I open the door of the outhouse and look inside. Ice cubes on the toilet lid, icicles all around the seat. But I don't care, I have to pee. It's my own fault, I wanted to go to northern Alaska in winter. When I get out of the toilet, I am just in time see my boyfriend disappear up to his waist in a pile of snow.
We're on our way from Fairbanks to Coldfoot, Alaska, a small wilderness community along the Dalton Highway north of the Arctic Circle. Where the taiga ends, and the tundra begins. More than 200 miles from the nearest grocery store in any direction. No police station, no fire department, no hospital, no WiFi, not even a church. Just a truck stop, a gas pump, and several container box-like structures grouped together for visitors to stay in.
And if something happens to you while you are there?
Well, then at least we got to see the Northern Lights, went dog sledding, danced on the Yukon River, crossed the Arctic Circle, and saw a completely frozen fairytale forest. It's better than falling down the basement stairs in Piqua, Ohio at the end of your life. So, join us on our Alaska adventure—into the wild—on one of the most northerly and dangerous roads in the world.
As I slam the door on the ice toilet, I have to laugh. "Arsch auf Grundeis!”, I say loudly in German (which translates into "Ass on ice!" and means that you are afraid of something and assume the worst). Nobody understands here anyway.
After the pee stop, we return to the Dalton Highway. It is the only road in Alaska that leads beyond the Arctic Circle to the Arctic Ocean. All other areas in northern Alaska can be reached only by small plane. During the summer, the highway consists mainly of dirt, mud, rocks, and potholes, and you can generally expect at least one crack in the windshield. You should also come with two to four spare wheels (no kidding!). In winter, large parts of the surface are intentionally iced over with water to fill the potholes. Afterwards the mirror-smooth road is grooved, so that one does not depart the road immediately and unexpectedly. Curves in the road, an occasional brake failure due to the frigid cold (up to minus 80°F), and frequent avalanches try their best already.
The Dalton Highway is considered by many to be the beginning—or end—of the legendary Pan-Am Highway. The Dalton was constructed during the 1970s after massive amounts of oil were found in the far north near Prudhoe Bay on the Artic Ocean and a pipeline had to be constructed to the ice-free south. Since there was zero infrastructure at that time, a complete highway had to be built on the permafrost. Still not convinced that this is the Highway to Hell? Well, consider that it is 666 kilometers long. Just saying.
We are not driving the Dalton Highway ourselves, but with a guide. A classic Alaskan guy—six feet tall, six feet wide, wrapped in self-skinned animal hides, and with a voice that seems to boom from the depths of the earth's core.
He steers our van confidently along our path to perdition. From time to time, huge trucks thunder towards us, taking supplies to and from the oil fields further north. Occasionally, we spy hidden huts belonging to off-the-grid independents who "don't like people around them."
Otherwise, there is only emptiness. Spruce trees and ice. Hills. Ice and spruces. It's a loneliness and vastness such as I've never experienced. In contrast, Wyoming is a vibrant metropolis. I think of "The Nothing" in Michael Ende's book, The Neverending Story. It's here. And it's beautiful.
Suddenly, I begin to see strange white pillars passing by outside. Huh, what is that? I jump up as the van rumbles over an unfilled pothole and my boyfriend holds me down so I don't land with my nose in the aisle.
The white pillars are trees! An entire forest of white pillared trees! Frozen and snow-covered. Like mummies, like a white Bryce Canyon, like one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen!
We get out and I dash up a snow mountain that immediately tries to swallow me whole. Wow.
The sun never gets higher than 45-degrees above the horizon here, bathing the entire surreal,
golden scene in hours of twilight. It's so beautiful, I almost want to cry. Our world is truly an incredible wonder! Time and time again, I find places during my travels that even the most
creative thinkers could never imagine.
A short time later we reach the Yukon River. One of the longest rivers in North America. It is almost 2,000 miles long (the Rio Grande is 1,759 miles long) and over a half-mile across at its widest point. And now, it is completely frozen. I run down a slope to the riverbank and then onto the river itself. I hop, up-and-down. Maybe the ice will break. It can't be that such a huge river just freezes solid. My boyfriend looks at me piercingly with his blue Alaskan eyes that would make a husky jealous. He keeps thinking I'm going to break into ice and sink to the bottom of some pool forever. But nothing happens. We are standing on the Yukon River.
The wind is sharp and my eyes water profusely. I pinch them together. Then we turn back—but only after I lay down on the Yukon River—just to make sure—and enter a small sandwich roadhouse. As we stand in the building’s vestibule, I blink. Uh-oh! Something is wrong. My right eye won't open. The lashes are frozen together. I hold my warm hand to my face, panicking slightly. What if it never opens again! But eventually it does. Holy moly. A thermometer on the outside wall reads minus 27° Fahrenheit. I wonder if the sandwich will freeze to my teeth if I eat it outside?
I eat it inside.
After a long drive—due mainly to the road conditions of the Dalton Highway, and a few stops for photos or bathroom breaks—the 250 miles from Fairbanks to our camp in Coldfoot takes almost ten hours. But first we arrive at an invisible line: the Arctic Circle!
A brown sign sticks in the ground and our moose-skin-covered driver spreads a red carpet ceremoniously on the snow as a backdrop for a photo op. After my boyfriend and I traipse hand-in-hand across the “official” Arctic Circle, our guide congratulates us by wrapping his paddlewheel-sized hands around us and saying something that sounds like "THUNDERSTRUCK!" He then flings us all the way to the North Pole with his pinky and eats three wolves raw with ketchup.
That last part was a joke.
Just as I start to read a Park Service sign about the seasons in the Arctic Circle, I realize I can't feel my feet. I instantly stop reading and begin to run back and forth to warm up. If there's one thing I've learned from my time in Wyoming, it's that frostbite is real. I once took too long to take photos without gloves. In January. And now, after two months, I'm just starting to feel sensation in my pinky again. We then crawl back into the van and our drive continues into an endless sunset—further and further north—where more adventures await us.
Come with us to the second part of our trip: Northern Lights, Dog Sledding, and cold Feet at World's End - Alaska in Winter.