Day 8: October 26
Fairbanks to Coldfoot, Alaska
by Richard Truesdell
After a hearty breakfast from Mike, we took a tour of the Aurora Express. As Sue narrated, I shot with the Sharp Digital ViewCam until the battery ran out. Unfortunately Sue and Mike had removed much of the furnishings for the winter but with the tour of the two Pullman cars and the caboose, we were able to get a good idea of how the cars would appear during the summer. The first Pullman car can sleep a group of seven in complete comfort for $350 a night, including a sumptuous breakfast. This is close to its original 50’s decor and as I walked through I felt as if I was Cary Grant on the ???? in North by Northwest.
The second Pullman has four theme suites, the Immaculate Conception, Gay Nineties suite, the Bordello and the Can Can suite, each which runs $75 a night in season. These are far less original in decor but offer fantasy visitors a night that they can surely remember.
The caboose suite, a memorial to her departed grandmother who she revered, is Sue’s pride and joy. It features a large, opulent bedroom at the far end and a unique sitting room arrangement which is situated in the raised portion of the caboose, offering a splendid view of Fairbanks spread out below. It is easy to imagine curling up with a good book and relaxing on a summer’s eve as the sun dips near the horizon.
Mike discussed future plans for the Aurora Express which include additional Pullman cars as well as a GP 40-2 locomotive as well as construction of a depo building to serve a variety of functions. It would be easy to imagine the Aurora Express starring in a future Hollywood productions as the individual rooms could serve in a variety of time periods with little difficulty.
After the tour was completed, we walked back up the main lodge above the train. As it was close to ten below zero, we were quite frozen as we reached the lodge. I used this opportunity to confirm our overnight accommodations for both Coldfoot tonight and Deadhorse on Sunday evening. The staff at both locations warned that conditions between Coldfoot and Deadhorse were adverse and that extreme caution should be exercised.
We finished packing up the car and headed north, stopping at the local Fred Meyer to stockpile some emergency munchies as well as picking up a five gallon auxiliary gas can and a couple of bungie cords with were used to secure it to the roof. After tanking up on the northern outskirts of Fairbanks, we were off on the real start of our adventure, the previous 2500 mile a warm up lap for what was to come.
The old Steese Highway brought us out to the Elliot Highway which was paved for a distance of about 28 miles. Even after the roadbed turned to gravel, the conditions remained excellent as all the recently fallen snow had been cleared from the road. Coming north out of Fox we began to gain elevation and within an hour of our exit from Fairbanks, we were in pristine wilderness, untouched since the last ice age, except for two narrow man made ribbons cut through the hour, the Dalton Highway and the Trans Alaska Pipeline.
As we saw the sign denoting the start of the Dalton Highway, we took the obligatory location shots. The air was cold but exceptionally dry. I thought that I would probably never breathe again air so pure. It felt wonderfully invigorating. Not long afterwards, we noticed a tanker off the road southbound to our right, a reminder of the dangers that lay in wait for us if our attention wavers behind the wheel.
It should be noted that driving the Dalton Highway requires a special technique at this time of the year. Although the road is broad and well graded, the recent snow left only a single pair of clear tracks straddling what would appear to be the crown of the roadbed. The reason for this is obvious, the truckers who drive the Dalton believe that it is their God-given right to drive right down the center of the road. This means that when driving, one has to look far up the road for approaching trucks and position the vehicle accordingly. This is especially true on blind hills and curves; it is a good idea to yield a bit to the right in case a trucker is somewhat inattentive going in the opposite direction. It also minimizes the risk of gravel or frozen snow doing damage.
Sunset on the Dalton Highway was on the Mackey Hill between the Yukon River crossing and the Arctic Circle. Mark shot a roll of film at this point and commented that it was a pure stand of black spruce, no longer were aspens, birch or white spruce present. At about six PM, we rose above treeline for the first time at an approximate elevation of 2200 feet above sea level. I thought of all the times I¹ve heard John Facenda of NFL films mention the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, realizing that it bore no resemblance to the stark landscape now painted in front of the windshield. Funny the things you think of at such an awe inspiring time. While Mark took a few moments to shoot the eastern sky at Finger Rock (milepost 98.2 from the junction) I paused to look due north. Less than 20 miles ahead lay the imaginary line in the snow, drawing me continually northward, the invisible Arctic Circle. It is interesting to note that the thermometer now was reading seventeen below zero and as the sun was quickly departing below the southwest horizon, it was going to get colder, rapidly. The Audi’s windows in the rear were starting to frost up noticeably.
WHAT A RUSH! At 6:15 PM, Saturday, October 26 we reached 66 degrees, 33 minutes, the Arctic Circle bisecting the Dalton Highway
Fifteen minutes later, after cresting a rise in the road we encountered our first Arctic moonrise, absolutely awesome. Against a darkening blue sky the almost full moon cast a irresdescent light copper glow. In the time I’m taking to write this it seems that the moon has risen a bit I can only hope that the shots I took, with truck LED headlights bulbs coming southbound, turn out as I anticipated, using the car roof as a tripod. Leaving the car running, for fear that it would not restart, may cause a shake that might ruin the photos given that the shutter speed was less than 1/30 of a second.
The drive in darkness was a bit of an adventure as even with the fog lights on, illuminating the road to each side, I was on constant lookout for large mammals that might cross my path. Driving an unfamiliar road, at 30 degrees below zero, over a frozen gravel surface, requires a great deal of care, even with a car equipped with all wheel drive. Darkness compounds the problem as the road leading into Coldfoot is somewhat undulating, and the appears a black hole in many places, about 200 feet ahead of the car, an ideal opportunity to be surprised by moose, caribou or reindeer. Although the posted limit is 59, caution is best exercised, especially on the well marked downgrades and on each turn. Since you can see oncoming headlights, not that there will be many, use as much of the road, as the truckers do, to set up each turn, avoiding any abrupt steering inputs.
With stops for photographic opportunities, it took more than two hours to reach Coldfoot from the Arctic Circle, sixty miles to the south. In pitch black darkness, with only the light of the full moon to the northeast, I was never so glad to see the green airport beacon of the Coldfoot airport as we approached. With an audible sigh of relief, I felt much of the tension of the past two hours rise from my shoulders. I guess it was good that the car got a bit squirlly on the approach to a slick curve, early on, as I took it as a sign that it would be an excellent idea to slow down and arrive safely a few minutes later. Mark concurred. I found myself constantly thinking about the four handprint sized patches of rubber that were the difference between a safe journey and spending the night camped in the car waiting to be pulled out in the morning.
Checking in at the cafe across the parking lot from the Arctic Acres Inn, we were greeted by Patti who could tell immediately that we were not one of the truckers or a member of any work crew. Getting a double room, the last one available, we brought our gear into the room. Furnished in early pipeline contemporary, the room was functional and warm, but it made my dorm room twenty years ago seem positively luxurious. There are no Club Med’s this far north.
Seeing a pool table in the adjacent saloon, the farthest north on the continent, I sauntered in, expecting to find a bunch of rough, redneck types, anxious to wipe the floor with the wimpy magazine writer. Sensing the protocols, I put two quarters down on the table and waited my turn to play. Introducing myself, I settled into a rhythm, making a couple of difficult bank shots and retiring undefeated after three games. I guess I didn’t look like such a wimp as one of the vanquished inquired what crew I was on. Explaining that I was a writer, and mentioning Motor Trend got their attention, as well as his friend who I had beaten earlier. The talk quickly turned to cars and I was quizzed on every aspect of our Audi. Breaking out the ViewCam, we did an impromptu interview and Mark received an invitation to visit their worksite on the pipeline, approximately sixty miles to the north.