Sunday, August 04, 2013

How to get to the Arctic Circle and Arctic Ocean by land

With the Colombian peace deal still a dream, my next leg, my penultimate leg, of my Pan-American Highway trek will be in Alaska. In 2007, I traveled overland from Oakland, California; through the Yukon; to Fairbanks, Alaska; and up the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle. Because I traveled in October, the van service would not go any further. Had I gone in the summertime, the van would have taken me another 300 miles to Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse, Alaska, where I could dip my toes in the Arctic Ocean with oil drilling platforms in the background.

For the 2007 Arctic Circle tour, I used Northern Alaska Tour Company, which is based in Fairbanks.


We set off way before sunrise. If I remember correctly, it was ten or fifteen degrees below zero (-24 to -26C). That's the coldest weather I have ever experienced. Locals told me that in Fairbanks, it got as cold as 50 below (-46C).

We rode in a rugged Ford van with a satellite phone.

The scenery up to the Arctic Circle was nice, but not particularly spectacular. The road was paved at first and gravel later. The road is called the Dalton Highway and was built with the sole purpose of servicing the Alaskan pipeline. Hence, the pipeline ran parallel with the highway for the entire 500 miles from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse. And other than some Homeland Security personnel and surveillance equipment at the Yukon River bridge, I didn't see much security at all for this vital national asset.

We got really close to the pipeline. I think I took this overhead shot while taking a leak in the snow.

I don't have my notes handy, but I vaguely recall those things on the side of the pipe being radiators to keep the pipe at a more constant temperature. The pipes are also connected in a zigzag fashion in case of earthquakes.

About 200 miles north of Fairbanks is the Arctic Circle. There is a parking lot and this sign. That little white thing dangling from my jacket below my waist is an REI thermometer I bought for the trip.

I think it took about eight hours to get to the Arctic Circle that day. It took another eight to return. The road conditions were not that bad, but with a van full of passengers, our driver was not taking any risks.

So now, I still need to travel the 300 miles between the Arctic Circle and the Arctic Ocean. I briefly toyed with the idea of going this month, but I just don't have the time. The vans only run to the Arctic Ocean in June, July, and August. The schedule is here and the rates are here.

The highway is dangerous because it's narrow, unpaved, and has very few guardrails (and few shoulders). And with one "town" (consisting basically of a diner and a gas station) along the entire 500 mile route, driver fatigue is a big issue. With most of the traffic being big rigs carrying supplies to the oil fields, smaller vehicles are fairly defenseless.

In order to get to the Arctic Ocean, you have to enter property controlled by an oil company (I believe it's ARCO/BP. 24 hours before you visit it, you must give them your name so that they can do a security clearance check. Plus, you are required to watch a short film about how oil companies are essentially pretty unicorns that piss rainbows and poop gumdrops.

After a 16 hour ride on a bumpy road, I probably will not want to ride back to Fairbanks in the same van. Fortunately, Northern Alaska Tour Company offers flights back to Fairbanks. There is even an option to spend a day and night in Barrow, Alaska.

Hopefully, I can do this trip (Arctic Circle to Arctic Ocean with side trip to Barrow) next summer!

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