Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Haul Road - Day 2 - July 2010

What a beautiful day in Alaska! Woke up at 5:30am and let Dave sleep. I walked over to the Coldfoot Lodge to work on the blog and grab a cup of coffee.

This is the last truck stop before you get to Deadhorse, so it is where everyone stops to fill up their tank and grab a hot meal. Every evening there is a buffet with good food, and a nice bar area with Alaskan and Canadian beer.

It’s important to remember that there are no medical facilities between Fairbanks and Deadhorse (500 miles) and Coldfoot Camp is the last truck stop – so no more gas or auto repair service. Therefore, it is really important to be prepared for the trip. We brought a big first aid kit, 2 spare tires, two 2.5 gallon jugs of water, all of our food and drinks, camping gear, bug spray and plenty of warm clothing with us. Last time, we saw two vehicles changing tires along the route, and a motorcyclist crashed and had to be airlifted to Anchorage. We’ve seen more bikers this time, and more bicyclists too, plus about twice the number of RVs. The road is constantly being repaired in the summer, because it is impossible to get equipment on it during the 9 months of winter.  Plus, remember, only a few sections of the Hwy are paved!

Built in just five months (1974) the “Haul Road” was originally closed to the public and only commercial traffic servicing the oil development in Prudhoe Bay was allowed. The highway was named the “Dalton Hwy” after James B Dalton, a lifelong Alaskan and expert in arctic engineering who was involved in early oil exploration efforts on the North Slope (everything north of the Brooks Range is called the “North Slope”). The road opened to the public in 1994, and adventurers from all over the world pit themselves against mother nature and make the trek north.

Big trucks have the right of way, so you MUST slow down when passing other vehicles coming the opposite direction to avoid damaging them with flying rocks – and damaging your own windshield! Everyone must drive with their headlights on and always pull over if someone wants to pass you. Your car will get filthy from the mud on the road, so you must keep your mirrors clean – because your back window will become completely coated with mud and you won’t be able to see out of it.  Our truck is green.

Mile 132: Just before you reach Coldfoot, there is a nice pull off at Gobblers Knob, where you get excellent views of the Brooks Range to the north.

Spring/Summer is beautiful here. Just driving along the highway provides glimpses of beautiful flowers quickly blooming before Winter comes in September.

About 5 miles up the road, we spotted a Moose with two babies along the side of the road. She quickly disappeared into the bog when we slowed to take photos. You have got to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife along the Haul Road, because you will come up on them quickly and are likely to hit them if you aren't careful!  There are 7 pump stations associated with the pipeline between Prudhoe Bay and Valdez, and a stop at Pump Station 5 to use the “Green Room” proved to be very rewarding.

We got good looks at 2 Veerys, Juncos, Violet-Green and Cliff Swallows, White-crowned sparrows, Gray Jays and a Red-tailed Hawk. Across the road in the pond were Ring-necks, Lesser Scaup and Canadas.

Mile 150: Grayling Lake: An ancient glacier carved this U-shaped valley and left a shallow lake where moose feed on the nutrient-rich aquatic plants in summer. Charcoal, stone scrapers, and other artifacts found nearby indicate that Native hunters used this lookout for thousands of years. We stopped to bird and added Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Varied and Swainsons Thrush, Butter-butts, Shovelers, L Scaup and Widgeon to our list.

We spent a little while collecting mushrooms – I’m ever on a quest to get more Amanita muscaria. Not that I want to eat them, or even make tea out of them.  I'm just fascinated with them chemical composition - and I think they're pretty!  We found one Amanita, but it had already been half eaten by some critter. So, if A. muscaria is hallucinogenic and toxic…. Why do the squirrels eat them? Hmm….. To catch a buzz? That’s what Dave thinks. But, I don’t think so.

I love this cool Boletus subtomentosus we found! They say it has a lemon flavor – but who in their right mind would WANT to eat a mushroom?!!

If you pull off at the South Fork of the Koyukuk River just north of Grayling Lake, there is a great spot to pull in and have lunch. We made our PB& J and fished a little here on our first trip in June. Dave caught a few butterflies – but no fish.

Mile 175: Coldfoot Camp. That brings us to Coldfoot Camp today, Friday, July 23, 2010. The original gold rush town of Coldfoot was located on the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River near the mouth of Slate Creek. It got its name in 1900 when early prospectors reportedly got “cold feet” and left before winter set in. So, unlike us Russells who have no cold feet, Dave is still sleeping in the tent, I am finishing my cup of coffee and I have just finished catching you up on our adventure so far. It’s about 6:15am now, and a bunch of truckers and stranded tour groups are making their way into the lodge for breakfast. The tour group and some of the highway workers stayed at the Slate Creek Inn.

A bicyclist just came in and said he had just ridden down from Galbraith Lake (north of the Brooks Range) and the weather was miserable – rain and cold. Dave arrived for breakfast, and we were back on the road heading north toward Sukukpak Mountain at 9:40am.

A massive wall rising to 4,459 ft that seems cloudy in the morning sun, Sukukpak Mountain is an awe-inspiring sight. Peculiar ice-cored mounds known as palsas punctuate the ground at the mountain’s base and the size of it just blows you away. “Sukukpak” is an Inupiat Eskimo word meaning “marten deadfall.” Seen from the north, the mountain resembles a carefully balanced log used to trap marten.  Pretty cool, huh?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Driving the Haul Road...Again! July 2010

So, even after I swore that I would NEVER drive the Haul Road up to Deadhorse again, I find myself sitting in the passenger seat as we head back up to the Arctic Ocean.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy our first trip up the Dalton Highway – I did! It's about an 850 mile round trip adventure on dirt roads through spruce forests, the Brooks Range and the arctic tundra.  But, it is exhausting.  The trip takes you north of Fairbanks, through low lying Black Spruce bogs where the permafrost is just beneath the surface.

Interspersed are treeless patches of bog where delicious blueberries grow wild. Alaskan blueberries are a delicacy here. They are richer in flavor, and have a tartness like strawberries and raspberries that we don’t get from the berries we buy at Kroger back home.

For those of you who are married to a birder (like me), then you will surely be able to relate to my next situation. Whenever Dave and I go birding, he drives – naturally – because he knows where he wants to go to find birds. Well, it only took ONE day of our first trip together for me to change that and make a rule that he is not allowed to drive when we are on vacation. I think we were heading toward Anza Borega in southern California on that fateful trip. Dave was driving, when he spotted a life bird – he turned his head, craned his neck and the next thing I knew we were heading right into the ditch – in a rental vehicle!!! I’m sure I screamed (either that or pee’d my pants), and from that day on – I drive when we are on vacation. Here’s proof, kids, mom drove the Haul Road!

About 10 miles up, we had to stop, just north of the Tolowanda River, to get something bubbly to drink out of the cooler. Since the permafrost is just beneath the surface of the bogs, the water does not drain off. This, then causes the road to sink and the road becomes pocked with divets that can make your head hit the top of the truck!

Even though we’ve only gone 60 miles on the Elliot Hwy (haven't even hit the Haul Road yet), I’m already feeling car sick from all of the dips in the road. It’s like riding on a rollercoaster and a bucking bronco at the same time!  While I was trying to settle my tummy, Dave saw a butterfly and jumped out of the truck and took off at a full gallop, net in hand. He came back with a Boloria grandis - which I think is a purple fritillary. Very cool!

We hit the Haul Road (Dalton Hwy) at mile 71 of the Elliot Hwy. The road turns from paved to dirt. Now, you set your odometer to “0” because Deadhorse is about 416 miles ahead, and everything is referred to by its mile marker. There is a sign that says, “All vehicles must drive with lights on next 416 miles.”

When we came through here on June 10th the road was so dusty that you had to close your car windows when someone passes. But even so, I could feel the grit from the road on my teeth. Today, though, it has just rained, so there is no dust, yet.

From here to the Yukon River, the road switches from dirt to paved several times, and every few miles, there is a spectacular vista.

I am still amazed at how clean and fresh the air is here. As you come down to the Yukon, you are struck with how HUGE the river is. It reminds me of crossing the Mississippi – wide, deep, fast, and muddy.

Mile 60: Hot Spot Café is a must see! 16 yrs ago, Theresa opened the place and it is a favorite stop of practically everyone who travels the Haul Road.

I highly recommend her milkshakes (we’ve had them both times we’ve come up). But, her hamburgers are also delicious!

Theresa has lots of fun Alaska themed gifts and “Ice Trucker’s Road” souvenirs. Back in June, Dave saw an old Goldpanner’s plate with a Great Gray Owl painted on it in her gift shop and wanted to pick it up this time. But, to our great disappointment, it had already been sold. I was really surprised, because how may people do you know who would want a rusty pan with a bird painted on it? I mean, really?! Fortunately, Theresa said she would order one for us from the artist and send it – but we have to wait until October to call her, when she closes the Café and goes back home for the Winter. There is no phone and no mail service at the Hot Spot Café.

Oh, and don't forget to read the white sign outside the restroom...

Another treat at the Café, is the garden. Give yourself time to just sit by the garden or walk the grounds and enjoy the beautiful flowers and lush vegetable garden. The squash and zucchini are already done.

Mile 96: Finger Mountain. You can pull off the highway here and enjoy a leisurely walk around the highest point on this stretch of the highway. You are now on tundra, and there are no trees. There is a nice parking lot and some easy trails that lead you around a rocky outcropping.

Along the trails are really great interpretive signs describing the plants and animals of the tundra.  Willow Ptarmigan like to nest under the dwarf willows.

We even found a fern for Uncle Jim!  I think its that sterile hybrid one.....

Dave decided that we should take the short hike across the tundra from the parking lot and check out Finger Rock. This rock has been here for hundreds of years, and natives used it to navigate when they migrated across the tundra following the caribou. Pilots use the rock today as a landmark to guide them on flights to some of the remote lakes here. I looked, it wasn’t that far, so, ok, I’m game – lets walk over and check out the rock. We start out walking together, but soon find ourselves separated by big chunks of rock and squishy tundra. It is so rocky here that you have to be very careful where you walk because you will either fall into a crevice between the boulders, or you will fall off of the tundra tussocks and end up in water up to your knees! LOL! It’s always an adventure! The tundra flowers were just coming out when we were here in June.  I love the cotton grass!

About half way to finger rock the mosquitoes found me – and they swarmed! I moved faster, and they followed – faster. It was a losing battle….30+ were on my head constantly. I glared at Dave, who found my predicament entirely too amusing! I quickly snapped my shot of Finger Rock, gave Dave the finger, and jumped, hopped and hurdled my way over the boulders and back to the truck!

Even with DET sprayed on his hoodie, the mosquitoes still landed and tried to get a bite of Dave’s head!

Mile 115: The Arctic Circle

Woohoo! Look, we have reached the Arctic Circle!!! At about 10pm we reached the Arctic Circle – check out how light it still is!

We spent the night here, just south at Fish Creek when we came up in June. There is a really nice pull off to the West that takes you down to a campsite along the creek. Dave tried to fish for about ½ hr, but the mosquitoes were unbearable. We ate cold fried chicken in the truck, laid out our sleeping bags, and got ready for bed. How romantic! Camping in the Alaskan wilderness, no one around for miles and miles, listening to the flowing water of the stream, and snuggling up in warm, cozy sleeping bags – it was the perfect setting. Then, Dave decided to go fishing - again! So much for romance….reminds me of our honeymoon in Nome. Remember that story? Anyhoo, off he went with mosquito netting over his head, and I was left to dream about romance for another night. Meanwhile, the air mattress was slowly losing air. Within an hour, I was lying on the truck bed, with no air left in the mattress. Yuck! At 2am (still light out) Dave was back, and he climbed into his sleeping bag on the now deflated air mattress. There is nothing worse than sleeping on a hard, metal truck bed. It was miserable.

We awoke to bright sunny skies at 7:30am and a temp of 53F.

We set up our cook stove and had some nice Kaladi Brother’s coffee (Alaskan) and hot cider and took our breakfast down to eat by the creek.

Earlier, while I was rolling up our sleeping bags and cleaning up the truck, Dave snuck off fishing and said he caught 3 fish - uhuh - a fish story.... (IIT – Interesting If True). So, now, he was anxious to show me where he had caught them. He’s so funny, I absolutely love it when he gets excited about something!

And, sure enough within a minute, he had caught a little Grayling!

Along the creek’s edge were several pretty arctic flowers, like this dwarf fireweed. I just love the purple ones!

By the time I had finished my hot oatmeal cereal, Dave had caught two more baby Grayling and we’d seen an American Dipper and a Spotted Sandpiper. We packed up the truck and hit the road by 10am. Did I mention that we’re at the Arctic Circle?!!!!!

So, that was where we spent our first night on the Haul Road back in June. This time, we decided to go all the way to Coldfoot at the base of the Brooks Range. Coldfoot is a neat little town. There is a Visitors Center for the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge and the Gates of the Arctic National Parks.

We stopped in and picked up a couple of field guides and patches and found out that the road was going to be closed from 10pm tonight until 7am. Looks like we’re spending the night at Coldfoot Camp!

We put up our tent along the creek at the camp and settled in for the night.