If you have time to read only one posting, click the following link to read the entry for the last day of our journey.
The Dalton and the Arctic
This is the posting for Day 27, Tuesday, September 19th
In 2000, Sonntag and I drove the entire 414-mike, dirt and gravel Dalton Highway all the way to Deadhorse, the small settlement at the end of the road in Prudhoe Bay. The milestones that have meaning to me along that route were created by that trip: our superb bivouac camp near Finger Mountain (MP 99), the Arctic Circle (MP 115), beautiful Grayling Lake (MP 150), an unbelievably gorgeous valley (MP 244), and the site of National Geographic photo of Sonntag and me camping in the snowstorm (MP 280), 24 miles north of temperamental Atigun Pass (MP 256). The following year, Leben and Erde took exactly the same trip up to Prudhoe Bay, camping in the same bivouac camps on the Dalton. The purpose of that trip was for me to scatter Sonntag's and Kessie's ashes at the MP 280 site with Leben and Erde in attendance. That year, we also drove the almost-500 mile dirt and gravel Dempster Highway in Canada, the only other road in North America that crosses the Arctic Circle. By the way, when you get to Prudhoe bay, you have to take a one mile bus ride to dip your feet into the arctic ocean. No thanks, I said both years I visited there.
The purpose of my current trip was to travel to the ends of the road in the northeast and northwest. We set out to do both in 2011, reached the former but had to turn back at Thunder Bay, Ontario, because of an overheating Defender and skin infection on Leben. We set out again after Leben's spinal surgery in 2012 to resume the trip, but again had to turn back at Thunder Bay when Leben became paralyzed. We lost exactly one month this year in getting started again due to snags reported here earlier, but once we got on the road by August 15 with Denali road permits starting September 13 and a decision to repeat the route on which we twice had to turn back, the goal was clear. I would be satisfied if we made it to the Arctic Circle, especially since there really is little of interet to see beyond Atigun Pass and the entire road itself is really of interest to me and not Leben and Erde, and certainly hard on the Defender and my nerves. So our goal this year was to make it to to Arctic Circle. If we did not use up our few spare days elsewhere along the long route, which we did at magnificent places like Riding Mountain, Johnson Canyon in Banff, and Boya Lake, or if we were willing to give up our Denali Pass for September 13, which I am glad we did not, we might spend this days driving up to Atigun Pass, but not beyond since the snows were already closing that treacherous pass.
The bottom line of all the above is that I was determined to make it to the Arctic Circle and we had just enough hours, minutes really, in our schedule to do that and still accomplish all else we set out to do. But we had to make it up and back to the Circle by dusk, a 400-mike round trip, to avoid driving on the Dalton after dark, which I did not want to do. Because of the limits on mikes per hour, we had to get on the road by 10 or the trip would have to be off or Denali cut short.
After Erde broke out of the tent in the morning to deal with her now-four-day gastro problem, I decided I had to take her to the vet. I stopped at the Aurora Animal Clinic and they had one appointment still open at that time. Dr. Pietsch examined Erde, ran some tests, and gave us some pills to deal with the problem. But it was now 11:00, so I had to decide whether to abort the trip or risk driving at night. I decided to go, and we gassed up and got on the road at noon, two hours late. To save time, I only filled my tank (15 gallons at not more than 15 mikes to the gallon) and my regular five gallon gas can, but not the new red one I had just bought the day before.
I'll let the mathematically endowed among my readers work out the mathematical puzzle I was faced with, providing only the facts I already gave above and these facts: the Dalton highway starts 80 miles from Fairbanks. The only gas stations north of Fairbanks are at 22 miles, and then on the Dalton at mileposts 56, 180, and then 414.
We got an early introduction to the risks of the Dalton shortly after getting on it. As we snaked our way along the guardrail-less steep dropoffs to the top of a rather beautiful summit, I noticed some low clouds up the roads. They weren't clouds but a wall of thick fog that allowed us perhaps 10-feet of visibility. Driving less than 15 miles an hour over the mike-long pass, we eventually broke out of the fog. From there to the Yukon River Crossing at 56 miles, the Dalton was just as beautiful as I recalled it from my prior two trips.
At 3:00 p.m., by the time I got to the gas station at the Yukon river, I had used up 150 of my no-more-than 225 mile tank, with an extra max75 mikes in my full spare fuel can. Since I could not make it the 120 mikes up and back to the Arctic Circle without using my spare can, I decided to fill up at the gas station both on the way up and back, so I pulled in. Well, as it turns out, some hunters had just left after emptying out the station's tanks for their boats on the Yukon. Here I was, 100 feet from the pipeline that supplies 15 percent of our oil and no gas? I thought about using the cache of tools and supplies I had with me to refine my own gas, but there was no Internet for me to learn how to do it on WikiHow. For the next 45 minutes, I was assured that the fuel truck was on the way, but each time I asked the estimated time of arrival got later. I had just driven 6600 miles only to find myself 60 miles away from my goal, 100 feet from the pipeline, but no gas. Even if I hsd filled up that red can, I would at some point in the day be faced with a similar dilemma.
I had three choices.
1- wait for the fuel truck to arrive, but if it got here later than 4:00 pm, I would have to give up my goal of the Arctic to avoid driving the Dalton in the dark.
2- head back to Fairbanks now, assuming the truck would not be here until after 4:00.
3-head up to the Circle now using the just-enough fuel I had for the 120 mile round trip in mt tank and spare gas can. But if the truck was not here when I it back, I would have to bivouac here at this crappy fuel stop to avoid night driving or if the truck never came, thereby ruining my chances if using my one of my two Denali road permits.
I took the risk that would get me to the Arctic and after emptying my spare can into my tank we headed up the Dalton. I gave up a rest stop at the Finger mountain bivouac site, in favor of pressing on the extra 14 miles to the Circle, which we made at 5:15. Just after pulling into the pull off, someone came up to me and handed me my gas cap, which I had failed to put back on after emptying the spare can no my tank. It had ridden the full bumpy 60 miles on my rear light, and only fell off when I made the turn into the circle when someone whom I had met at he gas station saw it. Lucky me.
At 6:00, After a few obligatory photos, proof that we had been there, but duplicates of the same photos from 2001, we all loaded into the Defender and head back to the Yukon River to fuel up, if the truck had come, and thn head back to Fairbanks. No more than four miles up te road, my eye caught a large brown image moving steadily with us to my right. As I glanced to my right to see if was one of those illusions one has on these empty roads, the brown blur, a huge bull moose, dashed right in front of the Defender. Fortunately, he was on the other side of he road before I had a chance to break, but not before I had a chance to grab my camera and git a shot of him fleeing.
On the way past Finger Mountsin, I paused for a few photos, perhaps as reminders of the lone wolf we encountered here during our visit in 2001, or maybe of Leben's eating the fox tail flower there, the result being the barb-laced angel-hair like flower getting caught in his throat until a dollop of penut butter dragged it into his stomach.
We pulled into the gas station at 7:15 and my risk paid off. Pat, the fuel truck driver, was just securing his hose. When I inquired about the fog down the line, he said he encountered none, but that it's coming. With that, i fueled, jumped into he Defender, got out to check the gas tank cap, and got underway.
The drive back to Fairbanks was uneventful, but stressful as we had to navigate the Dalton in the dark. It is an entirely different road at night, The worst is when you encounter a truck coming in the opposite direction when the headlights at your eye level prevent you from seeing anything ahead if you, eg, the road, a cliff, a moose, etc.
At 11:00, we pulled into our camp in Fairbanks. I was thrilled we had made our goal, but even happier that we did not plan to go farther up the Dalton for reasons related to the dogs, the Defender, and me.
Start of dalton
Leben and Erde at the circle
The moose on the dalton
Finger mountain area
Ed, from somewhere on the road