Week 6

Fairbanks, AK → Bellingham, WA

August 5 thru August 11, 2019


Day 36:  Monday, August 5, 2019
Fairbanks, AK → Arctic Circle/Coldfoot → Fairbanks, AK

Arctic Circle Fly/Drive

It started with a conversation. Saturday after dropping Quelise at the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage. Mary Ellen and I were talking about what comes next. According to the schedule I had made we were to leave immediately. The schedule had us driving for 4-1/2 hours to Slana, Alaska the day after we dropped Quelise at the airport. ME said, “But you wanted to go to the Arctic Circle and now you need to go.” But the schedule…. We have extra days planned in the Bay Area. Let’s go the the Arctic Circle. (When you see AC below read it as Arctic Circle.)

I agreed and we made reservations at the River’s Edge Resort & RV Park in Fairbanks. While speaking to the RV Park I was told that the road up to the AC is terrible and mostly not paved. As the truckers go by, their tires throw gravel/rocks. I just did not want to take our Ollie and Ruby on that kind of road trip. We found an alternative, which was doing the AC Fly/Drive tour with the Northern Alaska Tour Company (NATC). I tried to get the 5:30 AM flight but it was full, so I signed up for the 1:00 PM flight to Coldfoot.

I was out putting something away in Ruby about 11:45 AM when a driver from the RV park arrived at our Ollie and told me she was there to drive me to NATC. Wow, I had no idea I was getting a ride. We drove to the back side of the Fairbanks airport and I reported to NATC at noon. Several minutes later I was called, along with a couple from Portland, OR. The attendant who checked us in lead us to another part of the building to a large map of Alaska. She reviewed what our trip would be like. We would fly to Coldfoot, which is 50+ miles above the AC, get into a tour van, which we would be in for the tour. There would be bathrooms at only two places along the drive:  one at the Coldfoot Café and the other at the dinner stop at the Yukon River Camp. At the other stops there may be outhouses, or not. The tour guide would remind us all accordingly. 

There was another tour a Fly/Fly going on the same plane with us to Coldfootb, but they would be picked up in Coldfoot and driven straight to the AC turnout, take pictures, then return to Coldfoot for the flight back to Fairbanks.

After another short wait we were walked out to an 8-passenger Piper Twin Engine plane, N7164D. The pilot assigned the seats and I was the last to board, sitting next to the door we had all entered. I had a one-minute class on how to open the door, just in case. The takeoff was great. I always love take offs. The pilot had us on an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight plan because we would be flying in clouds most of the way. If we cleared the clouds we could change the flight plan to VFR. (Visual Flight Rules), which is exactly what happened. The flight was about 1 hour 10 minutes and we cleared the clouds for the last 20 minutes. Upon landing we taxied to a place with 2 white Ford window vans where we met Sabrina, our tour guide. Before he left, we all took pictures with the pilot.

Then Sabrina checked the list of names to insure she had the couple from Portland, and me. She also told us that a woman who worked at Coldfoot would be riding along. We loaded up and off to the truck stop we went. Interesting procedure, Sabrina had a CB radio and an intercom to use while talking to us along the way. Every time we were to enter the road Sabrina would get on the CB and report what she was about to do. The first time it was “Tour Van crossing the Dalton Highway en route to the Coldfoot Café.” Sometimes she would stop at the top of a hill or before a big curve and announce our intentions. Sometimes when stopped she would talk to an oncoming trucker telling them we would wait for them to pass. Also she waved at every passing driver no matter what. Sort of a Dalton Highway CB etiquette.

Sabrina was full of stories. This was a tour after all. If you know me, I promise not to tell them all.

The first 2 stories were about how Coldfoot got its name and the other was how the truck stop started there. Back in the day when settlers came to the area there were about 1000 of them. When the first winter started 850 of them left and went to warmer climes. They were said to have Cold Feet. So the area became known as Coldfoot. As for the truck stop. A gentleman decided there needed to be a truck stop half way between Fairbanks and Deadhorse. It is 255 miles to Fairbanks and 240 to Deadhorse. He bought all the abandoned buildings at a small village 14 miles north of Coldfoot, relocating them to Coldfoot and opening a truck stop. It did not do a ton of business until after Oil was discovered on the North Slope and the pipeline was to be built.

The next stop was just across the street at the Visitors’ Center of the North. This is a US government building housing National Forest Service, Fish & Game, along with The Bureau of Land Management. The building has some great displays, which I walked through, taking pictures of some of the displays. I also felt the pelts hanging on the wall behind the wood stove. OK, so there’s not much in Coldfoot: an Airport, a Truck Stop with a Café, a Post Office, and the Visitors’ Center.

“Dalton Highway Tour Van entering southbound from the Visitor Center, Dalton Hwy Tour Van entering southbound.” And away we went. The first 15 miles south of Coldfoot are paved but there are giant pot holes. Sabrina tried but could not miss them all. And we are talking SERIOUS pot holes. You know, teeth jarring pot holes. Once off the pavement and onto the gravel road there were still pot holes. However, there was what is called “Washboard” road much of the time. But there were also stretches with smooth gravel. What is true is that I am so glad I did not bring our Ruby or Ollie on the road to Coldfoot.

The countryside starts out mostly Tiaga (also known as Boreal), with Tundra the farther we went in.

The Alaska Oil Pipeline

The pipeline parallels the road for much of the trip. The pipeline goes from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean south, to Valdez on Prince William Sound. It is 800+ miles long with 500+ miles above ground and 300+ miles below ground. The pipeline must be above ground where there is permafrost, except in places where they put it UNDER creeks or over steep hills. At one point we stopped and walked right up to the pipeline. The supports were very interesting. Much like the nuclear reactor control rod drive systems I worked on while in college, the supports are sophisticated in that they are made not to hold fast the pipe but to allow it to move on more than one axis. The pipe is 3 feet in diameter, ½ inch thick, then a layer of insulation and an outer sheet metal skin. Where the pipe sits on a support there are bumpers attached to the sides of the pipe to cushion it against the support in case of an earthquake. The pipeline is sometimes zigzagged to help absorb expansion and contraction caused by temperature changes. There are 5 pumping stations along the way and one warming station. The oil is put into the pipeline at 110 F ±, but if the oil cools too much it can cause problems with the pumping; in that case about half way to Valdez they will divert the oil to the warming station, which is just a series of 90-degree bends in the piping where the friction will warm the oil back to where it needs to be to complete the trip to Valdez. How long does it take oil to move from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez? I have heard 3 numbers. Sabrina said that the first test run the oil took 28 days to go thru the pipeline, but now she said it takes 2 weeks. I have also heard one week, so I am really not sure.

Our tour stopped every hour to an hour and a half, and there were pit bathrooms at all but 2 stops, which had nothing. Our first stop was at Gobbler’s Knob. Many of the hills had names and some of the curves also had names. For instance one was called “happy hill” because if a trucker made it to the bottom with all his wheels on the ground, he was a happy trucker. There was a curve called “oh shit” because many drivers did not think it would be so severe until they were well into the curve. And guess what they said at that point? There was the Finger Rock stop. Finger Rock juts out of the ground maybe 25 feet and points directly at Fairbanks. It has been used by bush pilots forever.

What is the Arctic Circle?

The Arctic Circle is an imaginary line around the earth at 66 degrees 33 minutes North Latitude, the latitude that if you were standing at sea level:

  1. At Midnight on June 21st – Summer Solstice – the sun would NOT go below the horizon and there would be almost 48 hours of solid sunlight.
  2. At Noon on December 21st – Winter Solstice – the sun would not be seen, providing almost 48 hours of darkness.

The Arctic Circle Stop

At the AC stop there is a large sign. Sabrina pulled out the red carpet with a dashed line on it; we all had our pictures taken with Sabrina presenting us with our AC certificate. Then back in the van for the next leg of the tour.

We learned about Fireweed, Cotton Grass, the 7 trees in the area, the animals large and small, and even the one amphibian. At the pipeline stop we walked on the tundra, picked and ate wild blueberries.

As we drove on we had on-and-off rain, 7 or 8 drives thru very thick fog, the road turned muddy, and Sabrina’s stories got fewer and fewer. We got back to the tour office in Fairbanks at 1:00 AM. I called the RV Park and they sent their driver to take me back to Ollie & ME. Mary Ellen had left the porch light on for me. She is my very own Tom Bodett.  JMS

Day 37:  Tuesday, August 6, 2019
Fairbanks, AK 

Because Jim got home so late last night, we decided to just stay put for one more day, sleep in, and then see the sites of Fairbanks.

The University of Alaska, Fairbanks’ Museum of the North is an excellent way to spend a day.  Art and artifacts are included in nicely curated collections that span scientific genres from botanical to cultural, with exhibits as varied as frozen tissues to ethnological artifacts.

Also offered are half hour movies.  We viewed “Dynamic Aurora” and learned so many fascinating things, such as

  1. The Aurora Austraulis occurs as a mirror image of the Aurora Borealis, at the high latitude regions of the Antarctic and Arctic.
  2. Fairbanks, AK is the best place in the Northern Hemisphere to view the Aurora Borealis.
  3. A complete understanding of how the lights are generated is still unknown, but

Dynamic Aurora explains how the aurora borealis is created and showcases some of the best time-lapse photography of the lights seen anywhere.  We learned that Fairbanks in January gives you the greatest opportunity to see the lights in all their glory so we think we’ll go back.

Day 38:  Wednesday, August 7, 2019
Fairbanks, AK → Dease Lake, BC, Canada

Day 39:  Thursday, August 8, 2019
Dease Lake, BC, Canada → Burns Lake, BC, Canada

Day 40:  Friday, August 9, 2019
Burns Lake, BC, Canada → Kokanee Bay, BC, Canada

Day 41:  Saturday, August 10, 2019
Kokanee Bay, BC, Canada → Bellingham, WA

Day 42:  Saturday, August 11, 2019
Bellingham, WA → via Ferry → Port Angeles, WA