TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > Doing the Dalton
Fairbanks to Wiseman, AK 09/24/06 (Day 152)
Doing the Dalton
After loading two extra spare tires into the back of our Silverado, for a total of three (count ‘em!) spares, we drive out of Fairbanks and soon hit the end of the pavement and rumble onto the legendary Dalton Highway. From here it’s 500 miles of dirt up to Deadhorse.
We haven’t driven more than five miles on the Dalton when we see a freshly-flipped SUV in the ditch. Another one bites the dust. By noon the thermostat in the truck reads 30 degrees, but it feels warmer than that when we step outside to make a sandwich on the tailgate, stretch our legs and admire the blanket of endless tundra which is in full fall color—reds, yellows, oranges as far as the eye can see like some kind of ‘70s basement carpeting, only cooler. The soggy thawed tundra smells a bit like a basement too.
Because it was originally built to service construction of the pipeline, the Dalton Highway mirrors the gently curving path of the Trans Alaska Pipeline. Seen from afar the combination looks like a pair of ice skaters slicing their way through the tundra. The pipeline itself has its own unexpected beauty—somewhere between sculpture and an endless amusement park ride.
To prevent accidental (or intentional) punctures that would spill the pipeline’s precious black gold, guns are not allowed within five mile of either side of the Dalton Highway. This means most hunters use a bow and arrow to bag the big game up here. We watch a camouflaged bow hunter creep up on a group of caribou through the wet, mucky tundra and it almost seemed like an evenly matched contest.
As the hunter struggled along clumsily, the caribou—fully aware of his presence since there’s not a rock or tree in sight for him to hide behind—simply strolled further ahead thus remaining out of range of his bow. Much more sporting than simply blowing the thing away with a high-powered rifle.
Despite the tales of hardship and havoc we’ve been told about the Dalton, we find the road in remarkably good condition with fewer pot holes than Third Avenue in New York City and a surface that appears to have been freshly graded. If we keep our speed at around 25 mph it’s not even that bumpy or dusty. There are even long stretches of pavement here and there. After all the hype we’re almost disappointed.
The only truly tricky part is sharing the road with the dozens of 18 wheelers flying by on their way to and from Deadhorse carrying equipment and supplies to the oil fields. These drivers have been known to use their radios to complain to other big rigs about civilians who don’t give proper space and respect on the road. If you get a bad enough rap among these truckers you may find yourself run off the road just to teach you a friendly lesson. We give these guys plenty of space, slow down to 15 mph and shoot each driver a nod and a wave just to show that we don’t need any schooling.
Soon we see a sign for the Arctic Circle which, disappointingly, is not a circle at all but a rest area off the road with a couple of pit toilets, some picnic tables and a big Arctic Circle sign. The spot feels way too civilized for something with the word Arctic right in it, but then we learn that a wolf recently stalked and chased a woman on this very spot, biting her in the back of the thigh before she could scramble into the outhouse and slam the door. We stand corrected.
A few hours later we pull into Wiseman feeling all proud of ourselves for making it roughly half way to Deadhorse without incident. Founded in 1908 as a gold mining town (they’re still digging the stuff out of the hills here), Wiseman hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years. Electricity may have arrived and there are a few cars scattered about, but as we wander the handful of dirt roads looking for the Boreal Lodge it becomes clear that the folks who still live in Wiseman do so as they have for generations.
Almost every home is a log cabin decorated with antlers collected over years of subsistence hunting and almost every yard has at least one fresh wolverine pelt or half a moose laid out to dry. There are probably more guns than people here, but the folks are friendly and, like everyone who lives in Alaska, endearingly quirky (make it a point to seek out a guy named “Clutch”).
The Boreal Lodge in Wiseman is cozy and warm and there’s even a big well-equipped kitchen for guests to use. That’s where we meet Mike McCann who’s headed south after a season spent above the Arctic Circle leading horseback trips and hunting expeditions in the Brooks Range.
Mike, who wears his long hair braided and may even sleep in his cowboy hat, has been guiding in Alaska for more than 30 years . He’s one of the few guides to achieve elite Alaskan Master Guide status and he’s got the skills and the stories to prove it—like the one about shooting a grizzly with a handgun in the middle of the night as it entered his tent. We’ve met a lot of guides on the journey so far but Mike is the first we’d happily go into Alaska’s most remote corners with.
If we weren’t so anxious to continue up the Dalton and get to Deadhorse we might still be in Wiseman listening to Mike tell stories and drinking coffee.