So what exactly is at the edge of the Arctic Circle in Alaska? Not much really, apart from nice views. The road journey to get there on the other hand is an adventure in itself and the experience of saying you have been there is just one of those things some of us have to do!
On my second day in the Alaskan interior city of Fairbanks I decided I needed to make that journey but car rentals and internal flights up that way are expensive, so I signed up for the small group Arctic Circle drive tour with the Northern Alaskan Tour Company (kudos to the groups excellent guide Mimi and a fun group of fellow travelers from all over). It was an early morning start setting off at 6:30am for what was going to be an almost 16 hour day of travelling and exploring the 318 km / 198 miles to the edge of the Arctic Circle.
The first 112 km / 70 miles north of Fairbanks was on the paved Elliot Highway but then you hit trucking territory and 206 km / 128 miles on the mostly unpaved Dalton Highway. The Dalton is gravel to minimize the need for constant road works caused by permafrost under the ground surface. By definition, permafrost is any rock or soil material that has remained below 0 C / 32 F continuously for two or more years (yeah even without snow and ice it stays pretty cold just below the surface up there all year round). Given the roads are rough your travel speed slows a bit once you get that far up into Alaska too (I can only imagine what it must be like when hardy souls set out on this road in Winter!).
About 2 hours in we stopped at community known as Joy. Basically just the Arctic Circle Trading Post is in Joy, a place named after Joy Carlson who once lived here. Her son Joe set up the store with his wife and 23 kids (18 were adopted them). We saw Joe and some of the kids who are all now adults later on in the day enjoying a salmon bake.
Outside the trading post were two Aerobus Checker stretched station wagons from 1971/1972. The family used to move all those kids around in these very unique cars back in the day!
An essential stop was at the Dalton Highway welcome sign. This was a good photo opportunity. Apparently the sign cost $18,000!
After a while you start to see the famed Trans Alaska Pipeline System running alongside the Dalton Highway (the highway was originally built for access for the workers to build pipeline but by the mid 1980’s it started to be open for public use). You can’t miss the pipeline really as it is huge!
The steel pipeline is 1,287 km / 800 miles long from Prudhoe Bay in the north to Valdez in the south (the most northern ice-free port in North America) running through some very wild arctic country. More than half of the pipeline is above ground due to engineering issues associated with permafrost forming and melting which could move the pipeline. 80% of Alaska has some form of permafrost and if you only see little black spruce trees or sparse trees / tundra it is a good sign of permafrost underground.
The Trans Alaska Pipeline System was constructed between March 27th, 1975 and May 31st, 1977 by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company which is owned by 4 major oil companies (BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Unocal Pipeline Company). This was the biggest private enterprise construction ever undertaken at cost $8 billion with 70,000 workers involved in from 1969 to 1977! The project was apparently way over budget but the pipeline has already delivered 50%+ more oil than expected (over 17 billion barrels), so it’s has well and truly paid for itself I guess? The pipeline is understandably an impressive project and when I got to walk around under it for a closer look, you realise it is pretty big too!
Once you cross the Yukon River you know you are way into the Alaskan interior. As the journey north continued we made a stop at Finger Mountain for views of rock tors (including Little Finger), arctic tundra plains and rolling mountains off in the distance. This was very different terrain from the taiga before.
Continuing on we passed Kanuti Flats (tundra with small ponds) and crossed the Kanuti River. Then at 2pm we finally arrived at the Arctic Circle and the big sign at a latitude of 66° 33′ north of the equator. Time for a bit of fun in posing for some silly photos including straddling the approximate line of the Arctic Circle (the sign is about 3 metres off the actual line according to a German guys GPS). We had made it and celebrated with some cake!
On the way back in Kunuti River Valley we stopped near the pipeline to walk on the sodden tundra and pick some tasty wild blueberries. The ground was damp but not really earth as it was just sod under foot. Mimi our guide dug into it and although not frozen there was plenty of water under there. Very cold water!
As the tour headed south back to Fairbanks we stopped at the Yukon River Camp for dinner. I ate tasty salmon tacos (salmon always tastes better in Alaska) and a great slice of locally made cherry pie. The tour group then wandered down to the river to take in the view.
After dinner we set off and stopped at Joy again where we received our Arctic Circle crossing certificate before heading back to Fairbanks. A long but fun day. Mission accomplished.