The Dalton Highway, Alaska
I left the bright lights and usual metropolitan trappings of Fairbanks, Alaska – USA’s northern most city –and headed north. Within 15 minutes I was in wilderness, trundling through dense spruce trees on the Elliot Highway. But it wasn’t this highway that had me excited: it was the next one, the James Dalton Highway.
Built in stages in the early ‘70’s, ‘The Dalton’ runs parallel with the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Some still call it the ‘Haul Road’, as it was built to haul hardware to the oilfields in Prudhoe Bay. As roads go, this one is fairly notorious. It regularly appears in ‘Ten Most Dangerous Roads in the World’ lists, and thus far they’ve managed to make three seasons of Ice Road Truckers out of it. The Dalton has quite a reputation.
The Elliot Highway ended abruptly. I rolled off the smooth tarmac and immediately started climbing the soggy dirt and gravel surface of The Dalton. Low clouds blocked sight of the road in the near-distance. Almost immediately it started to rain and the road wasted no time letting me know who was boss. My wheels began to spin on the gloppy surface, the lights on my traction-control system flashing, unsure of what had just hit it. The hill peaked quickly and I began to descend, foot over the brake, squeezing as I fought to control the descent. I gripped the steering wheel firmly. Potholes came at me, full of water and thus difficult to see against the sodden mud road. I hit a few, swerved to avoid others. I kept my speed low, eyes wide and held my nerve. This was the most alert I’d ever been at 25mph.
About ten minutes in I felt like I was getting the hang of The Dalton. Then a hurtling lorry carting industrial pylons came at me around a blind corner; I was in the middle of the road where the surface was smoothest, having to swerve quickly to the rutted mushy side to give him room to pass. He sprayed me with filthy water, the colour of Caramac chocolate, blinding my view temporarily until my wipers smudged a clearing. I wasn’t getting the hang of The Dalton.
This road could hardly be called a civil engineering marvel. It was simply chopped down trees with some dirt splodged in its place. No escarpments to minimise an incline, no cut-outs to flatten a descent. This was an undulating, twisting dirt track through one of the last great wildernesses on earth. And I was loving it. And, evidently, I wasn’t alone; the truckers loved it so much they called themselves ‘The Kings of the Kamikaze Trail’, and they’d given names to many of the road’s twists and dips. I slipped my way down Beaver Slide; I hung on for dear life as I rode the undulations of The Roller Coaster; and gasped in awe as I reached the top of Gobblers Knob. I crossed the mighty Yukon River and, with few dining options available enroute, decided it was time for lunch.
The Yukon River Camp was a humble affair. I sat at a Formica table in an old converted Portacabin and tucked into a hearty bowl of wild Alaskan salmon soup fortified with potatoes, followed by cherry pie and ice cream. I was feeling rather pleased with myself. A couple sat a few tables over – they were the only other diners – and I guessed, based on the fact she was wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned ‘Australia’, that they were also travellers. “Which way you headed?” I asked. “North or South?”
“We’re heading south. Going home for the winter,” the lady said gently. It wasn’t quite the answer I was expecting, and my puzzled look obviously gave it away. “We’re miners up here,” she explained. “We own a gold mine.” They quickly invited me to bring my cherry pie over and join them.
Tim wore a vast grey beard, had bulging eyes and had a shiny bald head. Lynne had cropped grey hair, plain but smart; she looked like she’d once been a newsreader. I guessed they were mid-fifties. He told me he’d run into hard times working for an excavation company in Colorado and a friend had told him of a mine for sale up here eight years ago. They now employ seven people through the summer; they can’t mine when the ground freezes up from late September to May. I asked how much gold they get. Tim reached into his pocket and pulled out a small calf-skin bag secured with a draw-string, the sort of bag a wizard would keep his magic coins in. His caloused hands tipped the contents out onto the table; small pieces of harvested gold, some tiny slivers, some the size of match-stick heads, the largest piece shaped like half-a-stick of used chewing gum. I’d never seen gold like this before, straight out of the ground. “How much gold is there in the ground around here?” I asked, thinking about an appropriate percentage. “0.1%,” I guessed.
“Well,” Tim said, pondering, “we do about 43 trucks a day, 30 tons of earth a truck load, and should get about 10 ounces of gold.” I was way out. He swept the gold back into his magic bag.
“And how do you transport it securely?” I asked, envisioning a Securicor truck trundling up with a guard hand-cuffing himself to a bagful of gold.
“In a coffee jar,” Tim said, gesturing to the bag at his side.
“What about security?” I asked, indirectly questioning the integrity of his methods.
“I carry my own security. This is America.” He smiled warmly. It’s still the gold-rush up here, I concluded.
I paid up and wished my new friends good luck with their mining. They wished me well in return. I got in my filthy car, drove across the muddy car park and headed north to my next stop: the Arctic Circle.