Arctic Visions on the Dalton Highway: See the Lights

I’ve always assumed the Arctic would be empty. A frozen tundra, a siberian wasteland with only the paw prints of the lone wolf being current events, bleached wind blasted bones being the land’s history text. I could see the pale resolute eyes of its stubborn inhabitants staring out underneath layers of fur and clothes. Recalcitrant. Unwavering. I spin the ideas of their existence in my mind as 31 inch tires roll across a dirt road in Northern Alaska. I think of their names, their stories. They don’t exist in my current reality but I will them to. It ends up the Arctic is similar in a lot of ways to how I assume it would be, but the eyes are different, the motive isn’t survival, it’s prosperity and you’re 1000 times more likely to see a bulldozer track than the paw prints of a wolf.

I’ve planned the trip to drive the Northern-most road in Alaska while working on the Tender boat in Bristol Bay. On the wall of our galley is a large map of Alaska showing the different fisheries and also the roads cutting through the wilderness of the state. I see a red and gray line snaking Northward from Fairbanks and am interested by the remote area. “Brooks Range, huh, goes all the way to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay. May have to look into that.” Given that I was soon to have a large sum of disposable income it seemed like a fine time to drive the Ice Road Trucker’s Route. The Ice Road. The Haul Road. The Dalton Highway. Pick a name man, geez.img_3226img_3119img_3186

Wheels spin along asphalt roads as I pass beyond Denali National park and it’s busy tourist intersections. I soak up the bluebird day that brings out every feature of the craggy landscape. Individual trees melt into a burnt yellow blanket that covers the mountains and shrouds the shoulders of alpine lakes. The scenery is outstanding in its rugged form, but the red, orange and gold colors give everything a softer, more artistic look. Dave Matthews Band wails through the speakers as I listen through the same harmonica solo for the thousandth time. I’ve lined up a couchsurfing host in Fairbanks named Nen and am looking forward to the social stimulation that Couchsurfing is almost guaranteed to offer.  I arrive at the CS house just in time for a fajita laden mexican feast. There are 2 other couchsurfers there (one preparing aforementioned feast), 2 room mates and the neighbor from next door whose conversation topics include fishing and lifting weights and absolutely nothing else. We eat, we drink, we chill. It’s a good time and was easily one of the best furnished Couchsurfing houses I’ve stayed at thus far. It ends up fellow Couchsurfer, David, was hoping to make it up to Deadhorse while he was in Alaska. Fate dealt him a good hand. I had intended to do the trip alone on a hippie soul quest to find the meaning of existence but my noble aspirations were quickly forgotten when he offered to split the gas bill. After a quick breakfast, many thanks to our host and the promise to stay in touch with our new friends, my new co pilot and I take our leave and begin the journey to Deadhorse.

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We make good time across Northern Alaska and stop for fuel at Coldfoot before dusk.We try to convince ourselves that the prices they charge for a hot meal are reasonable; but we simply can’t. They’re outrageous. We flip the tailgate down and cook up a decent meal of grain and canned salmon to whet our appetites. The wind picks up and a chill whips through the truck stop. We’re both bundled up. “This isn’t even a taste of what’s to come in the winter” David remarks. He’s right. The coldest temperature recorded at Coldfoot is a skin blistering -74 degrees. Madness. It must be madness that drives humans to live here. Actually, no. It’s money. Money drives them to be here. And that’s really the same thing isn’t it? We finish up our dinner and drive on to find a place to rest our bones for the evening. We decide on a spot in the woods beside a dry river bed with a healthy, flowing river in the distance. The tent is set up and I start a fire. I’ll crash in the 4runner and David will sleep in the tent, only room for one in the truck. A basic meal is made and the temperatures drop as our hopes of seeing a boreal display rise. I half pray, half speak aloud, “We’re in the Arctic Circle, surely we’ll catch the lights man”. As night falls, the sky becomes an ebony canvas for an abstract artist to sprinkle light across. We each make our own interpretations of the work, but never seem to truly grasp what the artist wants to convey. A green fin appears above a distant peak. It was enough to garner attention but small enough to be overlooked. A spiritual gangrene spreads across the limbs of the atmosphere; the show is soon to begin. We stand in the middle of the dry riverbed as a rippling curtain of lights charge across the sky in purple, gold and green. It’s strange to think that a solar flare, an event millions of lightyears away from your current reality, could so drastically impact you on a spiritual, emotional and artistic level. Those colliding and exploding atoms stop us dead in our tracks and speak to a complexity that transcends morality and virtue. The true wonder that we are able to exist in this beautiful world, this outrageous universe, is baffling. Lying there in the river bed, another item was checked off my bucket list. See the Northern Lights. Done

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We awake the next morning and prepare for the next leg of our journey. We’ll leave the rugged wilderness for the industrial sprawl of Deadhorse and Prudhoe bay. David brushes off his frost covered tent and begins the hand numbing pack-up process as I reorganize the 4runner for another day of driving. We spread peanut butter on some stale bread and pull out of the woods onto the road. Deadhorse bound, we’ve got an Arctic Ocean to swim in.

Make sure to check out the second part of Arctic Visions on the Dalton Highway: Feel the Ocean, where we try to sneak through the oilfields to the Arctic Ocean!

‘Til Next Time,

Mike

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