During summer, you do not find snow anywhere other than on the mountain peaks. There is day light for almost twenty three hours a day. When we go to bed late at night around midnight there is still sun light. When we get up in the morning, there is already day light. We do not know when it becomes dark even for one hour. We have to completely close the window curtains fully to make the room dark before sleeping.
Mosquitoes are everywhere in summer and seem to come from all sides when you open the car door or windows. They are big, at least twice the size of normal mosquito in Australia. At the same time they fly slowly and you can catch them or kill them by quickly clapping your hands around them. We brought mosquito repellent with us but the best strategy is to keep the car windows closed all the time.
Today we travelled to the Arctic Circle. We have made arrangements to join a tour that takes people to Arctic Circle. The company is called All Alaska Tours. They take people in a coach and then bring them back either in the same coach or in a plane. We had to be at their office at 5:00AM. The tour guide was a very young man named Ryan Cunningham. He is still a final year University student, but he has experience in driving people to the Arctic Circle. Including the three of us, there were six people in all doing the trip including the guide. The other two, a father and a daughter from Washington joined the group. We went through the formalities of checking things and getting an introduction to the trip. The first thing I noticed was that the windscreen of the coach had a crack line from one end to the other end. This is something very common in Alaska. Ryan told me that it was either due to a rock chip or a result of falling into a ditch.
Our journey started from Fairbanks and after passing several towns on the freeway, fell on to a road that is rugged and unsealed. I sat on the front seat next to the driver to get a good view. We were lucky enough to see two moose, one porcupine and a ground squirrel. We had to drive slowly due to the bad condition of the road. Ryan was a very skilful driver and from time to time, he explained places and things we passed on our way. He told us about gold prospecting in the early era and the methods they employed to extract gold. There are some gold mines which are still operating.
We had our first stop in a place that had a small shop. The shop is run by a person and his family. He came there from Minnesota and decided to stay back in Alaska. The second stop was near the Alaskan oil pipes where we could have a good look at the pipes.
The Trans Alaskan Oil pipes are considered an engineering marvel. In 1970 the Trans Alaskan Oil pipes were built to transport oil from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to the port of Valdez on the Gulf of Alaska. The total length the pipe line stretches across is approximately 800 miles and the pipe line is mounted on more than 78000 posts across the whole length. Additionally there are 12 pumping stations along the pipe line.
Near Alaska Oil Pipes
Alaska is subjected to wide temperature variations. In winter the temperature can go down to -50F and in summer can go up to 90F. The pipe line should be able to tolerate expansions and contractions due to temperature differences. Secondly the pipe line goes through an area that is prone to earthquakes. In fact in 2002 there was an earth quake of magnitude 7.9. To be able to withstand these earthquakes and temperature differences. The pipe line is supported on Teflon shoes that are free to slide on long horizontal steel beams.
The third stop was at Finger Mountain. The name comes from a rock that looks like an index finger pointing upwards. It's also a beautiful area to walk up to and area the board they have that illustrate the different animals and plants that are found around this area. It was the first time we experience a cold and windy moment whilst on our trip.
Picture of finger mountain
Another issue that had to be addressed was the effect of permafrost on the mountings. To overcome that, the mounts were buried deep into permafrost filled ground. Permafrost is the thick subsurface layer of soil, rock and organic material that is completely frozen. Permafrost is the main reason why the highways get easily damaged. Alaska Highway and many other highways need to be constantly maintained and upgraded. This brings us to our fourth stop. We stopped at an area where Ryan dug a hole into the dirt ground (a bit more than a foot into the dirt) until he hit the permafrost and allowed each guest to put their hand through and touch the solid permafrost. It was a great experience and we were all extremely surprised at how rock hard and cold it was. Whilst walking back to the van we came across very small bushes that held wild blueberries. I and Malisha had a few tiny blueberries and they were nice and slightly tart.
Ryan digging for Permafrost
Explanation of Permafrost (from Visitor Centre)
The world famous Dalton Highway was built along the oil pipe line to initially build and maintain the oil pipe line. It was later made open to public. We were travelling along this Dalton highway to cross the Arctic Circle. We arrived at the Arctic Circle. There is a name board near the road to show the line of Arctic Circle. We stopped at this point and took photos while stepping over the Arctic Circle. We received certificates to show we have crossed the Arctic Circle.
Crossing the Arctic Circle
We drove further to a Coldfoot. There is a restaurant and a visitor centre at this place. We spent about 30 minutes looking at things and having coffee and then it was time for us to come back. Ryan's job was over and he was going to stay there for the night and travel back to Fairbank with another group. Coldfoot is an interesting name and came from prospectors travelling to mining areas, but due to the unbearable and long winter months, they turned around went back to where they came from because they got 'cold feet'.
He handed us to the pilot who was flying us back to Fairbanks. It is strange, but the pilot was a Queenslander from Australia. He came to Alaska more than five years ago. He introduced himself and took us to his plane. It was a small plane with two engines capable of taking ten people. There was a Japanese couple who had come the previous day and were going back with us. We had a total of eight people including the pilot.
Plane used for the return trip
Inside the plane
The plane ride was a different experience. I was sitting right behind the pilot. We had a birds eye of the mighty Yukon River and the Alaskan oil pipes. We saw several small villages which are away from the main roads. Some of them had very small populations. Some of them came into existence mainly due to gold prospecting. We could also see large areas filled with beautiful purple patches. These are flowers known as Fireweed. These flowers are special because the direction in which they bloom can determine the difference between summer and winter. We also saw large areas of fireweed whilst on our drive. All in all, the plane trip was very smooth and we landed safely in Fairbanks in one hour.