Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Haul Road

In early September I started to get anxious. It was getting very late in the summer, but there was one trip I definitely wanted to do before it ended. We decided to take off Thursday, Friday, and Monday around the last weekend in September to drive the Haul Road.

The Haul Road, also known as the Dalton Highway (#84 on the list), is 414 miles long and stretches from just north of Fairbanks to Deadhorse, Alaska along the Arctic Ocean. The road was built along the Trans Alaska Pipeline and was used by workers to build the massive project. Now it is mainly used as a trucking road to transport goods to Prudhoe Bay (where they drill for oil). This is also the road driven on for the History Channel show Ice Road Truckers.

Since we were leaving so late in the season we had to be even more prepared for the cold weather and possible snow. The road is 80% gravel, has many steep grades, and has the longest stretch of road without service in the United States (240 miles between Coldfoot and Deadhorse). After reading about the drive online we packed extra food and water, warm weather gear, 2 full size spare tires (purchased the new tires and wheels), 5 gallons of extra gas (purchased the spare gas container), and a CB Radio to communicate with the truckers (purchased and installed myself).

We left Wednesday evening and drove a couple of hundred miles to just north of Denali National Park. The next morning we woke up to 26 degree weather. After shaking off the cold we continued along our way, made a short stop for breakfast and gas in Fairbanks, and quickly made it to the start of the highway.

Now in the past month we had driven on the Denali Park Road, the Denali Highway, and the McCarthy Road. After reading on line about the Dalton Highway I figured it would be the worst road we had driven on in Alaska. I also figured (like most typical roads) the first part would be the 20% that is paved and the gravel road would arrive as we got farther away from civilization.

Wrong on both accounts. The Dalton Highway was the nicest of the gravel roads we drove on in Alaska. Are there potholes and is it possible to get flat tires? Definitely. But the biggest problem with the road is that it is very remote. Since 18 wheelers are constantly driving this road year-round, the Department of Transportation maintains the road very well. We saw several water trucks and graders working the road as we made our way through. The speed limit is 50 MPH for the entire drive and we were able to go at least that fast. And the paved parts are strategically placed by the DOT in spots with the sharpest turns and most difficult terrain.

There was even a bustling intersection with a traffic light.

About 60 miles along the way we made it to the famous Yukon River (new entry #120). We stopped briefly, but it was still quite cold outside (the water in puddles along the road was frozen solid) so we continued on pretty quick (this was a common theme throughout the trip).

An hour later we crossed the Arctic Circle (#119 on the list).

During this entire stretch of road we are driving between two National Wildlife Refuges, the Kanuti and the Yukon Flats (part of #121). I was not able to verify any of this, but I believe there were 4 national lands (these two and two others we will see later) that had their borders moved in order to build this road. Because this road goes between these four lands on about a 10 mile stretch of land that is just a little too convenient. Needless to say the views on both sides of the road were gorgeous.

An hour later (these first 3 destinations along the Dalton are very conveniently spaced apart) we arrived in the bustling town of Coldfoot (new entry #117). It consists of 1 hotel, 1 gas station, 1 restaurant, 1 bar, and 1 gift shop. All of them are owned by the same company and share 3 or 4 "buildings" which are really trailers. Pretty much every building along this road is made of these temporary buildings.

After gassing up we continued along our way. Starting now there are no services for 240 miles.

About 70 miles north of Coldfoot we came across a van that had just pulled off with a flat tire. Not wanting to be caught in that situation our self, we decided to pull of the road and help the poor folks. In the van were 2 gentlemen from the Czech Republic who were working for a year at a resort in Canada. They had purchased the old van from another worker there and had decided to attempt the trip.

They did not have any full size spare tires. Instead they had 1 miniature donut that was so rusted I was convinced it would have fallen apart from the weight of the vehicle. On top of that it was also flat. Since we had tires to spare, we offered our full size donut however it didn't line up and would not work.

About now the Czechs were beginning to freak out. They decided to try and flag down a passing trucker. I had read on several websites that truckers would not stop. They are on a tight schedule and coming to a complete stop and getting back up to speed wastes too much gas. A few minutes later we could hear the first truck approaching. One of the Czechs held up his hand to try and waive down the truck.

Sure enough, the trucker pulled over. He had a bunch of equipment in his cab so not only did he repair the flat tire and pump both the flat and the spare full of air, but he refused to take any money as payment. About 10 minutes after he stopped he sent the van back towards Coldfoot to get properly patched.

We got back on our way and shortly after passing the farthest north Spruce Tree along the Dalton Highway, we started rising up to Atigun Pass. This is the highest point along the highway, and is also a Continental Divide between the northern Arctic Ocean and the southern Pacific Ocean. This is the main spot we were worried would have snow on the road, but luckily it was just gravel the entire way.

Shortly after the pass the sun began to set so we pulled off for the night. The next morning we awoke to frost on the tundra and a frosty temperature of 16 degrees. As we continued driving we began dropping down and the terrain got flatter and flatter. The last 50 miles of land is completely flat with tundra and many small lakes dotting the terrain.

This flat terrain opened up the landscape and as we drove past the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (part of #121) we began to see animals.

There were caribou...

our first wild musk ox...

and the first fox we had seen in Alaska (part of #86).

Just before lunch time we made it into the town of Deadhorse (new entry #118). This town is much larger than Coldfoot and is the town attached to Prudhoe Bay. It is about 4 miles from the Arctic Ocean, but unfortunately Prudhoe Bay is gated off and in the way. During the summer there is a tour which operates to the ocean from Deadhorse, but the 1 guide that runs the tour left Deadhorse for the winter 3 weeks before we arrived.

We showered at one of the 3 hotels in town and then went to eat lunch at another.

After lunch we explored the town a little. It is very industrial and there are all kinds of weird vehicles and buildings. While they do get a few tourists, most of the town is working. Employees on the North Slope typically do 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off.

Since there wasn't very much to see or do in Deadhorse, we started heading south again early in the afternoon. We made it into Coldfoot for a late dinner and stayed to have a drink at the bar and relax after the 2 long days of driving.

The next morning was 15 degrees. We drove off the highway past Wiseman (the only town along the road that has a full-time, year round population down to a mining operation about 10 miles back. We bundled up and hiked down into the Gates of the Arctic National Park (#82). As we were hiking through the valley we walked along animal paths and kept seeing moose tracks. We knew they must be in the area, and sure enough saw a big bull moose about 1oo yards away just as we turned back.

Since it was so cold on the trip that was the only real hike that we did. We made it back to Anchorage that night. In just over 3 days we drove 1900 miles. It was a lot of driving, but was a very unique and interesting experience. There are very few places in the world (if anywhere else) to see and do the things we did on this trip. It is one of my favorite trips we have taken while in Alaska and we will not soon forget the experience.


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