I set out North not knowing exactly what to expect – I had heard many different stories about the road surface, condition and traffic along the Dalton Highway, or “The Haul Road” as the locals call it. The first hundred or so miles are on sealed pavement, through beautiful green rolling hills and wild flowers in all directions. The pipeline does a very good job of making it’s presence felt as a reminder of why the road exists at all.
In another hundred miles I crossed into the arctic circle – there is a big sign and a guy handing out cheesy certificates. Many tourists drive to this point and turn around, which is a shame based on what’s to come…
North is the tiny town of Coldfoot, population 13. It’s well worth the visit for two reasons:
1. It has a gas station, the last one for 240 miles (384 km)
2. It has a shiny new visitors centre, stocked with friendly staff to answer all your questions about the arctic region and the wildlife found there – really fascinating.
The road now starts to change significantly – almost purely gravel, narrower, steeper and a lot more twisty. The gravel is also kind of strange in that they put a chemical in it to keep the dust down, which is still gruesome. This chemical seems to make the surface turn into glue – making steering interesting and sticking permanently to every surface in sight. For once, I didn’t envy the guys on two wheels one little bit.
The highway has one last trick up it’s sleeve before allowing passage to the arctic, The Brooks Mountain Range. Now it’s blatantly obvious this road was not built for the public – grades of 12% or more are common. I watched in awe two semis in front of me hauled one oversize trailer up the mountain, then both worked together to get it down the other side in a partially controlled manner. I was told that in winter, some trailers need four semis. Wow. These trucks had two support vehicles in front and one behind – a friendly wave was given to indicate you should get off the road right now.
Descending The Brooks Range the landscape changed dramatically – most noticeably, there were no trees. I’ve been above the altitude at which no trees can grow, called the “tree line”, many times before. This was eerily different – the lack of trees had nothing to to with elevation, trees can not grow here because it is too far north. Cooooool.
The mountains quickly turned into green rolling hills, then faded altogether leaving behind the desolate arctic tundra. Although it was 9pm, the sun was still very high in the sky and beating down hot enough to get sunburnt. About 10 miles before the oil outpost of Deadhorse, a cold wind ripped in and the temperature dropped significantly – not too many degrees above freezing.
I camped a mile or two out of town, which was a really exciting experience. Cocooned in my sleeping bag and wearing all my thermals I was still cold. With the sun high overhead and the wind howling around the tent I really did feel like an explorer in a very barren, inhospitable land. Lying down in my tent to go to sleep and only then realizing I was still wearing my sunglasses was also pretty strange. I was so excited it took me a long time to fall asleep.
Would you believe me if I said camping by the arctic ocean is kind of cold?
I wound up spending an entire day in Deadhorse huddled behind my Jeep in the sun reading and writing and I’m really glad I did. By the end of the day I was able to get some understanding of how harsh this place really is, even in the height of summer. The fox below startled me twice by coming within 10 feet of me while I was reading.
The drilling companies own all the roads to the actual ocean, so you have to pay $40 for a tourist bus. I debated it for some time and then decided that I’d come all this way, so I should dot it. It’s a shame I couldn’t get a photo of the Jeep with her rear wheels in the water, but it was never going to happen with security being really tight.
In case you’re wondering, the water was really cold
All I have to do now is drive south.