Driving to Deadhorse

When we first started our journey, we thought that the furthest north in Alaska we could go by road was Fairbanks. However, in Portland through conversations with other Couchsurfers, we found out that we could actually reach the Arctic Ocean through the infamously terrible road called the Dalton Highway. Immediately once we found that out, we both wanted to go on it, and wrote to a bunch of people on Couchsurfing to see if we could find some partners to come with us. We needed other people because of the challenges we had read online: 1) Most of the traffic on the Dalton are truckers, and they can’t pick people up, at least openly, due to liability reasons, 2) There is basically 1 rental company that allows for their cars to be driven up this “insanely terrible pothole filled” road, Arctic Outfitters, and they only allow people over 30 to rent a car, 3) The cost of renting this car is very expensive, and 4) The more, the merrier. We were extremely lucky then when Sean replied and expressed his interest, and soon we were joined by another Couchsurfer, Sabrina. We arranged as much as we could for our planned 5 day trip up and down the Dalton online, and scheduled our departure for August 2.

Our bags were all packed and ready to go early Wednesday morning as we eagerly awaited Sean and Sabrina’s arrival so that we could continue our final leg northbound. The first order of business before we could set off on the Dalton Highway was to finish packing the car. We shoved all our clothes, sleeping bags, mats, tents, food and water into the back of the silver Ford Escape. With that completed, we drove up the Elliot Highway until it became the Dalton Highway.

Welcome to the Dalton Highway

On the first two days of our journey, we were welcomed with typical Arctic summer weather: grey skies and a drizzle of cool rain. However, this didn’t deter us, and on shortly after we entered the Dalton Highway, we stopped at Mile 56 to pick up our “Entered the Arctic Circle” certificates at the small rangers office of Yukon River. It wasn’t until another 60 miles until we reached the actual Arctic Circle. On the way, we stopped at the phallic geological formation at Mile 98: “Finger Mountain.” We learned that in the old days, pilots used this to navigate towards Fairbanks, since the tip of the finger points directly at it.

One of Emily’s best days ever

Better named Phallic Mountain

Tors along the Dalton

With Sean behind the wheel, it was a very speedy ride to the Coldfoot Rangers’ Station, the halfway point between Fairbanks and Deadhorse. We asked the tall ranger, Bob, behind the desk for recommendations on where to hike and also for a place to cook. Laurent suggested the covered picnic tables away from the rain behind the cabin. After an initial yes turned to a no, we were invited to go cook in the ranger’s cabin, where we would be able to use his stove and cook without fear of a hungry bear ruining a dinner party. He drew us a map of his hometown Wiseman, located just a few miles north of Coldfoot, and also gave us instructions for how to get in, since he would not be off work until much later that evening. and off we went. Wiseman is the northernmost community on the Dalton Highway, and represented the true Alaska at its true weird best. We made some dinner at his lovely cabin here, and left Bob an avocado in thanks for his hospitality. (On our way back, we found out that unfortunately he isn’t the biggest fan of avocados and pawned them off.)

Bob’s cabin in Wiseman

Cooking in a bear proof place!

Quirky town of Wiseman

One of the very few public buildings…rest is private property

Welcome at Wiseman Airport

Considering  that the sun would not set this far north and that it was still raining, we decided to keep driving. While it was already dark in most places in the world, we drove over Atigun Pass under the midnight sun (behind the midnight clouds) to Galbraith Lake. By now the weather had fortunately cleared up and we set up our tents with a great view over the mountains. We closed our eyes as good as possible given the bright sky and took a nap during the endless day.

Camping at Galbraith Lake

Receding glacier on Galbraith Lake

The next morning, we finished our trip towards Deadhorse, but not before stopping at Happy Valley. We pulled over to this spot because we heard that this offered a great chance to see muskox, and we did catch a glimpse of them far away behind a river. However, once we started trying to explore the other buildings in this camp, a balding sassy short man came out and thundered to us that this was private property, so we sped towards Deadhorse. There was construction in the last 40 miles towards the town, which delayed our arrival by a little. With this in mind and also with our tickets booked on the Arctic Ocean shuttle early the next morning, we decided it would be better to find a place to sleep in Deadhorse as to avoid waking up at a preposterously early hour.

On the road to Deadhorse

At this time, we had to conclude that all the warnings about the quality of the Dalton Highway are significantly overblown. A large portion, if not the majority, of the roads are well paved. Sure, the permafrost created some interesting bumps up and down the road, but at least it was paved, allowing us to go 70 miles per hour at certain points easily. The unpaved parts too aren’t bad at all. Contrary to what we read, the truckers on the road are considerate and if they see a small car in their rearview mirror, will let you pass or will slow down in their approach to not fling any gravel at your car. As testament to this, we saw many regular sized sedans and even a Honda Fit doing the journey on the Dalton.

Only casualty of the Dalton is the cleanliness

A radio to communicate with the larger truckers is a bonus from renting with this company, but definitely not necessary

We arrived at Deadhorse in the afternoon, earlier than expected, and made it a mission to visit all 5 hotels since Sean wanted a room with a roof to sleep in for the night. All the hotels are truly depressing and seemed to be simply refurbished shipping containers, with the notable exception of Arctic Oilfield Hotel. This luxurious hotel actually housed a games room, sauna, and a Starbucks licensed cafe. This hotel was the most expensive on a per person basis at $150, but it stood out in terms of its amenities and general newness. Sean decided that he would sleep here tonight, and we slipped on blue covers on our shoes and spent the afternoon there playing with the public puzzles and playing ping pong. There really isn’t anything to do in Deadhorse otherwise- alcohol and guns are prohibited and everyone works 12 hour shifts.

How to be entertained in Deadhorse

These oil rigs can move on their own…at 2mph

Once we got hungry, we decided to set up our stove behind our car. A few curious oil workers looked at us sympathetically and told us that we could probably sneak into the cafeteria and eat at the hotel. We were determined though to make a dent in the obscene amount of food we had brought along, and boiled up some hot dogs and soup in the rain and ate in the car. However, we had not noticed that the headlights were left on in the car the entire hour that we had cooked and eaten, and soon found out that the car had completely run out of battery. After being denied assistance from a pickup truck since it was a company car (like every single other car in Deadhorse), we asked for help from the hotel front desk. Since they couldn’t get to work on the car for another hour, we sat inside and played ping pong, expecting them to call when they had arrived. However, we were surprised to discover when we walked out of the building that the mechanic had opened up the single tourist car’s hood and had already jumpstarted the car. We waited for a while for him to charge the battery and then went for a drive to look for the sign denoting the end of the Dalton Highway. (We didn’t find it. It probably washed away with the highway last spring.) That evening, we slept in the car while Sean and Sabrina got rooms in the hotel.

Actually delicious

Apt

After a somewhat uncomfortable night, we woke up full of energy to start the true end of our trip. Today we would take a bus to the Arctic Ocean, which marked the absolute end of the road. Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay are essentially the same town of oilfield workers, but Prudhoe Bay, the side of the town on the Arctic Ocean, is a restricted area. As a result, to access the ocean, you have to take a insensibly overpriced (USD $69) private oil company-owned shuttle to get travel the last 15km or so from Deadhorse to the ocean. It was totally worth it.  Once at the ocean, we did what everyone there does and stepped in. We now officially travelled from the end of the road in Ushuaia, Argentina to the Arctic Ocean north of Deadhorse, Alaska. It still feels weird thinking about this.

Free sign denoting end of the journey

Definitely worth the $69 each

After our feet were dry again, we made it back to Deadhorse for lunch, sent a bunch of postcards from the local post office and followed the car compass south back over the same road we had come over. Not long after leaving Deadhorse we saw some truly massive hairy guinea pigs which turned out just to be be muskox, which were definitely equally cute and funny. In general, the weather on the way back was much better than on the way there, so we took a lot of photo stops.  On the first day of our two day return trip we stopped next to the road to walk into the US’ largest wildlife refuge, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. However after stomping around in its swamp land for a few hundred metres, the only wildlife we encountered were mosquitoes and we headed back. That evening, we camping at the well developed Marion Creek Campground. It was USD $8 per spot, but this included a tent pad that comfortably fit us 4, firewood, a fit pit and grill, and a picnic bench.

Hairy guinea pigs

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Industry is never too far away

Mountains, one road, and a pipe line

The next morning, we finished our drive back to Fairbanks. Along the way, we met a French couple cycling towards Argentina. It seemed like a fitting way to come to an end of our trip by seeing someone doing our trip the opposite way. To celebrate the near end of our trip and the end of the Dalton Highway trip, once in Fairbanks, we headed to Lemongrass Thai Restaurant. Once that delicious meal was finished, we went to Silver Gulch Brewery (for our second but not quite so final time), before going to rest at our friend Tim’s, the local pastor’s, extra house.

Absolutely stunning landscape on the Dalton

Next to Sukakpak Mountain…it was a little too swampy to hike to it

Just south of Deadhorse

Awwwww