Arctic Circle Route: Along the Roof of the World

arctic-circle1We were well on our way now…

We hit the Dalton Highway on September 3. It had rained, and the 662 km track mostly gravel, was wet. The Dalton Highway had been built in 1974, in only five months of the brief summer, and facilitated access to the largest oil fields in North America at Prudhoe Bay.

These oil fields, situated on Alaska’s North Slope, were discovered in 1968, and the Dalton Highway quickly became the lifeline for oil companies, and indeed, the American continent.

Largely responsible for this was the fact that the US, and the rest of the developed world, faced an acute energy crisis in the 1970s. As a result of the crisis, both real and perceived, petroleum production was stepped up.  The Prudhoe Bay oil reserves were precious, and significant funds and effort were put into overcoming the extreme weather conditions, and difficult terrain; the incredible scale of the project added to the challenge.

Construction engineers braved permafrost, near-inaccessible mountain ranges, and the Yukon River to complete the pipeline in three years, from 1974 to 1977. Public access until Dead Horse camp was permitted only in 1994; no services or facilities are present, however, for 400 km between Dead Horse and Coldfoot.

Right now before us, the raised track, made slushy by rain, ran through an endless expanse dominated by the grass-like sedge. Here and there, some geese, swans and seagulls sailed or waded in the ponds and water bodies.  We could see the Sagavanirktok River flowing along the road, as well as the elevated pipeline that, now and then, disappeared under the tundra.

As we approached the magnificent Franklin Bluff, we saw the hills glistening with their iron-rich soil.  We spotted three musk oxen lugging their shaggy weight along the gravel bars. Going off the track to view the Sag River, two hunters passed us, on horseback and leading another pair of pack horses laden with their camping gear. Before long, they disappeared into the willow thickets.

Near Pump Station 2 of the Trans-Alaskan pipeline, we spotted a small herd of shy caribous warily looking out for hunters.  Monstrous trucks coming from the opposite direction splattered our van with mud, already layered with a thick crust of mud and dirt, as were our shoes and pants. The mud sticks in these parts – calcium chloride has been used in the construction of the road to compress the gravel, and it makes the mud stick to any and all surfaces.

Passing Toolik Lake where the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, has a research station to conduct studies on Arctic ecosystems and global climate change, we drove through the 240km width of the stunning, inhospitable, Brooks Range that forms the continental divide.

Further, we drove along the western border of the eight-million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and past the snow-covered Atigun Pass; the spectacular Chandalar Shelf; and the Boreal northern forests. The narrow Dietrich Valley was ablaze with yellow birch and spruce flashing their bright autumn colours, and the hillsides were red with dwarf birch and crimson blueberry leaves. It was breathtaking as we entered the broad valley of the Koyukuk River.

Every bend in the road provided the most soul-gratifying autumn scenery; even the gods would agree that this work of nature was paradise-perfect – perhaps, the gods lived here!

At night, we camped in Coldfoot (with a population of 30 people). Next morning, we backtracked to the picturesque Wiseman village to meet Jack, a 56-year-old woodsman living off the land for almost 40 years. Jack seems to inhabit another planet. He lives in his log cabin heated with the wood he chops; he grows his own tomatoes, carrots and potatoes; this season, he picked about 80 kg of wild blueberry and 70 kg of cranberry; and he hunts for meat.

Jack is also a trapper and hunts wolves, dall sheep, bears, moose and caribou and sells their fur for a living. He reminded me of Thoreau and his book, Walden (or Life in the Woods) published in 1854 – only with mobile and Internet access.

Although Jack lives in the lap of nature as it were, he does not see any signs of climate change, except perhaps, the fact that, “seasons might have shifted a bit with spring coming earlier”, but he also quickly adds, “… not this year when we had temperatures dipping to 10 below zero in the second week of May. It’s the coldest it’s ever been.”

A large supply of cranberries supplemented our breakfast  before we set out again. A 100 km from Coldfoot, and 500 km south of our starting point on the Arctic, we crossed the Arctic Circle, an imaginary line circling the earth at latitude 66 degree 33′ North. Here, the sun does not set on the summer solstice or rise on winter solstice. It’s a roof of the world!

We lunched in the company of bold and hungry Grey Jays here, and crossed the Yukon River that had, once upon a time, carried gold-seekers into Alaska.

From all the written accounts and visual documentaries on the “treacherous, nerve-wrecking” Dalton Highway, we braced ourselves for lethal danger at every bend. We couldn’t have been more wrong; the road was no more treacherous than a Gurgaon road after a good monsoon shower!

What makes this quite different from the aforementioned Gurgaon road is the fog and blowing snow, and that makes for trying driving conditions. But at the same time, this road reaches its frozen fingers into one of the remotest corners of the world, and rewards the traveller brave enough to traverse it with the most awe-inspiring scenery.

After a night’s sojourn in Fairbanks, we left by Alaska Railroad’s glass-domed Denali Star for another spectacular 200 km journey into the Denali National Park, home to America’s highest mountain, the Mt. McKinley (20,320 ft).

Railways came to Alaska before roads, and 70 per cent of its population still lives along the railway corridor. It was rutting season for moose and caribou, and Denali was full of energy. Driving over 200 km in the broad expanse  of the park,  we found the floor carpeted with wild flowers and berries;  black and white spruce and yellow birch glowed away in autumn abandon; and glaciers-covered  mountains shimmered.

Caribous grazed in the distance, sniffing, pawing the ground, keeping an eye on us. Higher into the six million acre wilderness, the forested taiga gradually yields to treeless tundra. Dall sheep sat high on steep mountain ledges, deep in contemplation. Further ahead, a lone grizzly swept the tundra of its blueberries and soapberries, fattening himself on 100,000 calories a day in preparation for the approaching winter hibernation. High up, near the summit of a hill, a mama bear was spotted digging earth with breathless energy. She was looking for ground squirrels and her two playful cubs were imitating the mother. A Merlin falcon circled high above the Savage River scouting for food.

It was past ten at night when we returned to our hotel outside the park border. My only regret was not having got a view of Mt. McKinley that was hidden, as it generally is, during the non-winter months, behind a thick screen of clouds.

Now we are in Homer, on the western coast of Alaska, waiting for the ferry to take us, over six days, to Bellingham through the interiors. None of the ports where the ferry will be docking is connected by road, and as no Internet connection will be available, the next dispatch will be from Seattle next Sunday. During our passage through the Alaskan fjords, we must practice taking pictures with the iPad so we can post them on the blog.

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