Tuesday, 2 October 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAYS 32 & 33: Arctic Circle Adventure-The First Snowfall, Wonderful Scenery, Fireworks, Northern Lights, and 3am when the car broke down in the middle of nowhere!

It was to be one of my biggest adventures since I arrived in Alaska; myself, Daniel (another one) and Dickie had planned to drive to the Arctic Circle. The circle is easily accessed from Fairbanks in a car, and although the journey stretches about 200 miles, the majority of it runs along the Dalton Highway. It's a journey full of such great geographical diversity; heading from suburban Fairbanks, through the boreal forest, over many different mountain ranges and finally across the tundra. I love journeys like these, and this one was particularly great as Daniel and Dickie encouraged me to tell them all about the landforms and the processes that formed them.

The plan was to reach the Arctic Circle, pitch the tent, light a fire, set off some fireworks, before watching the Northern Lights. The next day, we planned to drive back to the hostel. As always, what you plan to do never quite happens- however, none of us could have predicted what was about to come!

Fairbanks and quite a lot of northern Alaska had experienced the first snowfall of the winter the night before, and quite a lot of the journey towards the Arctic Circle offered fine views of snow-capped mountains and snow-smothered fir trees. More snow flurries were forecasted for the night, but we left the hostel at 11am in dry yet overcast conditions.

Our jouney along the Dalton Highway towards the Arctic Circle followed the route of the famous Trans Alaskan Pipeline; the reason for this is not for tourism necessarily, but to allow engineers to easily access the pipe if a certain part of it malfunctions. The highway cut through dramatic mountain ranges like the White Mountains and the Ray Mountains, and reached significant altitudes at various points, allowing for a photo stops. Typical cryospheric phenomena were evident; buckling in the road, pingos, ecologic lakes etc. We were making very good progress in the car, even after stopping off in a layby (called a turnout here) for some lunch; a strawberry jam sandwich.

Halfway throughout the journey, I got my first ever sighting of the major Yukon river. The Yukon is one of the most largest rivers in North America; its source starts in British Colombia (Canada) and it flows all the way through the Yukon territory, Alaska and it empties into the Bering Sea. It's total area is more than 25% larger than Texas. And there we were; Daniel and Dickie skipping stones whilst I surveyed the meander point bar, under one of only four bridges that transport motor vechicles across the Yukon.

By now, we had travelled some considerable distance, and the car's exterior was certainly evidence of that.

As the Arctic Circle got ever nearer, the topography became more dramatic. One stretch of the highway was called the 'Rollercoaster' because there were steep climbs and descents, much like this one.

From the top of one of these climbs, we got a great view of the rest of the highway and a zig zag pattern in the pipeline. It's a common engineering method, that allows the pipe to contract and expand upon diurnal temperature variations.

Very soon after the 'rollercoaster', I noticed the vegetation was changing dramaticallly. The boreal forests were disappearing, making way for smaller shrubs and grasses, until finally, a tundra wilderness. The tundra stretched out for miles, and we stopped by some granite tors for the best views. It had obviously snowed quite a lot here, making the inhospitable tundra landscape perhaps even more inhospitable.

At 4:30pm, we finally arrived at the Arctic Circle. Each one of us wanted a photo by the sign, a popular photo stop for the tourists. Apart from the sign, there was nothing but wilderness, but we took a fairly quick walk around the forests, holding a knife in one hand and bear spray in the other. These forests are full of bears, and although they are going into hibernation around now, we didn't take our chances.

Later on, when the sun had set and the three of us were alone at the periphery of the Arctic Circle, Dickie was dying to let off the fireworks he had bought from Anchorage a couple of days ago. This would be the first time I've been part of the 'lighting' procedures rather than just a spectator. It all went pretty smoothly; 27 fireworks were let off creating noise and light in the air that I reckon could have been heard and seen from miles away.

It was about 10:00pm by now, and we set off for the journey home; a journey I will never forget. Nothing was out of the ordinary to begin with; we packed away our things and set off, south, towards Fairbanks. About 2 hours into the journey, we got glimpses of very faint light; the Northern Lights were about to put on a show for us, so we prepared our cameras and wrapped up warm. We now estimate the temperature was about -10 degrees C (yes, there was a minus in front of that!) and for sure, we could feel it! I did my best to block this out, laying myself down on the road behind the car, and gazed into the night's sky. This is what we saw.

What happened after that will be something I will never forget. From watching the lights, we saw that the car fuel gauge was on the last 1/8 of the tank, and with the best part of 150 miles left to go, we knew there was trouble ahead. Having said that, we optimistically continued on, but eventually came to a sudden stop, in the middle of the Dalton Highway. In the middle of nowhere, in other words. At 3am.

With a parking layby in 1500 feet from where the car had made it's last effort, Dickie and I decided to push. Even with gloves on, the task was very uncomfortable, and after pushing for about 10m, we gave up. Soon after that, we had plenty of ideas: walking to the nearest gas station, 20 miles away, pushing the car a mile every hour, and calling the emergency services. In the end, we decided to get the attention of passers by, but at 3:30am, these were few and far between. We did eventually stop someone, a truck driver who was quick to warn us that we were at least a hundred miles away from Fairbanks.

He went off to buy a can of gasoline, which meant more waiting, but eventually he returned and before long, we were on our way. The next thing I knew we had reached the hostel, and at 5am, there was only one place I was going to. You can probably guess.

After the drama of day 32, I decided that the rest of day 33 would be spent at the hostel. It's still pretty cold outside, but my exhaustion has got the better of me, and I will continue my adventures tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. wow, what an adventure, surely enough experiences for a fortnight let alone couple of days. stunning pics even on the screen on blog they're still impressive.
    you're living the dream Dan.
    stay safe mate, look fwd to reading more of your trips and experiences.

    life's going to be so dull when you return!
    the 'ol codgers