Though we can attest to our love for driving all of Alaska’s highways, one of the ruggedest routes has been tugging at our heartstrings after a hiatus of more than 30 years.
My wife, Cheryl, and I first came to know the Dalton Highway more than a decade before it would be opened to public travel in 1994. We had struck up a deal to watch over a gold mine at Myrtle Creek during the winter months, and its owner procured the necessary permit for us to drive our two pickups laden with a winter’s worth of groceries and supplies for 15 sled dogs.
In the steep hills south of the Yukon River, a large plywood sign had been painted in coarse brush strokes with a litany of warnings about the conditions in the 414 miles ahead: rocks, steep hills, ice, blind curves, soft shoulders. Potholes. But I’ll never forget the bottom line: “Hell of all kinds.”
By then we’d already racked up two flat tires (which had been graciously repaired by a gold miner in Livengood.) An arduous 174 miles later we arrived at our jumping off point, Slate Creek, and parked our trucks near a large Quonset used to house the giant snowplows that maintained their respective stretch of the road. We had arrived at what would later become a trucker’s mecca, known as Coldfoot.
More Dalton Highway travel
We made several more trips up and down the Dalton in the next few years, witnessed semi-tractor trailers lying on their sides, or over the sides of cliffs; got used to the smell of blown engines and burned brake pads; and saw other afflictions doled out to the intrepid truckers who made their livings on that road. But for all of its vehicular threats, we came to accept that narrow ribbon of gravel and mud as our ticket to the fringes of civilization.
Now, several careers, two grown children, and four grandchildren later, we’re back. And for different reasons. While the road years ago served as the intermediate leg of a journey to the hinterlands beyond, we’ve begun to enjoy the adventure of the road itself. As of June, we’d already made our second run up the road.
The main focus of our two trips up the Dalton in 2020 was to hunt caribou with bows and arrows, but as 2021 unfolded the allure of the road drew us back for a look during its different seasons. From our home near Sutton, a trip to Deadhorse and back racks up 1,850 miles. Sure, that’s a lot of driving, but we’ve become addicted to the road that can take us through such varied topography and diverse changes
in biomes in the course of two days.
As for our vehicle, we drive a rusted out 1997 Ford diesel pickup with thick-skinned commercial mud and snow tires, but we’ve seen just about every make and model of crossovers or SUVs, with an increasing number of motorcycles and bicycles these past two years. With dual tanks on the old truck we have a range of 500 miles, but they sell gasoline and diesel at the Yukon River, Coldfoot, and Deadhorse.
Though we haven’t had any flat tires and carry a single spare, others have shared stories of multiple flats, especially on trailers. Though the road receives diligent maintenance by Alaska’s Department of Transportation, I’d count on a cracked windshield. A lesson we learned from the washboard stretches of the road is that aluminum cans and plastic bottles left in their original packaging may chafe through each other. We’ve lost our water from one gallon plastic jugs and heard numerous stories about how a 12-pack of beer (aluminum cans) turns to a one-pack and a yeasty smell in the back of the truck by the time you reach the Sagavanirktok River. The answer for us has been to add padding under and between thin-walled containers.
But don’t let any of the above caveats stop you from taking the trip.
The Dalton’s beauty
In any season, the birch and aspen forests in the hills between Fairbanks and the Yukon River fall nothing short of beautiful, and the colors of autumn are worth the trip alone. North of the Yukon River the road climbs into the alpine reaches of the Kanuti River. The traverse through Atigun Pass is always breathtaking, and the seemingly endless North Slope leaves us in awe of its grizzlies, musk ox, caribou, sheep, and myriad species of waterfowl.
The number of commercial trucks that travel the Dalton Highway is but a fraction of what we saw in the 1980s. On many of our hikes away from the road, we discovered periods of silence like we haven’t known since our days deep in the bush. The winds were calm above the Kanuti on our trip in May. I hiked out on a ridge, took in the expansive valley looking east, and save for the intermittent song of a white crowned sparrow, I could hear only the beating of my heart.