Doing the Dalton
Back on the highway, we soon have our first major wildlife sighting: A cow moose feeds on grasses in a roadside slough. Occasionally lifting her head in our direction, she patiently endures our presence as we watch her through binoculars and take pictures.
We spend the night camped along the banks of the Koyukuk's Middle Fork, a few miles north of Mount Sukakpak. One of the highway's most distinctive landmarks, this massive, gray mountain rises steeply above the valley like some giant marble fortress. A few miles to our west is Gates of the Arctic National Park. Considered by some to be America's "ultimate wilderness," this 8-million-acre parkland straddles the Brooks Range and protects some of North America's wildest and most fragile ecosystems. There's no easy getting from the Haul Road to the park, however. Foot travel across rugged mountainous terrain is the only way to go from here.
Now surrounded by limestone peaks and black-spruce lowland forest, we follow the Dietrich River Valley deeper into the Brooks Range. I ask Dulcy to stop so I can scan the mountains for wildlife. Standing here, I sense a change. We haven't seen another vehicle for miles and the only sound is the rush of wind through trees, the songs of warblers and thrush, rain tapping on our car, some distant peals of thunder. I mention this change to Dulcy, who nods in agreement. "There's a peacefulness here," she suggests.
Hiking in the Brooks Range
Back on the move, we ascend the Chandalar Shelf, a long, steep grade that takes us to a broad mountain plateau. We keep climbing until we reach 4,800-foot Atigun Pass. The highest road pass in Alaska, Atigun sits along the Continental Divide: Rivers to its south drain into the Pacific; to the north, they feed the Arctic Ocean.
The pass is dark, blustery, and wintry. Mountaintops are covered in thick clouds and patches of snow cover the mountainsides. Even in early July temperatures are barely above freezing and 30- to 35-mph gusts drop the windchill to almost 0 degrees.
On Atigun's northern flanks, we get another wildlife treat: Two blonde grizzlies are grazing on tundra plants along the highway. Tailed by an RV and a converted bus, the bears seem undaunted by the audience. Nearly identical in size, they weigh about 200 pounds; I guess them to be adolescents, recently weaned by mom. Eating as they go, the grizzlies work their way to the road, then casually saunter across and slowly move up the opposite slope. A couple people have poked their heads out windows, but I'm glad that no one has tried to approach the bears.
We take a side road near Galbraith Lake and set up camp along a clear-water creek. It's a cold, windy evening. This morning I was comfortable in a T-shirt; now I'm wearing a Capilene shirt, hooded sweatshirt, fleece jacket, an outer wind shell, a wool cap, and polypro gloves. Even with the cold, the mosquitoes are active; attracted by the warmth, they swarm around me as I cook dinner.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication