By Steve Meyer
The “Haul Road,” otherwise known as the Dalton Highway, is a 400-mile stretch of gravel, broken pavement, frost heaves, potholes and sharp drop-offs without the benefit of guard rails, but also what is arguably the most spectacular scenery in the Western Hemisphere. Built in five months in 1974, when the official go-ahead to construct the 800-mile Trans Alaska Pipeline was given, its use was restricted to construction, service and support of the pipeline and oilfield operations in Prudhoe Bay. Prior to 1995, when the road was opened to the general public, civilian use was limited to special permit only. Now anyone can travel the Haul Road and it has opened a vast amount of country previously not available to hunters. The caveat is the corridor that extends five miles either side of the highway where firearm use is not allowed but archery hunting is.
Looking at a map or photographs, five miles doesn’t seem that daunting. It looks a bit different standing on the Dalton looking out. Much of it is rugged country that would make packing an animal, even a caribou, a tough proposition. Not impossible and some do, but know what you are getting into if you plan a walk-in off of the Dalton Highway. Considering all of the game we saw along the Dalton on a recent trip, archery hunting seems very doable.
For firearm hunters the real benefit to unrestricted travel on the highway is access to transport services that can fly you into the Brooks Range. Coldfoot, Mile 175, Galbraith, Mile 274.7, and Happy Valley, Mile 334.5, all have air-taxi services that offer transport services to hunters. Personal experience with transporters in this part of the world is limited to Silvertip Aviation, L.L.C., operating out of Happy Valley. Matt Thoft and Emily Schock own and operate the business, as well as Ovis Outfitters, which specializes in guided hunts. These folks run a first-class operation that services the northeastern slopes of the Brooks Range.
An inviting aspect to hunting the Far North in units 25 & 26 is the early opening for caribou hunting. Most areas are open by July with resident bag limits up to five caribou, allowing a jumpstart on big-game hunting that typically opens on the 10th of August for most species. Hunting in late July allows for completion of a caribou hunt before sheep season and for me, the all important upland hunting opener. A couple of days before the sheep season opener, transporters get busy, which can mean less flexibility for pickup. The weather can come in fast and hard with snow common in early August. For the most part it doesn’t stay but it can be bothersome.
Driving from Fairbanks as far as Happy Valley is around 440 miles and can be done in 12 hours or so nonstop. Once out of Fairbanks there are minimal services. A café at the Yukon River crossing and a café, gas station and some minimal vehicle repair services can be had in Coldfoot. North of Coldfoot there are no more options for fuel until Deadhorse. Depending on your vehicle’s fuel mileage and fuel capacity, you may need to bring extra fuel; err on the side of caution. The road is fairly typical gravel with rough stretches and some broken pavement. Headed north out of Coldfoot there is a 30-mile stretch of good payment that is a nice break for the driver. Not so typical are the road hazards in the way of various chunks of metal that rattle loose from vehicles over the course of the trip. These account for the frequent flat tires and justify carrying two full-size spare tires. You’ll want a rugged vehicle in good repair, a toolbox with common-size wrenches, jumper cables and a spare fan belt. Getting towed in this part of the world is very expensive and probably a trip-buster. Bring an extra jug of windshield washer fluid. There are no stores. Soft drinks, snacks and bug repellent are about all you find in the two cafes along the way, so bring plenty of what you want to eat and drink. There are no medical services, so be sure to have any medications before you leave.
If you drive nonstop, overnight stays are not an issue. By way of suggestion, take a couple of days and enjoy the magnificence of this country. Take scenic photos unlike any you’ll ever see anywhere else. Wildlife photo opportunities are virtually everywhere along the Dalton if you take the time. Fishing is an option in most of the many streams crossed along the way, including the upper reaches of the Koyukuk River. Most have grayling and some have Dolly Varden, burbot and whitefish. There are pull-offs near most of the streams that also make decent campsites. The Marion Creek campground located at Mile 179.7 is about the only regular campground option north of the Yukon River.
The stories of insect ferocity you may have heard about the Far North are true. Wind helps, and the wind blows often and sometimes strong, but any sheltered area will be inundated with insects. Lots of bug dope, head nets and a Thermacell are standard equipment.
The primary reason to take your time going north is on the return you’ll no doubt have meat that needs to be dealt with, sooner than later depending on how long the animal has been down and the temperatures (it can be very warm in late July / early August.) You will want to bring a cooler(s) that will hold of all the meat you anticipate bringing back. Good-quality game bags are a must. Those made by Caribou Gear are about as good as it gets. They offer the Magnum Series game bag kits in Moose/Elk/Deer size and these have everything needed to bag one animal. These bags are extremely durable and fly-resistant and they can be washed and reused over and over (anyone remember the 99 cent cheesecloth we used that didn’t really work and got thrown away after one use?).
A final note on driving the Dalton: There is a lot of semi-truck traffic and these truck drivers are courteous to a fault; several times I was worried they were going to get sucked off the shoulder they pulled over so far. Show them the same courtesy; slow down, get over and a side benefit is less chance of a cracked windshield. The maximum speed limit on the road is 50 mph and there are plenty of stretches where that may be too fast. There are a fair number of motorcycles and bicycles on the road in July and they can come as quite a surprise. Do yourself and everyone a favor by driving careful and taking your time. The road has been treated with calcium chloride and is surprisingly rather dust free in most places but when wet it can be slick and trucks throw up a fair amount of mud and grit. Again, it is a good idea to have an extra gallon of windshield washer.
The ability to access this incredibly beautiful wild place is a gift. It is wild and largely free from man’s influence. There are plenty of roadside trash containers (bearproof) along the way and it is evident by the lack of litter that folks use them. This land deserves the respect that one would lend the most beautiful landscaped yard. Hopefully you agree.
Steve Meyer is a contributing Editor for Hunt Alaska magazine.