On Wednesday morning we were again up very early. We had to be at the Northern Alaska Tours office by 6 AM for a road trip to the arctic circle. It was too early to get breakfast so we each just grabbed a muffin by the front desk of the hotel. Then one of the very accommodating shuttle drives gave us a ride to the tour company.
Once at the tour office, we filled out order forms for the lunches we would pick up at the Yukon River and met our driver/guide Allen. We boarded the 20 passenger van with our fellow sleepy travelers. Once past the town of Fox, we were on the smooth pavement of the Elliot Highway and soon crossed under the last power line we would see until we came back that evening.
We made our first stop of the day at the not quite a town of Joy (the outhouses are behind the gift shop). There we met Joe Carlson who, as Allen told us, is an remarkable person. Joe and his wife Nancy have 8 children of their own and have adopted at least 15 others – all of whom they raised on the homestead they carved out of the Alaskan bush.
Our tour group made use of the outhouses, enjoyed a cup of Joe’s free coffee and left a little money behind for their gift shop purchases. Then we got back into the van and continued north.
Twenty some miles past Joy we left the pavement of the Elliot Highway for the gravel of the Dalton. Also called the “haul road” the Dalton was built as a supply road during construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and runs parallel to it all the way to Prudhoe Bay. Now the road is primarily used to haul supplies to the oil fields on the North Slope. This is the road featured on the History Channels series “Ice Road Truckers.”
Not far from the turnoff, we had to stop for road construction. There was going to be a long wait for a pilot car to lead us through the work area so the flagger, named Rosie, came onto the van to introduce herself and say hello. Yes, things are different in Alaska. The pilot car showed up in about 15 minutes and we followed him on north.
Whatever construction needs to be done on the road has to happen during the short summer and this stretch of work is pretty long. While there are a couple paved sections of the Dalton, most of it is gravel. In fact, the gravel seems to make a better road surface over the permafrost. The paved areas are broken and rough from frost heaves.
Our next stop was at a point where we could get a good look at the pipeline. The construction is much more complicated than it first looks. The pipe itself is not attached to the support columns but sets on Teflon pads so it can slide as the metal contracts and expands from the extreme temperature swings on the far north. The columns are set into the permafrost and have cooling fins at the top. Ammonia circulates through the columns and fins to radiate heat away and keep the permafrost frozen. It is really something to see up close.
At mile 55 we crossed over the E. L. Patton Yukon River Bridge and made our lunch stop at the rustic Yukon River Camp. Our sack lunches were ready for us so we picked them up. At the same time, we filled out requests for dinner which we would get later.
This stop we just had time for the restrooms and a tee shirt purchase before we walked down by the Yukon to see the river and the bridge. We would have a longer stop at the camp when we came back for dinner on the return trip.
Now it was starting to rain a little. We were getting into higher country and the hills were becoming steeper. We went over up and down grades the truckers had given names like “Roller Coaster” and “Beaver Slide.” There was just one more rest stop on this stretch and that was at Finger Mountain wayside – mile 98.
At mile 115 we finally arrived at the Arctic Circle – 66 degrees 33 minutes north latitude. Other than the sign, a picnic table and a couple outhouses, there is nothing much at the site. Much less, in fact, than we found when we were half way between the equator and the north pole in Wisconsin this spring.
Allen laid out a red carpet with a line down the middle and then shook each of our hands and congratulated us as we crossed the circle. The rain had stopped but the air was still chilly. We took a few photos on our own while Allen was busy up at the picnic table.
What Allen had been doing was preparing Arctic Circle brownies for us. He called us over for our treat which, he said, represented “tundra mud and with permafrosting.” Whatever they were, they tasted good to us.
We were joined by three gray jays and a red squirrel who wanted to share our snack. The jays would fly down and take pieces of brownie right out of peoples hands – sometime actually landing for a few seconds. The squirrel just wanted to eat in peace. We had some brownies left over so we passed them out to the few other people who had stopped at the rest area then got back into the van and started back south.
We made a couple short stops to inspect the tundra. At one, Allen pushed a steel rod a foot into the ground and pulled it out again when we were ready to leave. He let us feel the end which was ice cold from contact with the permafrost. At another stop he had us push on one of the small spruce trees growing there. The ground for several feet around it moved because of the shallow root system and soft spongy ground. Walking on the tundra felt like walking on a mattress.
We had much longer to spend at Yukon River Camp when we made our dinner stop there. This was the first hot meal we had all day so we thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes, there is a story that goes with that picture of the bear’s butt where the window should be. Just go to http://bangordailynews.com/2011/08/05/outdoors/so-a-bear-walks-into-a-gift-shop%E2%80%A6/ to read it. It is a good story!
Back on the road, back through the construction zone (twenty minute delay this time), one more stop at Joy for the outhouses and then we were back on the pavement and soon back in Fairbanks.
Allen took us to Northern Alaska Tours where he gave each of us a personalized certificate proclaiming that we had crossed the Arctic Circle. Staff from the tour company then took us back to Pike’s Lodge – 16 hours after we left that morning. It was a long day but well worth the time to see all that we had.
Thursday was the first day since we left home that we didn’t have anything scheduled. We asked the ladies at the front desk about going to Chena Hot Springs. They told us the shuttle could take us there but it would cost $45. Their suggestion was that we rent a car and go off on our own for the day. They could get us a deal on one from Arctic Rent-A-Car just down the street. We decided to do that. A phone call to the office and we were ready to go. The shuttle dropped us off at the rental office where a very nice lady had us on the road in a Chevy Impala in just a few minutes.
Since we had a car, we took the long way to the hot springs by way of North Pole, Alaska. It’s not very far from Fairbanks to North Pole so it was easy for us make a stop there. The town is, of course, very Christmas oriented. There is a duplicate of the striped pole at was dropped out of an airplane over the geographic north pole. Streets have names like Snowman Lane, Santa Claus Drive and Mistletoe Lane.
We stopped at Santa Claus House on St. Nicholas Dr. and bought a few gifts to send back home. Then we drove over the the post office so the packages and postcards we mailed would have the North Pole postmark.
We got lunch at the Subway near the post office. The girls working there gave us directions to Chena Hot Springs that went something like: “Turn left out of the parking lot, turn right at the stop sign and drive until the road ends at a T. Turn right and drive until you are sure you went too far then drive further. The road deadends at Chena Hot Springs Resort.”
It was a VERY long drive with almost nothing along the way. We crossed over branches of the Chena River from time to time. There were frequent moose crossing signs so I was watching the side of the road for them. Maybe half way to the resort I spotted a cow moose standing in a pond. We turned around as soon as we could and went back for a better look and a couple photos.
After the moose sighting we continued on to Chena Hot Springs Resort. The resort itself wasn’t all that interesting to us. If we had come prepared to soak in the hot springs it might have been different. As it was, we took some pictures around the grounds then got back in the car to drive back to Fairbanks. For us, the drive was the interesting part.
I saw another moose on the return trip so we made another photo stop for that one. A couple other cars were also stopped by the road to watch this cow.
Back at Pike’s, we just had to leave the car keys at the front desk. The car rental people would pick it up there. We made it another early night since we had to be at the airport early for a flight to Barrow.
We were back down in the lobby by 5:30 on Friday and got a shuttle to the airport. Our flight to Barrow was scheduled for 7:30 AM but, by that time, the plane hadn’t even left Anchorage. At 9:30, the gate agent announced that the flight would be overflying Fairbanks and so was canceled. It seems the Prudhoe Bay stop had been skipped because of weather the day before and today’s flight was was full of passengers who had to reschedule. We were offered a flight the next day but, since we were flying home then we had to decline. Missing Barrow was the only real disappointment of the trip. Despite the fact that we hadn’t purchased trip insurance, the tour company was nice enough to refund our money.
We called Pike’s and they sent the shuttle over to pick us up and take us back to the lodge. We asked the driver for suggestions about what we should do for the day and he suggested the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska. Several people had told us we should see it so we decided to give it a try. We paid the front desk $5 to take the shuttle there (the only time we had to pay for the shuttle) and the driver dropped us at the front door. Before we went into the museum itself, we had lunch at the small cafe right inside the door.
A museum is far from what we had planned for the day but, as museums go, this was a good one. We liked it better than the Anchorage Museum we visited a few days before. The Museum of the North has exhibits depicting life in the far north from prehistoric times to the present. The first floor is sort of a cross between a historical and a natural history museum. Animal and fossil exhibits are mixed with human artifacts. A highlight is the 36,000 year old mummified Steppe Bison called Blue Babe that was found by a gold miner north of Fairbanks.
The second floor is an art gallery with works that depict life in Alaska and it’s natural beauty. Also on this floor is the “The Place Where You Go To Listen.” Data from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations all over Alaska is fed into a computer and translated into light and sound. You can “hear” the sun, moon, Northern Lights, seismic activity and many other events.
Before we left, Georgia posed with a mounted brown bear to show just how tall these animals are. Then we called for the shuttle and returned to Pike’s for our last evening in Alaska. We had some final packing to do and, since our suitcases were now overweight, we sent boxes of stuff home by priority mail, which Pike’s friendly staff handled for us. Next to Pike’s Lodge is Pike’s Landing and we had a very good dinner there that night. Then it was back to the room for some relaxation and an early night.
The next morning we were, once more, on the early shuttle to the airport. Our flight to Seattle was on time and we got to our gate for the flight from there to Chicago with time to spare. The flight to Chicago before ours – that was supposed to leave at 2:20 – was still at the gate. We saw TV news about severe thunderstorms back home so, we expected our flight to be delayed too. But, our flight crew managed to get out on time and we arrived at O’Hare right on schedule. A cab got us home a little after 11 PM – tired but very pleased with the outstanding adventure that our second trip to Alaska had been.