Saturday, July 19, 2008

Call of the Wild - July 6 - Circle - Coldfoot - Wiseman - Atigun Pass - Galbraith

Note: the story begins here:

The Arctic Circle is one of the more visited spots on the Highway – there were 3 cars on the parking lot, and three or four tents on the campground right above it. We are turned off by the mosquito clouds on the campground and choose to spend the night on the parking lot.

The next day the weather is wonderful again and we shoot good pictures of ourselves crossing the divide.

Fifty miles later – ”The Last Homely House” of Dalton –Coldfoot camp. Food, water, gas. $5.59 gas, at that. Lodging. RV parking with hook-ups. No wastewater dump, unfortunately. The posting on the cashier’s register is asking to split a fill-up that is more than $999 into multiple transactions, or the pump locks up… a “Year 2000” problem of the energy crisis…

A post office in Coldfoot does not allow the hunting gear inside…

The best thing about Coldfoot is the visitor’s station. It has a really nice display – definitely worth seeing. A whole book of fun facts about Dalton Highway. If you have time, it is easy to spend more than an hour there – the first visitor’s center about which I can say this. My family is impressed by the restroom – according to them, by far the best on the trip. We buy $350 worth of t-shirts there.

Our next stop is Wiseman. It is actually a few miles off the highway, but the guide has enticing pictures, so we turn there. Wiseman is a tiny place – something like 12 people live there. There is a bed and breakfast and at least 2 lodges (cabins for rent). People work for various Dalton facilities – the Visitor’s Center, highway maintenance. Several old miners live there.

As you enter the town, the first building you see is an old post office. It is not functioning – closed in 1956.

When it closed, they just padlocked it, so the interior of the building is exactly as it was 50 years ago. I photograph it through the window – the camera takes in more than can be seen by the human eye.

Even the “Wanted” signs are still there.

The next building is the miner’s museum with a display of minerals inside. The curator is very friendly, and together with a couple of other residents he shows us how to pan for gold. We get to try it and find a few grains. Tanya and Jenny get caught in it and keep panning for a couple of hours.

We visit Wiseman’s old cemetery. A lot of graves dating back to the turn of the 20th century, when the town was prospering, but there are quite a few newer ones. A lot of the older graves belong to 20-somethings. Residents of the newer graves died in their eighties. There are exceptions, of course. Tanya likes the epitaph on one of the graves…

At the entrance to the cemetery is this collection of the aluminum cans – the Mountain Dew cans in the lower layers have a design that is older than I can remember.

At 8pm we stop by one of the lodges to buy hunting and fishing permits and then leave Wiseman to continue towards the Atigun Pass. Hunting (except by bow) is illegal within a 5 mile corridor of the Dalton, but it’s only $20 and I hope that we get to hike further away.

The sun is low, and Sukakpak Mountain’s glow is so inviting that we park, leave the car and head through the forest towards the mountain’s footsteps.

We hike for 2 hours – get almost all the way back to the edge of the forest, but eventually the ascent is too steep and we have to turn back. There are a lot of animal droppings, but no animals. On the positive side, no wolves, either, so the gun is idle.

By the time we’re back and showered it is 11pm already and we are somewhat behind on time – we have to be in Deadhorse by Wednesday morning for a tour of the oil fields, but we were unable to make the requisite 100 miles per day.

Also, we’re somewhat worried about Atigun pass – who knows how wide the road is there, and if there’s a shoulder. When the big trucks are going by, we drive off onto the shoulder and stop to let them pass –the road is too narrow in places, and there’s too much loose gravel on it, so if you’re not out of the way quickly, you get a stone shower.

Right now it is Sunday night and there is no traffic, but we have every reason to believe that Monday morning is not going to be as quiet.
So we decide to just keep going. It’s a polar night – no sunset, the sun is just circling in the sky. We reach the divide between the taiga and the tundra – with the “Farthest North Spruce Tree”.

Road conditions after Coldfoot worsen quickly, and become atrocious right before the Atigun Pass, but we get treated to some really cool night-time scenery.

The mosquito problem suddenly becomes far worse when we hit tundra. Any attempt to step out of the car and one’s surrounded by a buzzing cloud – one, two hundred mosquitoes. They envelope every exposed square inch of the body. Any clap in the air produces mosquito corpses. Luckily, Tanya brought mosquito nets. Without them, the vacation would have been toast.

While coming down from Atigun Pass, we get our second wild animal sighting – two foxes playing around. My camera runs out of space at that point, so we only get it on the camcorder.

We drive some more until we get to Galbraith Lake. The lake reflects the mountains behind it. The photo does not do justice to what we’ve actually seen. This is at 2 in the morning!

Galbraith lake camp is 4 miles off the Dalton Highway. While driving to it, we get our third wild animal sighting for the trip – this time, a ptarmigan! It looks and behaves like a chicken – it flies into the brush, then as I come out of the car to harass it out of the thicket, it just runs away from me, but does not fly. See if you can spy it in this picture.

When we get to the camp, it’s late, late, late! We just drop dead…

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