“Looky, looky!” An elderly Asian lady excitedly tugged on my coat sleeve and pointed to the sky. Above us, the aurora borealis gracefully danced across the heavens, putting on a show the likes of which I’d never seen before. Vanessa and I (and it seemed roughly half the population of Asia) were in Alaska—high above the Arctic Circle in the tiny settlement of Wiseman, AK, where we all gasped in wonder as the night sky took on a life of its own.
After traveling the Dalton Highway all day and part of the night—our journey made longer by a jack-knifed truck—we had arrived at Coldfoot Camp, population 10. When word came that the northern lights were expected to make an appearance, we decided to travel to the old mining town of Wiseman, about 14 miles further north—or an hour’s drive—to experience this natural phenomenon far away from any manmade lights. So we hopped in a van to drive to this thriving rural metropolis…population 14.
Vanessa: We’ve been traveling north for nine hours. How much north can be left in this state?
Terri: Maybe we’re going to watch the northern lights with polar bears.
Vanessa: That would be awesome. At least we’d be snuggly warm.
Cold doesn’t begin to describe the bone-chilling temperatures this far above the Arctic Circle. Though we desperately wanted to see the lights, it’s hard to summon up a lot of enthusiasm when it’s negative 40 degrees…and you’re just starting your journey at 11 p.m. We decked ourselves out in more layers than an onion (and would happily have added more if we could have wrestled the outerwear off the other tourists.) There is such a thing as coat lust.
A Tiny Cabin, A Warm Fire and an Unusual Man
We were welcomed to a one-room cabin in the middle of nowhere by Jack, a man right out of central casting if you were looking for a weathered, charismatic Alaskan character. It did make me wonder what it is about traveling that makes people (or at least us) forget to ask those safety questions we do at home. Things like, “Why are we going to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, with strangers? And why are we eating and drinking the things that even stranger strangers hand us?”
In this case, it was a good decision. (And trust me, often it’s not.) Inside that little cabin was a fireplace with a roaring fire, hot chocolate and cookies. And then there was Jack—who would (and should) be the mayor of Wiseman if there were enough people to hold an election. Jack embodies all that is interesting, unusual and quirky about rural Alaska. He lives in this tiny village, welcoming anyone and everyone who happens to visit. He knows everything that there is to know about the northern lights. And he patches his pants together with duct tape and rocks a pair of bunny boots.
About those Bunny Boots
For those new to the Bush, bunny boots are extreme cold vapor barrier boots, most often used by the U.S. military. And in Jack’s case, they were huge. This delighted the Asian contingent to no end, and Jack is now immortalized in hundreds of photos comparing tourists’ tiny boots with his massive footprint. Even if the lights hadn’t appeared, I’m not sure that our traveling companions would have minded since they were having the time of their lives in this cozy little outpost.
In addition to being fashion-forward, Jack also happens to be an expert photographer—especially of the northern lights. And he became Vanessa’s new BFF when he showed her how to set up a tripod and use her Samsung phone to capture the spectacle in the sky, something that she had not succeeded in doing up until this point.
There’s no way to truly describe what standing under the lights is like; we spent hours staring at the night sky, oohing and ahhing until we couldn’t stand the cold one more second. I knew it was time to leave when I stood so close to the outdoor fire that I burned my gloves right off.
Insider tip: make sure that you occasionally look down from the sky to check your surroundings, especially when standing near open flames.
Who Stays at a Camp Named Coldfoot?
As the lights, and some of the other tourists, began to fade, we made our way back to Coldfoot Camp where we were overnighting before flying back to Fairbanks. One of three tiny settlements dotted along the northern end of the Dalton Highway, Coldfoot isn’t a place where people just pop in for a visit. If you’re heading up there, you have to be committed—or possibly running from the law.
The first people who thought it was a good idea to settle here obviously arrived in summer. When the harsh winter weather showed up, they got cold feet and headed south. Thus the name.
Built by Truckers for Truckers
The toe-freezing cold may have scared off the first settlers, but it didn’t stop truck drivers. Coldfoot Camp is the northernmost truck stop in the world, and it is renowned for its commitment to those brave souls who travel the Dalton. It all started with Dick Mackey, whose claim to fame was the 1978 Iditarod win—the closest race ever. He literally won by a dog’s nose.
Mackey wanted to show his appreciation for the hard-working truckers keeping the Alaskan Pipeline project going, so he converted an old bus into a hot dog and hamburger stand in Coldfoot. The truckers appreciated it so much, they began dropping off their surplus supplies so that Mackey could build a permanent structure. It’s a place built by truckers for truckers, and there’s even a long table reserved strictly for these drivers—no tourists allowed.
Vanessa and I greatly enjoyed dinner and drinks at the bar—not to mention hot showers and warm beds in the basic yet incredibly comfortable accommodations. In fact, she didn’t want to get up when I knocked at her door the next morning. Maybe she already knew what was coming.
The Flight Back—a Slightly Terrifying (and humiliating) Adventure
After a good night’s sleep in the oh-so-warm camp rooms, Vanessa and I joined the truckers for breakfast. Surprised that we had never been given a time for our flight back to Fairbanks, I went to look for answers.
Terri: Hi, we’re flying back to Fairbanks this morning. Do you know what time we need to leave for the airport?
Laughing Man: Not sure when the plane will get here. We’ll call you when it does.
Terri: Don’t we need to be at the airport a couple of hours early?
Laughing Man: Not exactly.
Leaving our fate in his hands, we went to breakfast, which seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time. But when we saw our tiny toy plane land on the icy runway (which clearly doubles as an open field—or possibly a lake) during warmer months, we were sorry we had eaten anything…ever.
We walked out onto the runway, (yes, seriously), and waited for a few people to disembark and grab their luggage (no claim check here!) before getting on the plane. Before boarding, the seemingly nice pilot asked us our weight.
Terri: Well, that’s not polite.
Vanessa: They need to know what you weigh to distribute the weight evenly on the plane. He’s trying to keep up alive.
Terri: What happens if we lie?
Vanessa: We die.
Terri: That seems like pretty extreme punishment for shaving a few pounds off.
Shaking his head, he seated us on opposite sides of the toy plane. Then he flew us safely back to Fairbanks, along with a couple of other passengers. Vanessa took photos the whole way, so at least there would be a record of what happened when they found the wreckage among the jagged peaks.
In case I lied.
If You Go:
Northern Alaska adventures typically start in Fairbanks, and for good reason. Fairbanks has a burgeoning art scene, diverse (& delicious) cuisine, a wealth of information about life in Alaska and hiking with reindeer. (More on that soon!) Check out some of the highlights at www.explorefairbanks.com.
When you’re ready for your arctic adventure, the good folks at Northern Alaska Tour Company will hook you up with a driver for a heart-pumping, fingernail biting trek up the Dalton Highway. They’ll also fly you back to Fairbanks after an exhilarating night of aurora chasing! www.northernalaska.com