As in, ‘Highway’ to those unfamiliar with the road and the main subject of our 2nd post. The very word ‘highway’ is a misnomer if ever there was one – 415 miles of potholed, washboarded, and frost heaved mud track would better describe it. Lois had suggested that we change the name of our blog to “OneHorrendous Road” in its honor !
But, alas, I am getting ahead of myself. Last I left off, we had arrived in Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon and, more sentimentally, where Lois was born and spent her very early years. Not a lot to see ( and our 3rd visit ) so more of a supply stop only. The next few days saw us camping at the always magnificent Kathleen Lake ( Kluane National Park ), still in the Yukon and just bordering Alaska, soaking up some great weather and enjoying a couple of hikes. We largely followed a fairly well worn path on through the aforementioned Alaska Highway but diverting south from Tok down the Tok Cutoff to Gakona, before turning north up the Richardson Highway to Paxson at the eastern end of the famous Denali Highway. A seasonal road only, we’d missed it on our last trip up so made sure we took it in this time. Camping there overnight, we saw plenty of wildlife, stunning vistas of the Alaska Range and, nearing the western end of this 135 mile gravel track, peek a boo views of Denali itself.
Denali National Park was the main attraction – we had hoped to see a grizzly bear this time and while it was distant, with binoculars we managed to get as clear a view of a grizzly bear in the wild as we had ever seen. Not the kind of thing you want to be much closer to ! A large female moose with 2 newborn calves was another highlight.
Heading north again we got to Fairbanks and used it to resupply ourselves for the next 3-4 days on The Dalton. Reaching Deadhorse ( or Prudhoe Bay ) would put us as far north as it is possible to drive in North America and at the very northern end of the famous Pan American Highway. Save for a short shipping detour around the impassable Darien Gap in Panama, it is possible ( and we plan ) to ultimately drive all the way to Ushuaia, Tierra Del Fuego, at the very southern tip of Argentina.
The weather was on our side as we set off ( always a bit dodgy this time of year, but hey, travelling now you avoid the brutal mosquitos that will be out in force in 2-3 weeks ) and made Coldfoot our first stop. More or less half way up ‘the track’, and a dusty, muddy camp more than a town, it famously got its name during the gold rush era when some of the prospectors got ‘cold feet’ on the long trek north and turned for home at this point. It was here that we met Cristiano and Maria, a Brazilian couple ( along with their teenage daughter ) travelling the Pan American highway in a camper, coming ( obviously ) from south to north. Our paths crossed often in the next few days as we followed the same ( only ! ) route north ( enjoyed some photo ops at the Deadhorse Store ) and back to Fairbanks again. The route is truly remote, and the scenery stunning – wildlife was not as plentiful as the last trip up in 2011 but we managed to see moose, black foxes, caribou and the amazing musk oxen ( see pics ). Sadly, the road is now much more travelled ( likely in part to the fame it received often being the subject of the ‘Ice Road Truckers’ series ) and is in much worse shape as a result. Horrendous frost heaves, ruts, washboarding and giant potholes were just a few of the hazards – that said, we managed to complete it up and back with neither a flat tire or a cracked windshield – two of the most common souvenirs one takes away from the Dalton Highway ( I claimed it it as the result of my fine driving, Lois attributed it to her repeated advice to ‘Just slow down, Jeff’ ! ).
Last post, I mentioned a fellow we met at Liard Hot Springs who had hitchhiked with his dog all the way across Canada. We thought that was a long ‘hitch’. While driving the Dalton we twice passed a young man – incredibly – WALKING the route. We had wondered how long that might take and speculated on the challenges of weather and other obvious dangers. Back in Fairbanks, as luck would have it, we bumped into our Brazilian friends who asked if we had seen ‘Mateus’ walking the route. Indeed we had, and had speculated on what a long walk it was. In fact, for Mateus, the Dalton was just the beginning – his ultimate goal ( and he had a 2 year timeframe ) was the very same as ours – Ushuaia, Argentina ……only he was doing it on foot !