Posted by: kerryl29 | November 29, 2021

Alaska II, Day 2: Up the Dalton Highway

After an abbreviated photo session at Creamer’s Field on Day 1, we prepared to make our way to Wiseman, roughly 270 driving miles from Fairbanks and 190 miles north of the southern terminus of the Dalton Highway. That puts Wiseman about 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Following 2018’s trip to Alaska, I wrote a post describing the broad outlines of a trip up the Dalton Highway and I direct you there for the basic facts (since they haven’t changed in the last three years and I don’t see much point in repeating them). But broadly speaking, there are almost literally no services on the Dalton Highway; the road is approximately 400 miles in length and along the way there are only two places to purchase gas (both in the southern half of the road), only three places with lodging (again, all on the southern half of the highway), no places to purchase supplies and no connecting through roads. If you’re going to spend time on the Dalton Highway, you need to understand what you’re dealing with.

Ellen and I had 2018’s experience to draw upon and, based on that experience, we felt we were prepared to handle what the Alaskan far north could throw at us. (Spoiler alert: we were right. There were no catastrophes.) We did rent a satellite phone in Fairbanks, just in case, but otherwise we mostly relied on caution and our previous experience. We brought plenty of food with us (purchased at a supermarket in Fairbanks, the night before we made the drive). We had, long prior to the trip, reserved one of the two cabins at Boreal Lodging, in Wiseman, the same place we had stayed in 2018. And we knew where the gas station at Coldfoot Camp was located; that gas was going to be expensive (it was approximately $5.50 per gallon when we were in the area); and that letting the gas tank dwindle much less than the halfway point wasn’t an option.

270 miles–the driving distance between Fairbanks and Wiseman–probably doesn’t sound all that bad, but consider two things: driving at a breakneck speed on the Dalton Highway is downright reckless. Most of the highway is unpaved and some of the sections that are paved aren’t in great shape. The unpaved sections are graded, but the road deteriorates quickly due to the extreme weather conditions. Even during the relatively warm parts of the year (i.e. mid-summer), there’s a copious amount of precipitation in Alaska. Technically, the speed limit on the Dalton Highway is 50 miles per hour, but there are many places where it’s ridiculous to consider driving that fast. The trip between Fairbanks and Wiseman takes 6-7 hours assuming no stops. But we absolutely planned to stop as often as we found something worth stopping for, photographically speaking or otherwise.

The weather on our drive was spotty. It rained on and off, which made the road conditions particularly sketchy at times. (I won’t dwell on the “skidding incident” we experienced about 1/4 of the way up the highway; as I said, there were no negative repercussions.) But we did stop with some frequency and dealt with the occasional rain, and chilly temperatures, as best we could.

Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

We had timed this trip to take advantage of what historically is the time for fall color in Arctic Alaska and we discovered pretty quickly that our timing was going to be spot on. The color was coming along on the southern part of the Dalton Highway; I predicted that it would be at peak when we drove back to Fairbanks, four days later (stick around and see if I was right). We also figured that by the time we got to the central part of the highway, where we would be based for the next three full days, that things would be at or near peak.

Fall Color, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

During a lull in the rain, we paid a stop at an unnamed pond, just off the highway to the east, and made the short walk down an access road to see it was worth photographing. We decided very quickly that it was.

Unnamed Pond, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Unnamed Pond Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Unnamed Pond, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Water Lilies, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

When we reached Finger Mountain, about halfway up the highway (from the southern terminus, near Livengood, to Wiseman), we knew we wanted to stop, because it had been such an impressive site to photograph in 2018. The weather was pretty awful when we stopped–cold, windy and threatening to rain. But we got out and checked things out anyway.

Autumn Tundra, Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Bearberry and Mushroom, Finger Mountain, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

As unpleasant as the weather was, we were prepared to stay for some time, but after about 10 minutes it started to rain in earnest and we beat a fairly hasty retreat to the car and resumed our trip north.

We made another stop, at a lake that caught our attention, on the west side of the road. Unlike Finger Mountain, there was almost no wind at this location, as the glass-like reflections demonstrate.

Cloudy Reflections Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Cloudy Reflections, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Cloudy Reflections Black & White, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska
Misty Mountains, Dalton Highway, Brooks Range, Alaska

Following a stop at the gas station in Coldfoot to fill the tank, we drove the final 12 miles or so to the access point for Wiseman, arriving at our lodgings early in the evening. After unloading our belongings we had just enough time to make the short walk down to the northern shore of the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River to catch sunset. There was just enough clearing in the sky to make it worthwhile….highly worthwhile, in fact.

Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, Brooks Range, Alaska
Sunset, Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, Brooks Range, Alaska
Sunset, Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, Brooks Range, Alaska
Sunset, Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, Brooks Range, Alaska

There hadn’t been as many photo opportunities on the drive up the highway as we had hoped; we planned, given more cooperative weather conditions, to rectify that on the drive back down to Fairbanks a few days hence (with the simultaneous hope that the color would be better as well). But in the meantime, we had three full days in the Brooks Range to look forward to. After a good night’s sleep, we’d begin the process the following morning…


Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Kerry, thanks for letting us accompany you and Ellen on your adventure. I particularly enjoyed the images at the pond and the lake on the west side of the road. Looking forward to the next installment!

    • Thanks, Steve!

  3. Lovely and rugged. Love the lichen and shrubs, reflections, clouds and points of view. Quite the adventure!

    • Thanks, Jane!

  4. It’s fascinating to look at your photos! It must be really pretty there.

    • Thanks very much! Alaska is indeed quite beautiful.

  5. […] mentioning it here? I was reminded of the situation when I produced the posts for Day 1 and Day 2 of the trip. That exercise served as another prompt; there hadn’t been a lot of photographs […]

  6. […] some respects, Day 3 of the Alaska trip was similar to the first two days; not that many images were made, for instance, and we spent a fair amount of time in the car. But […]

  7. […] had noted on the drive north, on Day 2 of the trip, that there was every reason to believe that fall color along the southern half of the […]


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