Baby Bison, don't tread on that pretty flower...

Baby Bison, don't tread on that pretty flower...
Custer State Park, SD; June, 2010

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Columbia, TN, United States
I am a Christian, married over 43 years to my gorgeous first wife; in 13th year as professor of education at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, TN; 4 children and 9 grandchildren.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Professor drives the Dalton

Since returning from my 12,800-mile, 28-day Arctic Ocean road trip nearly two months ago, I have frequently reflected on that adventure. The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly driving the Dalton Highway 500 miles from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, Alaska. I relived my journey that began in Columbia on May 12, by viewing reruns of the IRT (Ice Road Truckers) on the History Channel. The series depicts big-rig drivers competing for cash hauling serious loads up the icy Haul Road in the dead of winter. I can attest to the Dalton’s being a major challenge even in spring without the frozen surface. As an Internet travel blog by an earlier “amateur” aptly stated, “Only confirmed masochists bother to run it given the road's mostly unpaved state, lack of services, hyper-aggressive truck drivers, and hordes of monster mosquitoes. You're practically guaranteed a cracked windshield and flat tires. It helps to be a little crazy to drive this road.” My only response is, “Amen!”
Because I was forewarned about the truckers and the rough road surface, I was able to make that thousand-mile round trip without harm to glass or tires. I was too early for the mosquitoes (Alaska’s state bird); and the lack of services was circumvented by frequent fill-ups and the full-sized spare in my trunk (needed a week later on a side trip to Atlin, British Columbia). I also left Fairbanks with adequate snacks, bottled water, fresh fruits, and vegetables. The breakfast buffet at Deadhorse’s Caribou Inn gave me energy for the return trek. I traveled at a very “safe” speed and pulled over whenever a truck approached from either direction.
I had anticipated the unique and challenging aspects of driving the Dalton. The experience included the pipeline, which often paralleled the highway (sometimes underground); 12% grades and sharp curves as shown without exaggeration on IRT; Yukon River and Arctic Circle crossings; herds of dall sheep, caribou, and musk ox posing for photographs near the road; the towering Brooks Range (through which and up which the road winds – what goes up must slide down); and the marshy expanse of tundra north of those mountains. Even the road surface – dirt, mud, potholes, frost heaves, gravel, and some paving – was unique. A 22-mile stretch of highway north from Coldfoot was as smooth as any in Tennessee. There were, however, a couple of surprises.
Just north of the musk ox herd, I found myself driving through a 50-mile stretch of tundra secluded by dense fog. I was relieved to be traversing through this Arctic fog bank in daylight. I would have been terrified to have driven it at night even in the land of the midnight sun. The next morning found the fog over the edge of the Arctic Ocean as I took my tour of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Residents stated that it moves inland over the tundra bog many afternoons.
The other surprise was the ocean itself. Before leaving Tennessee I had told friends that I wanted to stick my fingers in the Arctic Ocean not realizing it would be frozen solid until mid-July. I was content with walking on the bay and taking pictures of my boot, footprints, and shadow on the snowy surface. Alas, best laid plans…
Driving the Haul Road was the entire road trip’s most challenging adventure. Fortunately, I was prepared for the worst – and best – the Dalton had to offer. When asked by friends if I want to return, my response is, “Yes, to Alaska with my wife someday; but we’ll fly to Anchorage and rent a vehicle. To the Dalton? Absolutely NOT! Been there done that…but who knows?

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