As part of my Alaska winter vacation I made a journey to the Arctic Circle. The tour, run by 1st Alaska Outdoor School – the same company that ran the trip that included the North Pole – included stops at the Yukon River, the Trans Alaska Pipeline, the Arctic Circle and several stops for Northern Lights viewing.
The tour cost $200 and included transportation, a hot drink and snack. The trip took 14.5 hours. We were picked up from our Fairbanks hotel just before 2pm. There were a total of 5 people on the tour and ironically we all worked in IT jobs. The driver/tour guide, Joseph, looked like he was right out of the reality TV Show “Wild West Alaska” or “Alaska, The Last Frontier.” After the terrible tour guide experience I’d had the previous day with 1st Alaska Outdoor School, I wasn’t sure what to expect this time.
Being prepared for this trip was incredibly important and made the trip much more enjoyable. I had the right clothes, real snow boots, long johns, a hat and headband that covered my ears and a real winter jacket. In addition I packed a backpack with a sandwich, bottled Starbucks drinks, water, tissues and hand sanitizing wipes.
As we sat in the van headed for the first stop, I remember thinking, “I wonder if he’s going to tell us anything about the trip?” Finally, one of the other people on the tour asked him. He told us we’d be headed up the Dalton Highway, made famous by the show “Ice Road Truckers”, and also called Alaska Route 11 or the North Slope Haul Road.
The conditions were not great. It had been snowing all day in Fairbanks and the temperature was dropping a few degrees every hour – the morning started at -1 degree and by the time the trip was over we’d hit -23 degrees. The road was treacherous, to say the least, and for that reason, the driver/guide didn’t talk at all while he was driving. We literally spent about 13 of the 14 hours sitting in silence or talking among ourselves. I can’t really blame the driver, were were on a two-lane, icy, poorly paved road. There was sunlight only for the first 90 minutes of the tour and then it was pitch black. The headlights illuminated the snow being blown around by wind and other vehicles. I really believe that the tour company should have provided a driver and a guide.
It takes about 7 hours to get from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle. The tour started at about 2pm, sundown was 3:25 on the day I went, so that meant that the majority of the tour was in the dark. I don’t understand why the tour company doesn’t start the tour in the morning during the winter months so you’d be able to see more!
Our first stop was the Trans Alaska Pipeline. It’s not that interesting, but the area is very scenic and allowed for some great photo ops.The second stop was at the Yukon River. It was pitch black and the snow was up to my mid-calf – but not the top of my snow boots. I decided not to walk down to the river itself since it was so dark. However, I was lucky because I had the opportunity to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
One of the things they didn’t tell us ahead of the trip was that the only opportunity to use the restroom would mean using outhouses. Actual outhouses with no plumbing, no running water, and in some cases, no toilet paper – so having a box of tissues came in handy!
After that stop we drove about 5 hours north to the Arctic Circle. It was amazing to be that far north. From the Arctic Circle we were able able to see a spectacular view of the moon. There was a giant ring around the moon. The ring, known as the 22 degree circle or Winter Halo, can be seen occasionally around the moon and more frequently around the sun. A 22° halo is a halo forming a circle 22° around the sun, or very occasionally, the moon (also called a moon ring or winter halo). In folklore, moon rings are said to warn of approaching storms. Like other ice halos, 22° halos appear when the sky is covered by thin cirrus clouds that often come a few days before a large storm front. As no light is refracted at angles smaller than 22° the sky is darker inside the halo. It was spectacular.
After the Arctic Circle we headed back towards Fairbanks making stops along the way to look for Northern Lights, unfortunately it was snowing pretty hard and we only caught a glimpse.
While I didn’t learn much on the trip since the driver/guide was so focused on just driving and keeping us on the road, the views were amazing and the opportunity to see the Winter Halo and Northern Lights made the whole thing worth while. I am inspired to go back again…though next time I’ll go in October before the heavy snow starts and before it’s sub-zero.
The Trans Alaska Pipeline
Ice Road, the Dalton Highway, outhouse
The Northern Lights & Winter Sky
The Winter Halo