The Dalton Highway / by Michael Johns

Alaska is a vast place with a rich natural history. Such an expanse of land across different elevations and latitudes creates many different biomes to explore. For those who haven't taken an introductory ecology course, a biome is a community of distinct plant and animal species, characterized by a particular climate and typically dominated by a specific vegetative assemblage. Tropical rainforests, deserts, and open oceans are a few examples of different biomes. So far in Alaska, collectively Casey and I have visited the temperate rainforests of Southeast, the islands of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, the ice edge of the Chuckchi Sea, and of course the neverending boreal forest of the interior; but we have yet to spend much time in the tundra of the North Slope. The tundra is a unique circumpolar biome characterized by extremely cold temperatures, limited drainage, low biotic diversity, underlying permafrost, and a short growing season. Plants that do manage to take hold in such difficult conditions, namely bearberry, labrador tea, and caribou moss, exhibit a stunted growth pattern to avoid the harsh winds that whip across the flat landscape. Animals that use the tundra are often migratory, with only a few species that stick around and brave the winter elements after a brief arctic summer.  

Fortunately, for those who want to visit the tundra of Alaska, access to the North Slope is relatively easy. The James W. Dalton Highway was constructed in 1974 to support the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. It snakes its way north to Deadhorse from the junction of the Elliot Highway just outside of Fairbanks. Nicknamed the "Haul Road", this 414 mile stretch of a bumpy mixed gravel and pavement is mainly used by truckers to service the pipeline and the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. Due to its remoteness and hazardous driving conditions, the Dalton Highway is considered to be one of the most isolated and dangerous roads in the US.  Naturally, with an interest in natural history and exploring new places, Casey and I grabbed the dog, packed the truck, and took the drive this past Labor Day weekend. 

It took us about 9 hours to drive 350 miles from Fairbanks to just north of Atigun Pass on day one, where we set up camp at a primitive BLM site near Galbraith Lake. Throughout the drive the landscape changed from mixed stands of spruce and birch in fall colors, to high alpine tundra, back to more mixed forests in the Brooks Range, and eventually the tundra of the north. The Galbraith Lake site offered stunning views of the mountains to the south and endless tundra to the north. On day two, we continued north another 140 miles, following the pipeline to the end of the road at Deadhorse just 8 miles shy of the Beaufort Sea. Access to the Arctic Ocean is restricted to the public unless you take a private tour. We topped off the fuel tank in Deadhorse and returned south again for a second night a Galbraith Lake, a total of 10 hours of driving. On the final day, under cloudy skies and a thin blanket of fresh snow, we made our way back towards Fairbanks. 

Prior to our trip, an active region on the Sun opened up and began spewing solar wind in the direction of Earth. The lag time for solar particles to reach our atmosphere meant that the timing was perfect for G1 class storms across the arctic during out first night at Galbraith Lake. It also just so happened to the most beautifully clear skies possible, and just after sunset, Casey and I witnessed the most impressive aurora borealis we've seen yet. The sky was electric. Bright greens and pinks energetically swept over our campsite, arching and flowing from the horizon like a massive fluorescent river. Quite possibly the most incredible natural event either of us have ever experienced. Casey enjoyed this show in particular since he was able to comfortably watch the lights from the tent, snug within his zero degree sleeping bag. The word "WOW" was uttered many times. 

Along with spectacular scenery, gorgeous weather, and stunning aurora, our trip was rife with interesting wildlife sightings. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of Alaska's famous large mammals during our long drive north, particularly muskox, which range throughout the arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. The name muskox is a bit of a misnomer, since they are actually more closely related to sheep and goats than oxen. Their dense wool coat and thick layer of fat keep them insulated during the cold long winters of the far north. They graze on arctic vegetation in low lying wetlands in the summer, migrating into higher elevations during the winter to avoid deep snow. Historic populations of muskox in Alaska were completely wiped out by intense hunting pressure in the late 1920's. Alaska's current wild population of a few thousand individuals are the result of a successful relocation program. In the 1930's, a small herd captured from an intact population in Greenland was brought to Fairbanks and eventually transferred to Nunivak Island, where their numbers exploded. Some of these animals were finally released into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the 1970's, where the population is now considered to be stable. Other sightings included Dall sheep crossing the road at Atigun Pass and a large bull moose just within the Brooks Range. 

In the end, it was a trip worth the effort. A great send off to summer and a much needed getaway before the start of the fall semester.