Outdoor Corner: The Arctic Circle

Lyle Johnson
The famed note tree that the café was built around by Dick Mackey, former Iditarod Champion. Photo by Lyle Johnson

With the situation we find ourselves in these days, inspiration is a little more difficult to get the writing juices flowing. There’s record numbers of folks out on the river, but not many organized things going on in the outdoors.

So I thought I’d travel back in time when our daughter, Kaycee and family was stationed on Eielson AFB in Alaska. As we were planning our trip to Alaska, I noticed something on the map that got my attention. I saw a boundary line that read, “Arctic Circle”. I blurted out to my wife, “Man, the Arctic Circle is only two or three hours from Fairbanks. We’re gonna make that road trip even if we just cross the border and take a picture!”

Now there’s something I’ve learned about Alaska maps; just because you see a squiggly line that’s a road and a dot with a name by it that’s a town, don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s like here. Dalton Hwy is the road that leaves Fairbanks and 414 miles later you’re at the Arctic Ocean, Prudhoe Bay to be exact, in Deadhorse where the Alaska pipeline has its beginning.

So as I looked into the journey, I found out that Dalton Hwy is mostly unpaved, as it was built for 18 wheelers to deliver supplies and materials for the pipeline and the oilfields. The road is good, but it’s rocky and bumpy.

On the Fairbanks website, they advise against you driving it yourself. Recommendations on the Alaska website are to equip your vehicle with two full-sized spare tires, a CB radio, camping gear, supplies and much more. Us making the drive; not!

So we settled on the Northern Alaska Tour Company flying into Coldfoot, taking a 2 ½ hour ground tour and flying back. About 5 hours total, leaving at 7 p.m. and returning just after midnight under the midnight sun. This was the one for us!

Our host was Kathy Hedges. She helped make our trip very pleasant by giving us instructions, explaining our route and letting us know what to expect. But no amount of verbal description could come close to what we were about to experience.

Our pilot, Darrell, was a former USAF pilot who made us all very secure. About 7:30 we departed Fairbanks with high expectations. We were not disappointed. Our flight brought us over the White Mountain Range just north of Fairbanks. Next was the Yukon flats that brought us over the Yukon River. The Yukon cuts Alaska in half from east to west and the flats are home to thousands of lakes. Just past the Yukon flats, we crossed the border into the Arctic Circle.

Then we entered the Brooks Mountain Range. There was still some snow on top of the mountains. This is caribou country and our pilot told us to look out for a couple of herds he’d been spotting for the past couple of weeks. The herds are always on the snow patches, feeding on lichen that can only be found under the snow. Sure enough, we spotted a herd of about 400 caribou feeding in the snow.

After our flight, we landed on the gravel runway in Coldfoot. We were greeted by a young boy and his sister at their lemonade stand. No doubt the farthest north lemonade stand in the world. Coldfoot was a mining town that eventually was abandoned in the early 1900s as the miners found easier gold to mine in Wiseman, 11 miles to the north.

So we got in our van and headed for Wiseman, a town that was established in 1908 and still flourishes with a population of 13 folks. The 11 mile trip took about 30 minutes as we got to experience the Dalton Hwy for the first time.

The ride is beautiful, as the Arctic summertime is in full bloom. I know why they don’t recommend driving it yourself; beautiful but real bumpy. The temperature this time of year is not much different from Fairbanks during the day but after the sun sets (not dark) it dips about 8 to 10 degrees colder; about 43 this night.

Our tour of Wiseman started in a church. That Sunday morning eight people attended, five from Wiseman and three from Coldfoot. Then we met Jack, the real Jack Reakoff, not the one from Men in Trees. He’d carved out his life for over 45 years in this remote town. He raised three kids here; he’s the postmaster, tour guide, hunter, trapper and gardener extraordinaire and who knows what else.

We spent the rest of our time in Wiseman with Jack as he told us about his life and how one would live this far north without electricity. It’s not as bad as it one would think, but it’s not for the faint in heart. We got to see the general store, built in the heyday of the gold mining rush of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The purest gold in the world is mined in this area and is still a very viable operation today.

The conclusion of our tour brought us back to Coldfoot Café, a truck stop that’s about half way to Deadhorse and has lots of history. There was a tree that truckers nailed hand-written notes on to communicate any news about the road conditions ahead.

The Coldfoot truck stop was founded by Iditarod champion Dick Mackey who started his operation by selling hamburgers out of a converted school bus and that tree is in the middle of the café that still feeds truckers. Truckers helped build the existing truck stop and café and they have a separate room there to eat. If you’re not a trucker, don’t go in there.

There is a 24-hour cafe, a 50-room inn, a complete tire shop with limited mechanical and towing service, a post office, gift shop, groceries, and RV Park with plug-ins and dump station. Get it all here because the next services are 247 miles away at Deadhorse. Oh yeah, fuel here runs from $5 to $8 a gallon.

Words and pictures can’t do justice to this experience. Alaska just seems to get in your blood and I can’t wait to go back. So until next time, remember to keep the slack out and set the hook hard. Have fun in the outdoors, be safe and may God truly bless you!