Saturday, August 23, 2014

Across the Arctic Circle, Twice: Driving the Dalton and Dempster Highways with Leben and Erde

Below is an article I wrote for the Rovers North newspaper, in which it appeared in 2002.  At some point I will add the 20 photos that accompanied this piece.  Leben and Erde were four months old when we left for this trip.  The real purpose of the trip was to scatter Sonntag's and Kessie's ashes over the tundra in northern Alaska, but it turned out to set the theme that would come to characterize Leben's and Erde's lives with me. The trip last 45 days and covered 14,500 miles.

“Let’s go for a ride, guys,” I barked to my two German shepherd pups.  I did not expect nor did I receive any reaction from the two siblings, considering that they were only four months old.  And so, at noon on July 30, 2001,  I leashed them up, closed down my condominium, and set out once again in my 1994 Defender-90 for Prudoe Bay, Alaska.  

This would be my seventh trip to Alaska, my second road trip there.  The first six were all backpacking trips into Denali, Katmai’s Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, and the Gates of the Artic in the Brooks Range.  My first road trip there --- the year before --- was arranged to take my then-13-year-old German shepherd Sonntag for a long ride. (For details on that trip, see “Incredible Journey,” National Geographic Magazine, January 2002, pp. 28-29.)

Prudoe Bay is not exactly just around the corner from Washington.  Look at a map and you see that it occupies a longitude just this side of the Hawaiian Islands. Its latitude is higher that any place on this planet of any renown that is habitable by humans.  Although Prudoe Bay is only 3,674 as-the-crow-flies miles from Washington, flying that same distance south would take you to Chile.  The road miles on a map add up to 5,400; drive that same distance east of and you’ll eventually pass Istanbul, Turkey.  That’s how far Prudoe Bay is from Washington.  My planned Land Rover trip across Siberia in 2008 will be shorter.

Since last year’s trip was built on the previous year’s, let me backtrack for a bit.  By the time I made my decision to go to Prudoe Bay in July 2000, I had less than four weeks to prepare since I did not want to be anywhere near Prudoe Bay after the first of September. Since my previous experience in both car-camping and long-haul trips was zero, I swung into action fast. 

I immediately replaced my half-roof rack with a full one, equipped with attachments for my hi-jack, shovel, pull-pal, and spare water and gas cans, all of which I had or ordered.  I installed front mud flaps.  I had a local convertible-top maker repeat its annual ritual or repairing my soft-top’s broken zippers and work up a set of emergency plastic front side-windows. I devised inexpensive headlight-protectors from chicken wire and installed a cheap home window screen for a radiator insect screen. I took my Defender in for a thorough 60,000 mile servicing even though it only had 42,000 miles on it. When my radiator suddenly showed signs of falling apart two days before the trip, I had Land Rover install the only new one readily available on the east coast.  I made a list of the 100 things that could go wrong and prepared for every one of them or acknowledged the risks.  My portable “garage,” which had spare belts, hoses, wires, coils, pumps, filters and fluids, as well as the Defender’s Parts and Shop Manuals, would have been the envy of any Land Rover owner;  it had to be since at Prudoe Bay the closest Land Rover outlet would be 800 miles away. I was ready for the worst.

Fortunately, that trip went over like a charm. There were problems, to be sure, but we overcame them: an unexpected mid-August snowstorm just south of Prudoe Bay; the three nuts I lost from my exhaust system from all the jousting on dirt and gravel roads; the gravel hits I took to my windshield; the still-more broken zippers on my soft-top’s windows; and the horrific, two-hour lightning storm which centered on our tent just outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba on our way home.  We survived not only that terrible night but the entire 12,500 mile, 42 day trip. That was the plan. 

In June 2001, I decided to return to Prudoe Bay with my two new dogs.  The only way to drive there (besides by Land Rover) is along the Dalton Highway, all of it dirt and gravel.  It is one of only two roads in North America that cross the Arctic Circle.  The other, also dirt and gravel, is the Dempster Highway in Canada’s Yukon and Northwest territories.  On this trip, I planned to do both for no reason other than that they were there. Those are the two legs I plan to focus on in this article.

To prepare for this trip, I started where the last one left off. I took my previous to-whatever lists and worked from there.  I brought the Defender in for its second 60,000 mile servicing, although this time it was justified.  I added a spare tire carrier to my hood to recover the space the required second spare consumed on my roof rack the year before. I abandoned forever those useless tarps that weren’t destroyed during the previous trip and replaced them with roof-rack-bound waterproof bags and watertight plastic containers.  I added a kennel to the rear of the Defender to constrain my two rambunctious canine companions whose mantra the whole trip seemed to be “Fun.”  I bought a micro-cassette tape recorder to record my thoughts rather than attempt to write them down as I drove.  My check-list for breaking camp each day grew to 42 items; my inviolable rules list swelled to 32.  Because this trip, like the one before it, would be all camping --- mostly in rustic national, state, provincial and territorial parks --- I upgraded my aging camping gear to provide some minimum comforts of home.  Finally, I read several books on lightning, although I’m still not sure what to do if Thor lashes out at us again.

The Journey

Days 1-8: Washington DC to Banff and Jasper

To avoid the oppressive heat of the northern central plains, I shot up to Toronto first, looped around a few of the Great Lakes to Thunder Bay, and then headed west to Calgary (AB) and beyond. Some 80 miles beyond Calgary, I thought I had arrived in heaven when I suddenly came upon the dramatic peaks of Banff and then Jasper reaching toward the sky as if in prayer. After too-brief stops at Lake Louise and the Columbia Ice Fields, I overnighted in the park and then took a 418-mile scenic back route to the start of the Alaska Higway at Dawson Creek (BC). My odometer read 3628.

Days 9-12: Alaska Highway to the Klondike

The origins of the now-1390-mile Alaska Highway --- originally but briefly called the “Alcan” (for Alaskan Canadian Military Highway), the name I prefer to use since 1190 miles of it are located in Canada --- is well known. And so are its beauty and drama.  But the Alcan of 2001 is by no means the Alcan of 1942. It --- but not its mosquitoes --- has been significantly tamed due to never-ending widening, grading, paving, shoulder-broadening, tree-clearing, and turn-elimination efforts. But things can still get dangerous when the road’s wet, at night, and when you’re tired.  And the improvements extract a price. Construction zones for more than 35 miles are not uncommon and, if you get on the wrong side of the pilot car, could be trip-delaying.  Mud and dust engulf your vehicle going through these zones.  The resulting higher road elevations that come with improved grading can also be trip-delaying if you accidentally go over one of their narrow, soft shoulders by, say, trying to write down a thought rather than record it.  But most people stay on the road and enjoy it for what it is, part of history and simply awesome.  And lonely, still.  Many times, other vehicles are nowhere to be seen for an hour or more.

Riding the Alcan may no longer be the adventure it once was but many people still get a kick out of it.  Tourists still alight from busses at the highway’s end at Delta Junction congratulating each other and then posing for the obligatorily photos in front of the end-of-highway kiosk.

I temporarily exited the Alcan at Whitehorse (YT) and drove to the Klondike River region for my first goal of this trip, Canada’s Demptser Highway.  My odometer read 4896. I still had a long way to go to the half-way point of the trip.

Days 13-18: The Dempster Highway

To drive the Dempster from the Alcan, you approach it as a 1402-mile side trip, but you save 427 miles by making a loop out of it, which I did, from Whitehorse.  It was a side trip well worth taking.

The Dempster, a 456-mile swath of dirt and gravel, runs from near Dawson City of Klondike gold rush fame in the 1890’s up as far as it can go, to Inuvik, Northwest Territory.  From there, to go the last 30 miles or so to the Arctic Ocean, one must fly or wait for the winter ice roads.  I did neither.  The road, which was finished and opened to the public in 1979, was created as a supply road for what many thought would be Prudoe Bay type oil fields on the North Slope, but they never materialized.  Many are still hopeful, though, that the road will see its glory if and when gas deposits in the area are exploited. 

The road was named after Inspector William John Duncan “Jack” Dempster of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, who in February 1911 bravely led a search party for 26 members of a lost patrol in the region.  Patrols were needed in those days to keep the law in this new frontier, to carry the mails, and otherwise show a federal presence.  Dempster’s patrol discovered the frozen bodies of the lost patrol a month later only 26 miles from where they had set out.  Dempster’s courage might have earned him a place in history, but it also served as a reminder to me to stay on the road and get out of there well before the snows set in.

Like the pipeline road in Alaska, services on the Dempster are few and far between.  On the road itself, there are  facilities at Eagle Plains (mile 252) and Fort McPherson (342); after that, there’s nothing until Inuvik (mile 456).  The several government campsites were, as rustic campgrounds go, splendid, which is exactly what I wanted.

My goal on this leg of the journey was to enjoy take in the 50-mile-per-hour, panoramic views and I was not disappointed.  The trips up and back take you through six different regions comprising the North Klondike River, in which lie the dramatic and luring Tombstone Mountains, the Southern and Northern Ogivlie  Mountains, the Eagle Plains,  an almost 100-mile mountain ridge tour of the drama in the flanking valleys and mountains, the Richardson Mountains,  and the Peel/McKenzie Lowlands, which ease you gently into Inuvik.  Through this nature-guided tour, besides the drama which unfolded at every turn or incline, I sampled sub-artic, alpine, and arctic environments. 

Like most places in the region, this area is no Serengeti Plain, teeming with wildlife, but it is a joy nonetheless to catch a glimpse every so often of one of the various species of nature’s cast.  In my case, I caught several grizzly and black bears taking advantage of the low traffic volume along the Dempster (74 vehicles a day according to the last traffic census).  If I stayed around long enough I might have seen any number of other species; if my timing was perfect, I might have seen the huge Porcupine caribou herd on their semi-annual trek to and from the nearby Coastal Plain.

Perhaps the largest number of any one species I saw on the Demptser belonged to humans with flat tires.  The warnings they surely heard went unheeded and they paid the penalty. As for my problems, my windshield, already cracked and pocked from my previous Alaskan venture and a few hits on this trip, met its demise.  It was quickly and inexpensively replaced several days later, however, at Dawson City.  A satellite phone I had rented for the trip earned its way when a serious --- but later cured --- problem with my male dog appeared when the nearest vet was more than 800 miles and five days away.

Driving the Dempster requires all the cautions for the Alcan and more, mainly because the road is dirt and gravel, very slippery when wet, and if you go off it involuntarily in the wrong places, you might sit there for days before anyone finds you. But I heeded the cautions and was rewarded with a road adventure rivaled by few others, which is what I was looking for.

And the adventure didn’t end when I got back on the paved Klondike loop.  A short walk through history awaited me just up the road at Dawson City. Beyond, on the 70-mile Top of the World Highway, the views from the ridge road were nothing short of breathtaking.  Those views, however, and with them the smooth ride, ended abruptly at the US border as the road turned into dirt and gravel and twisted and turned through valley bottoms.  But that’s exactly why I tolerated driving my noisy, leg-cramping Defender those many thousands of miles of highway driving.

When I pulled into Fairbanks, my odometer read 6329. But at least now I could see those miles unfolding before my eyes through my new windshield.

Days 19-23: The Dalton Highway

The 414-mile “pipeline road” (also known as the “haul road”) connecting Prudoe Bay with the world beneath it is officially known as the Dalton Highway.  It was named after James Dalton, a pioneer of arctic oil exploration who was instrumental in selecting the location where oil was discovered at Prudoe Bay in 1968.  The road was completed in 1974 as a service road for the North Slope oil fields. A formidable sign guarding the Dalton’s entry warns travelers that the road is meant as an industrial road.  Oil started to flow through the 800-mile (from Prudoe Bay to Valdez) 48-inch pipeline --- 480 of which is above ground where permafrost dominates ---  in 1977. The road was partially opened to the public in 1981 and only in recent years all the way to Deadhorse, the name of the community at Prudoe Bay.

Whatever the road may be called, why it was built, or whatever your philosophy may be about its being there, it --- or rather the country it cuts through --- is a wonder to behold.  And that’s why I went there after I was first read about splendor of the Brooks Range --- one of the most imposing natural residents along the Dalton --- in 1992 in the book, Going to Extremes, by Joe McGinniss, and then again in 1996 on a wilderness trek there.

All of the traveling caveats about the Dempster and the Alcan apply to the Dalton, but more so since the primary purpose of this road is for use by the huge trucks servicing the oil fields.  Traffic is generally light --- at times for hours or non-existent --- but in dry or wet weather, when you see one of those trucks barreling at you from either direction, it would be prudent to slow down, pull over to the narrow, soft shoulder and stop to wait for the moving cyclone to pass of dust or mud to pass and then subside.  Do not pull over too far, though, to avoid being sucked over the steep drop-offs cropping up all over as the new grading pushes the roads higher and higher off the tundra.  And watch out for the several steep approaches to hills, where the grade sometimes reaches 12 percent and where there are no guard rails.  Finally, watch out for culverts collapsing under the dirt bridges, as one did just hours before my last visit, closing the road for hours or more and, worse, taking with it whatever was on top when it collapsed.

Do not worry about needing reminders about the potential dangers of driving the Dalton.  There are several of them along the route in the form of white crosses bearing the names of those who missed this turn or that. 

When I first drove the Dalton in 2000, its condition ranged from good all the way down to horrific.  On my second trip, however, I learned --- and saw for myself --- that a five-year effort to regrade and repave the entire road with a new chipped-seal surface was underway.  Driving on that surface, I could not tell the difference between it and asphalt.  That’s the good news; the bad news is the those who use the road between now and when the project is completed will have to possess the patience and stamina to tolerate the miles of dusty or muddy construction zones and pilot car chaperones through torn-up earth.

The road is not the attraction for would-be-visitors: the country is.  The road crosses through three different ecological systems: the forest sub-alpine region of the Alaskan Interior in the south, the mountainous and hauntingly beautiful Brooks Range in the central section, and the tundra-bedecked but otherwise barren Arctic Costal Plain in the north.  It winds around pristine lakes, bridges many rivers, and, at Atigun Pass, crosses the  Continental Divide, which controls what rivers drain into the Arctic or the Pacific.

There are no markers along the way announcing this attraction or that, but a glance at any map will reveal that the Dalton delineates four huge national areas: The Gates of the Artic National Park (8.4 million acres), the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (20 million acres), which is now under siege for its potential oil reserves; the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge (1.6 million); and the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge (8.6 million acres).  In setting aside many of these lands in 1980, President Jimmy Carter referred to them as “perhaps the most beautiful place on earth.”

To illustrate just how much of a wilderness these places really are, last year the Gates of the Arctic received just over 4000 recreational visitors for its 8.6 million acres. Yellowstone, by comparison, received 2.8 million visitors for its 2.2 million acres.  Look at a map of Gates of the Artic and the legend will tell you why: “There are no trails or roads in this area,” it warns.

The Dalton shares many of the same wildlife as the Dempster and then some.  Giant bull moose, grizzly, black and polar bear, caribou (the Porcupine herd crosses the north section here too), Dall sheep, wolves, musk oxen, wolverine, and golden eagles all claim residency in one place or another.  Four hundred species of migratory and resident bird species are known to inhabit the area.  Among the fish species are several species of salmon.  But, like the Dempster, do not expect to see too many yourself, unless you plan a long and relaxed visit.

There are many recreational opportunities in the area but no facilities. The pipeline is not meant as a tourist attraction either.  Don’t go knocking on the front door of a pump station asking to use their restrooms.  Signs near the pipeline prohibit photographs: “A flash could set off a dangerous explosion,” they threaten.  At Prudoe Bay --- or Deadhorse --- too, there’s little to do except visit the general store, take a few photos and maybe a tour, and then turn around and go back.  Prudoe Bay resembles a scene from a black and white film about a deserted industrial plant after a disaster.  On both of my visits, nature cooperated for that fictional film and delivered cold, bleak, and rainy weather.

Public facilities along the Dalton are sparse.  There’s a facility at the Yukon river (mile 56). Its competitor, the Hot Spot CafĂ©, sits a few miles up the road.  After  Coldfoot (mile 175) there’s nothing until Deadhorse (mile 414).  I patronized all of them as a way of saying thanks for being there.  There are several organized but minimalist campgrounds along the road but my choice over the eight nights I spent on the Dalton both trips was to find a spot where no one else had ever camped before or would ever camp again.  The small, very remote settlement at Wiseman looks like a very unfriendly place at first but I learned after my hurried drive-through visit that the folks there actually welcome visitors.

Except for the problem of a couple of puppies eating dangerous plants they should not have, I had no problems the entire Dalton leg this year.  I even came prepared with plenty of extra 13mm nuts just in case.  Most important, my new windshield survived the entire thousand miles round trip on the Dalton and still many more later on the way home.

My mission accomplished, I turned the Defender around, pointed it south, and headed home.  The odometer read 7395.    

Days 24-46:  The Long Trip Back Home

After exiting Alaska by ferry from Skagway, I arrived at Bellingham, Washington, five days later.  The route home I decided to take is best described in the dreams of my traveling companions. When I see their legs vibrating and bicycling as they sleep, I can only guess that they are dreaming about still chasing each other through the rain forests of Washington, along the awesome beaches of Oregon and California, and amidst the ancient redwood forests of the west coast. Or perhaps they are in pursuit of some unknown creatures in the Sierra Nevadas, the desert hills of Nevada and Utah, near the high mesas straddling the Colorado River, or perhaps in the Rockies, which I left behind me on the morning of September 10th.  I have similar dreams myself.  When I arrived home four days later, my trip odometer read 14,019.  My pups were half again their size six weeks earlier.  And like many Americans, I examined my priorities but ended up confirming mine. To my surprise, however, I learned that I discovered some things I did not set out for.  North America was one of them. And the freedom that comes with life on the road with my dogs is unlike any I experienced before.  If I return to the Dalton and Dempster again, and I probably will, it will be with these things in mind, and with my dogs. I cannot imagine any better travel companions, on road trips, or through life.

Further Reading


“Incredible Story,” National Geographic, January 2002,  pp. 28-29 (photographs by Richard Olsenius).

“So Long Sonntag,” Washington Post, Sunday, April 22, 2001, page B8.

Alaska Highway, Dalton Highway,  Dempster Highway

Alaska’s Wilderness Highway -  Traveling The Dalton Road, by Mike Jensen; Umbrella Books, Seattle Washington, 1994.

Along the Dempster, by Walter Lanz, Oak House Publishing, Vancouver, British Columbia.

The Milepost -  All-the-North Travel Guide; Morris Communications Corporation, August, GA, 2001.

“Alaskan Highway and Engineer Epic,” National Geographic, by Froelich Rainey, February, 1943, pp. 143-168.

Walking My Dog, Jane – from valdez to prudoe bay along the trans-alaska pipeline, by Ned Rozell; Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, PA, 2000.

Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Going to Extremes, by Joe McGinniss; Alfred A. Knoff, 1980.

Alaska’s Brooks Range – The Ultimate Mountains, by John Kauffmann; The Mountaineers, 1992.

Alaska Wilderness – Exploring the Central Brooks Range, by Robert Marshall; University of California Press, 1970.

Midnight Wilderness – Journeys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,”  by Debbie S. Miller;  Alaska Northwest Books, 2000.

“The Arctic Oil and Wildlife Refuge,” by W. Wayt Gibbs; Scientific American, May 2001, pp. 70-69.

“Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,”  by John G. Mitchell; National Geographic,  August 2001, pp. 46-55.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        


Travels with Charley – In Search of America, by John Steinbeck; Viking Press, New York, 1962.

All About Lightning, by Martin A. Ulman; Dover Publication, New York, 1986.

The Art of Raising A Puppy, The Monks of New Skete; Little, Brown and Company, 1991.