Dalton Highway highlights

Dalton Highway highlights

It turned out that I was not quite able to blog while at Bettles.  First, my laptop monitor somehow got broken.  But, even when I was able to slave a monitor at the NPS offices in Bettles, I still was not permitted Internet access due to some last-minute regulation that Bush put into effect right before leaving office.

So, I have a little catching up to do on the blog now that I am back home in Anchorage.

The drive up the Dalton Highway to Coldfoot (mile 175 on the highway) was simply gorgeous.  The weather was sunny, warm, with scattered clouds.  Despite my desire to get up to Coldfoot and over to Bettles to get to work, I stopped frequently to photograph places I had simply driven by in the past.  I would always make a mental note, “I’ll have to shoot that someday,” and keep on going.  But with conditions like these, I couldn’t run the risk that during my next several drives the weather would be foul.

The first place I made a point to stop was the bridge over the Yukon River, named the E. L. Patton Yukon River Bridge.  A unique architectural feat, it is an inclined bridge – downhill as you are heading north – with a 6% grade.  It also has wood for a surface instead of asphalt or cement and is 2200 feet long.  The Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS) also crosses the river at this point, using the structure of the bridge for support.

Next stop was Finger Mountain, presumably named after one of the many natural rock piles scattering the hillside.  It is a classic arctic tundra landscape, particularly gorgeous at this time of year.  I hiked around for a bit, taking time to absorb the scenery.  While I was there, a Royal Celebrity Tours bus stopped, spilling out all sorts of cruise passengers who were returning from their visit to Prudhoe Bay.  They swarmed over the walkways, scattered for a few minutes, then straggled back to their bus.  I stopped and spoke briefly with a Nikon D90 shooter who had some questions about how to improve his macro opportunities with his current setup.  But as his entire busload had already returned, he was not able to linger long and had to get back.  The bus left after about a ten-minute visit and I went off about a mile away from the parking area to explore the surroundings.  Along the way I came upon a small band of Willow ptarmigan, our state bird, already half changed into their winter plumage.

After that, it was straight to Coldfoot, where I found out that my plane and pilot would not be there until the next day.  I stayed the night at a park service staff cabin at the Marion Creek ranger station.  Since I had always wanted to explore further north from that point, I headed back on the road in the evening to explore the area around Sukakpak Mountain, at around mile 204 of the Dalton.  (I would still had to go another 200 miles from that point to make it to Prudhoe Bay.)  I had seen some photos of the mountain, but had no idea how much character it really had.  Most photos of the mountain are taken from the north looking south, where it has a distinctive slanted appearance that earned its name, which means “marten deadfall” in Inupiat.  I found that there were at least three distinct perspectives that provided for great photo opportunities.  Evening is the best time to view the massive, broad, southern face of the mountain as the northern, slanted face is in the shadows.  I returned in the morning after finding a perfect lake for reflection shots, hoping it would be great for first light alpenglow photos.  But, it turned out that the morning light does not hit the mountain fully until about a half hour after sunrise.  Another larger mountain out of view completely blocks its sun, at least at this time of year.

I also explored the town of Wiseman, population of about 20, at mile 188 on the Dalton.  Many consider it one of the true, authentic Alaska towns on the road system.  I don’t know enough about the town to offer an opinion on that, but it certainly had many points of interest for my camera.  I imagine that I will spend more time there over the years as I continue to photograph the area, hopefully getting to know the people who chose to have Gates of the Arctic as their backyard.  One of my favorite features was the outdoor phone booth, well, stand, on a post in a cluster of trees along side the road.  It was my lifeline to Michelle, as there was no other phone available to me for making calls.  There was also an outdoor “mining musuem” placed out along a grassy lawn near the main entrance of the town.

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