Doing the Dalton

Arctic Circle Boomtowns
Page 3 of 5   |  
Just 300 more miles to the Arctic Ocean
Arrival at the Arctic Circle

North of the Arctic Circle, we wind our way through more forested foothills, under a deep blue sky. At mile 135, we get our first look at the Brooks Range. Running east-west across the state, Alaska's northernmost chain is a subdued mountain kingdom, at least by local standards, with wave upon wave of bare ridgelines and gentle peaks, most of them less than 6,000 feet high. The mountains are dissected by large, U-shape valleys that add to the sense of wide-open spaces.

We stop briefly at the Koyukuk River's South Fork to stretch muscles and eat lunch in 80-degree heat. Then we're back on the road, headed for Coldfoot. Originally named Slate Creek, Coldfoot was born as a gold mining camp in 1898. The name change occurred when large numbers of prospectors got "cold feet" upon winter's arrival and headed back south. At its turn-of-the-century peak, Coldfoot boasted a gambling hall, two roadhouses, seven saloons, a post office, and a brothel. But by 1912 it had become a ghost town.

The former mining camp was reincarnated as a construction camp while the pipeline was being built. In 1981, it shape-shifted again, as entrepreneur Dick Mackey set up "Coldfoot Services," a barebones trucker stop. Today it's owned by Troy and Jan Thacker, who moved here in 1991 and claim they "never want to leave" despite long winters with weeks of 24-hour darkness and temperatures to 8 degrees F below zero. Summers, by contrast, bring 24 hours of daylight and temperatures that approach 100 degrees F.

In keeping with changing times, the Thackers promote Coldfoot as "The Farthest North Resort in the World." "Resort" might be overstating their enterprise: By most standards Coldfoot is more of an industrial complex than a garden spot. Most of what I see is a blend of gravel parking lots, four-wheelers, heavy machinery, mobile homes, trailers, and RVs.

Still, given Coldfoot's history, they've done a good job of making it a visitor-friendly place that caters to a tour-bus, trucker, and independent-traveler clientele. Here, 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the midst of wildness, you'll find a cafi, gas station, hotel, bar, post office, general store, RV park, equipment-rental shop, medic station, and visitor center. Believe it or not, the Thackers say they're also planning a three- or four-hole golf course.

From Coldfoot to Wiseman

Thirteen miles north of Coldfoot we take a side road to another historic mining town, Wiseman. Many of its log buildings are deserted and falling down but others are home to the 30 people who live here year-round. We follow a dirt path to a two-story cabin that houses the Wiseman Trading Co. Established in 1910, the store was shut down in 1944, then reopened in 1991 by Sherry and Joe Henderson. Though she's off duty, Sherry kindly gives us a peek inside. Grocery items are mixed with antique relics from Wiseman's earliest days: bottles, vases, lanterns, tools, even a cast-iron coffee grinder.

We browse awhile, then purchase ice cream bars for the road. Mosquitoes are thriving in the 79-degree F evening air and they seem partial to Dulcy. "I've become a major blood donor," she complains, showing off several new welts.

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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