The Great Alaskan Cast and Blast
I was waist-deep when I heard shouts ringing off the canyon walls. I glanced up from a deep slot of...
I was waist-deep when I heard shouts ringing off the canyon walls. I glanced up from a deep slot of slate-green water and grinned. Fifty yards upriver Scott Wood’s fly rod was bent double, the line arcing deeply toward a cliff of black tundra-capped rock. He caught my eye and for a few seconds held the cork handle outstretched in one hand, the rod tip dipping and bobbing. I got the message: This was no grayling.
I reeled up and jogged along the gravel bar with half my line still trailing in the water. Wood’s was the first Arctic char of the trip, and I wanted a good look. The char of Alaska’s North Slope are little-known fish, spending their summers in the Arctic Ocean and then storming coastal plain rivers in late summer and fall to spawn in gravel beds raked up by glacial melt. This one was a beauty: 8 pounds, give or take, its belly sheathed in orange spawning colors, gemlike halos of purple and pink glittering from its dark flanks.
“This was one hot fish,” Wood said, cradling the char underwater. “Jumped four times, and he never gave up.” He glanced downstream toward the Shublik Mountains towering over the Canning River. Somewhere behind them, 40 miles away, was a shelf of tundra where our pilot would pick us up in four days. To find it we had topo maps, a GPS, and a crumpled sheet of notebook paper scribbled with coordinates: 69 53 039/146 23 242.
Wood, photographer Dusan Smetana, and I were 65 miles and a $2,000 floatplane ride from the nearest road–which happened to be one of the most famous in all of Alaska. The Dalton Highway is a schizophrenic ribbon of gravel and busted, buckled, and washboarded asphalt that trails the Trans-Alaska pipeline from just outside Livengood (about 75 miles from Fairbanks) to the gritty oil town of Deadhorse. Already we’d logged six days on the Dalton, fishing and hunting our way from the spruce woods south of the Yukon River to the tundra plains that lie within spitting distance of the northernmost edge of North America. When it opened 30 years ago, the Dalton–known then as the Haul Road–opened a swath of Alaskan frontier as wild as any remaining on the continent. Halfway through our two-week road trip, we’d already seen just how wild that country remained. And how much fishing and hunting we could cram into 20 hours of daylight each day.
Our immediate task was to take a big bite out of the backcountry accessed via small airstrips along the road. For our unguided, do-it-yourself float on one of Alaska’s most remote rivers, we lashed gun cases, dry bags, and camera gear to the raft stern like toy bags on Santa’s sleigh. The boat bristled with rods and bows. We planned to herd a 14-foot raft along wind-whipped flatwater, labyrinthine braids, and deep pools fed by creeks plunging off the Brooks Range. Along the way we’d float through herds of migrating caribou and camp on gravel bars lit up by late-summer lightning storms.
But first I had to gawk at this fish–born and bred and hooked and landed 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Just then a Cessna bush plane roared out of the upstream canyon, blue fuselage against towering black bluffs, fat tundra tires hanging low. It was our pilot of the day before, Tom Johnston, dropping caribou hunters on an upstream stretch of the river. He dipped the plane’s wings for a better look at Wood’s fish, then turned west to climb into the endless blue sky. It was the exclamation point to a scene of utter Alaskan essence: a kype-jawed Arctic char on the line, grizzly prints in the sand, Dall sheep on the cliffs above, and a bush plane roaring off a gravel-bar airstrip, leaving us blissfully behind. Wood slipped the fish into the river, and I headed back downstream. For the moment I was fishless. There was work to do.
Eighteen hours earlier I’d pressed my face against the glass of that very same bush plane. From 1,750 feet above the Arctic coastal plain I could see the past, present, and future scroll below the Cessna winging east from the Happy Valley airstrip. The tundra was scored with weird geometric shapes–centuries-old ice wedges, ice-filled earthen mounds called pingos, thermokarst lakes trapped atop permafrost craters. I watched the plane’s shadow glide across Fin Creek and the Ivishak, Kavik, and Echooka Rivers, the last one a braided plain of gravel choked with a frozen skim of aufeis. And then there was the future, at least in the short term: the glacier-fed Canning River, hemmed in by cliffs 3,000 feet high. During months of discussing logistics with bush pilots, biologists, and locals, one location came up time and time again. If you have only one float trip to make, I was told, make it on the Canning. Flowing down the western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Canning held the promise of Arctic char on the line and big flocks of willow ptarmigan.
Now Smetana manned the oars while Wood and I took turns in the bow, lashing the water like mushers gone mad. Wood’s first fish came early and easily, and Smetana hooked a deep-swimming hen while I stroked through a swift side channel. Then the Canning went tight-lipped. Mile after mile we floated under soaring benches of tundra. We fished slow, deep holes where fast currents spilled over shelves of gravel, and we waded across roaring main-stem runs that threatened to sweep us downriver with every step. I was feeling the heat. Ours was not a group to keep tabs, but the spotlight is on when you’re the last man in the raft with nothing to brag about.
Hours later we ground to a stop on a gravel bar, grabbed rods, and split up. I fished my way across downstream channels, pounding every piece of water within casting distance. After a half hour I dialed back the pace, hunting for the sweet spots–current seams, pockets of calm flow, deep troughs–before casting. That’s when I put a fly just on the far side of a shelf of gravel and felt the line go taut.
Arctic char are known for violent strikes and brawling leaps that give them a good look at their troubles. But this fish dawdled upstream with a Day-Glo Orange Woolly Bugger stuck in his jaw. I struck again, to make doubly sure. That did the trick. Stripping line from the reel, he rocketed across a barely submerged gravel bar, dorsal fin knifing the air. He stopped only long enough to leap, a thrashing, dark silhouette against pale rock and sand. As he zipped across a second bar, spewing a rooster tail above the cobble, I ran with him over the rocks, rod high, laughing and hooting before halting his run.
Wood was waiting back at the raft. “Did you see it?” I asked. He blinked, uncomprehending, then slowly grinned.
“A dark shadow?” he said. “Hurtling through the sky?”
“You got it.” I laughed. “The monkey is off my back.”
Over the next three days we floated across a landscape where it seemed that all of Alaska’s finest attributes were crowded chockablock one on top of the other. Beneath Mount Copleston a thunderous waterfall poured off the tundra into a deep pool where we landed seven char–silver-sided hens and black-mouthed males with hooked jaws. Then the soaring, stegosaurian ridges of the Brooks Range gave way to softer hills nodding with Arctic poppy, which ebbed into recumbent plains of sedge and grass that fell away to the earth’s curved edge. Late at night we camped on gravel bars where golden eagles soared low, hunting for ground squirrels. Breaking camp one morning, we found ourselves in a push of migrating caribou. Three dozen bulls, cows, and calves picked their way across an upstream gravel bar. We sat on dry bags and life vests to watch the parade in the gray light of an oncoming rain. Bodies crashed into the water, hooves clawing at the gravel for purchase. Three young ones chose poorly. Swept into the swift current at the base of a 40-foot cliff, they retreated midstream, swimming with all their might, only their heads and white tails visible above the water. “What a place for an ambush,” Wood said. “Work your way up that gully to the willows, hunker down, and pick your bull.”
“Next time,” I said. We nodded.
Still, this time, not much went precisely according to plan. We had obsessed over the minutest details of the trip, but so far we’d been blindsided by an Alaskan heat wave and hemmed in by 5 million acres of wildfire. Small-game populations were at an ebb in their boom-and-bust cycle. We worked for every bird and fish.
But the Arctic has its own systems of compensation, and they don’t always pay in the expected coin. Day after day of scorching, blue-sky weather came to a halt when we woke up on what was scheduled to be our last morning on the Canning. A dark bank of gray mist and rain cloaked the northern horizon, extending as far east and west as we could see. “There’s never been more fog anywhere in the world,” Wood fretted as I dug out the satellite phone. A female voice at our pilot’s base on Kaktovik Island confirmed our fears: We were fogbound. It could be two hours. It could be three days. Look for the plane, the voice instructed. And don’t go anywhere.
We slumped onto a pile of gear. “What now?” Smetana asked. For the moment the answer seemed to be–nothing. Glumly, we dug out the fleece layers that had lain unused in the bottom of our clothes bags. The temperature was dropping as quickly as our spirits. We would look for the plane; we would go nowhere.
Suddenly Smetana sat bolt upright. “Ptarmigan!” he yelled, pointing toward the base of a high ridge of tundra on the far side of the airstrip. “Under those birds!” I looked up just as a pair of falconlike jaegers stooped on a small flock of ptarmigan, causing three to flush. I pounced on the gear mound and dug out my bow. Wood grabbed a shotgun, and we started running.
For the rest of the day we tundra-marched for ptarmigan with gun and bow. We double-teamed the flocks, an archer in the lead and the scattergun as backup when the birds took to wing, watching for hunting jaegers and glassing from windswept ridgelines. We killed ptarmigan on the flat shelf that doubled as the airstrip and far into the tundra, with endless views of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Back at camp we traded 10 feet of tinfoil for a long slab of caribou backstrap from some hunters riding out the fog a quarter mile away. Then, huddled in the lee of the riverbank, we fried ptarmigan hearts, livers, gizzards, and breasts, and sauteed medallions of rich, dark caribou meat in olive oil and as much garlic as we could dig out of the bottom of the food pack. We pulled up our collars and sprawled out on life vests spread atop boulders. “The best thing to happen to us was missing the plane,” Smetana said as we traded shots of whiskey, wondered when we’d make it out, and toasted our good fortune at being marooned in the Arctic.
When we made it back to Happy Valley, I humped the first load of gear from the plane to the Jeep and opened the driver’s door. A torrent of stench mushroomed out of the car. Eyes tearing, I found the source: a white trash bag atop my clothes duffel, its soggy bottom bulging with fetid eggshells, old bacon, and the decaying entrails and carcasses of four Arctic grayling. I came up for air just in time to see a cackling Smetana peel off in the Wrangler, laughing and holding his nose. Wood eased into the passenger seat, his face buried in the crook of his arm. “Nice work,” he said. With the windows rolled down and the sunroof wide open, we could breathe normally as long as we kept the speedometer pegged above 50 mph.
Happy Valley was one of 29 work camps strung along “Skinny City,” the 800-mile-long pipeline construction zone that stretched from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay. The camps had more than 16,000 beds and housed 60,000 workers over a three-year period. Now little is left of them, save for their accompanying airfields and a few maintenance outbuildings. Throughout its planning and construction phase, the Trans-Alaska pipeline and road drew ovations of support and furious opposition. The project was characterized both as a benign “pencil mark across a sheet of paper” and as a “broad and portentous scar across an empty and innocent land.” Once the oilfields at Prudhoe Bay run dry, the pipeline, like the enormous construction camps, will be dismantled and trucked away. But the road will remain, “as permanent as the pyramids,” bemoaned one detractor.
In fact, there’s a current push to rasp away the rougher edges of the Dalton and make it an even more popular traveler’s destination. The entire route is scheduled for blacktopping sometime in the next five years. There are plans for more visitor centers, campgrounds, and surfaces kinder to RVs. Road tripping the northernmost highway in Alaska is never going to be a lark, but now’s the time to do the Dalton while it still retains more than a few sharp teeth.
Past Happy Valley the road began its steep descent into the Arctic coastal plain. Wigeon, mergansers, white-fronted geese, and ducks I took for spectacled eiders cruised roadside ponds. On a pancake-flat prairie we pulled over to gawk at a herd of musk oxen, morose-looking animals that corralled into a circle of hide and horn as soon as we opened the car doors.
On a clear, 80-degree day like this, driving the Dalton can be a cake-walk. But soon a gauntlet of tall metal poles cropped up on each side of the road–snow poles, which truckers use to navigate when blizzards roar across the highway. I’d learned about them at a diner down in Cold-foot Camp, 180 miles south, where I’d bought a trucker a cup of coffee and asked him about the crosses beside the road. He ticked off recent accidents like a shopping list. “One guy froze to death after going through the windshield,” he said, eyes steady behind boxy wire rims. “The glass just ripped his clothes off, and it was 40 below. Another fellow was ejected, and the truck wound up on top of him. A friend of mine went so far down through the snow that nobody could see him. There’s no rhyme nor reason to why some of these accidents happen. You can just vanish out here.”
For its northernmost 100 miles the Dalton Highway parallels the Sagavanirktok River, known simply as “the Sag.” Braided into dozens of channels, the Sag freezes solid during the winter, except for a few deep channels and holes scoured downstream of gravel jetties built to protect the road and pipeline. Late in the afternoon we hiked down the spine of a 200-yard-long jetty and cast to grayling holding in the swirling current. Far across the river delta, snow and ice clung to the siltstone and mudstone clefts of Franklin Bluffs. Wood and I struck out across veins of waist-deep current, but in two hours I landed only a single char, the sole rise of the day. After a last try at a rolling run of boulder-strewn water, we sheathed the fly rods. Hiking back to the car, I hardly felt defeated. In five days of chasing char on the Canning and Sag we’d caught two dozen fish–not as many as we might have landed had the migrations been in full swing, but just enough to remember every single strike, every single run and jump, every fish writhing in my hands.
As we trudged back to the Jeeps, we came upon a burly fellow with a three-button beard, slicing salami on the hood of a late-model Toyota pickup. He’d driven up from Minnesota for a 10-day vacation hunting caribou along the Dalton, only to sit in Coldfoot Camp for six days with a busted leaf spring, waiting for parts. “Four days of hunting ain’t what I planned on,” he said, grimacing. “But this country don’t care much for your plans. You gotta take what you can get.”
END OF THE LINE
Deadhorse, Alaska, is as architecturally honest a town as ever I’ve seen. It exists solely to support the Prudhoe Bay oilfield, and it is spectacularly ugly: dingy metal buildings behind ranks of tracked orange and red machines, trailers on skis and skids, shipping containers, water-filled drainage pits where a few white-fronted geese dabbled. Beyond town the enormous Prudhoe Bay oilfield sprawls between the city limits and the Arctic Ocean, closed to all but oil company workers and tour-bus tourists who shell out 38 bucks for a van ride around the oilfield.
At the Prudhoe Bay Motel, a low-slung haunt of oilfield workers, we piled our gear into spartan rooms. Cans of air freshener were within reach of each bunk. “They heard we were coming,” I said. That night I stretched out on a soft bed with clean sheets and a true luxury: a fat pillow that didn’t sport a single zipper pull digging into my forehead. I hardly slept at all.
If Deadhorse offers an inglorious end to the 414-mile-long Dalton Highway, it does have one overwhelming saving grace: Take the Dalton to Deadhorse and you have no other choice but to turn around and repeat the process in reverse. The next morning we kicked mounds of dirty clothes into piles and spread out maps on the floor. I felt a flush of renewed enthusiasm. There had to be more ptarmigan on the Chandalar Shelf. Gobbler’s Knob, I recalled, looked every bit as good. “And we never did try the Dietrich River,” Wood said. Or hike down the Yukon shore to the Ray River. Big pike in there, we’d heard.
We packed the Jeeps and loaded up on snack crackers and peanuts at the Prudhoe Bay General Store, purveyor of cheap T-shirts and an impressive offering of girlie magazines. Back in the car I rubbed grit out of my eyes and caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror: a graying two-week beard, cracked lips, bloody line cuts on my knuckles, an infected stove burn oozing on one thumb. As I pulled back onto the highway, I noticed the digital compass on the dashboard. It glowed with a greenish-blue S. We had three days to retrace our steps–or make new tracks altogether.
“So,” I asked Wood. “What do you want to do today?”
**DALTON LOGISTICS **
THE 411: Before you do anything else, get the current edition of The Milepost, the bible of Alaskan road tripping (800-726-4707; www.themilepost.com). It contains tons of descriptions, ideas for side trips and camping spots, and contact numbers. Then pore over the BLM’s Dalton Highway website (aurora.ak.blm.gov), and contact the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfoot (907-678-5209). Ask for The Dalton Highway Visitor Guide. For details on hunting and fishing along the Dalton, contact the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (907-459-7207; www.adfg.state.ak.us). We made extensive use of its Sport Fishing Along the Dalton Highway booklet. Next, dial up the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau (800-327-5774; www.explorefairbanks.com) to plan where you’re going to load up on groceries, last-minute supplies, and hunting and fishing licenses.
VEHICLES: We packed two full-size spares mounted on rims and 10 gallons of extra gasoline per vehicle. At the last minute, we decided against an air compressor and tire patch kit. Next time, we’ll bring one. There are gas stations at Yukon Crossing, Coldfoot, and Deadhorse, so plan on going at least 240 miles without refueling–and that’s without side trips and doubling back. National rental car agencies don’t allow their vehicles on the Dalton, but local agencies fill that gap. For a car, contact Dalton Highway Auto Rentals (907-474-3530). For camper-topped pickup trucks, go with GoNorth RV Camper (907-479-7272; www.go north-camper.com).
SUPPLIES: Yukon Crossing, Coldfoot, and Deadhorse offer tire repair services, showers, phones, minimalist lodging, and small cafes. There are no grocery stores, however, so load up in Fairbanks.
CAMPING: There are only two designated campgrounds on the entire highway, and they’re very basic. Instead, look for side roads that access woods and turnouts away from the dusty air of the Dalton.
SIDE TRIPS AND GUIDES: Airstrips along the Dalton are a perfect launching point for backcountry adventures. We lined up a flight with Alaskan Flyers (907-640-6324), but there are others (consult The Milepost). Pristine Ventures (877-716-4366; www.pristineventures.com) offers guided hunting and fishing trips in the region as well as customized information packets for do-it-yourselfers.
The Dalton Highway expedition took months of planning and logistical support. We would like to thank Jeep Brand for supplying a Wrangler Unlimited and a Grand Cherokee. In addition, Weatherby, Wolverine Boots and Shoes, and LaCrosse Footwear also provided gear that was crucial to the success of the trip.