My brother Adric and I recently returned from a 12-day adventure to Alaska.
We had a flight in and a flight out, with twelve unplanned days in between.
And I think that’s what we told everyone we met. Initially because it was honest, but we kept saying it because there was definitely some unintentional humor to the line.
Who goes to Alaska without a plan? For what’s supposed to be a vacation? By many standards the whole trip was nonsense. We rented a little Chrysler sedan. Drove it to the end of the world. That’s not a joke. We drove it to the end of the world.
We put nearly 2,500 miles on that little car and it often doubled as our house. Countless naps, some uncomfortable nights, all the while becoming the symbol of our nonsense trip. People laughed at the stories of what we’d done, and more so at the car that had somehow dragged us through it all without capitulating.
Yes, the trip was nonsense, but a great nonsense. Those 12 unplanned days were so because neither one of us had time to get our ideas organized towards anything resembling an itinerary. Our tickets were booked only within days of our departure.
There were things we could have done better, ways we could have been more efficient, but 12 days is hardly enough time to really respect or see a state twice the size of Texas with natural wonders rivaling anything that exists in the lower 48.
Alaska is a land of superlatives. America’s biggest, tallest, coldest, largest… it seems that some iteration of each either lives or exists in the northernmost state.
Among those, of course, is Mount Denali. At 20,320ft, Denali is not only the tallest mountain in the United States, but the tallest in North America. Its upper half is perpetually snow-capped, and it is so imposing that relativity is almost pointless. What, for size, can you relate to a 20,000ft stand-alone peak?
My gauge was one of Denali’s southern sub-peaks, standing at 14,800ft, and therefore close to California’s Mt Whitney. Seeing the gap in height between the two peaks- a vertical mile- was the only way I could begin to understand Denali’s size.
Denali National Park was ultimately one of the casualties of our trip, as Adric and I passed by, not through it on our way up to Fairbanks and the far north of Arctic Alaska.
Briefly experiencing the minimalism of life above the Arctic Circle was for me the defining point of our trip. It was an almost otherworldly experience.
Fairbanks is the gateway to Arctic Alaska, located just a little south of halfway up the state, and by many standards still quite far up- 64 degrees north latitude. Heading north from the city the landscape becomes almost entirely uninhabited and eventually completely inhospitable.
80 miles north of the Fairbanks the main highway bends southwest, and one lone road continues north towards the Arctic Circle and beyond. This is the Dalton Highway, built in the 1970s to connect the oil rich north of Alaska with the shipping lanes to the south.
It is not necessarily a famous road, but has gained some degree of notoriety due to its frequent featuring in the show Ice Road Truckers and because of its rugged, incomparable beauty. It is a road that goes through nowhere only to arrive at nowhere.
The Dalton Highway was a bumpy, windy road, often unpaved, and always unpredictable. Wheel devouring potholes were everywhere, and the landscape sucked in all of my concentration. 50 miles on, the road crossed over the Yukon River, one of North America’s largest rivers, and one of its most untamed.
The Yukon flays out over much of central Alaska, collects itself to pass through mountain ranges, and fans out again over vast empty spaces. This process continues over much of Alaska, and the river is so large that this pattern is clearly visible on almost any average physical map of Alaska.
Another 50 miles north of the Yukon River, the Dalton Highway crosses the Arctic Circle at 66.5 degrees north. The Arctic Circle is in many ways an arbitrary line that’s placed on globes, atlases and maps, and makes little sense without explanation (I’m going to save that for the next blog, coming soon).
Once above the Arctic Circle, the vacuum of the Alaskan north is unavoidable. Half of Alaska is still north of Fairbanks, an area of land comparable in size to Texas, with a total population of about 30,000 people. It’s almost impossible to grasp how sparse the human habitation is.
The Alaskan north is breath taking vistas that meld into each other, where it’s more often true than not that there’s no one person at all in any direction you look for as far as you can see.
A further 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Adric and I arrived at one of the few summertime service camps of northern Alaska, Coldfoot. The small camp was founded as a mining settlement during the Klondike goldrush, but has survived as an important waypoint in keeping alive Alaska’s black gold rush of the past half century.
Coldfoot is an important refueling station for cars and trucks in transit to Deadhorse, the northern terminus of the Dalton Highway, and the United States’ northernmost accessible settlement by road.
Beyond Coldfoot, the Dalton Highway passes through the Brooks Range, continental North American’s northernmost mountain range, and one of its most wild, with few permanent human settlements.
The Dalton Highway reaches its crest at Atigun Pass deep within the mountains. As the road climbs to the summit, trees slowly dwindle, and at some point- neither Adric nor I were paying attention to it at the moment- we passed what is the last tree in North America. Beyond it, only the barren low shrubs and grasses of the Arctic Tundra.
Once the highway winds out of the Brooks Range it opens up to the coastal plain of the extreme north of Alaska, an area known as the North Slope. The only things that live out here are seasonal grass, the animals that graze on them as long as the season allows them to, and, depending on the time of year, swarms of mosquitoes.
Thankfully Adric and I were a few months past mosquito prime, where the biomass of the trillions (not even joking) of mosquitoes has been estimated to be not very far in sum total to the collective biomass of Caribou that also inhabit the North Slope.
The North Slope is one of the few places on the planet that can be fairly described as the end of the world. The Dalton Highway continues through the North Slope on rolling green hills that don’t have enough nutrients or year-round sunlight to support anything more than small shrubs and basic subsistence creatures.
This is the land of permafrost. The soil, inches to feet below the surface, is locked in a permanently frozen state as result of the near-polar extremes of the climate. The ground never thaws from the long sun-deprived, sub-zero winters.
Adric and I drove north until the road ended in the settlement of Deadhorse just south of Prudhoe Bay. Though Deadhorse has no permanent inhabitants, it is a year-round service station supporting the oil community that has been ever-present in the far reaches of northern Alaska since the 1970s.
The public road ended eight miles shy of the Arctic Ocean shore, and we took a private tour to get to the Arctic Ocean, passing the final eight miles through government land that has been highly restricted since September 11th.
From Prudhoe Bay north, the Arctic Ocean is 1,200 miles of uninterrupted water and ice, with no presence of humanity beyond the coast.
From Prudhoe Bay and Deadhorse, Adric and I went back south, passing again through the Brooks Range, Coldfoot Camp, across the Arctic Circle, the Yukon River, and off the Dalton Highway back to Fairbanks.