So far we've braved smoke, fire, dust and mosquitoes on our way up the mostly gravel Dalton Highway. We've also seen some wonderful sights, and there are a lot more ahead. The journey to the Arctic Ocean takes at least a couple of days by car. It takes much longer by bicycle. Just ask Rod Wellington. "It's a trip to as far as I can go north. And that's the goal," he says. Rod began the trip in his home town of Vancouver, British Columbia. The total ride for him will be nearly 3,000 miles.
"There are some pretty hard grades to go up. Loose gravel. I'm riding a skinny tire bike here as well, so I'm not getting a lot of traction. But it's a matter of getting out of the saddle and get the pedals moving and just do it!" You meet all kinds of intrepid souls out here – especially in Coldfoot, our starting point for day two. Ray Fleming and Clyde Hart are on their way home after driving all the way to Deadhorse from Houston. Ray says, "Everyone we talked to discouraged us from even considering this trip." The only problem they encountered was a leaking tire.
"We've counted every car that came to meet us yesterday going south. There were 40 trucks, 25 cars, four campers, four bicycles and one walker," Ray recounts. Clyde and Ray are only driving this road once. But truckers such as George Issel and Cliff Baker keep coming back for more.
"You can drive up this road a thousand times, and never have the same trip twice," says George. These guys make their runs year-round, no matter how cold the weather gets. Cliff explains, "We all work for different companies, but everybody kind of sticks together and helps each other out. You have to out here – or freeze to death!" Despite the hazards, George and Cliff love driving the Dalton Highway.
Cliff says, "For me, it's beautiful in the wintertime. I wouldn't do anything else. You go over the pass, a full moon, the Northern Lights, it's something else." The scenery's not too shabby in the summertime either, which we see as we head out of Coldfoot and rejoin the road.
Though it's 240 miles to the next services, there's a charming town well worth visiting only 14 miles up the road. It's called Wiseman. There's no gas station or restaurant here, but you can find a place to stay. Like Coldfoot, Wiseman has only 14 full-time residents. Jack Reakoff is one of them. He recalls, "We would come here in the early '60's, when I was about five years old. The first time I ever came here, there was two ways to get here. You flew in on the twice a month mail plane or you flew in with my dad on an airplane."
When Jack's parents moved the family here in 1971, they nearly doubled the town's population. Jack says, "A lot of people like to visit nature, a lot of people want to occasionally see it, but I like to live in nature. I'm actually part of the ecosystem here."
Jack literally lives off the land. He gets power from the wind and the sun. He hunts, traps and grows his own food. The culture that's here is living within sustainability of what we have here," he says. According to Jack, the Dalton Highway provides the rest of us with a way to experience that culture. Unfortunately, most people don’t take the opportunity. As they paved portions of this road, it's increased the velocity of the travelers. There's less and less people that come into Wiseman."
If you do slow down and stop in Wiseman, there's a good chance Jack will be there to greet you. Various people ask me, 'When do you plan on leaving? When are you going to get tired of living here?’' I say, 'I'll leave feet first.' I have no intention of leaving here. This is my home." North of Wiseman, the landscape gets more and more dramatic. Mountains loom in the distance, part of the 600-mile Brooks Range.
We still have more than 200 miles to go before we hit the Arctic Ocean, but this time nature beckons us to stop. This is Mount Sukakpak, which is probably the most outstanding landmark on the Dalton Highway in the Brooks Range," says Lisa Shon Jodwalis, a research interpretive specialist with the Bureau of Land Management. "It's a mountain of limestone and marble that has uplifted and been transformed over millions of years." Lisa offered to meet us and show us around a bit.
She exclaims, "There's just the allure of these beautiful natural wild places. And the sense of being surrounded by places like this! This is awesome!" The BLM oversees the land along the Dalton Highway, which connects with vast wilderness on either side: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve to the west.
"It's a sense of something that we don't have anymore in so many parts of the United States or the world," says Lisa. You can feel that sense of awe even if you don't leave the highway. The trees grow progressively sparser as we prepare to cross the Brooks Range. And it's nearly impossible to miss the very last one, which is marked with a large sign.
We climb the Chandalar Shelf and get a fantastic view looking south. When we ascend the nearly 5,000 foot Atigun Pass, the most northerly pass in North America. As we wind down the North Slope, the pipeline snakes ahead of us for miles across the tundra. And then we see a familiar face.
"Hey, I know you guys," yells the bicyclist. It's Rod Wellington, still pedaling and still smiling after the Atigun Pass. He reports, "I stopped a couple times for trucks and to take some pictures. Other than that it was just gettin' up out of the saddle and spinnin' the gravel." Rod plans to take two more days to get to Deadhorse, riding 75 miles a day. We're determined to make it tonight. With vast wilderness on either side of us, animals tend to avoid the road. Up to now, we've seen virtually no wildlife along the Dalton Highway. But as we near the end of it, our luck begins to change.
We spot some Dall's sheep on a hillside. They're soon followed by a magnificent bird called a jaeger. Then, in front of the dramatic Franklin Bluffs, we see our first caribou, an impressive buck. A few minutes later, three more caribou come walking down the road, right toward us.
Eventually they trot away and we resume the final leg of our journey.
Soon a wide swath of oil field structures appears on the horizon and before we know it we arrive in Deadhorse. After driving through such wide open wild spaces for so long, coming into the industrial sprawl of Deadhorse is a very strange experience. Everything here is built to support oil operations. Even the hotel we're staying in mostly houses oil workers.
Things are tightly controlled here. To get to the Arctic Ocean, you must sign up for an oil field tour. Our tour rolls past oil facilities, and even some wildlife, including a beautiful arctic fox. And at long last, we reach the Arctic Ocean. The idea was that we would end this trip with me jumping in the Arctic. But now I'm not so sure. A few days later, our intrepid friend Rod Wellington does jump in. But I chicken out. I content myself with dipping my hand in the water.