Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dalton Highway--The Ultimate Road Adventure

The Dalton Highway is the only road to cross Alaska's Brooks Range and the only road north of the Arctic Circle to connect with the continental highway system. From Fairbanks it is 200 miles to the Arctic Circle and an additional 300 miles to the end of the highway at Deadhorse, the industrial camp at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean.

This is a primitive road providing a rare opportunity to traverse a remote, unpopulated part of Alaska to the very top of the continent. Traveling this farthest-north road involves real risks and challenges. There are no medical facilities, and food, fuel and vehicle repair are extremely limited. It is narrow-often less than two lanes wide, with some 10-12% grades, sharp rocks, slick mud, tight winding curves, potholes, soft steep shoulders on either side, dust clouds, with snow and ice at any time of the year.

 Built in 1974 to transport materials to oil fields on the North Slope, the Dalton Highway slices through northern Alaska, paralleling the Trans-Alaska Pipeline all the way to Prudhoe Bay.

The 800 mile long pipeline with 380 miles below ground where the pipe is buried in stable bedrock--

 -and 420 miles above ground where unstable permafrost makes it necessary to elevate the pipeline, is 48 inches in diameter and has 6 pump stations with it's controls in Valdez.

Interesting facts about the pipeline can be learned at

 We made the trip with friends Betty and George Bryant who are traveling in their Artic Fox truck camper with their dog Molly.

Gravel is 3-6 feet thick, some underlain with plastic foam insulation to prevent thawing of the permafrost, defined as ground that has remained at or below freezing for two or more years.

Above ground sections of the pipeline were built in a zigzag pattern to accomodate movement induced by earthquake and heat and cold.

This is the entrance to a BLM visitors center with a "Headache Bar" protecting the pipeline behind it.

One third of Alaska lies in the Arctic Circle, the only true polar region in the state.

An average of 160 trucks travel this road daily in summer and 250 per day in winter. Dust and flying rocks and gravel are common.

                            Rivers are crystal clear and the changing scenery is spectacular.

2004 and 2005 were big fire years in Alaska. Large fields of bright pink fireweed, an early colonizer of burned areas, lead the way for regrowth that will eventually feed much more wildlife.

There is a lot of geology to be learned along the highway, which is what led to the discovery of oil on the north slope.

Tors are high, isolated pinnacles of jointed granite jutting up from the tundra and are a residual feature of erosion.

 A cold, dry climate and sporadic permafrost dictate what grows here. This is the boreal forest. Circling the northern hemisphere, it is the largest forest ecosystem in the world.

                           Campsite along a river north of the Arctic Circle

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