Day Trip to Barrow, via Coldfoot

Last night we booked a taxi to pick us up at 6.35am this morning to take us to the airport for our Day trip to Barrow via Coldfoot.

Our Air Arctic flight, which was on a Piper Navaho Chieftan, took off at approximately 8.00am in sunshine and warmish weather.  It was an 8 seater – we had the pilot and 6 passengers (a young couple from Austria and a couple from Minnesota and ourselves).

From the air, we could see the Dalton Highway, which is 416 miles long and commonly referred to in the winter as “The Ice Road” which runs from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay.  It was originally a private road built to provide the materials for the Trans Alaska Pipeline, which is built beside the road. The road is now mainly used by trucks bringing supplies to Coldfoot and Prudhoe Bay.

We passed over the Yukon River, which is frozen over for 7 months of each year and the only bridge over it is the one on the Dalton Highway.  Three weeks ago it was still frozen solid and they have had quite a bit of flooding during the breakup of the ice.

Most of the area that we travelled over is Permafrost, which means that only the surface layer defrosts.

We passed over the Arctic Circle, which is an imaginary line around the earth at 66°33’ north latitude.

We touched down an hour after take-off at Coldfoot, which arose on the banks of Slate Creek in the Gold Rush of 1898-1900 and then was deserted until the 1970s when it came into its second existence as a Pipeline Camp.  Coldfoot, which is now the world’s most northern truck stop, is on the Dalton Highway and is classified as an isolated village – it is really not much more than a service station with a post office! We were picked up in a little van and taken across the highway to the truck stop for a comfort stop and to collect our pre-ordered lunchbox.  The lady who picked us up also looks after the post office and she told us that the truck stop not only sells fuel, but has a repair shop and a tyre shop and Coldfoot also has a small hotel accommodation made out of containers.  She told us that it is a 6 hour drive to Fairbanks for shopping, doctors and school – most of the children are home-schooled until they go to secondary school, when they go to Fairbanks. On the way back to the plane, she took us to the pipeline so that we could see how big it is.  Some of the pipeline is underground and some of it is above ground built on tressles to allow it to expand and contract.  At each of the tressles, there is a heat exchanger to stop the permafrost from melting or the pipeline would sink!

When we took off from Coldfoot and headed towards Barrow, the weather deteriorated so our pilot climbed above the clouds and we were not able to see anything.

When we left Fairbanks, the weather in Barrow was overcast, but by the time we got there, it was very foggy and 2° and we were lucky that the pilot was given clearance to do an instrument landing.  Just a few seconds before the wheels touched down, we could see the runway – interesting!!

Barrow is the northernmost community on the continent, 530 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle and Alaska’s largest Eskimo village.

We were picked up from the airport by Olaf, an Inupiat, who drives for The Top Of The World Hotel tours.  After a quick comfort stop at the hotel (see photos – description just won’t do it!) Olaf took us to “the End of the Road”, which is the end of the most northerly man-made roads in Alaska and where we could have dipped our toe in the Arctic Ocean had it not still been frozen, so we stood on top of the Arctic Ocean!!!  This area is also what they refer to as their beach, which was a combination of dirt and gravel.  In fact, all the roads in town were dirt/mud/gravel.  On the way back into town we saw some seal skin boats that the women sew together with special waterproof seams.

We saw their college Ilisaguik, meaning“A Place to Learn”, with its motto “Honour your past and train for your future” and a Bowhead Whale jawbone – the whale was 120,000 lb.

We also saw the high school, the elementary school and the football field (specially made from a type of astro turf).

We stopped at the Welcome sign with a Bowhead Whale skull, at the Ancient Sod Houses, the Satellite Farm (satellites point to the horizon for the best signal), the Grave Site (where wooden crosses are used because the traditional marble ones only last 20 -25 years here) and we also stopped at the Whale Bone Arches.

We saw the Paraagvik (Place to Play) basketball courts and the first church in Barrow – the Presbyterian Church.

We saw the Distribution Centre where they distribute the alcohol – interestingly they have to each have a background check done on them and if approved they are given a Distribution Card with their photo ID and then they are only allowed to order a certain amount each month.  The card costs $100.

The houses are built up off the ground and are very basic – most made from timber and because it is difficult and very costly to get rid of old unwanted items such as old cars, fridges, bikes etc, they are left in people’s yards.

We thoroughly enjoyed our 3 hours visit in this very unusual place, learning a little bit more from Olaf about the Inupiats and their way of life in a small community and we were made very welcome.

We were delivered back to the plane at 3.15pm for our flight home.  The fog had lifted, so we were able to take off and head back towards Coldfoot.

As we approached the Brooks Mountain Range, the cloud and fog had completely cleared and we were able to see where the ice on the permafrost had melted in areas forming 1000s of lakes.

The pilot was also able to fly lower over the Brooks Range on the way home and zigzagged through some of the peaks, which gave us a great view of the mountains and a close up of the strata layers in some of them.  We absolutely loved being almost able to touch the mountains and to have such a great view of them and the valley below!!

We flew through the “Valley of the Precipices” where the mountains formed “the Gates of the Arctic” and landed in Coldfoot at about 5.15pm for a quick refuel and then back on the plane for our flight back to Fairbanks.

We arrived back in Fairbanks at about 6.20pm after a thoroughly enjoyable day.

We had a quick dinner and returned to our room to get our suitcases packed ready for our journey home tomorrow.

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