ALASKA REVISITED: Part III
The spring of 1997 had been quite damp in Batavia, gloomy even by Western New York standards. Still, I was surprised to get my first tan of the year inside the Arctic Circle. Not to be confused with the polar ice cap at its northern extreme, much of the Arctic Circle is full of lush growth, crystal-clear rivers, mountains and, during the month of June, 24 hours of sunlight. During our stay the sun was visible 24 hours. Each morning, between midnight and one a.m., the sun would skim the horizon before once again beginning its ascent.
Not being used to catching shuteye in the daytime, the constant sunlight made sleeping difficult, even in the confines of a tent. There were times when I felt physically exhausted, but mentally the wheels were still turning. And the mosquitoes didn’t help. Lying inside the tent, you could hear their non-stop drone. They seemed to be just waiting for us to exit the tent. It seems the farther north you go, the bigger - and bolder - the mosquitoes.
Even the caribou find the mosquitoes annoying. The Alaskan Pipeline runs parallel with the Dalton Highway and Mike Bilbee, a game warden who patrols the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, said he’s seen caribou literally get beneath the pipeline and use it to scratch their backs.
We arrived at our destination by traveling north on the Dalton Highway, a 414 mile long, two-lane gravel road beginning outside of Fairbanks and stretching to the Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. In between are three settlements: Coldfoot (pop. 13), Wiseman (pop.22) and Deadhorse (25 permanent residents). After reaching the 66th parallel, the southern edge of the Arctic Circle, we stopped for pictures before pushing onward. We stopped outside of Coldfoot, setting up camp on the south fork of the Koyokuk River.
The Koyokuk’s south fork is a rocky bottomed, swift-flowing river, noted for its arctic char. While we were a bit early for the char migration, we did manage to supplement our diet with Arctic Grayling. Considered one of the arctic’s most sought after game fish – lake trout & arctic char being the others – grayling are small in comparison. A grayling of one pound is average, anything 2-3 pounds is a good catch and four pounds is world class. Noted for their tall dorsal fin, the grayling of the Koyokuk River were accommodating and feisty on light spinning gear. We caught enough to sate our appetites. Stuffed with butter, wrapped in tin foil and cooked over an open fire, they proved quite tasty.
While the fishing was good, we had to stay on our toes at all times. Fresh bear prints were visible in the soft, bare earth along the river. At one point I tried to bathe in the river, but after wading ankle deep into the Koyokuk I changed my mind. I’ve bathed in the lakes and rivers of the far north, but nothing like this. The water was cold it numbed my ankles – I as afraid to submerge. I left the bar of soap on a rock, returned to camp, grabbed a washcloth, a five gallon pail and took a sponge bath.
It was on the return trip, about two in the morning, when Tim and I caught sight of wolf near the side of the road. Black as coal, the wolf looked our way, almost as if our approaching vehicle was of interest. Then just like that, it was gone.
Next: Floating the Little Susitna River