5:45 AM. That was the time I checked in to the Dalton Highway Express office. I was exhausted. I had gone to bed the night before at a reasonable hour, but woke at 2:35 to an earthquake. It was minor, just a 3.0 with an epicenter in College, AK, but it was enough to rattle my nerves and get my mind racing. I should be grateful – I have had the complete Alaskan experience.
The van headed North up the Dalton Highway was not what I expected. I expected a bus. A run down, beat up bus that would slowly make its way along the infamous Ice Road Trucker highway. I was completely mistaken. The van was fairly new and even with eleven of us squeezed inside, was somewhat comfortable. (I snagged the front seat and didn't give it up all day so I may have been more comfortable than others.)
The road was in really rough shape. The road fluctuated between gravel (75%), slightly paved and paved (25%), and the driver, a lovely woman named Michelle, navigated the potholes with determination and ease. The average speed for most of the trip was 35 miles, with 50 being the speed limit. The pot holes in the road looked as if they could devour tires for breakfast and we saw many a car pulled over with flats. Broken windshields and flat tires are the standard casualties of the relentless road, evidence as to why you can't rent a car to travel the Dalton Highway.
The road seemed endless. I kept expecting to see something – an end, a town, something. But no. Hours and hours passed. There are a few stops along the route. Most are just outhouses (an hour or two apart) and two gas stations and cafes. Two. In all 415 miles there are three gas stations. Obviously you fill up in Fairbanks, there are two gas stations on the road, and then one in Deadhorse at the very end of the road.
Almost 14 hours later, my first glimpse of Toolik came from the road. The field station is nestled next to Toolik Lake and can be seen from the Dalton Highway. As Michelle navigated the driveway into the field site, I realized that my adventure had just begun and became emotional. This is home for the next three weeks and my life/work as a PolarTREC educator had begun.