By Peter W. Fairbairn | Eighty miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, the pavement ends and the Dalton Highway officially begins. The road ahead, which ends just a few miles shy of the Arctic Ocean, has been beckoning me for more than a little while now. Behind me lie the turnpikes and country highways of 49 states, and a brain tumor whose complicated surgical removal in my 73rd year has limited my ability to travel for most of my eighth decade. It has not, however, blunted my desire. Lately I have been driving to my daughter’s house, where I watch re-runs on her big-screen TV of a show for which I have developed an abiding interest: a History Channel series called Ice Road Truckers.
I have loved roads for as long as I can remember—loved just getting out onto one and driving toward the horizon. I’ve crisscrossed the Western plains and the Rocky Mountains many times, from the Mexican border to the ends of the road systems in western Canada. When my medical providers at the Texas Medical Center gave me a clean bill of health, I decided to resume my quest to hit the open road. I wanted a new challenge, where few people visit and fewer live and work. Skiing to the North Pole, as one of my friends recently did, seemed too extreme. But Alaska and its vast interior, beyond cell-phone range and with just a minimum of modern comforts, appealed to me. The Dalton Highway, whose 414-mile length serves as the Ice Road Truckers’ obstacle course, was recently opened for public use. Resolving to duplicate their route—albeit in much more favorable weather conditions, and with the help of a small tour company—I boarded a Ford E-350 for the trip to Deadhorse, on Prudhoe Bay, in late July of 2011.
The North Slope Haul Road, as it was originally called, was completed in 1974 to move men and supplies to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, and to build a parallel 48-inch-wide pipeline to move crude oil south to the ice-free port of Valdez. In 1981 the gravel highway was renamed after James B. Dalton, a lifelong Alaskan and expert on arctic engineering. Its remoteness and topographical complexity make that a meaningful tribute. The first 50 miles of road roller-coasters down to the Yukon River, where we cross a 30-foot-wide bridge built at a 7 percent downward grade. On the north side of the span we fill up at the last gas pump for 120 miles.
The Dalton begins to climb up from the Yukon Flats across a series of ridges with ever expanding views of the landscape. Finally, atop Finger Mountain, we gain a 360-degree view of a vast expanse, larger than the state of Connecticut. There is absolutely no sign of civilization in any direction, except the thin twin ribbons of road and pipeline. Only now does the vastness of interior Alaska and the Canadian Arctic fully register in my mind. There are any number of other such sights between the Bering Sea in the west and the Hudson Bay far to the east, but they are accessible only by foot or float plane.
At 66 degrees and 33 minutes north, we cross the Arctic Circle. There is a simple marker and viewing deck for picture taking. At this point the sun stays above the horizon for one full day on the summer solstice, and below the horizon for one full day at the winter solstice.
Pushing further north we cross Prospect Creek, where in 1971 a thermometer measured the coldest temperature ever recorded in the United States: 80 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Soon we pull into Coldfoot, to spend the night in simple modular housing. The truckers’ café, whose parking lot is large enough to hold between 75 and 100 trucks, serves hot food for the adventurous. Coldfoot has the last gas and diesel before Prudhoe Bay.
We rise early the next morning for the final 240 miles to Deadhorse. As the highway leads into the foothills of the Brooks Range, gradually gaining elevation, the mountains begin to close in the road. Presently the massive wall of Sukakpak Mountain looms over us on the right. The white spruce trees grow thinner and thinner until we reach the last one at the approach to the not-quite-mile-high Atigun Pass, where a flagman halts all traffic to let a wide-load 18-wheeler come down and pass us safely.
The wait gives us time to contemplate a cannon mounted on a pivot, used for avalanche control in late winter and early spring. The road on the south side of the pass was carved out of a steep slope, and the guardrails flanking it bear target markings for the exact spots where controlled avalanches are initiated by the cannon below. (Similar installations are employed at the approaches to the Chandalar Shelf and on the North Slope approach to Atigun Pass.) After the cannon has done its job, special equipment removes the remaining snow from the road and guardrails are checked for damage. Finally, a signal is sent down the road that traffic may resume.
After crossing the pass—clear now in high summer—we descend into an ever-widening break in the Brooks Range. The sheer mountain walls are just as impressive as those found south of Atigun Pass. Finally, we reach the North Slope, pockmarked by glacial ponds and lakes. Then the terrain bottoms out. The final 50 miles to Deadhorse is as flat as western Kansas.
This stretch of the Dalton is perhaps the most dangerous to traverse in winter. Sudden white-outs can occur at any time. Fog is also a problem at certain times of the year. The reflective road markers are often difficult to see at such times. But on balance, the Dalton’s 414 miles are in fairly good condition for a gravel road. The Alaska highway department is constantly working to repair culverts, build more pull-outs, add gravel, and smooth the trip for all types of commercial and private traffic.
Birds and all species of wildlife abound. Since late July is not migratory season, most of what we see is from a distance: black and brown bears, red fox, musk ox, moose, caribou. North of the Yukon River, firearms are prohibited for sport hunting within five miles on either side of the highway.
At the end of the second day we arrive in Deadhorse. Beyond this point, a special pass must be obtained to enter the Prudhoe Bay area and the shores of the Beaufort Sea. We check into the Prudhoe Bay “Hilton”—aka Deadhorse Camp #1—for our lodgings and a hot meal. After dinner I ask the cook where the Ice Road Truckers stay. Here! I’ve reached the end of the road.
But not the last one, I hope. I have learned that surveyors are now planning a route for year-round vehicular access to Nome, Alaska. This road would be longer than the Dalton. When opened to the public, I look forward to taking it.
Peter W. Fairbairn W’53 lives in Houston, Texas. He invites readers with road stories to call him at (713) 464-8878.