North to the Arctic Circle

North to the Arctic Circle

Vacation News » Great Destinations | By Steve Winston | September 27, 2013 12:27 PM ET

It was a motley-looking bunch gathered at 4:30 a.m. in the cramped Fairbanks offices of the Northern Alaska Tour Company. My wife and I were carrying layers of polar clothing (at least, as "polar" as you can find when you live in Florida). And so were the sleepy collection of 15 other Americans, Aussies, and New Zealanders gathered in the nighttime sunlight in summertime Alaska. 

I was about to check an item off my "bucket list." Even as a young child, I had delighted in tales of the Arctic explorers. And now, I was about to become one.

Our destination is a fuel-stop/bar/trading-post/general-store at a junction called Coldfoot (pop. 10), about 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. And we'll be going there by bus, and returning to Fairbanks by bush plane. 

As our 17 polar explorers boarded the bus, my wife and I tossed our polar layers across two empty seats, and made ourselves comfortable for what was to be a ten-hour ride into the Arctic Circle.

If you've ever seen the History Channel series called "Ice Road Truckers," you know the road. It's the Dalton Highway, threading the thousand miles from Anchorage to the North Slope oil fields, through hundreds of thousands of square-miles of Arctic tundra and jagged peaks. The route is driven every day by some of the toughest men and women in the world. They brave 20-foot snow drifts, 100-below-zero temperatures, and ferocious blizzards in winter, and, in summer, a winding, rocky road on which the pavement ends just north of Fairbanks, and along which the only signs of human life are occasional roadside outhouses painted with funny messages, and three ramshackle (but colorful) trading posts where you can get hot coffee or food, and some additional "polar" wear if you need it.

As the pavement ends north of Fairbanks, so does the auto traffic. For the next nine hours, the only vehicles we see are the occasional oil tankers speeding by as we pull over to let them pass.

Shortly after leaving Fairbanks, we see one of the wonders of the modern world - the Alaska oil pipeline. We will drive alongside of it pretty much the rest of the trip. It stands like a giant seam across an Arctic quilt of ice-blue rivers, grassy mountains, forests, and mud flats. After a while, we stop and walk outside to touch the pipeline, and to take some photos.  

Every hour or two we stop at one of the isolated trading posts, to pick up coffee or use a bathroom (or outhouse).

As the hours go by, the landscape changes. From tall, green mountains and rolling woodlands to shorter (5,000-7,000-foot) mountains with fewer trees and grass; more rolling, open land; and small trees that look like their growth has been stunted. And, every so often, a river, including the mighty Yukon, bordered by huge gray mud flats. Our guide/driver notes that there are a few native villages in the interior, but no roads go there.

As the hours pass, the anticipation of reaching the Arctic builds. Then, finally, we arrive at the marker for the Arctic Circle.

We all get off the bus, and it's surprisingly warm. We take the obligatory photos at the marker, of course, and then several of us chat with the older couple who are volunteers for the Department of the Interior, handing out information about the Arctic. It occurs to me that we're probably the only people they've seen all day. 

An hour later, we stop again, this time to explore some stark granite outcroppings, emerging from the tundra and the permafrost, the permanent layer of ice only a foot beneath the surface in Alaska. As we clamber all over the dramatic rock formations, we're attacked by the only animals we've seen all day - hordes of angry mosquitoes to whom we're apparently lunch.   

Standing here, you may as well be on the moon. Nothing really grows here. The bushes and small trees are gone. The tundra is covered by isolated tufts of short, emaciated grass. And there are no trees on the jagged, rocky mountains.  

Other than the buzz of the mosquitoes, there's no sound, either. This land seems to flow on without end, in the loudest silence I've ever heard. And, though there are wolves and reindeer and bears out there, we can't see them.

An hour later, we arrive at Coldfoot, and step out of the bus into a sunny 70 degrees. We're in the middle of the enormous Brooks Range now, with brownish-green mountains surrounding this tiny "settlement" of a few trailers and wooden homes, home to the "Pop. 10" who man the gas pump and the beer pump and the general store. 

Before we get back on the bus for the short trip to the airplane strip, I stand alone for 15to 20 minutes, taking in the vastness and emptiness of this place...and the fact that there's not one patch of ice or snow visible. 

The Arctic - at least in August - is nothing like I had imagined. A few months from now, temperatures here will approach 100-below, and the drifts from whipped snow will be as high as 15 feet. And the tanker-drivers who stop for a warm coffee or cold beer here will have just experienced dangers the rest of us can't even imagine.  

Soon, we're winging back toward Fairbanks in a 9-seat Piper Chieftain, operated by a bush pilot who normally flies supplies to isolated native villages. We bob and weave in between huge mountains - with snow on them - and over winding silver rivers. And we can even look down and see a couple of those isolated native villages, nudging the banks of the rivers.

After 80 minutes - as opposed to the ten-hour bus trip - we're touching down in Fairbanks.

I may never get back to the Arctic Circle again. But, in a very real way, I'll never leave it, either. 

Where to stay in Fairbanks:  

One of Fairbanks' best resorts is actually 60 miles from town, surrounded by glaciated mountains and dramatic vistas. The Chena Hot Springs Resort is a 100-year-old Alaska lodge built around the world's greatest steam-rooms - the hot springs on which it sits. The hotel has 80 authentically-furnished rooms. And it's a great place to watch the Northern Lights in autumn and early-spring. The Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge (325 guestrooms) is on the Chena River just a few minutes from downtown. The Wedgewood Resort has 306 guestrooms, and is adjacent to the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, with an impressive collection of beautiful vintage automobiles.

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