Doing the Dalton

On the Road
  |  Gorp.com

We get our usual late start, leaving Hess Creek at 1 p.m. The terrain along this section of road is gently rolling. Low, rounded hills covered by spruce-birch-aspen forest stretch in all directions. Now and then, a thin silver line can be seen snaking through the forest: the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Since its start-up in 1977, the 800-mile-long pipeline has moved more than 12 1/2 billion barrels of Alaska crude from North Slope oil fields to the port of Valdez. Though some sections are buried, much of the pipeline runs aboveground and we'll see it, off and on, throughout our journey.

The Mighty Yukon

Thirty miles from Hess, we reach the Yukon River Bridge. The largest and most expensive ($30 million) bridge ever built in Alaska, it spans 2,295 feet and required, among other things, 4,838 tons of structural steel and 170,000 bolts. More impressive to us is the muddied Yukon: Born in Canada, it is North America's fifth-largest river, 2,000 miles from beginning to end. With a watershed of 330,000 square miles, it empties 1.9 million gallons of water into the Bering Sea every second.

On the river's north side is a visitor stop where you can fill up on fuel, get tires repaired, make a phone call, have a meal — even spend the night in a hotel if you wish. Nothing fancy, but it's luxurious by Dalton Highway standards. The next place to offer so many services is Coldfoot, 119 miles up the road.

After a picnic lunch we stop at the BLM's visitor center, run by volunteers Thelma and Bob Bowser, a retired couple from Orlando, Florida. They tell us that what people want to know, more than anything else, is "Where are the animals?" It's a good question. Anyone expecting an abundance of wildlife is sure to be disappointed. Sightings of grizzlies, moose, caribou, wolves, and the like are especially uncommon along the Haul Road's first 200 to 250 miles. An Alaskan Serengeti, it's not.

Our next stop is Finger Rock, a 40-foot-high granite tor within easy walking distance of a BLM rest area at mile 97.5. The landscape has changed dramatically over the past ten miles. We're still among gentle foothills, but we've moved above tree line into tundra and now have an expansive 360-degree view that takes in hundreds of square miles of rolling, hummocky landscape. The tors are the main attraction here: Oddly shaped pinnacles of pale-brown granite, they rise dozens of feet above the tundra, from which they appear to grow.

Crossing into the Arctic

Back among forested hills, we end our day at the Arctic Circle, mile 115.3. (The influence of guidebooks has led to almost everything being identified by mileposts along this road: rest stops, scenic overlooks, streams, bridges, fishing holes, you name it.) This is the turnaround point for many Dalton Highway travelers who wish only to say they've reached the imaginary line, 66034' north latitude, that officially marks the arctic. We still have 300 miles to go.

It's already 9:30 p.m., so we quickly take the obligatory pictures, then go looking for a tent site. Camped on a hilltop among spruce and birch trees, we watch a distant thunderstorm and the faint, veil-like sheets of water it drops from the sky. And for a few moments, twin rainbows grow vibrant among the shifting clouds and cascading rain.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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