The Dalton Highway

Leaving Fairbanks in dense smoke from wildfires, we took the Steese and Elliott Highways north about 80 miles to the beginning of the Dalton Highway, a.k.a. the Haul Road, which runs 414 miles one-way to the town of Deadhorse, the publicly accessible gateway to Prudhoe Bay. This road exists to support the oil fields, and facilities for tourists are limited – Coldfoot, at Mile 175, has a café and gas pump; nearby Wiseman had limited lodging; and Deadhorse has several gas stations and lodgings with cafeteria food, although they can be completely occupied by oil workers. There are campgrounds at Miles 115, 183, and 275 (4 miles off the highway). Dispersed camping is possible elsewhere, and is a necessity to stay anywhere near Deadhorse.

Bohemian Waxwing, Dalton Highway, AK
Above: Bohemian Waxwing, Dalton Highway, AK

The road is mostly gravel, with about one-quarter of it being paved, the quality of each type of surface varying widely. Newer pavement is pretty good, but older pavement can be badly pot-holed. Gravel sections, some with washboarding, can become very muddy and slippery when wet; when dry, they can be very dusty. But some sections have been sealed and/or treated with calcium chloride to control dust, and can be very good driving if it is dry. Calcium chloride is quite corrosive to vehicles, which should have their undersides washed well if the vehicle has been driven over freshly laid material, or over rain-wetted sections of gravel. Truck traffic is heavy, and to reduce the chance of a cracked windshield, from gravel thrown by the truck tires, it is advisable to pull way over and slow down whenever a truck passes. I wish I had kept a tally of trucks to quantify this aspect of driving the Dalton, but as a wild guess, perhaps five trucks per hour might be typical, although with much variability.

Arctic Ground Squirrel, Dalton Highway, AK
Above: Arctic Ground Squirrel, Dalton Highway, AK

Flat tires are a serious concern – in addition to the gravel itself, there is a lot of loose metal on the road. Conventional wisdom, with which I agree, is that two full spare tires should be carried. We did, in fact, have two flats on this road, one from a bolt, and one from a nail, but we did escape with our windshield intact – for the moment, anyway. The speed limit is 50 mph, but we drove 30 mph most of the time, ranging up to 40 mph on the best pavement. All things considered, the road itself is not much fun to drive, and relatively few tourists are encountered – most are in buses that go to the Arctic Circle, Mile 115, and then turn around.

Semipalmated Sandpiper chick, Dalton Highway, AK
Above: Semipalmated Sandpiper chick, Dalton Highway, AK

Farther north, the Dalton Highway passes through the Brooks Range, the northernmost mountain chain in the world, reaching about 4800 feet elevation at Atigun Pass (Mile 245). The range is scenic but there are no hiking trails, making it hard to explore — cross-country travel is challenging in most areas. Once north of the Brooks Range, the land is almost like a ramp leading down to the arctic coast, losing an average of roughly 18 feet of elevation per mile, hence the appropriate epithet “North Slope”. Some tourists do continue on from the Arctic Circle to Deadhorse, from which 2-hour tours are run through the oil field lease, with a half-hour stop at the Arctic Ocean. You need to sign up a day in advance because there is a security clearance required. You cannot reach the Arctic Ocean on your own – you must take one of these tours.

Long-tailed Jaeger, Dalton Highway, AK
Above: Long-tailed Jaeger, Dalton Highway, AK

The southern portion of the Dalton Highway is relatively unremarkable, and we gave it even less attention than we might otherwise, because of terrible smoke from a local wildfire on the way north, and being short of time on the way south. Our best find was a flock of lovely Bohemian Waxwings feeding on insects low over water. Finger Mountain, an obligatory stop at Mile 98, has a very nice short trail from which tundra wildflowers can be seen. In 1999, we heard the high-pitched trills of Singing Voles here, but they were silent this time. Insects were so thick here on June 15, 1999, that I could not close Hulten’s Flora of Alaska after keying a cotton grass, because it would have crushed dozens of mosquitoes between the pages. I had to set it in the back seat, open, and close it that night when we camped. But on July 9, 2019, insects were only moderate – maybe because of smoke. As soon as the smoke thinned, bugs were consistently bad on the rest of the Dalton Highway, except when there were strong winds, in which they prefer not to fly. The first night on the highway we camped right at the Arctic Circle, ending one of our hottest days of the year – I think the high was 88 degrees Fahrenheit, and it only dropped to 70 overnight.

Lapland Longspur, Dalton Highway, AK
Above: Lapland Longspur, Dalton Highway, AK

We spent significant time in the Brooks Range on both the northbound and southbound legs of our trip, particularly looking, without success, for Alaskan Marmot, which occurs only in these mountains. Our efforts were centered around the Galbraith Lake area (access from Mile 275), where a campground made a nice base and the five miles of publicly accessible side roads off the Dalton Highway (more than anywhere else) made birding on foot easier. Highlights were Smith’s Longspur, Rock Ptarmigan, Hoary Redpoll, Tree Sparrow, Long-tailed Jaeger, and American Golden-Plover. Native plant variety was decent, with a fair number of new species, including a new genus for us (Bupleurum) – but for the first time all year, we were seeing an area that was well past the peak of its flowering.

Spectacled Eider, Deadhorse, Dalton Highway, AK
Above: Spectacled Eider, Dalton Highway, AK

Leaving the Brooks Range, we coasted down the North Slope. We were excited to find a Gyrfalcon eyrie with three brown phase birds we could see very well in our scope. It was also great to see the first of three Muskox herds we would encounter – in recent years this species has been seen from the highway fairly frequently (whereas there was no chance when we visited in 1999). Other changes we noted from 20 years ago were the far greater number of nesting geese – we saw Greater White-fronted Geese by the hundreds (compared to one small flock in 1999); frequent Cackling Geese; and some Brant (none seen in 1999). Other birds encountered with young included Tundra Swan, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Pacific Loon, Long-tailed Duck, Sandhill Crane, Willow Ptarmigan, and Savannah Sparrow.

Tundra Swan with chicks, Dalton Highway, AK
Above: Tundra Swan with cygnets, Dalton Highway, AK

Our biggest birding surprise was a Bar-tailed Godwit somewhat east of its normal range, seen from the parking area at Mile 407, where we camped for several nights, eight miles outside Deadhorse. Nearby, we watched two Parasitic Jaegers chase a Lapland Longspur and they surely would have gotten it had it not landed under our parked truck – Eileen jumped out to scare the jaegers away while the longspur recovered from his ordeal (he stayed under the truck for ten minutes or so).

White-fronted Goose, Dalton Highway, AK
Above: White-fronted Goose, Dalton Highway, AK

Birding around Deadhorse was excellent, with female Spectacled Eider, female King Eider, and Snow Bunting being highlights (in 1999, in mid-June, we had males of both eiders, and Sabine’s Gull). As we did 20 years before, we took a tour from Deadhorse to see the Arctic Ocean; Eileen waded in and secured her Polar Bear Club certificate, while I scoped the ocean and saw many Long-tailed Ducks, some Surf Scoters, Pacific and Red-throated Loons, scaup, and even some Canvasback, a surprise. Other species we saw in or near Deadhorse included Pectoral Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Snow Goose, Golden Eagle, Arctic Tern, Glaucous Gull, redpolls, Gadwall, Pintail, Northern Shoveler, and Common Raven.

Eriophorum scheuchzeri, Dalton Highway, AK
Above: Cotton Grass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri), actually a sedge, Dalton Highway, AK

Returning to Fairbanks, we noted Moose and Harlan’s Hawk (a distinctive subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk, formerly regarded as a separate species). Mercifully, the smoke from wildfires was greatly reduced. Our forwarded mail was misrouted in Fairbanks, and we were told to return the next day, so we drove the length of Chena Hot Springs Road, a nice 57-mile paved road, and camped. After recovering our mail, we headed out the Steese Highway, one of only two significant arctic roads we did not explore in 1999. This road runs 161 miles from Fairbanks to the tiny hamlet of Circle, on the Yukon River. The first half of the road is nicely paved, then it is good gravel the rest of the way, though extremely dusty, a fine powdery clay coating your vehicle even at low speed. The high point is at Eagle Summit, Mile 107 (about 3700 feet elevation). We camped early and got up very early to see what mammals might be found in low light, before there was any traffic on the road. We covered 120 miles under essentially ideal conditions but had only three common species and these in low numbers. Returning to Eagle summit, we hoped to bird and botanize, but the weather had changed and it was cold with high winds.

Old World Swallowtail caterpillar, Dalton Highway, AK
Above: Caterpillar of Old World Swallowtail, Dalton Highway, AK

We camped lower, then spent a day in camp, waiting for weather to improve. This it did, and we finally had a lovely hike at Eagle Summit the next day, covering 5 miles round trip and reaching 4500 feet elevation. The dry, stony tundra had higher densities of both Northern Wheatear (4 sightings, 7 birds total) and American Pipits (scores of birds) than we had ever seen before, and Lapland Longspurs were pretty thick, too. There was a fine collection of plants, though we found only one new species, a grass; apparently we have done pretty well sampling this habitat this year. I’d guess that about an equal number of plant species were fruiting as were flowering, reflecting the mid-summer date.

Chamaenerion angustifolium, Dalton Highway, AK
Above: Dwarf Fireweed (Chamaenerion latifolium), Dalton Highway, AK

Passing through Fairbanks for the last time, we did a number of errands, caught up on activities requiring a cell signal, and staged a major shopping trip (as we were about to enter Canada, where some items are hard to get). After camping at the Salcha River, we spent the entire next day driving to the town of Eagle, on the Yukon River, our last destination in the state of Alaska. In 1999, we had a phenomenal view of a Canada Lynx on the Taylor Highway, on the way into Eagle; this time we had scattered Caribou and Moose. We planned to paddle on the Yukon River a bit the next day, but it rained steadily, our first day lost to rain in five weeks, though several more rainy days would follow in short order. When it finally did stop raining, we took a walk over to Fort Egbert and read the interpretive displays, which were interesting. We had two surprising botanical discoveries on the walk; the first was a new genus, Cnidium, in the carrot family. The second was a major thrill – glancing back into an opening in the white spruce forest, I spotted some low-growing plants with broad leaves. When I walked up to them I realized they were fruiting Spotted Lady’s-Slipper, Cypripedium guttatum, our most wanted plant in the region! They would probably have bloomed about seven weeks earlier. Their elegantly shaped flower has a striking mosaic pattern of maroon and white, which is spectacular and unique.

Hoary Redpoll, Dalton Highway, AK
Above: Hoary Redpoll, Dalton Highway, AK

The next day we made it out onto the mighty Yukon River. The current was so strong that when paddling upstream, we had to stay within twenty feet or so of shore or we could not make any progress. After 2.5 hours of this, making just 3.5 miles, we crossed over to the far bank, which had high, scenic cliffs where we were pleased to spot a handsome Peregrine Falcon. Paddling back, we were going with the current, which was at least 5 m.p.h, and with this added to our paddling speed, we were back at our put-in in just 20 minutes!

Above: Northern Wheatear, Steese Highway, AK

Next time: the Dempster Highway.

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