(Settle in – this is a long update. We have had no internet service since 7/29 with the exception of a few hours on 8/1 at the junction of the Elliot and Steese Highways. We’ve covered a lot of ground in the past few days. So, here goes …)
Thursday (7/29) we made a quick run into Fairbanks and then “escaped” back out to the country before the end of the day. In Fairbanks we attended to a number of life necessities including: filled the diesel tank in the bus; got gas for the jeep; completed grocery shopping at Fred Meyer’s and Wal-Mart to acquire all the items on our grocery shopping list; Home Depot to get a tube of caulking and some expanding foam – the later to be used to plug the hole the red squirrel tried to use as a home; phone calls to a natural food store to get some gluten free oats on order; appointment for the pets to get their health certificates for travel back into Canada plus their rabies vaccinations; paid bills and transferred money around as required; caught up on emails; and dumped the waste tank and refilled the fresh water tank. We arrived in Fairbanks around 11AM and drove out before 4PM. We made good use of the few hours we had cellular service and access to services, but really felt happy to be heading back out of town at the end.
On the way out of town at mile 7 of the Steese Highway we stopped at the official highway viewpoint of the Oil Pipeline. With a few minutes to spare before a heavy down pour of rain (note the theme of rain in this post) caught up to us we checked out the displays and the pipeline. I was surprised that the pipeline is not protected in any way from malicious acts. We were able to walk right up to the pipeline and touch the steel supports and even stand on tippy toes to touch the pipeline itself. On display were two retired pipeline “pigs”. These are devices that are used to clean the pipeline periodically in order to keep the oil flowing well.
Keeping ahead of the down pour we continued on out the Steese Highway to the first of three major ridgeline crests called Twelve Mile Summit at mile 85.5. We stopped here for the night. Shortly after leveling out the bus and completing our “parking” activities the down pour caught up with us. It then proceeded to rain non-stop for a day and a half. It didn’t just rain, it really rained along with 15 – 25 mile an hour winds. Some of the gusts were powerful enough to rock the bus. Temperatures were also in the upper 40s completing the wet, windy, dark, dreary, and cold overtones for Friday. Often we were socked in by the clouds, which only added to the dark dreary feeling.
With the rain appearing to have set in for a while we took advantage of a good safe place to park and just stayed put. We cooked, played games, and read for hours and hours. Hilary and the girls also completed a puzzle. Soup for dinner was a perfect fit for the atmosphere of the day. We ended the day with a movie and more book reading.
Saturday we woke up once again to rain and wind. With the need to get out and explore we decided to unhook the Jeep and drive on out further down the Steese Highway – which is actually easterly in direction. A few miles down from Twelve Mile Summit the clouds dissipated and we were just left with the rain. As we explored further down the road we saw occasional peaks of sunshine trying to break out of the clouds. At one point we saw a tiny portion of a rainbow before it was snuffed out as the clouds randomly closed out the sunshine portal. As we returned to the bus for lunch we decided that after lunch we would drive the bus further out the highway to get down below the cloud deck and out of the fog. It may have still been raining, but at least we were out of the hemmed in feeling of the fog from up higher on the summit. As the afternoon wore on the rain broke down into fits and spurts and the sun peeked out every once in a while from behind the clouds.
Sunday – surprise, surprise – we awoke to more rain. Deciding that we couldn’t wait forever for good weather we packed a lunch and headed out in the Jeep to make our way to the end of the Steese Highway where it dead ends at the Yukon River. While Breann choose to stay back at the bus, the rest of us looked forward to what we would find around each bend in the road. As we crossed over Eagle Pass and descended into the next river valley the rain began to let up. Each mile further down the road was a new sight we had never seen before. Each mile also took us further and further out into the wilderness. There were very few cars on this road and even fewer signs of civilization. Passing through the town of Central and its post office we continued on towards Circle, the town on the end of the road. We drove mile after mile road enjoying all the varied scenery with few indications besides the road of human activity. We were WAY OUT THERE.
At the town of Circle we were stopped by the mighty Yukon River. There is not much to the tiny town now other than a very few hardy souls trying to subsist on what they can harvest from the land. There is a barge that stops at the town edge to load up supplies for other mining outposts up and down the river. This barge traffic along with some airplane traffic accounts for the majority of the commercial activity here.
While we walked around a bit and explored the river landing we met about 15 people who had canoed and boated down the Yukon from Whitehorse. Some of the group had met up with others in the group at Dawson. We learned it takes about three weeks to canoe down the river from Whitehorse. Canoeing down the river would be a completely different way to experience the Yukon Territory and Alaska. I personally liked the approach of the group including canoes and power boats together. By having both together it would be possible to canoe for a while and then relax on the boat for a while, thereby making the entire journey more relaxing and enjoyable. Additionally – having the boats for increased supply storage would be a major plus!
On the way back along the Steese we gave a Birch River rafter a ride back towards his car. The Birch River is a popular canoeing and rafting river. This rafter apparently counted on being able to hitch a ride back to his car, which was about 52 miles away from where he pulled out of the river. We were able to get him about 20 miles closer to his car before we dropped him off as we were taking a detour up a side road to Circle Hot Springs to see if they were open. He told us he had been on the river for six days covering a total of 127 river miles. He needed a shower!
As it turned out, the hot springs were closed, but we were able to follow a fantastic dirt trail back into the mountains about 11 miles before it dead ended at a mining site. The opportunity to get even more out into the back country was greatly enjoyed. We wanted to keep going!
We really enjoyed the drive out the Steese and were additionally rewarded with seeing five moose including a cow and her calf. In Circle there was a sign post with some information about the reproductive cycle of moose. The signboard claimed most cows will bear a calf when they are three years old. They continue bearing calves until they are around 11 years old. After their first year they generally have twins every other year.
At the end of the day the sun did put in a brief appearance further rewarding us with a beautiful rainbow while we ate supper.
On Monday (8/1 – how did it get to be August already????) we again woke to gray skies with the threat of rain. Today we intended to start our journey up the Dalton Highway. We hitched up the Jeep to the Bus and drove back in towards Fairbanks. At the junction of the Elliot Highway and the Steese Highway we filled up the Jeep with gas and then headed out the Elliot Highway towards the junction of the Dalton Highway (the Haul Road). We met up with the Dalton and turned north towards the Arctic Ocean over 420 miles away. We ended our first day about 20 miles south of the Yukon River crossing in large paved pullout along the highway. We ended our day with a little kite flying and reading.
Below pictures are from a quick stop about 20 miles down the Dalton. Note the change in dirt levels on the Jeep as you see the pictures further down the post:
Tuesday (8/2) we continued on to our first stop of the day at the Yukon River crossing. Here we learned Breann had forgotten Hilary and Hannah’s shoes back at our overnight stop when she had moved them out of her way while she swept out the front of the bus. With these shoes being the only hiking shoes they had we needed to go back and get them. This forced a delay in our northward travels while Hilary and I went back with the Jeep to get the shoes. Getting back from our short backtracking we visited the small visitor center and checked out the river. The Yukon River is a might river!
As we were returning from our backtracking it started to rain. Rain and a dirt road lead to some very interesting driving conditions. Dirt roads get very beat up and full of pot holes when large, heavy trucks drive on them. They get even more “messy” when it rains. Undaunted we continued on only driving 20MPH at times. We were going to make it to the Arctic Circle with the Bus no matter what! Along the way we passed Finger Rocks wayside and stopped for lunch.
By mid-afternoon we made it – we arrived at the Arctic Circle! We had our picture taken proving we truly did make it.
We over-nighted at the very primitive campground about a half a mile off the highway. There were only four other sites occupied Tuesday night and with the truck traffic ½ mile away it was indeed very quiet.
Wednesday (8/3) our destination (Hilary, Hannah and I) was Atigun Pass. Atigun Pass is about 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the Brooks Range. The Brooks Range is part of the continental divide with waters to the north of the range flowing to the Arctic Sea and waters to the south of the range flowing out to the Bearing Sea. The elevation of Atigun Pass is 4,800 feet above sea level. And yes, it was cloudy and rainy again!
On the way to Atigun Pass we drove through the bustling town of Coldfoot. Coldfoot principally serves the needs of the trucking traffic serving Prudhoe Bay. The National Park Service has a very nice visitor center in Coldfoot where we spent over an hour checking out all of the exhibits and warming in front of their woodstove. The flush toilets are also nice!
As we started the long climb towards the Brooks Range and Atigun Pass we started seeing signs of snow high up on the mountains. That is, we could see the snow on the mountains between the clouds as we were given glimpses between the cloud banks. As we proceeded towards the main pass the rain increased and the grade significantly increased. As we ascended the pass we went around a truck doing about 15 mph. I was able to see his drive axle tires spinning in the muddy, rocky roadbed. Later on when we returned I half expected to see the truck stuck on the grade, but apparently it did make it to the top.
Looking south at Atigun Pass’ primary grade south bound and up the mountain:
When we crested the pass we were in the clouds and had very limited visibility. What a bummer as we had hoped for some great views out over the Arctic Slope. Much to Hilary’s delight we drove through sloppy snow coming down and saw there was about 2” of slushy snow accumulated on the ground. The temperature was around 37 degrees, so nothing was really sticking on the road surface.
As we descended the north side of the pass we dropped down out of the snow line and found a good place to pull over. We had some snacks, took some pictures, and enjoyed getting out and exploring a bit. While we were stopped Hannah took some of the cold creek water and tried to wash the thick layer of mud off the taillights of the Jeep. She was somewhat successful, but the result was short lived as we continued our drive northward on the muddy, dirty road.
We had hoped to see some Caribou on our northward journey, but even an hour after passing over Atigun Pass we had yet to see any. By the time we reached pump station 4 we decided we needed to turn around and begin heading back.
While we didn’t see any Caribou, we did get to see a Moose. Hilary and I decided we would both like to come back when it wasn’t rainy and do some hiking in the Brooks Range. There is so much more to explore! We also want to come back and drive all the way up to Deadhorse. We will save these excursions for another trip.
Thursday (8/4) we again awoke to rain and droopy clouds. The morning was also cold, about 38 degrees. It did not look to be a good day to go hiking, so we packed up and started our journey back south on the Dalton Highway from the Arctic Circle. We pulled over at Finger Rocks Wayside and while we were sitting there the engine acted like it had momentarily been shutoff – felt like a hiccup. It happened a few more times as I was trying to figure out what was wrong. Close inspection of belts and attentive listening in the engine compartment did not give any clues to what was wrong. The check engine light was also not triggered by whatever was happening.
Oh yeah – meant to say that while waiting for the morning chores and showers to be done I took advantage of the time to get a walk in. On my walk I headed up one of the pipeline access roads which was within walking distance of our campsite. As I climbed the hill the road went up I realized how quiet it was. I stopped hiking and just listened. I was completely alone. Not another human was anywhere to be seen. As I stood there just taking it all in I realized it was so quiet I could hear my heart beating. It was fantastic!
We decided to proceed on our way. For a while nothing more happened, but as we neared the Yukon Crossing I felt some momentary hiccups again accompanied by a significant loss of power. This was most troubling given how remote we were! About 5 miles from the Yukon the BLM runs a small campground with a free RV dump station. We pulled in to take advantage of the service.
Here Hannah is helping me to fill the water tank in the bus. Since the potable water supply did not have a garden hose fitting on it I had to use the water pump in the bus to pump the water into the water tank. I’m keeping the metal bowl full of water while Hannah makes sure the water pickup for the bus water pump stays submerged.
When I went to restart the bus after availing ourselves of the dump the bus refused to start. This time the check engine light came on. I checked out the diagnostic code and found out the engine computer was complaining of low voltage on one of the two primary power feeds. I quickly checked out the fuses in the two power feeds and found one of the fuses had almost vibrated out of its connector. Resetting the fuses fully resolved the problems and we were on our way again. Yes, the road really was that bumpy and in that bad of condition! We were very grateful the problem was so easy to fix!
By mile 40 of the Dalton Highway I was tired from driving and thought it would be a perfect stopping point for the night to stop at the same spot we stopped at on the way up. It turned out to be a good place to stop and perfect timing given the dense fog we drove into as we headed south and up out of the Yukon River Valley. We took some time to make bread and granola. Unfortunately we ran out of propane just as the last of the granola was getting done. We figured we were close to being out, but not that close!
These are the last “dirty” pictures we took:
Friday we awoke to more clouds and cold temperatures again. Time to head south! We continued south making sure to stop this time at the Dalton Highway sign to get a picture proving we had “been there and done that”. As we drove south the temperatures increased into the high 60s and cloud deck lifted and thinned giving us glimpses of the sun.
For a week or two now I’d been thinking about some maintenance I wanted to complete on the bus before we started our journey south through Canada in earnest. The primary items on the list were a tire rotation, full lube job, and brake adjustment. As we headed south I took note of the improving weather and decided the day was nice enough to get all the tools out and get the maintenance done. At the Wickersham Dome trail head there was a large parking spot with a road heading off to the West towards the pipe line. At the pipe line was a great parking spot where I could do all the maintenance I needed without being in anyone’s way.
Some seven hours later everything was done. We stayed the night in the same location enjoying the peace and quiet of this great wilderness location. While I was working on the bus a pipeline inspection helicopter flew overhead so low we Hannah and I could feel the rotor wash from the rotor blades as he passed over. Cool!
Yesterday, Saturday (8/6), we once again rolled into Fairbanks. This time our visit to Fairbanks is primarily organized around provisioning, vet appointment, and picking up our forwarded mail. Before we head back into Canada, we have a list of things we want to stock up on in order avoid their higher grocery prices. Both the cat and dog need a rabies shot and we also need to get an updated health certificate for both of them before we head back into Canada. Lastly, we want to get our mail Hilary’s parents forwarded on to us. (Thanks Mom and Pa!) Oh yeah – one other very important thing – we also wanted to wash all the mud off the bus and Jeep from the Dalton Highway.
With all of us working together we were able to get the bus and Jeep scrubbed down and presentable again. We are able to see that the Jeep is indeed green, not mud brown.
So, let’s see, at the end of the day we had accomplished the following:
- Washed the Bus and Jeep – $54! Yikes!
- Filled up the diesel tank
- Filled the propane tank
- Completed our Wal-Mart shopping – over $300 worth of groceries – ugh!
We camped the night in the Wal-Mart parking lot. We are parked amongst about 25 – 30 other campers including people camping in their cars/trucks. While parked here we are taking advantage of some free power as well. A lot of the businesses in Fairbanks have outlet posts in the parking lots for keeping car block heaters plugged in during the bitterly cold winters. The electrical outlets are still hot during the summer and since Wal-Mart doesn’t stop us we are hooked up to their power. This has allowed us to get a full charge on the batteries and keep our water hot. We figured the $300 plus we spent has more than made up for the few dollars of electricity we have used. Thanks Wal-Mart.
Sunday was a slow day. We slept in and got a late start to our morning. Then we tuned in the Olympics and enjoyed watching the swimming and women’s cycling races. Early in the afternoon some friends we had met down in Homer stopped in and we spent some time comparing notes on our prior few weeks worth of travels. Like us Bill and Lynn are preparing to begin their south-eastward journey through Canada. It was good to catch up and find out we weren’t the only ones who had some minor vehicle problems in the intervening few weeks since we last saw them. Thankfully both our problems and their problems had been minor and easily fixed.
Sunday ended with a few hours at the Laundromat and then more Olympics. The vet appointment is not until Tuesday. We’ll do some exploring Monday and then figure out when to expect our order of Gluten Free Oats to come in to the Natural Foods store. We had placed this order a week and a half ago. Hopefully it will come in before the end of this week. Then it will be time to start our south-eastward journey.
A couple of thoughts on the Dalton Highway:
We had been lead to believe by several different people that truck drivers were rude to RV’ers since they are working and we are simply “playing”. I had been told the truck drivers would lock up their trailer brakes in order to throw up rocks at the passing RVs. Our experience did not match what we had been told to expect. In fact, we found the truck drivers to be very courteous and respectful. Without exception every truck driver slowed down and pulled over as far as they could and waved at us as we passed by. Of course, I also slowed down and pulled as far to the side as I could as well. We had no problems with truck drivers at all. However, the same cannot be said of the pick-up truck drivers. These pipeline and related workers seldom slowed down at all, even in some of the worst stretches of the road.
The Dalton Highway has almost no level stretches. It is mostly UP and then DOWN. The grades are frequently 7, 8, and 9% grades. I frequently was down in to 6th gear doing about 28mph up some of these really steep grades. The worst part is the road can be so bad that I couldn’t take advantage of the down grades to build up some speed to get up the next uphill. Our drive on the Dalton has the distinction of returning the WORST fuel mileage we have ever gotten with the Cummins Engine power train (the old 6v92 we had, got even worse mileage). We averaged 5.7 mpg with an average speed of 28 mph on the section of highway between mile post 40 and the Arctic Circle. Slow, steep, and rutted are the words we would use to describe the Dalton Highway. Even with these complaints, we had a great time and would like to go again!
While waiting to fill the propane tank on Saturday I spoke with a Fairbanks native who told me he accidentally discovered what he thinks is the best time to drive the Dalton Highway. He said he drove it his last time the first week of September. He told me it was in very, very good condition. The highway was frozen solid most of the way. In preparing for the freeze up of the highway the state works very hard at getting the road as smooth as possible so that when it does freeze it is a great surface to keep plowed throughout the winter. Additionally, the fall colors are simply spectacular he said. Duly noted!
- Thursday (7/28): 138 (Steese Hwy Twelve Mile Summit Wayside)
- Saturday (7/30): 12 (Twelve Mile Creek)
- Monday (8/1): 205 (Dalton Hwy Mile 41)
- Tuesday (8/2): 76 (Arctic Circle)
- Thursday (8/4): 76 (Dalton Hwy Mile 41)
- Friday (8/5): 84 (Elliot Hwy Mile 30)
- Saturday (8/6): 44 (Fairbanks Wal-Mart)