Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Alaskan summer

The summer that I drove an Alaskan tour bus seemed to stretch on forever. Trip after trip after bus after bus of people, people, people.

Some of the guests were really fun, like the group of Chinese businessmen who didn't speak any English and brought along their interpreter. We got a flat tire that trip, and when I lugged out everything to start changing the tire, they formed a blockade and insisted on doing it themselves. They don't have a chance to do this stuff in China, the interpreter said with a shrug.

There was a $50 tipper, and there were people who tipped in $2 bills. There was an east coast author and his wife, the only ones to follow up on their promise to send photos from the tour. (I'm especially talking to you, lady who took pictures of the double rainbow on the Dalton Highway and never emailed them.)

This could have been a double rainbow ; )

The people changed- Indian women in saris, retired engineers, honeymooners- but the scenery was always the same vast picture out the window.

Still, as much as the scenery felt monotonous that summer- think 20 straight hours of this view- it's really cool to look back on now in small snapshots.

The trip would start 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle in Fairbanks, Alaska. We'd drive past the Walmart at the edge of town, passing around the microphone / shouting out introductions. Onward north, then, through wilderness until the most basic tenets of tourism lured us in to a remote "trading post" for postcards, magnets, and much-photographed outhouses.

Roughly 150 miles later, it'd be time to cross the Yukon river (the leftover tour guide in me wants to preface that with "mighty.")

Check out the wood on the bridge!

It's constantly torn up by the massive trucks rumbling their way north. I loved crossing this bridge because it meant lunchtime at Yukon River Camp would start in just a few minutes ; )

By this point in the trip we'd be traveling on the Dalton Highway, which also goes by the much cooler name of the Haul Road. It's a highway for sure, but you might have to get a little flexible with your definition of "paved".

Back then I could recite all kinds of facts about the Alaska Pipeline, an 800-mile-long tube that snaked its way across the landscape and was a selling point of the tour. Not a single fact remains these days, except some vague story about a drunken guy who actually shot a hole in the pipeline and was then on the hook for millions of dollars in damage.

That summer, though, I had memorized tons of Arctic facts and weird-but-true stories. The tour was long- we left town at 6:30 AM, only reaching our Yukon River lunch stop at 11:30 AM- so that left lot of time for talking. Lots and lots of it.

Sometimes, I'd get to talk to other drivers on the CB. Big trucks hauling their cargo south, always driven by men. I don't think I heard a woman's voice on the radio all summer. The company trained us to always identify ourselves as "little tour bus" on the radio and to give the big trucks plenty of space as they passed.

Forty miles after lunch at Yukon River Camp, it was time for a quick stop at Finger Mountain. (Caution: not a mountain.)

As you probably guessed, this was not a calorie-burning tour. The little nature walks sprinkled here and there throughout the miles didn't make up for almost 20 hours of sitting. Perhaps the views did, though...

Some of the tours would now be nearing their halfway point... the Arctic Circle! Doesn't that sound exciting???

Well, it is... until you get there. The tour's "Arctic Circle" is actually a parking lot with a sign. To liven things up, the company equipped each vehicle with a red carpet. My job was to theatrically roll out the carpet in front of the sign and invite each guest to "step over the Arctic Circle" (aka, a line of tape on the carpet). We'd shake hands and pose for a picture. Then, a quick celebratory piece of cake and we head south again, arriving back in Fairbanks somewhere between 11 PM and 1 AM.


Other times, the tour would continue north. An extra 60 miles would take us all the way up to Coldfoot Camp. The camp's address is Mile 175 Dalton Highway, literally in the middle of nowhere.

To give you an example of the vast emptiness out these, the nearest names on the map- Wiseman and Bettles- had a combined population of 26 people on the 2010 census. It's all amazing, quiet, open wilderness.

Coldfoot Camp is a campground / restaurant / place to sleep / truck stop. Most importantly, it's the ONLY truck stop around. North, there's nothing until reaching Deadfoot. (But don't worry; it's only a 7-hour drive.) South, it's a 3-hour drive back to Yukon River Camp.

My tour would end at Coldfoot. The guests would hop on a small plane back to Fairbanks. (Only an hour by air!) I'd toss my stuff in a tiny room leftover from the oil rush days and head to the dinner buffet. For a place that could only offer whatever came in the last delivery, the food was awesome! The next afternoon, a new group of guests would fly to Coldfoot. I'd meet them at the airstrip, and we'd start the drive back to Fairbanks.

Some drivers had the longest tour on the books: a two-day drive. Two days! They would meet their group all the way up in Deadhorse and then begin the 500-mile drive south.

I was envious of those drivers, since they got to travel so far and spend two days with their guests, visiting a place very few humans ever reach. On the other hand, that's an insane amount of driving. Could I have talked about nature and history for almost 500 miles of gravel road? Probably not. (During the school year, D and I sometimes drove south to visit his parents. Even with lots of great music to listen to, those 315 miles felt long enough.)

Still, someday I'd like to visit Deadhorse. There's not much to see- it's a tiny community that supports the Prudhoe Bay oil field- but I think the experience of being there would be cool. It's quite pricey, though. One night at Deadhorse Camp will set you back $219.

For an extra $70, the Camp will transport you all the way north to the Arctic Ocean. From their website: "Being a restricted access area, guests are able to make reservations to go on a security guard-operated shuttle through the oil fields and out to the coast of the Arctic Ocean."

If D and I make this trip someday, I think we'll skip the first part of the drive: Fairbanks to Coldfoot. He made the Arctic Circle drive with me on a ninety-bajillion-hour training run. (I was driving really slow.) After that, he said, "Thank you, never again." (It may also have had something to do with inescapable swarms of mosquitoes.) But Coldfoot to Deadhorse would be amazing. Here's what it looks like in reverse.
Until then, though, just looking back at pictures from that summer is enough. I'm glad that where we live now is so walkable!

Heading out from Fairbanks.
At a rest stop heading north.
The Yukon river.

Would you like to drive this road someday?
What's been your most interesting summer job?

PS: If you prefer cold Alaska, read this post.


  1. You're so adventurous! I think I'd fall asleep if I had to drive for hours a day!

    1. Thanks for your comment, E. :) I think that's when I truly become a caffeine convert, haha! But finally getting to sleep at the end of a long day... bliss. Extreme exhaustion and memories of beautiful scenery!

  2. What a unique summer job! I'm amazed how much driving you did. My sister and I recently did a week long road trip round Iceland (she was the driver), with various stops for waterfalls and lunch, but we were so tired every night and probably would have benefited from splitting the trip up even more. Long road journeys are tough!

    1. Wow, that must have been incredible, Thảo!!! Iceland seems like such a gorgeous place. Glad that you're taking advantage of living in Europe. :)

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