the North slope’s tundra is where I have encountered many grizzle bears and Dall sheep, and on this trip we photographed a heard of Musk Ox and some Caribou. The end of the journey at Deadhorse/Prudhoe bay like most road trips was not as impressive as the journey itself. Prudhoe Bay is an oil field camp that tolerates visitors. But we slept well that night knowing we had traveled the farthest North highway in North America to the top of the world.

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