The tent and cab stank of bushfire smoke this morning. I went for a run while Michael checked the diff oils. I came back just in time to do the pumping - yay! We also drained the engine oil, which as it turns out, looked fine, but now it has new oil - courtesy of the Groots. annoyingly - I splashed engine oil on my new, pale blue running top, but managed to get it out using a bar of green fairy soap - it was ridiculous - Michael and I sounded like people in a laundry detergent advertisement. The mosquitoes and biting flies were out in force, which wasn't great when we both had a bush bath, before setting off!
We passed a small airport right next to the road and I was very taken by the laid-back attidue they had to things, including this light aircraft pilot who had all their things set up in the sun to relax while waiting for the next flight...
The scenery wasn't as breathtaking as in British Columbia and it was made worse by all the smoke it the atmosphere. We drove through some quite dense smoke patches, but still didn't see any live fires. We passed the turn-off to the Dempster Highway which leads north to the Arctic Circle and onto Inuvik. We have decided that we would rather drive the Dalton Highway in Alaska, because it takes you further north, though I suspect it won't be as scenic.
Dawson City is the quintessential gold rush town. The roads are unpaved, and the buildings make you feel like you have stepped back in time.
We caught the ferry across the Yukon River, which was rather deftly handled, particularly compared to others we've seen in Africa and South America.
The denseness of the smoke seemed to get worse as we drove along the 'Top of the World' highway towards the Alaskan border. The road only reached about 1,300m, but it felt higher as it often travelled along the crest of the mountains and we looked down into the valleys below.
The border crossing was no problem at all. In fact we've never encountered such a friendly, homely bunch of people. The border was due to close about an hour after we got there and they had a big dinner table set out because it was someone's birthday. The best news though - we got a new 90-day visa waiver - hurrah! We felt like we were on a high.
We drove on for a while and passed through Chicken, which was apparently named so, because the people wanted to name the village after the national bird the ptarmigan, but because nobody knew how to spell it or pronounce it, if was affectionately known as the national chicken - there you have it...
The smoke was getting worse and the forests along the side of the road were burnt and blackened. Michael actually saw some flames still burning and in the distance we could see massive clouds of smoke billowing across the skyline. We decided to stop for the night and I made some tasty bangers and mash with red wine and onion gravy and crisp broccoli - washed down with some Argentine wine in celebration of our entry into Alaska.
We were woken up by the chattering of squirrels playing in the bushes right outside the tent. We had a hot, refreshing wash and then drove down to the main road where we had to wait for a pilot car to escort past some road works. They definitely make the most of the summer months here for road repair.
We stopped off in Fairbanks to do a number of errands. I went to the Bureau of Land Management to get information on the Dalton Highway. The lady was extremely helpful and I was most impressed with the display on Alaska, as well as all its fauna and flora - it was like mini museum. They also told me that they had a terrible season of wildfires (mostly started by lightning strikes) and they simply had to wait for the snow to come to douse them!
Michael pointed out all the electrical points in front of the parking bays for engine heating in the winter. I really have no concept of what it must be like to live in such cold climes. I'd really like to come back to North America in the winter, just to experience it.
I went to Safeway to buy a lettuce and some fruit (which was 25% more expensive than in the lower states) and then we got some McChicken sandwiches for a quick and easy lunch (which were 50% more expensive)! We filled up with fuel at Safeway for $1.91 per gallon, but they wouldn't let us use their water hose, so we had to fill up our jerry cans at a garage further north.
The Dalton Highway (which is essentially a service road to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay way up north) was in better condition than I had expected. It is a bit scary to drive on because the gravel corrugations can be unpredictable and the edges of the road are really steep as its built really high to provide insulation above the permafrost.
We went up the road at milepost 86.5 and set up camp on the edge of a large gravel pit which has spectacular views to the East (none of which we could see because the smoke was still obscuring everything). There were two vehicles and two small tents in the best camping area at the far end. We chatted briefly to one of the guys and then parked around the corner from them, out of sight. I re-heated the second batch of chicken casserole, we ate dinner, I did the day's journal entry and climbed into bed.
We were feeling very lazy this morning and we probably would have slept in longer had we not heard the other campers. I went for a run down down the hill and ended up walking half the way back it was so steep. We soon had the place to ourselves. I had a lovely warm bush bath with the sun shining on my back. We moved the vehicle so I could cook breakfast in the sun. Michael had his bath and was almost caught naked by a low flying helicopter - the pilot waved back when we waved! We sat in the sun and ate our French toast drenched in maple syrup. We spent some time phoning friends as the satellite reception was quite good.
Then we headed north and followed the pipeline for the majority of the way...
We stopped at Finger Point and wandered up to the interpretive trail there. We read about a little flower which is black in colour which causes the snow to melt more quickly around it - very clever! We made the mandatory stop at the Arctic Circle (although our GPS told us it was about 40m earlier). We met a chap (Trevor) from Australia who was on a tour bus and he took a photo for us. Then we did a few with Nyathi as well, using the self-timer, some of which were more successful than others.
We had a look at Grayling Lake to see if we could spot a moose, but we only saw Canadian Geese (we think) and scat evidence from something that had been licking a lot of its fur!
Next stop was the Arctic Interagency Visitor Centre in Coldfoot (newly opened this summer). It was well worth the stop as everything was very professionally presented and we spent quite a while wandering around reading all the displays. The staff were also knowledgeable, super friendly and interested in our journey. They gave me a Traveller's Log Book to take on the road to write about my impressions of the Dalton Highway and asked me to drop it back with them on the way back. It made for some very entertaining and informative reading on the road, even though only three people had written in it before me.
At the visitor centre we caught up again with Trevor and his wife Sandra and chatted to them for a while. We also met a fellow overlander - Eric from France, who is driving on his own in a short wheel-base Mitsubishi Pajero and left France in November 2000. He has done a similar journey to ours, except he only did North Africa. He was not going to bother to drive north to Deadhorse as some other travellers said it wasn't worth it, but as it turns out he is now travelling in convoy with us. He is easy-going and fun to talk to - plus I get to practice my very rusty French after all those months of speaking Spanish.
So we went to the garage so he could buy diesel ($2.60/gallon) and I bought a loaf of frozen sourdough bread for $3.83 and off we went! The landscape changed from boreal forest to wet tundra. From a distance it looks quite barren and stark, but on closer inspection you can see that there is so much variety in the vegetation and it is very colourful. Our wildlife encounters were limited to some arctic ground squirrels (who interestingly hibernate throughout the winter, their body temperature dropping to as low as -3C and the sugar secreted by their body stops their cells from freezing - incredible) and Dall sheep way up on the mountainside opposite Galbraith Lake (which were kindly shown to us by a trucker parked on the side of the road).
We camped next to the Sagavanirktok River. The three of us strolled down to the river and found moose spoor and perhaps wolf - but could just be a big dog? We drank beer, ate crisps and dip and swapped travel stories, while swatting away the very incessant flies and mosquitoes. I wrote the journal until just after midnight and it was still light outside and the rain had started again.
It rained for the majority of the night. The roads were a muddy mess and soon I couldn't see a thing out of my window, but mud. I left it open a crack at the top so I could try and spot game and as a result both the cab and I got splattered with loads of little bits of mud. I thought I had seen a caribou behind a ridge on Michael's side of the road and we drove up to a nearby rest area higher up to get a closer look. The ridge was still obscured so I wandered down in the light rain with the binoculars and sure enough, there was a big male with very impressive antlers and another smaller one without (which may have been a juvenile, because I believe both male and female of the species have antlers).
I ran back to call Michael and Eric and grabbed my rain jacket while they went down, but the caribou started to run across the tundra and soon were out of sight (too many bloody hunters - I'm sure that's what they thought we were). Luckily the guys did get to see them. Then we went for a wander across the tundra. It is amazing stuff. It is remarkably wet and very spongy and the variety and colour of all the different plants is unbelievable. We saw low bush cranberries and some little blackberries (which the bears like more than humans we're told). Eric drove his Jeep further down and Michael rode with him while I walked back up to the car. I went for a walk on the tundra at the top of the hill and took my radio with me so I could speak to the others if needs be - a good thing - as I got a call saying "please bring Nyathi down because Eric's Jeep is stuck". He had done a good job of getting stuck, but we didn't want to take Nyathi too far down because else she'd be in trouble too, not to mention how we might carve up the tundra!
So we connected all the rope we had to the end of the winch rope (about 70m in total) and slowly but sure pulled Eric and his Jeep up the hill. Sadly, there were rather large divots left behind, so I turned them over and squashed them back into place. So, that was a bit of adventure for the day - spiced up with some rain and cold winds. Michael inadvertently reversed over a twelve pack of coke cans which was as flat as a pancake afterwards and were able to salvage fewer than half of them!
It was pretty miserable weather for the remainder of the drive up to Deadhorse. We saw no other wildlife despite straining our eyes through the rain and bits of mud flying up off the wheels and splattering all over the place. Deadhorse was not very appealing, but we still found it very interesting to drive around the town and get a perspective of what it must be like to live in such desolation in such extreme weather conditions The residences we saw comprised what looked liked stacks of transportable containers stacked on top of each other, adorned with an assortment of satellites dishes.
There is one store in the town which sells everything from camping gear and bumper stickers to sweets and porn DVDs (and other assortments of sex toys to keep the oil workers amused). The three hotels were a real eye-opener. Starting from $120 a night for a double room, I think I'd be more than a little disappointed if I drove up and was welcomed by one of these sights...
To get to the arctic ocean you have to pay an exorbitant $37 per person to go on a tour for 2 hours and you get to spend 20 minutes at the sea (the rest on a tour of the Prudhoe Bay oil facilities). We decided that wouldn't fit our budget, but we are still really glad we made the journey - it was definitely worth it! This is the best view of the oilrigs and the land leading up to the Arctic ocean...
We stopped for a hot lunch to ward off the cold. I cooked spaghetti with soya mince and we opened a bottle of red wine in celebration of our drive to the northern most point accessible by road. Eric and I looked a sight with our hats on to keep a bit warm...
We pushed on past the Atigun pass in the hope that the weather would be clearer on the other side, but it was still cloudy and rainy. We found a great place to camp near MP 231 which was just next to a forest and about 20 metres away from the banks of a river. We didn't have any dinner because we'd had a late lunch, instead we fell into bed.
We'd hoped for a bear sighting in the night or early morning, but no such luck. I went for a walk along the river while Michael pumped Eric's tyre and they did a bit of mutual vehicle engine admiration. I found some excellent wolf spoor (prints) and followed them for quite a while along the river bank. You could see where the wolf had run along and then found something interesting to smell/chase, where there was a mish-mash of his prints all over the place.
We forgot to stop at Wiseman, which I was a bit annoyed about, but the guys weren't that fussed. I finished writing in the Dalton Highway Traveller's Log Book which Lisa from the visitor centre has asked me to write in. We spent quite a while chatting to her and two volunteers at the centre. They came out and took photos of us and the vehicles. They were a remarkably friendly team of people - real credit to their agency!
The rest of the drive was uneventful, but for a few stops to fill up Eric's tyre and to chat to the flag lady, while waiting for a pilot car to escort us along a section of road being repaired (what a labour intensive way of doing things - great way to create jobs in the area). Nyathi was looking considerably dirtier than when we started our journey a few days ago...
We arrived in Fairbanks just before 20h00. We went to the car wash and spent $25 getting Nyathi clean (well, sort of, she was a lot better, but certainly not clean by a long way). We had McChicken sandwiches for dinner and treated ourselves to hot fudge sundaes - delicious. I drove until just before midnight, when we found a great little camping spot at a photo pull-out down below the main road overlooking the river. We fell asleep to the sound of an owl hooting in a tree nearby.