Road Trippin: Top of the World

This past weekend, Michele and I took what can be called the ultimate road trip. We drove 800 miles each way to dip our toes in the Arctic Ocean. Van Halen has a song, Standing on Top of the World, and that’s what we did for a little while.

We had been thinking about this trip for the past couple of years. When we were on our East Coast Road Trip this spring Michele made a proclamation to have her toes in all the oceans in the United States. She has been to the east and west coasts and now thought it was only right that we drive to the northern most ocean as well.

To get to the Arctic Ocean is an 800 mile drive from our home in Willow, up through Fairbanks and onward on the famous Dalton Highway that everyone knows from the show Ice Road Truckers on the History Channel.

Willow to Fairbanks

We left Willow by 3:30 and hoped to be in Fairbanks at a decent time. It is about 280 miles and some of the best scenery you will see on our road system. It was a beautiful drive with glimpses of Denali, wildflowers and RVs making their way toward the park.

We arrived by 9pm and checked into the Hampton Inn. This is where we always stay in Fairbanks and if you get a chance tell Casey that I sent you. They will take good care of you.

The reason for this whole trip was to meet with one of our clients, Mark and his service pup in training, Ragnosh (Rag). Michele picked out Rag from the breeder and the pup has been with Mark and his family for the past two months for bonding and puppy training. They are moving to Texas this month and Rag will enter our program at Alaska Dog Works as a service dog. We met with Mark for a little while and told him we would be back Monday to pick Rag up.

Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle

The road to the Dalton Highway takes you up Highway 2 to Livengood 84 miles to the North. This is a paved road that is up and down through the hills and very winding. We travelled through the areas of the recent forest fires in the area and you could smell the smoke. At Livengood the Dalton Highway starts (Highway 11). It is the infamous road you have seen on the TV show. Almost immediately it goes from paved to road base, a mixture of gravel and dirt. It is bumpy in spots and you have to be careful and keep your eyes open for large basketball-sized potholes.

My first thought was, I don’t know if we belong here. This is a road built almost exclusively to service the oil fields and its massive undertaking on the north slope of Alaska. You immediately understand that this road is the trucker’s road and rightfully so.

The road to the first major stop along the way, the Yukon River Camp is decent. The Yukon River Camp is at Mile 74 of the Dalton and your first place, or your last place for a long time to get gas. We payed $5.49 a gallon. The camp has a gift shop, a restaurant and restrooms. Across the highway you can walk down to the river to get a close up look at the mighty Yukon River. The bridge across the river is interesting. It is a long bridge with a wood base and along the side is the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline.

The Pipeline will be your friend of the whole trip. It travels along side the highway from Prudhoe Bay to its terminus at Valdez almost 800 miles away. It is a 4-foot in diameter pipe that is mostly above ground. Do you know why they didn’t build it in a straight line? So, it won’t be damaged by earthquakes. It has survived a 7.9 quake several years ago. You will also see the Pipeline go underground for just a few feet in places. These are wildlife crossings.

As you make your way north the road is mostly road base with several sections of paved road. You are traveling through the boreal forest with mostly spruce trees, that Michele calls Dr. Seuss trees, and willows. On our drive there was a lot of smoke in the air from the recent fires and it was hard to see anything in the distance. The traffic was relatively light. Most of it was workers in pick-up trucks that travel the road to work along the Pipeline and at the several pump stations you will encounter on the trip.

At mile 115 of the Dalton is the Arctic Circle. Think about it, most people in the United States have never been this far north. There is a camp ground, restrooms–luxury Alaska style outhouse, and a sign. On the back of the sign people write where they are coming or going. It’s cool to read all of the messages.

Michele and I had a picnic in the truck. The mosquitos are everywhere so definitely bring plenty of bug dope.

The Arctic Circle to Coldfoot

You continue to travel through the forest to Coldfoot. This camp is now famous from the show on TV. Its a great place to grab a snack and you must fill up your tank as this is the last place for gas for the next 240 miles! There is also a trooper station here and across the highway is a very nice an informative ranger station that has all sorts of information about the area.

Coldfoot to Deadhorse

As you leave Coldfoot you will be on a very nice section of paved road for the next 35 miles. It is a nice break from the 174 miles of bumpy roads. You will pass through Wiseman which is where one of the guys lives on that show, Life Below Zero on NatGeo. While he says he a days walk to civilization, he is truly only about three miles from a perfectly paved highway and just a few miles from Coldfoot. While I am sure life is tough for him in a canvas tent he is not in the middle of nowhere. At Dietrich you are at the halfway point of the highway.  At mile 175 the boreal forest ends. That means there are no more trees as you head north.

At mile 175 you also start your way up toward Atigan Pass. It is scary! At the bottom of the pass we watched a little car from Illinois work its way up as a semi trucker was bouncing its way down at top speeds. It engulfed the little car in a cloud of dust and I am sure it scared the lady nearly to death! We waited at the bottom for the truck to pass and I told Michele to keep an eye out as we hurriedly made our way up praying for no truckers to run us off the road! We were lucky.

At Atigan Pass you also cross the continental divide. Here rivers flow to the north into the Arctic Ocean and to the south and west on the other side into the Bering Sea and the Pacific. As you come down the other side of the pass you are quickly in the North Slope. Here is mostly flat ground with grass-like vegetation. If you are lucky you can spot caribou and musk ox. A big brown bear did run across the road in front of our truck just about 20 feet way. He was a big male.

Along the way we stopped for road construction and talked to the young man holding the sign. He said he works up here six weeks at a time with two weeks off. He says he makes “really good” money. It was interesting to here is outlook on life for the 20 minutes or so we were parked waiting for the pilot car.

As you get closer and closer to the oil fields and the industrial complex of Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay activity really picks up. The weather changed too. It got markedly cooler and started to rain as we headed in. It was a long day, 13+ hours and we were hungry and strung out from the road as the old Bob Seger song lyric goes…

Deadhorse is practically dead…

We arrived in Deadhorse at about 7:30pm and pulled into the Deadhorse Camp. As soon as we arrived and entered the two story modular structure we were told by the sign on the wall to take off our outside shoes or put on these blue covers that you might see in an operating room rather than an oil field. We walked down the hall and found a guy sitting at a desk. There was no hello or how ya doing’? I said, “is this where you check in?” The guy said, “Name?” Forto I said. “Oh, I wondered if you were going to show up.”

Rude… We paid the$199 dollar fee and he told us he would meet us outside. He lead us around back to a large T-shaped structure and showed us our ‘room’. The room looked like a prison cell. It had two single beds on each wall, a long formica table and two kitchen chairs. No TV. What were we expecting? This was called ‘camp’ right? The communal bathroom was down the hall.

The guy told us we just missed dinner and we might find something to eat if we hurry over to the Prudhoe Bay Hotel or the Aurora Hotel. We jumped in the truck and made our way around the lake to both and both said they quit serving at 8. Great. We were told we could buy some snacks at the store above the NAPA auto-parts store, the most profitable NAPA store in North America by the way.

We walked upstairs and started to look around. We found a couple sweatshirts that we had been wanting, it is a dog team and a musher that are skeletons. There was no real food to speak of. We grabbed a small bag of beef jerky for 9 bucks, a couple cokes for 5 bucks and two moon pies.

I asked the raven haired beauty at the cash register, “What do you guys do for fun up here?”

“Sleep!” she proclaimed. “We work two weeks straight 12 hours on, 12 hours off. All I want to do is sleep.”

Michele pipped in, “I work two jobs and I operate a sled dog kennel, I wish I only worked 12-hour days.”

The doe-eyed vixen just gave us a glance. We weren’t being rude. We truly wanted to know what people did for fun.

We paid 109 bucks for two sweatshirts, a deck of cards, and our ‘dinner’ and made our way back to camp.

Camp was not that bad. It rained most of the night and we slept soundly. We woke up refreshed until I headed down to the restroom to brush my teeth and use the facilities only to find out that the toilets had been backed up all night and a weird stench was in the air.

We headed over to breakfast in the main camp building and grabbed our share of eggs, toast, biscuits and gravy and oatmeal. It was pretty good. Everyone sort of eats together in the dinning room in the kitchen and we struck up a conversation with a young guy, Rob who had just landed the night before. He plans to ride his bike from the Arctic to his home in San Francisco. He thinks it will take him about three months and plans on traveling about 30-40 miles a day.

We also talked to a group of travelers from New Zealand who had been on the road for seven weeks. I guess you can see why this trip is on a lot of people’s bucket lists.

After breakfast we waited around for a little while for our security escort to show up that would be taking us on the tour.

The 3-hour tour

Brandon, our tour guide and security escort for the next three hours met us inside in the dining hall and gave us the run down. He told us that we would be entering a secure area and that everyone must be on the list and cleared before they get on the bus. He checked all of our ID’s and we loaded up. Michele and I sat at the back of the Magic Bus, one of those buses you ride at the airport, and we were on our way. It was only 37 degrees so it was a little chilly.

The tour was great! Our guide stopped and told us about all the wildlife and we took pictures of the foxes, geese, swans, ground squirrels and other fauna. He stopped and told us about the oil fields and what was what along our way. What I found interesting was the large BP camp that had just about everything inside–a movie theater, a gym, basketball courts, 24-hour snacks and all the food you could eat.

This was much different than the Deadhorse Camp on the other side of the security checkpoint. Even though a lot of workers stayed at the camps outside, most of them stayed on the other side of the ‘gate’. In Deadhorse, which isn’t even a town by the way, it was just a nickname given by the early workers at the oil field, there is absolutely nothing to do.

I asked Michele, why don’t they tell the people that are coming up here from all over the world this? Some people pay 1600 bucks to go on a bus tour to the end of the road and they get here to a working industrial area with nothing to do. Remember how I said that I didn’t think we should be here?

We arrived at the Arctic Ocean and Brandon told us about the polar bears and the grizzly bears. He said he saw a grizzly just a couple days ago and the sea ice was only about six miles out and a polar bear encounter way be possible.

We headed over to the shore and Michele got her toes wet. We took lots of pictures. It was chilly but not cold, at least by my standards. Many of the people on our tour were not dressed approximately and the guys from Argentina were only in sweatshirts and jeans.

We stayed at the ocean for about a half an hour before loading up for the trip back.

The tour cost $59 bucks per person and they are dead serious when they say you have to have a reservation. You have to be cleared by BP security 24-hours before your scheduled departure. They run a background check on each participant.

Our tour guide said things really changed since 9-11 and this was one of them. Before September 11th you could practically drive your car up to the ocean. Like many things in the world, not any more. When we pulled up to the security checkpoint an armed guard was there and we were told that we could not take any pictures.

I understand the security but I wonder what the true threat really would be? Do you think a terrorist would drive thousands of miles with a IED to bomb the place? A place that is 70 miles wide?

We were back at the Deadhorse Camp by noon.

Deadhorse to Coldfoot

We grabbed gas at the only gas station in Deadhorse. It was $5.50 a gallon and you were only allowed to buy 13 gallons at a time. Remember that they truck everything up here including gas. I have always found it odd that they pull all of the oil out of the ground here within spitting distance of this gas station and that oil flows 799 miles down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to Valdez and then it is most likely loaded up on a large ship, refined in the Lower 48 and driven by truck ALL the way back up here to this gas station.

We got a couple white chocolate mocha’s at the northern most coffee stand and hit the road. We are such Yuppies!

Our drive to Coldfoot was supposed to take us about six hours. It rained most of the way and the road was muddy. We still weren’t passed on our side by no more than three trucks. About 200 miles in just before we headed over Atigan Pass two trucks zoomed past us on my left. The second one flung up a rock and smashed into my windshield leaving a large chip the size of a quarter. A windshield in an FJ Cruiser cost 700 bucks. This just doubled the cost of our trip!

Atigan Pass was just as scary as the ride up. Luckily no trucks were coming down when we were heading up. I had my foot to the floor and the RPMs rev’d in third gear all the way up with Michele keeping an eye out for the semi’s.

We stopped at the top and got an awesome panoramic picture of the valley and we took a short video on the way down.

After we made it over the pass the sun was out and it was a beautiful day. I now could see the true awesomeness of this trip. The scenery was spectacular! As we headed back into the Dr. Seuss forest and made our way into Coldfoot we both had a smile on our face and we were happy that the drive was shorter and we could rest and grab a good meal.

We arrived in Coldfoot by 5:30 and we made the dinner cut off!

If you have watched the show, Ice Road Truckers you know about Coldfoot. It is just like you see it on TV. It is a truly Alaskan experience. We checked in to our room and paid for dinner and breakfast. It cost us $289.00. We headed over to the camp and unloaded before grabbing chow. It was much the same as Deadhorse but it had a personal bathroom and shower in each room and a window with a view and the lovely familiar howls of sled dogs nearby – we were in heaven.

Dinner was buffet style and very good. They had ham and chicken, a couple sides, a nice salad bar and dessert. We sat around and listened to our fellow travelers. One group of girls have traveled on their bikes from Key West Florida and have been on the road since February! They were raising money for national park conservation and speaking at the parks along the way.

We headed to our room by 8 and I paid 14 bucks for an hour of wifi Internet. I checked in with Nicole and made sure everything was good at home and posted some pictures.

We both slept good and a nice hot shower was just what we needed in the morning before we headed back on the road.

Coldfoot back to Fairbanks

Breakfast in Coldfoot was a buffet like the night before and it was good. We filled up ourselves and the gas tank and hit the road before 7:45.

We stopped at a few of the same spots as the drive up. We stopped at the Arctic Circle for a quick stretch. There still wasn’t a lot of trucks and we made good time, driving 50 miles per hour most of the way. It was a mixture of rain, sunshine and smoke on our way back.

We stopped at the Yukon River Camp and took a short hike down to the Yukon River to snap a picture. We spent some time talking to a nice couple at the information cabin. They are a retired couple from southern Oregon that came up in late May and will be here until just after Labor Day. We got our Arctic Circle certificates and a couple stamps indicating we came and we saw.

It is 74 miles from the Yukon River Camp to the end of the Dalton and then you are back on paved roads as you head up and down the winding hills on your way back into Fairbanks.

At the end of the haul road we got out and took a couple pictures of the signs pointing north and gave each other a high five saying we did it!

We arrived in Fairbanks by 2:30 and checked in to our favorite hotel.

We stopped at the hardware store and grabbed a wrench for one of the big Lightforce lights that came loose on the road and then headed for dinner at the Alaskan Salmon Bake.

If you have not been to the Alaskan Salmon Bake make sure it is on your list! It is located in Pioneer Park in Fairbanks. It is a truly Alaskan experience. It is all-you-can-eat salmon, prime rib, breaded cod, salad and dessert. Sure it is a tourist trap but a lot of fun. We came here last year and it was just as good. On Thursday-Saturday they also serve crab legs too.

It cost $34.99 per person and if you show your Alaska driver’s license you get 5 bucks off.

We headed back to the hotel in time to jump in the pool for a quick swim. We went to bed early and up by 7:30am to see if we could get the rock chip on my windshield fixed before it spider-webbed cracked all the way down.

Fairbanks to Willow

We woke up early and after breakfast at the Hampton Inn we were at the glass shop by 8:30. They fixed the chip, thank goodness and you can only see where they filled it in. At least we saved 700 bucks for a new piece of glass. We headed over to North Pole to pick up Ragnosh from his owner. This was the real reason for this whole trip! His family is moving to Texas and the pup will be with us for a year while we train him to become a service dog for his handler/owner Mark who suffers from PTSD from being a war time solider.

After picking up Rag, we headed over to the Santa Claus House. This is one of Michele’s favorite places in the world. This is THE Santa house IN North Pole, Alaska. Here you can get letters from Santa mailed to the little ones. They also have the reindeer on site and everything. If you don’t Believe you shouldn’t be here! We found a cool wooden dog sled and musher that was handmade in Germany and while it cost too much we had to have it.

Our trip home was nice. We stopped in Denali Park for pizza at the Prospectors Historic Pizzeria and Ale House. It was excellent. Even with all the road construction we were home by 7:00pm.

All in all it was a great trip. Sure it was expensive. About 900 bucks for hotels and meals, probably 200 bucks in gas, a 65 dollar rock chip repair, and when I got home I found out one of my HID headlight bulbs broke on the trip for an extra expense of 79 bucks. Was it all worth it? Sure. It was one of those ‘bucket list’ things that everyone should do, especially if you live in Alaska but I still have that itching feeling that we just shouldn’t be there. Here we were on a road close to 500 miles that truly belongs to the truckers and they let you know it. When we were in Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay it just felt like we were at someone’s work site, and we were. It was not a place where you would think tourism and that has nothing to do with the spartan conditions. I guess I expected more, or really, I didn’t know what to expect when I got there. I have been to a lot of places in my life and probably have driven well over a million miles and this is the first time I ask myself, why.

People told us over and over again to be careful and to make sure we took extra gear. The consensus was you should have two spare tires, camping gear, food and gas. We had all of that and didnt need any of it. We have 16 gallons of gas sitting in the cans in the garage right now. While the road was dirt/gravel, huge sections were paved road. The drive reminds me of the many trips we took on the mountain passes in Colorado and if you live in Alaska or have been over Hatcher Pass that is exactly what you can expect here, just 500 miles of it. We expected much more traffic, especially trucks. We were only passed five times on our side of the road by truckers. We yielded to every one of them and most of them slowed down on both sides of the road and gave us a wave.

Would I advise my rabid readers to do this trip? You bet! I would just suggest you know exactly what you are getting into. There is some of the most spectacular scenery in Alaska on this trip and for many, if not most, it is a trip of a life-time. It truly is an ultimate road trip.

If you have done this trip or planning on it, let me know. I would love to hear from you!

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertforto