The Dalton Highway stretches toward the Brooks Range in northern Alaska
The first sign that I was crossing a threshold into a new frontier was the sudden reappearance of light. I was in Seattle. The sun had set, and the sky was that dark navy blue fading to a nighttime black. It was shortly after 10 pm when my flight departed for Fairbanks, Alaska. As the plane reached its cruising altitude, hugging the coastline heading northwest, the sun did the strangest thing; it reversed direction and rose again. You can imagine my disorientation. I was leaving the land of day and night and traveling to a place of perpetual light. I realized that I would need to reorient my vision and let my body loosen its reliance on circadian rhythms. I arrived in Fairbanks around 1 am local time. Sunshine and a "Welcome to Alaska" sign greeted me when I stepped off the plane.
I stayed at a hotel near the airport with the curtains tightly drawn. The following day I grabbed a cup of coffee and walked down the shoulder of the highway about a mile to pick up my rental car from Alaska 4x4. An orange Jeep Wrangler awaited me when I arrived. We became friends immediately. She proved to be a good companion for the journey. Though she didn't have much to say, she was dependable and a good listener.
I left Fairbanks after stocking up on groceries and topping off the gas tank. My destination was Wiseman, Alaska, population 14, about 270 miles north of Fairbanks (approximately 2,000 miles north of Seattle). To get there, I had to take the Dalton Highway, the haul road made infamous by the TV show Ice Road Truckers. Built in the 1970s, the road provided access for the construction of the Alaskan pipeline, which stretched from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to the port in Valdez, near the Gulf of Alaska. There were paved sections, but the majority of the road was compacted dirt. Fortunately for me, I would not have to traverse the path covered in snow or ice.
A lonely tractor-trailer leaves a trail of dust in its path as it rolls up the Dalton Highway.
There was tremendous freedom that came when I turned off the GPS. No voice telling me where to go or when I'd get there. No expectation for arrival. No heads-up on the traffic ahead. The only certainty was my direction: north. Which way the road will bend, I do not know. The peaks and vales between here and there, I will discover when I'm there. How long will it take? Who cares. North. That is the destination, and that was enough.
I stopped along the way to stretch my legs and snap a few pictures. I spent some time at the welcome center — a small cabin — near the Yukon River. The host seemed excited to have a visitor to talk to. She gave me updates on the latest wildlife spotted in the area. "Three moose passed here just yesterday." I walked down to the swift-flowing Yukon River and tried to imagine what it looked like 150 years ago when floods of prospectors used the river as a highway to the north.
I arrived at Coldfoot Camp in the late evening, though you couldn't really tell what time it was by the sun's orientation. Coldfoot is a trucker's stop and base camp to all things in the arctic North. It is one of the only places on the Dalton Highway where you can get gas and a hot meal. A short gravel runway allowed bush planes to come and go.
I spent two nights in a cabin in Wiseman, fifteen miles north of Coldfoot. During the day, I explored the area. I pack-rafted down Koyukuk River and biked local trails, all with an eye over my shoulder and my ears perked for any signs of bears. One morning, I drove 100 miles north through the Brook Range to see the expansive tundra. The permafrost and lack of winter sunshine prevent trees from growing. But during the summer, when light is plentiful, the tundra transforms into a blanket of green grass and wildflowers. Except for the cool temperatures, it doesn't look "Arctic" at all. Rather, it is lush with plant life and birds that migrate from as far away as New Zealand. As the breeze brushed my face, I swear I could hear the voice of David Attenborough say, "Summer in the Arctic Circle is the season of transformation . . . ."
Closed in 1956, the Wiseman post office still stands today.
To say the mosquitos were thick would be an understatement. I wore a jacket, pants, and a buff around my neck, yet this did not deter the vampire insects from seeking my blood. My only exposed skin was on my hands and bald head. It made for a poor buffet, but they didn't seem to care. The numerous bites on my head inflamed my skin, further agitated by the mesh trucker hat I wore. For several days, it looked like my scalp had some sort of skin disease.
My pack raft guide, Dan, was a young man from Western Massachusetts. After googling "remote arctic work," he found Coldfoot and took a job as a guide — Northern Light viewing being the draw in the winter. He appreciates the remoteness and the small, tight-knit community that he found: "It suits me." He lives a simple existence in a small four-walled tent during the summer. His pack of dogs helps him enjoy and navigate the long winters.
As I swiped at the mosquitoes buzzing around my face, he said, "Yeah, this place will bite you." It's the mosquitoes in the summer, frigid air in the winter. "It's the price you pay to be here." I was reminded that beauty comes at a cost. There is a sacrifice you must make to experience a place like this. I wondered how many leave and only remember the bite.
Dan, my guide, prepares the rafts for our trip down the Koyukuk River.
On my last day in the Brooks Range, I took a flight tour over the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. This park is the least visited (for obvious reasons) national park in the US. With no roads or trails into its vast wilderness, the only way to access it is by air or to bushwhack by foot.
The flight wasn't great if I'm honest. The skies were overcast and the air choppy. The plane was an old 10-seat turboprop that fed my claustrophobic anxiety. When I wasn't wiping my palm sweat onto my jeans, I tried to take some pictures. After we landed safely and I confirmed that I was indeed still alive, I was glad I did it. It gave me an appreciation for the expansiveness of this "last frontier." I walked away pondering: If beauty exists in the wilderness and no one is there to witness it, is it still beautiful? "Indeed," I thought to myself. "For beauty is beauty with or without the eye of a beholder."
A look down into Gates of the Arctic National Park. One of the few clear pictures I was able to capture.
The plane tour ended at around 10:30 p.m. I didn't have a place to stay that night, so I decided to get a head start on my drive for the next day. I left Coldfoot at 11 p.m. and headed south on the Dalton Highway. I was tired, but the sunlight kept me awake. I listened to the Chronicles of Narnia on audiobook. As the Jeep rumbled down the dirt road, I met almost no traffic for 100+ miles. I had the expanse from horizon to horizon all to myself.
There is that moment during a sunrise when the light first makes its appearance, and the sky turns a purple/violet/pink. It lasts for maybe 10 minutes; then, the emerging sunlight replaces the royal colors. That's what it was like driving down the Dalton that night, but it didn't last ten minutes; it lasted for hours. The combination of fatigue, solitude, and the light of the enchanted sky created this perfect moment of blissful gratitude. A sense of love welled up inside me. For whom or what, I could not say. Just love.
I pulled off at a campground at around 1:30 a.m. I was too tired to set up my tent, and then, of course, there was the thought of hungry bears. So, I crawled into the back of the Jeep and slept for the rest of the night. In the morning, I rolled out the back of the vehicle, made a cup of coffee with my Jetboil, and turned my eyes to the south toward Denali National Park.
A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES