While in Fairbanks I read about a tour bus trip to the Arctic Circle. I figured it would be a good way to save some wear and tear on Minnie and enjoy a comfortable trip to a place where in summer the sun never sets. So on Thursday, June 29, I road Honda at 6 am to the North Alaska Tour Company and met Rachael, our guide and bus driver for the next 16 hours.
There are many stories about the rough condition of the Dalton Highway (or Haul Road as it is still known by), and hearing about the washboards, frost heaves, tire cutting gravel, and narrow, steep sections, convinced me to take the tour bus and save Minnie the punishment. From Fairbanks the highway north is called the Elliott Highway for about 80 miles and then becomes the Dalton for another 400 miles to its terminus at Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean. Our tour would only be traveling about 200 miles north to the imaginary line of the Arctic Circle.
As we drove north, Rachael told us the history of the highway and its relationship to the Alaskan Pipeline. There was a lot of debate about putting an ugly pipe through the pristine wilderness of Alaska, but in the 70’s during the Middle East oil embargo and long lines at the gas pumps, America’s addiction to fuel finally pushed through approval for a pipe to carry oil from the newly discovered oilfields at Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez.
At a pullout a few miles from Fairbanks, we had a good view of Denali and everyone disembarked to take a few pictures. The day was cloudy but very clear. We could see long distance without the sun making us reach for sunglasses. It was probably a good condition to travel in.
Our next stop was at the homestead of a family named Joy. The couple came to Fairbanks years ago, built their cabin and homestead north of town, and eventually had 23 children. The stop is now a rest stop for the tour busses, and of course, everyplace we stopped had souvenirs for sale.
Along with expert information from our tour guide, Rachael, we also watched two videos . One was about building the oil pipeline, and the other was some general history and stories of the Arctic Wilderness. We drove on taking in the beauty of the Boreal Forest until we arrived at the Yukon River. Most of the people on the bus had purchased bagged lunches at the River Crossing Cafe but I brought enough food with me that I didn’t need to spend $12 for a sandwich and chips.
As we drove further north the trees gave way to tundra. When you are between mountain ranges the Alaska terrain is rolling hills for as far as you can see. It is a vast and distant landscape. It makes you feel pretty small.
Eventually we arrived at the Arctic Circle. We had to perform a silly ceremony of crossing the line and we each received a certificate of our outstanding achievement. It was really quite easy; I just let the bus and Rachel do all the work to get there.
On the way back we stopped and walked out into the mossy tundra. Everyone got to dig a few inches below the moss and feel the icy layer of permafrost – that was pretty cool. Then it was a long return back down the highway. We stopped at the Yukon Crossing for dinner and then a few people slept as we bounced back into Fairbanks.
I can say I thoroughly enjoyed the tour. I didn’t get all the way to the Arctic Ocean but I did get to a special place. We saw a bear and a moose; we saw the Brooks Range in the distance; we touched permafrost; and we felt and learned the history of northern Alaska. It was a good day on the Dalton Highway.