Sometimes you just need to get away. To explore. To breathe fresh air, gawk at unapologetically immense mountains, and take in miles of flat terrain. To cast aside all warnings and venture where few people do.
Sometimes you need the tundra.
It started as a summer road trip – two weeks of traveling through Yukon and Alaska with my husband and three kids, with the goal of Fairbanks as our compass. Days included taking in stunning views, swimming in icy lakes and rivers, watching salmon spawn, and wiping cinnamon bun icing from our chins at roadside diners.
Nights were spent camping on riverbanks where we roasted marshmallows over a crackling fire, the contours of our faces shifting with every flicker of flame. We cuddled up below towering mountains such as Drum and Sanford while the eerie wail of porcupine and the haunting call of owls echoed through the forest and lulled us to eventual sleep.
Permafrost warped the highways. The asphalt swelled and folded, which made us feel like we were riding a rickety rollercoaster, but the vistas pulled us forward. Foxes and rabbits frequented the roadsides, and we were treated to the occasional bear, bison, deer, and moose that foraged along the highway.
Roads twisted and turned as we pulled the trailer up one side of a mountain pass and down another. We hiked the world’s smallest desert one day and feasted on delicious dessert the next, and we met travelers from around the world who were always excited to share their stories of the wild north.
At long last, we arrived in Fairbanks, a quaint city with historic charm. Mission accomplished.
But anyone who knows me knows that reaching a goal is the only the catalyst for the next goal to take shape. The obvious question was, “Where to now?”
As the kids burned energy at the playground, my husband and I poured over the map. Roads, rivers, and railroads met before parting, and as our eyes drew north, more space opened between town names. The Yukon River Crossing caught our attention and although only a few hours drive away, it was a place we suddenly needed to experience. We set the crossing as our next goal, restocked our food and fuel, and pressed north until we spotted the bridge that signaled our success.
The Yukon River was a gorgeous waterway that snaked around rocks and trees. Clambering from the vehicle, we headed to the riverbank where we threw pebbles into the rushing water and challenged each other to skip them in the tumbling rapids. Our picnic lunch along the bank was serene and, as we watched swallows swoop for insects, we knew that greater goals lay ahead.
Without a destination to guide us, we wandered into the Visitor’s Center that looked like an old trapper’s cabin and smelled of musty wood. Hare and weasel pelts lay on tables, and three-dimensional maps charted the waterways and mountains. As my fingers disappeared within the soft hairs of an Arctic fox pelt, my gaze fell upon a poster:
“…only three percent of Alaskan travelers make it to the Yukon River…”
I nodded a smile.
“…and less than one percent venture to the Arctic Circle...”
The smile shifted from one of accomplishment to one of wonder as the wheels in my head began spinning again.
My hand slipped from the pelt, and I stepped closer to the map of the Great North. As though guided by an unknown force, my finger found the “You Are Here” star and began tracing the route that led to the Arctic Circle, then glided past the Circle. My arm extended higher above my head as the route continued to lead me north, and north some more. My finger finally came to rest at Prudhoe Bay where a subconscious question fell from my lips: “I wonder how many visitors reach the Arctic Ocean?”
As though my husband was radiating waves of energy next to me, I felt the hum of adventure sweep through him. I turned to him, and we locked eyes. Without speaking a word, we knew that the Arctic Ocean would be our ultimate goal.
Sunshine bathed our family as we gathered around a picnic table. Licking ice cream before it could run down the cones, we poured over the Dalton Highway information guide. Pictures of hardy wildlife and long stretches of gravel roads appeared welcoming, but the warnings splayed across the pages told a different story:
No public services.
No medical facilities.
No cell phone coverage.
Hordes of mosquitoes, biting flies, and gnats.
The road is narrow, graveled, has sharp rocks, potholes, and potentially clouds of dust or slick mud.
I looked at the anxious faces around the table, straightened my back, and steadied the guide in my hands. We can do this. We are adventurers.
Bring at least two full-sized spare tires mounted on rims.
Bring a tire jack and tools.
Have emergency flares.
Pack extra fuel, oil, and washer fluid.
Bring a CB radio.
Like a flame starved of oxygen, our plans to reach the Arctic Ocean were dying. Although our truck and trailer were loyal travelers, they were not equipped for a journey such as this.
“What about a rental?” my husband asked, a spark of hope igniting his finger as it tapped a phone number in the guide. “There is a car rental company with vehicles equipped for the Dalton.”
A quick phone call relayed an eight-hundred-dollar cost, instantly killing Plan B. Our goal to touch the Arctic Ocean had been snuffed out.
With a heavy hand, I closed the guidebook and pushed it away. “Arctic Circle it is,” I said as I tried to force a smile through my disappointment. “The ocean was never in our plans anyway.”
And this is where I start to laugh, because although my husband and I knew the Arctic Circle was the smart decision, we are way too stubborn to stick with smart decisions.
New plan: Load up on groceries, water, and fuel. Camp at the Arctic Circle. Leave the trailer at Marion Campground and do a day trip to the Arctic Ocean – a six-hundred-mile round trip from the campground. And yes, Badger, my fluffy Bichon Shih Tzu, was to make the trek with us.
One final note in the information guide:
Public access ends at Deadhorse, 8 miles from the Arctic Ocean.
This would not do. No, this would not do at all. There is no way we are conquering the Dalton without touching the ocean. After a bit more research, we discovered a tour provider who could bring us those final eight miles, so we booked five seats and got ready for one of our biggest adventures yet.
We woke early on the northern side of the Arctic Circle, locked the trailer, and loaded Badger and the kids into the truck. Ready for whatever the Dalton Highway threw at us, we pointed the truck north.
As promised, the highway was narrow, gravel, and mostly deserted, but the potholes were not as deep or numerous as expected. As we drove, trees became more stunted and the forests sparser, as though we were atop a mountain rather than at sea level, and before long, we reached the continent’s most northerly tree, complete with a plaque marking the end of the world we knew. Beyond the final, stunted tree, there was nothing but tundra – a vast landscape made of rock, moss, lichen, and the occasional wind-whipped shrub.
Some may call the drive uneventful. After all, how long can one stare at a long, relatively straight highway with little to break the monotonous view? But if you look for the details, it is not monotonous at all. Rolling hills complement the flatness. Families of boulders dot the horizon of mixed greens, browns, and the occasional rusty red. This is terrain unlike any other.
Creatures that inhabit this demanding environment began to make appearances. They glanced at our truck like it was a lost traveler before they went back to hunt prey or plants. A peregrine falcon rested on a signpost and did not care that we stopped a few feet away to gaze at its magnificence. A Pacific loon, with a neck that had surely been painted, and its eerie red eyes, searched for lunch on a small pond. An Arctic fox, brown in color this time of year, slunk across the lichen where it sniffed and snuffled for voles or lemmings. Long-tailed ducks, snowy owls, and cackling geese caught our eye as new birds to be added to our life list.
And the tundra itself – it was like walking upon brittle sponge. Dry grass and moss cracked underfoot as our feet sunk into its softness.
As though our travels were scripted by the Discovery Channel, a herd of caribou blocked our passage. Hundreds of animals searching for meager sustenance spanned the barren land and highway. Their hooves were large for winter walking, their antlers like shovels atop their heads in preparation for moving aside snow. On they trekked, twenty feet in front of us, oblivious of the ocean that was drawing us north.
When traveling for over five hours, bathroom breaks are required, but on the Dalton, rest stops are nowhere to be seen and there is no cover to hide behind. “Up ahead, along this hillside,” my husband said. “That’s as good a place as you’ll find.” As we pulled over, monstrously huge mosquitoes batted my window, certain they could find a break in the glass. And a break, I provided.
Back on the highway, we were closing in on Deadhorse, and the farther north we drove, the more my eyes were peeled for large, brown lumps on the tundra. If only, if only… I had always loved the mystique of a truly prehistoric mammal and my dream was to see one in the wild.
And then, a hairy lump.
A herd of muskoxen lumbered over the moss and rocks, and they picked at any food they could find. Their coats were long and shaggy, protecting the beasts from the bite of Arctic winter and the sting of giant mosquitoes. Their horns were flattened against their heads and curled out the sides, flat armor ready for battle on the flat tundra. And their stature – short and stubby like a burly pony to keep their limbs close to their warm bodies.
To see wild muskoxen was a dream that I never expected to see through. I watched the majestic beasts snort and dig as they plodded along the ground.
I could have sat along that roadside all day and watched the magical creatures, but the Arctic Ocean beckoned.
After what was already a long day of driving on the dusty road, we arrived in Deadhorse, a community of oilfield workers and support resources. A collection of buildings – trailers, really – dotted the landscape. Machinery and industrial vehicles added to the mix. A mess hall for oilfield staff was the only place to eat. And a single tour bus awaited our arrival.
My family and I climbed aboard the bus where ten other adventurous souls were waiting, eager to make the trip. As my daughter settled into the seat with me, I cracked the window and let the crisp Arctic air whisk away the staleness of the bus.
The bus rolled out of Deadhorse and through the security gates of Prudhoe Bay, every mile bringing us closer to the ocean I never expected to see. Although the entire area had an industrial feel, northern wildlife still made appearances along roadsides and in small ponds.
As we left the buildings behind for open tundra, foxes, hares, and distant caribou watched our approach towards the ocean. We drew near the water where resilient gulls and terns played on air currents above waves that rolled rather than crashed onto a beach made of rocks and boulders.
The bus came to a stop a few hundred feet from the shore, and the door breathed open. As adventurers poured from the bus, hair was whipped in faces and clothing danced in the wind. A few courageous travelers stripped down to their bathing suits, ran across the rocky beach, and leapt into the icy waters, their delighted shrieks carried away by the wind.
As my kids scrambled over boulders, my husband and I headed to the edge of the world where water lapped the tips of our boots. Filling my lungs with salty air, I crouched down and extended my hand. A rolling wave kissed my fingertips. I plunged my hand deeper and rested my palm atop pebbles polished smooth by eons of waves while cold water investigated the contours of my skin. I closed my eyes.
And I smiled.
The Arctic Ocean is touched by few who walk the earth, and experiencing it took grit, stamina, and perseverance; when I sank my hand into its secrets, the feeling that washed over me was one of achievement, wonder, and awe.
At its most basic, the Arctic Ocean is not all that different than other oceans I have visited, yet there is something magical about it, as though it holds secrets that the Pacific and Atlantic would never understand.
The tundra is more than simply a barren landscape, and the Arctic Ocean is so much more than just a body of water. They hold the wild spirit of the earth – the same spirit that churns in those wild enough to brave the journey.