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We started north towards the Arctic Circle at 5:00 am. The half-filled
(to avoid a spill) Styrofoam cup of coffee was going to go a long ways in
keeping the yawns at bay. Three guests and a guide climbed aboard the Northern
Alaska Tour Company van for the nine-hour trek to arctic Alaska. The pre-dawn
light was reminiscent of early waits for the school bus and we were preparing
for one phenomenal field trip.
Ryan, our college-aged guide, placed the foot stool in front of the
side doors and graciously helped everyone in. Being the solo traveler, I was
placed up front—to keep my eyes peeled for wildlife! (10-4 on making that
coffee last as long as possible.) Glenn and Susan perched in the first row.
Intrepid travelers, they’d been on the road since April exploring Alaska. Coming to Interior Alaska had been on their bucket list. Retirees from California,
now living on the Big Island of Hawai’i, one couldn’t have wished for more
appealing traveling companions.
Being on what’s called a fly/drive tour, there was plenty of
opportunity to check out Interior Alaska communities—Joy, Alaska anyone? A
speck amid rugged wilderness, Joy is the home to the Carlson family and their
Arctic Circle Trading Post. Joe and Nancy Carlson ventured into the Interior
looking for someone to breed their lone goat with and live off the land. Over a
quarter century later, they’re still here, welcoming travelers North with free
hot coffee and a two-story trading post of Alaska gifts and crafts to take back
home. It wasn’t even 7:00 am and you got the feeling Joe had already been up
awhile—making ready for the intermittent visitors.
Rolling up the road through a misty morning fog, Ryan’s lilting voice guided
us through the history of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. TAPS for short, the
pipeline dissects the state north to south crossing 800 miles of tundra,
mountain ranges and river valleys. Completed in 1977, the pipeline is an
engineering marvel. Taking into account the environment, potential natural
disasters and longevity the builders were thinking into the future and this
part of the country is bespeckled with its history. A few pictures later, we’re
back on the road—inching closer to Alaska’s largest river.
Crossing the only bridge over the Yukon River, Ryan pauses as his three
guests marvel at the massive river below us. The fifth largest river in the
world by volume, the Yukon is the life-blood of this region. With its
headwaters in the Canadian Yukon, the river flows east to west through Alaska
in the heart of the Arctic. We pull off the road at the Yukon River Camp and
pick up our pre-ordered lunches. Well before noon, we stash them in our backpacks
and continue north.
The fog has since blown away and revealed hillsides bright pink with
fireweed. As if staring at a painting, I paste my forehead against the window
in disbelief. Nature’s bouquets sprawl across the alpine tundra. We start to
climb into the foothills of the Brooks Range and take another stop at Finger
Mountain—our last stop before the Arctic Circle. With time to get out and wander,
take pictures and eat lunch, Finger Mountain is a welcome invitation to say you
hiked around in the Arctic. With giant rock outcrops, Finger Mountain serves as
a plateau to take in a breathtaking 360° view.
At North 66°33’, an imaginary line dots across the circumpolar North.
We’ve arrived at the Arctic Circle and Ryan is not short on pomp and
circumstance. With red carpet and all, we walk across a literal dotted line
pressed into a rug and claim our official Arctic Circle Adventure Certificate.
Coldfoot, Alaska is the terminus of our 265-mile drive. Once a workers
camp for the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, Dick Mackey (father of
famed musher Lance Mackey) re-invented Coldfoot as a truck stop. It’s changed
hands over the years, but its purpose remains much the same. Coldfoot is a welcome
respite during a long drive up or down the “haul road”—otherwise known as the
Dalton Highway, a 414-mile gravel road that starts north of Fairbanks and ends
in Deadhorse, Alaska.
Ryan drops us off at the Coldfoot airport and we’re greeted by the
quintessential Alaska bush pilot—Jason. Sauntering across the gravel runway in
Levis, aviators and a worn-in ball cap, Jason welcomes us aboard a Piper Navajo
Chieftan. With a row to myself in the 8-seater plane, I put on the provided
headphones. It’s a short flight back to Fairbanks through the Koyukuk River
valley. The views from the air competing with those we just drove through. The
wilderness is lush and green and I rest my head back and start to take in the
day. For surely this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Landing in Fairbanks I was a bit saddened to say goodbye to Susan and
Glenn. We’d shared something special. With the exchanging of e-mail addresses (and
a hug and kiss on the cheek from Glenn!) we went our separate ways—I’m sure to
forever remember the day we spent in the Arctic.
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