It’s a little-known fact that the very same highway made famous by the popular reality television show Ice Road Truckers is also one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights.
That’s why I found myself in Fairbanks, Alaska, boarding a prop plane to cross the Arctic Circle, a trip only one percent of visitors to the 49th state ever undertake. It’s a trek to reach the Arctic Circle in Alaska, even when you’re as far north as the city of Fairbanks.
The Alaskan Arctic is one of the last great wilderness regions on the planet, and getting there means traveling along the rugged Dalton Highway, from Fairbanks to the oil fields, through remote country where amenities are virtually nonexistent.
Uninhabited wilderness has a unique pull on human beings, particularly today in a world where we seem to be never truly alone. Wild Jack London fantasies flitted through my head as we encroached further onto the desolate bush. It’s about an hourlong flight in a nine-seater Piper with the Northern Alaska Tour Company from Fairbanks to Coldfoot Camp, 55 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Mount Victoria and the White Mountains loomed large in the distance as we flew over the Yukon Flats and the Yukon River, the largest in Alaska, and passed over Stevens Village, one of the Koyukon Athabaskan settlements that is home to approximately 80 indigenous people.
Desolate wilderness stretched as far as the eye could see.
Some might say February is a peculiar time to trek into the Alaska wilderness. The truth is that it was warmer in Alaska than back home in New York City, where the wind-chill factor reached -21 F the day that I took off. During the day it was a balmy 34 degrees in the tundra. And even though it was snowing when we landed in Coldfoot on a snow-covered airstrip, it was warm enough to unzip my coat.
Coldfoot was once a rowdy commercial center for local miners during the Koyukuk gold rush of 1898 to 1900. But by 1920 there was no such thing as Coldfoot any longer, and the town was deserted until the 1970s, when the area was resurrected as an oil pipeline camp.
In the 1980s, Dick Mackey, a well-known Alaska musher, established the northernmost truck stop here. The first iteration of the truck stop was just a yellow school bus with a gas burner in the back to cook burgers. Today this stop has been made famous by the reality television show Ice Road Truckers.
Coldfoot Camp (permanent population: one) consists of the truck stop, the airstrip, a motor lodge, and a few ramshackle cabins. Truckers leave their motors running to keep them warm. Inside the truck stop, plywood walls are covered in antlers, worn photographs of the camp’s gold mining glory days, and graffiti left by truckers. Since cellphone service is so bad, the drivers leave notes and gift certificates for one another on a post next to the cash register — payments for bets lost or favors done during an ice-road breakdown. There are pay phones here, and people still use them. The soup of the day is split pea and ham.
A tattered plastic sign marks a table for “Truckers Only.” They congregate in the back room, ignoring the few tourists and smoking Marlboro Reds, their eyes alert from coffee guzzled by the pot and brewed right on their special table. Above their heads, Fox News blares headlines of another attack in the Middle East. The one permanent resident in Coldfoot is named Mike, and he lives in a cabin down by the river. He keeps to himself.
It was from Coldfoot that we began our drive over the Dalton Highway toward the Arctic circle.
The icy summits of the Brooks Range gleamed from the side of the snow-covered road. If you look at a highway map of Alaska, you will see a web of highways south of Fairbanks. North of the city you find just one road: this one. The highway and the pipeline cut a tiny little ribbon of human activity through hundreds of miles of trackless wilderness.
Our driver to the Arctic Circle is Evan, a music teacher turned tour guide and the postmaster of Coldfoot. Trucks whiz by at remarkable speeds, kicking up a fog of snow that envelopes our small van. A sparse, stunted forest lines the road with straggly black spruce stretching like pipe cleaners into the sky. These trees are more than 100 years old and built to withstand swings of 100 degrees in temperature.
They’re not the prettiest nor the tallest trees, but they’re remarkable for the fact that they can survive here. Jack London described them best in White Fang:
“dark spruce forest [that] frowned…. the trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous in the fading light.”
The Arctic Circle is really just an imaginary line scribed around the Earth at a latitude of 66 degrees 33 minutes. In theory it marks the southernmost point from which the sun’s rays can be seen on the horizon at midnight on the summer solstice. There is a sign marking its start. A couple of tourists crowd around it with selfie sticks, but to the spot’s credit there are no legions of souvenir stands selling Arctic Circle bedroom slippers or onesies. There’s just the sign, an outhouse, and a few park benches laden with three feet of snow.
From there it’s another hour’s drive south in the dark to the frozen-over Yukon River with a new driver, Carol, who has lived five lives in the handful of decades she has been in the 49th state. She’s owned and operated a bed and breakfast, has been a waitress, a dog musher, and a bush pilot, and now she’s a tour guide. Within the first five minutes after we met, she told me she has 13 dogs, all of which live in her house, and a genetic twitch that I shouldn’t worry about when she is driving.
We pull over to the side of the road in front of the giant Yukon River, covered in ice chunks the size of a large man and glowing red from the bridge lights above, giving the snow and ice the appearance of a rugged Martian desert.
“We’re just going to walk down to the river through these ‘Do Not Enter’ signs.” Carol said.
On the way back to the van, we stopped in a shed lit only by the headlamp of a bearded man covered in soot. He could be 25 or 45. There’s really no way to tell.
The words gift shop were painted in a childish script on the wooden door, and a coal stove kept the 8-by-8-foot space warm. This is Jeremy Towson, an Alaskan homesteader who lives two miles downriver with his mother. They make and sell handicrafts to the very few tourists who come along the Yukon River.
He looked at us closely and once he was satisfied that we could be potential purchasers of his wares the ends of his chapped lips turned upward into an eager smile.
“You’ve heard of lucky rabbits’ feet, right?” Jeremy asked me. I nodded.
“Well, this is a lucky North American lynx foot.” He handed me a large paw, ankle and all, before showing me a selfie of himself with a North American lynx that could have been alive or dead.
There were dreamcatchers covered in real bear fur and earrings made of bear claws. A price tag on the claws read $80, but Jeremy promised me a deal. He considered the earrings with a deep appreciation.
"I did the wirework by hand," he bragged.
Sadly, I had no cash, and Jeremy didn’t accept credit cards. In the summer there is a small gas station here, and Jeremy will trade earrings and lynx paws for gas, but that day we couldn’t strike a bargain.
A frozen white wolf carcass was also in the shed. Jeremy charges $5 for people to take pictures with it. “I caught it twice,” he told me. “I killed it once.”
On the way back to the van, Carol explained that there are way more men than women here in Alaska. “The odds are good,” she whispered, “but the goods are odd.”
The rule on the van for this next leg of the route is, if you see something, say something. Meaning keep an eye out for the northern lights and holler to Carol if you want her to stop.
Two years ago, this aurora borealis, or northern lights, viewing location was something of a local secret, but the Internet did what the Internet does, and the area has seen an influx of tourists for these particular tours.
The aurora borealis is a fickle mistress, dependent on too many factors to ever determine whether she will reveal herself. Everyone involved in northern lights tours is an underpromiser.
“We just don’t know.”
“You’ll be lucky if you see them.”
“It’s out of our hands.”
The not knowing whether they will appear at all is part of the fun if you’re the kind of person who is able to brace themselves for that kind of disappointment. It’s rare in our on-demand lives that we can’t custom-order up any kind of experience.
We drove an hour more into the blackness before green light began shooting through the cloud cover to the right of the van. Carol began frantically searching for a place to pull over.
“We might get stuck here,” she said. “Oh, well.” She did it anyway.
What is it about the northern lights that gets humans from all over the world so excited? Why do people become inarticulate when they talk about it and use words like mind-blowing and wondrous and awe inspiring? Even as an agnostic, I wonder if this is the closest glimpse to heaven we’ll ever get from Earth. Put simply, it’s magic.
Now don’t forget that this is the ice road truckers’ road. So as we pulled to the side to set up tripods, there were giant diesel trucks barreling by, which added to the excitement but frightened some of the Japanese tourists.
About an hour later we reached Joy, Alaska.
Joy is just a blink of a community. So many of these places above Fairbaks aren’t towns at all, just specks on a map and sometimes not even that. Named for its original homesteader, Joy Griffin, the rural community has a population of just 30. We arrived at the trading post, a rustic building with the feel of a ski cabin that time forgot. It’s a nice, warm place for light watching, with all of the windows blacked out so no light can escape from inside.
The aurora is sneaky. She has taken a break, and now she is late. It is past midnight, and by then I fully believe that she is standing us up. But no. Around 12:30 a.m., she shows up all dolled-up for the party, and the tardiness is forgiven.
Nothing really prepares you for how awesome the aurora borealis is when you see it in person. For more than two hours, the sky is constantly changing, with bands and blurs of green, pink, and purple dancing across the canvas of stars.
Carol is right. I can’t imagine that this ever gets old. There’s something about them that stays with you well afterwards. And even though it’s hard to describe what you saw in words the feeling is easily recalled.
We lay down in the snow and my whole body felt the cold differently in different places. I lay my head back into the ice and I was utterly happy and everything felt wonderful..dare I say it, even mind blowing. I’m wearing three pairs of pants, but I still need to go inside every five minutes or so.
“Where are you from?” the caretaker of the trading post asks me.
“New York,” I reply with the kind of righteous indignation people from New York use to say the name of their city.
“You’d think you’d be heartier.”
I am not hearty.
I don’t normally love the phrase “bucket list” or the use of lists in general. One of the great things about traveling is that it isn’t about checking things off, it’s about enjoying them and stumbling onto the next incredible experience that never made it onto a list.
Seeing the northern lights along a desolate highway in the far north of Alaska was never on a list for me. But if you do happen to be the list-making kind, add this to yours.