Airstrike over the Dalton (Fairbanks to Coldfoot & Back, Sept. 18-19)

We’ve finally made it across the Arctic Circle – I even bought a t-shirt – but we aren’t at all close to the finish line of our program. Much as we are still en route (and then have to get everyone, including Moshi Moshi, home), we’re still looking for folks for share some of the serious messaging in our postings as well as enjoy the journey along with us. For me, it’s wildly introspective, as I ponder the unfathomable questions associated with the events that led us to conceive of and undertake the Journey, and as we consider how we can leverage our inertia to accomplish the goals of sharing the message and funding critical childhood cancer research (for programs that are within our reach – the funds that we are seeking to raise fund real research programs, fund real scientists, fund real change and improvements in the lives of countless children). It goes without saying that there are also moments of deep sadness as I look out across the beautiful landscape, but my eyes instead are thirstily drinking in visions and memories of my little girl…

We have so many experiences and details to share and convey that we expect to continue doing so well after we all finally return to our ‘normal lives’ post-Journey. Thank you for riding along and all of your support!

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Tuesday morning ended rather late and started rather early as we planned to spend most of the day carefully making our way north along the Dalton Highway – the stretch of “road” that runs north of Fairbanks up beyond the Arctic Circle. This is the highway of Ice Truckers fame and it is notoriously some of the worst road pretty much ever. We’ve read about it, seen pictures, and had countless discussions about what driving it is going to be like and require from us. Folks aren’t exactly lining up to take on this part of the drive.

It’s sort of pretty exciting though.

Unplanned this morning was a jaunt up to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks campus for an interview with a local reporter. Pretty exciting, as this is our first on-camera interview. We’ve fielded a call from a reporter from the Whitehorse Star as we drifted out of cell reception (still working on a link to non-subscription content…although otherwise you can see: http://www.whitehorsestar.com/News/daughter-s-memory-inspires-family-s-odyssey) and Richard has provided input for a Swedish-language article. I’m sort of hoping the cornea-searing neon pink Juju’s Journey shirt does not blind the Fairbanks audience when it goes up J

Next step was getting our replacement steed. Moshi Moshi did not appear pleased (but we universally agree that we would need a fresh set of dune-buggy-esque tires if we wanted to bring the heretofore-high-performing Mazda). About two miles from the specialized car rental agency (they offer AWD SUVs with a CB, beefy tires without hubcaps and a full spare in the trunk, an emergency/winter kit, a sleeping bag, and these giant, over-size ‘Oh-shit’ handles for all passengers), some very kind, yet random guy flagged us down and informed us that a rear wheel appeared to be kicking out, needing to be tightened or what-not. Upon closer inspection, we all had a slightly different opinion re: which side of the rear axle was most askew. We ultimately were able to replace the car (and got one with a cracked windshield, which was actually sort of nice, knowing that it already needed to be replaced and this would not likely end up on our insurance at the end of the day). We were pretty thankful about that as, when we arrived, the four remaining available vehicles were all in the shop for repairs.

Suffice it to say, it was abundantly clear what a beating the Dalton Highway had to offer us.

Of course, the 250-mile trek began innocuously enough. Cruising up into the hills from Fairbanks, the road was pretty smooth and easy, until it wasn’t in sporadic stretches, leaving us flouncing along as if on some sort of clown car ride. Rightly or wrongly, we’re coming to the gradual conclusion that we would much rather be on gravel roads than paved roads, as the latter tend to get so rolled up with waves of slow buckles that are quite difficult to anticipate (especially in the incessant rain that accompanied along on the way).

We proceeded with growing confidence, tracking the Trans-Alaska pipeline for miles and miles. There’s really not a lot out there…just a couple towns and mostly truckers (and smaller service vehicles) sporadically travelling in both directions. It’s a bit more desolate and much of the stretch lacks the prominence of striking mountain ranges from farther south (The Brooks range – which runs through both ANWR and Gates of the Arctic NP – runs a good bit north of Coldfoot). It’s still beautiful, especially when the sun breaks through the clouds or when ribbons of fog and mist drape the (sometimes rather big) hills.

The road itself seemed to hold up pretty well. End September is probably the most ideal time to drive the highways…at least as long as you have a solid stretch of straggling summer-ish weather in which to travel. Most of the construction is complete, so there are fewer delays and more stretches of clean asphalt and recently-bladed gravel. We increasingly became convinced that the Dalton was not nearly as bad the Denali Highway.

Even at the Arctic Circle, still resolutely in sandals…

About 200 miles up we finally crossed into the Arctic circle. It’s just an imaginary line, but it really did feel like quite a massive accomplishment to finally get there. There’s a sign to mark the spot (and someone has spray-painted an interpretation of the line in the ground, showing north-bound arrows pointing to ‘cold’ and south-bound arrows pointing to ‘warm.’) For the record, it felt about 40F on both sides…

Several hours of successful and uneventful passage on such an epic highway lulls one into a false sense of security.  (One of the silver linings of genuinely bad roads is that scanning the road ahead and worrying about hitting the wrong patch the wrong way occupies the mind quite a bit, keeping a bay some of the deep moments of mournful introspection, which are aligned with the spirit of the Journey, but can’t be the only modality.)

Another 20 or 30 miles farther north – out of absolutely nowhere – an A-10 Warthog came screaming over us and dropped some hellacious ordnance on the road, on the right side of the car. Our rental exploded through the resulting crater, practically throwing us out the windows.  At first, it sounded like for sure Russ had been hit. We pulled over to inspect the vehicle and were relieved to see that everything appear to be intact, even Russ.

Bombing aftermath along the Dalton…

Proceeding again, a mere 10-15 minutes later, we were again targeted by another bombing run and ordnance rocked the car (a mere Ford Escape, btw). This time we were struck with a direct hit, as launched the vehicle and upon inspection learned that the felt wheel liner was all crumpled up in tight against the rear right wheel. Further evasive action yielded various strange noises and boatlike reactions suggesting some combination of thrashed shocks and/or suspension. None of us are really car guys (although Richard was very excited to use his new multi-tool to remove the felt liner so we could keep going).

We probably only had another ~40 miles to go north, but obviously the entire 250+ miles to drive back. The roads did get better as we got closer to Coldfoot, but that isn’t exactly saying so much given the circumstances. The driving was suddenly much more stressful, as we realized we were probably completely hosed if we were subjected to yet another bombing run. (And no, of course, our automotive issues were in no way precipitated by any specific driver and/or their vehicular faculties.) We were a loooong way from Fairbanks and managing to arrive in Coldfoot was just that.

Coldfoot itself is pretty interesting. It’s relatively non-descript in terms of buildings (only the small post office actually seems to have a sign hung to explain what it is)…you sort of have to wander around and ask people questions to figure out where everything is. It’s a great big trucker stop, and folks also show up (probably like us) trying to get up into the Arctic Circle and to do an aurora borealis tour in the bodaciously small flyspeck of a town called Wiseman. The tour runs pretty much every night (given commitments), but it had been raining for hours and was forecast to continue through the morning with an 80% likelihood (this appeared to have been a correct weather prediction). Thus, we pinned our Northern Lights hopes on Barrow and the increasingly waning moon.

I have to give Coldfoot Camp (the former pipeline workers quarters turned hotel of sorts) high marks on food that was very comforting. Folks were quite friendly. We chatted up a guy who had been a hunting guide for 40 years, who shared pictures of fairly massive trophies and described some of the changes in hunting in the region over the last year (generally not good, as weather has not supported a lot of traditional berries and other foods, which game relies on. It’s also too warm for the meese to be on the move…so pretty much nobody is getting meese this year. I suspect this is good for the meese though, and we concur as we’ve only seen a pair of adolescents munching grass along the Denali Hwy…big shaggy ruminant sightings are just sparse). The morning featured some ‘light’ politics with exceptionally outspoken truckers. When we were able to steer away from politics and which news station was preferred, we learned that the abominable sections of paved (i.e., chip-sealed) road was actually a marked improvement over what was there before…which were purportedly rather treacherous and terrible. We’ll just roll (or bounce) with it.

Crossing the Yukon River

The drive back felt like it took an eternity, and it was enormously stressful, sort of like flying a small spacecraft through a very large asteroid field with your shields down. Russ (perhaps cleverly?) avoided being in the rental office when we signed up as drivers on our contract, so he was mostly perched in the back and was left to diagnose the various sounds that the car made while driving. There was the weird groaning of the shocks as we successfully navigated potholes, frost heaves, and other bombed out stretches of road, despite our general ‘boatiness’. There was also the rubbing of the tire against the well whenever it was clear that we had overtasked the car. Groaning good, rubbing bad, with reminders on a pretty regular clip. It was sort of different altogether on the return leg.

There was a lot of relief once we started to get into the outskirts of FB (although we still had a bunch of groaning and rubbing in our enthusiasm to get down out of the hills and get into town). The good folks at Springhill Suites (thank you Marriott!) have been taking care of our stuff while we were on the road and this is our third of 6 or 7 nights in Marriott properties along the route. Maria arrives (at last!) just after midnight and then we’re scheduled for a 5:45am flight to Barrow, via Anchorage, Prudhoe Bay, and probably Kamchatka).