Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Arctic Circle

Two things we wanted to do for sure while in Alaska was a trip to the Arctic Circle and to see Denali. We got a chance to do both in one day even though they are nearly 300 miles apart.  We took an excursion to the Arctic Circle on the Dalton Highway with the Northern Alaska Tour Company.  It was great to be able to sit back in a comfortable seat, enjoy the scenery and learn about Alaska from our driver Alan.  It was a perfect, clear day so we had fantastic views of the surrounding landscape.  
We were only a few miles north of Fairbanks when this beautiful view of Denali came into sight.  Even though we were about 140 miles away it was still quite impressive.  We sure hope for a closer look when we head south, but the weather forecast is not promising, so this may have been our best look.
We could see many of the towering peaks of the Alaska Range.
We have been seeing these variations in the colors of the vegetation along our whole route north.  We learned on this trip that the dark color areas are black spruce, a scrub tree that only grows in the poorest soil above the permafrost.  The lighter areas are aspen, birch and white spruce that grow in the better soil where there is better drainage.  It makes for some interesting landscapes.
Our first stop was the Arctic Circle Trading Post.  This family business started when the daughters began selling lemonade to the truck drivers on their way to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay.  While the business has grown it is still off the grid, with the only power being a small generator. The only bathroom facilities are the very lovely on the outside, but real old fashion on the inside outhouses.  An interesting stop run by interesting people.  
Ninety miles north of Fairbanks we turned onto the Dalton Highway.  The Dalton was constructed as a support road for the oil fields on the North Slope and Trans Alaska pipeline that carries the oil 800 miles south to Valdez.  From here to the Arctic Circle is 115 miles, making it a total round trip of 400 miles.  Even though the public is now permitted to use the road, that is why we chose not to drive it in the CRV.
And here is another reason.  While the road has been paved in a few southern sections most of it is dirt.  That said, it was much smoother than the section of the Alaska Highway we drove from Destruction Bay to the US border in the Yukon.
And still more reasons.  If you have ever watched Ice Road Truckers, top left is Roller Coaster and bottom right is a 2.5 mile long 9% grade.  We did see a few private vehicle, but most of the traffic was big rigs moving stuff up and down the road.  Our driver was always in CB contact with the truckers and would wait or slowdown for approaching traffic on bad sections.  They still flew by in a blur.  We stopped at the top of Roller Coaster and it took a truck 15 seconds from the time it went over the top until we could see it starting up the other side.
More beautiful distant mountains.  We did get a view of the Brooks Range to the north, but the picture was not very good.
The Dalton has the only highway bridge over the Yukon River in Alaska.  The pipeline is attached to the bridge.
We stopped for lunch and dinner at Yukon River Camp, an old work camp for the construction crews.  This woman, who lives in the wilderness a few miles up the river, sells her handmade crafts from this little building.  This is also a drop-off point for supplies that are delivered to river villages by barge, there only summertime access.  In the winter the river freezes and can be used by snow machines. 
The road and the pipeline snaking across the tundra.  We were above the tree line here and could see for miles in every direction.
We made it and were given the red carpet treatment by Alan as we were welcomed north of the Arctic Circle.  This is the farthest north we have ever been, how cool.
Here we are at the Arctic Circle, 66 degrees 33 minutes north of the equator.  Alan did a great job and had us back in Fairbanks before night fall, that would be in September.  Even now two weeks before the summer solstice it is never dark.  Sunset is at 12:25 AM and sunrise at 3:16 in Fairbanks.  It is twilight the rest of the night.  Each day will be about 7 minutes longer until June 21. 
The Trans Alaska Pipeline parallels the road for most of the trip.  The pipeline was built in the 1970's at a cost of 8 billion dollars.  380 of the 800 miles are above ground because the hot oil traveling underground would melt the permafrost and cause the pipe to break.  The vents on the top of the supports vent any heat that builds up to prevent melting.  The supports contain a chemical that keeps the temperature at 32.  The pipeline zigzags and rides on a Teflon pad to allow for movement from expansion and contraction or an earthquake.  There are 150 gate valves that can be closed if there is a break. While everyone knows about the great oil spill caused when the Exxon Valdez hit a reef, there has never been an engineering failure along the pipeline.  The pipeline is really an impressive accomplishment. 
The tour also made stops to learn about the forest and the tundra.  Alan plugged a hole in the tundra and Nanc is reaching down to feel the ice.  When you look at the tundra from the road it looks smooth, but when you walk out on it, it is just clumps of organic material and almost no soil.  If it burns the ice will melt and a new lake will form.  The trees of the forest above the permafrost have very shallow roots because of the ice.  They can easily be pushed over.  The cut in the center is for the fiber optic cable that is being laid all the way to the North Slope.

While it was a long day (5:30 AM pick up - 10:30 PM return) it was well worth the time and money.  Alan was a great guide who taught us a lot about the history and culture of Alaska.  Throughout the trip we watched videos on gold mining, permafrost, pipeline construction and native culture so there was never a dull moment during a very long day.


John and Lora said...

That looks like it was a really neat tour!! No critters?

Doing It On the Road(Part II) said...

Very informative post and a great view of Denali!

heyduke50 said...

we hope to make that trip someday - thanks for the insight...