Getting Cold Feet at Coldfoot Camp


A green light is shining on the mountains.
Photo taken by Vanessa with her Samsung phone: Imagine what she could do with a real camera!

“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 clock on the side of a building in winter.
It warmed up to -20 by morning! Photo by Vanessa

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?â€

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.

A pair of white boots sitting on top of a table.
Bunny Boots, because you have to see them to understand!

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.

A snowy mountain with buildings and trees in the background.
Coldfoot Camp in all its frozen glory. Photo by Terri

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.

A close up of the side of a wooden pole
A not so subtle reminder that your toes could easily become icicles. Photo by Terri

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.

A large wooden table with chairs around it.
Truckers only. No tourists. Photo by Terri

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.

A small airplane sitting on top of an airport runway.
An icy runway, a step stool & a toy plane. What could possibly go wrong? Photo by Terri

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.

A view of the ocean from an airplane window.
Mountain peaks & a frozen Yukon River (a/k/a places not to land) Photo by Terri

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

Alaska’s Dalton Highway: We Survived—by Letting Someone Else Drive


“No, you are not going to drive.â€

These are the first words that Vanessa said to me after learning that we would be traveling Alaska’s famed Dalton Highway.

And she was right, I wasn’t driving. But this time, neither was she. Hell, even ice road truckers don’t want to drive what is not only one of the northernmost highways in the world but also one of the most dangerous—especially in winter when ice and snow make it even more treacherous.

We were leaving the driving to the professionals—in this case, Ken Anderson, a 17-time Iditarod competitor. Having ranked in the top four in a few of those races, Ken knows a thing or two about handling ice and snow. Of course, that was with dogs and we were heading out in a 15-passenger van. But training is training, right?

A woman standing in front of a sign that says " welcome to the dalton highway ".
And we’re off!

The Dalton Highway Explained

Starting in north-central Alaska near the town of Livengood, roughly 80 miles north of Fairbanks, the Dalton Highway winds along a 414-mile route heading north to the Arctic Ocean. Built in 1974 to help support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, this highway brings an entirely new perspective to isolation.

There are only three permanent towns along the way: Coldfoot, Wiseman and Deadhorse. The biggest is Deadhorse—population 25. We were heading to the aptly named town of Coldfoot. And, there are no towns between Livengood and Coldfoot, so we were on our own if anything happened. As Ken said, “We’ll be traveling at our own risk.â€

The man is a master of understatement.

Knowing that Vanessa would need to keep a close eye on the road because she’s a control freak, I ceded the front seat to her. She sat quietly staring through the already-broken windshield, counting down the miles. Which passed oh, so very slowly.

A truck driving down the road in the snow.
Should we be worried about the crack in the windshield?

An excellent tour guide, Ken had plenty of anecdotes to share along with insights into the locals. “The further out from town you go, the crazier the people,†he told us happily. It wasn’t the most comforting thought, considering we might need some of those lunatics should we run into trouble.

He told us not to worry, though, because he had plenty of extra food and supplies should we get stranded along the way. This did add a bit of comfort, as I figured Vanessa’s silence was probably due to her thinking about who she would eat first if we couldn’t get help until the spring thaw.

Isolation and Abandonment—We Have a Theme!

While we’d been warned that there would be few people along the route, it didn’t strike home until we began following the Elliot Highway from Fairbanks to where it intersected with the Dalton Highway and saw our first sign.

Olnes, Population 1.

A sign in the snow that says " entering olmes city."
Why bother? Photo by Vanessa

Seriously, why even bother to put up a sign when there’s no one else there to read it?

Fifty miles up the road, Ken stopped so we could check out the former homestead of Joe and Nancy Carlson, who were locally famous for parenting five children and adopting another 19 or so. The Carlson family homesteaded in what was known as Joy, Alaska, and operated the Arctic Circle Trading Company. But don’t expect to see any signage acknowledging the Arctic Circle Trading Company—the main building is labeled the Wildwood General Store…which bothers no one but very literal writers.

And don’t expect to meet any of the Carlson family, either. They’re long gone. But for some reason, their possessions stayed behind. There’s a truck in the garage, furniture in the house, who knows…maybe even beer in the fridge. But not a soul in sight.

Vanessa: There’s something really strange about a family moving and leaving everything they own behind.

Terri: I’ve moved a time or 10 in my life, and I’ve taken along most of my possessions. Although I did leave an ex-husband behind once.

Vanessa: Making him the happiest man ever?

Terri: You know, you could get left behind, too.

A building with many clocks on the side of it.
Welcome to the Carlson’s homestead! Photo by Vanessa

And then…the Outhouse

As we wandered around taking in the intriguing sights, including an old auto repair shop mounted with license plates from all over the world, Ken mentioned that we could use the outhouse if we wanted. Considering that our one-way trip was scheduled to take nine hours with rest stops few and far between, we definitely felt the need.

I’ve never been a fan of outhouses and the suggestion of using one when the outside temperature was -33 was less than appealing. Not to mention having to remove copious layers of clothes just to do the deed. I’m pretty sure it was the fastest outhouse visit ever—and I can assure that there was no sitting down on the seat because neither of us wanted to explain how we got frostbite on our butts.

A wooden outhouse with snow on the ground.
Cute, right? Maybe?

Life as an Ice Road Trucker

Despite the danger that the Dalton Highway presents, approximately 250 truckers travel the road every day in winter. Portions of the road are concrete, others are gravel, and all of it is covered in ice and snow. Just to make things more interesting, it’s also only two lanes. So, it should come as no surprise that when there are accidents, you can be stuck waiting for hours for the road to clear.

As we were merrily rolling along, a call came over the radio warning us of a jackknifed truck ahead that was blocking the highway. Since there’s no alternate route, we rolled up to the scene like everyone else. Ken jumped out to lend a hand.

Since he left the radio on, I wanted to talk to the truckers, but Vanessa wouldn’t hand me the mouthpiece. She provided some lame excuse about them already being annoyed enough. Watching as everyone came together to put a massive chain on the wreck and yank it to the side of the road was pretty cool. It turns out when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, waiting for AAA is not an option.

A man standing on the side of a road near a truck.
Trouble ahead! Photo by Vanessa

Hot Food and Frozen Rivers

After making it past the wreck, we stopped at the Yukon Camp Truck Stop, a trailer-type building full of surprises. Though we expected “trucker†fare, instead we got incredibly delicious Asian food and all the convenience-type store amenities you’d expect—including, thank God, an indoor bathroom.

A bowl of food with meat, beans and rice.
Lunch at the Yukon Camp Truck Stop! Photo by Vanessa

Ken suggested we take a minute to run down to the Yukon River for photos.

Vanessa: We can stand on the Yukon River? It’s that frozen?

Ken: It’s -33 degrees. Everything is that frozen.

So of course, Vanessa and I scrambled down the snowy hillside to the edge of the mighty river. Never taking into consideration that -33 on land could mean -40 on a frozen river, we ran out to take the ultimate selfies. Vanessa ventured further than me because I couldn’t move. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I was frozen…literally. All the way from my toes to my eyelashes which were individually separated—each coated with ice.

A woman with blue eyes wearing a winter hat and scarf.
Frozen! Photo by Vanessa

After Vanessa snapped me off the river like a rogue icicle, we made it back to the toasty van to continue our journey north. (Admittedly, the van could have been 20 degrees—it still would have felt like a sauna.) Knowing that we would be stunned by the landscape to come, Ken couldn’t wait to share the next stop. In the deep winter, the twisted trees of the boreal forest are covered by feet of snow that hang off of every branch, creating characters right out of a Dr. Seuss book. Completely entranced, we spent a long time taking pictures, only stopping because the sun went down. Reminding us that we were in the middle of nowhere with miles more to go to reach the Arctic Circle and Coldfoot Camp—the next leg of an incredible journey.

A group of snow covered trees in the middle of a field.
Little Cindy Loo Who, where are you? Photo by Vanessa

If You Go…

The Northern Alaska Tour Company provided our above the Arctic Circle experience. They greatly impressed us with their ability to get travelers to such a remote destination so safely and efficiently. And they make it so much fun!

We signed up for the Arctic Circle Aurora Fly/Drive Northbound Adventure, which is one of a number of packages they offer. The package included an overnight stay at Coldfoot Camp and an incredible aurora viewing experience in the Native village of Wiseman (more on that coming up!)

For the return trip, we boarded a teeny tiny plane, and although we had to swallow our pride and share our weight for balanced seating, the views of the frozen landscape below were worth the minor embarrassment!

To learn more about all they have to offer, visit www.northernalaska.com.

For more information on all the really cool things to do in Fairbanks and beyond, visit www.explorefairbanks.com.