Northern Lights and Pipes in Coldfoot, Alaska

Monday, 15th September 2014

Liz Lunnon

alaska coldfoot aurora jack reakoff

Liz, our Head of Worldwide Product, went in search of the aurora in the Alaskan Arctic in March, which led her to the remote settlement of Coldfoot.

Here, nature’s wonders abound and the Trans-Alaska pipeline is a surprise highlight…

The very definition of ‘the middle of nowhere’…

Among the many highlights of my week in Alaska was a stay in the remote Arctic settlement of Coldfoot. The very definition of ‘middle of nowhere’, this service camp is located 260 miles north of Fairbanks and 240 miles south of Deadhorse. Coldfoot today offers basic accommodation and hearty meals to travellers and truckers alike, but was originally a gold-mining settlement founded in 1898. It was later abandoned and the community relocated to Wiseman, 11 miles north and home today to just 12 permanent residents.

alaska aerial view coldfoot ll

The hour-long flight to Coldfoot from Fairbanks, on a 10-seater bush plane, provides a bird’s eye view of the mighty frozen Yukon River and the snow-covered foothills of the Brooks Ranges. We spent an evening in Wiseman, meeting one of the residents for an insight into subsistence living in the Arctic – not an easy life! The other reason we were here though was to hunt for the aurora… Wiseman lies directly underneath the auroral oval and, protected by mountain ranges, offers clear skies and excellent viewings.

Searching for the aurora

It was -34°C (brrrrr!) and we had a long wait, with just a faint green smear hinting at the possibility of further activity to come overhead. It was after 2am, just as we were giving up and beginning the drive back to Coldfoot, that someone finally found the on switch… And we were treated to the incredible sight of a vivid green aurora dancing and swirling across the sky right over our heads!

An unexpected Alaskan highlight

It wasn’t just the aurora that took my breath away up here in northern Alaska though. Driving north from Coldfoot on the legendary Dalton Highway we encountered moose and caribou, thunderous trucks and a snow covered landscape of epic proportions. The vast Brooks Range soars, making those huge trucks suddenly appear like tiny toys, before giving way to a stretch of flat tundra. The highway, made famous by Ice Road Truckers, finally reaches its end at Prudhoe Bay, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.

alaska ice road truck ll

Running alongside the highway is the feat of engineering that is the Trans-Alaska pipeline. Now I admit that having heard about this previously I was somewhat underwhelmed – it’s an oil pipe, how exciting can that be? But having seen the terrain it crosses and understood the sheer scale of the project I admit it, I was blown away and am now a proud pipe geek.

The pipeline was built during 1975-77 and runs from Prudhoe Bay to the sea port of Valdez, a whopping 800 miles away to the south. A staggering amount of careful thought at the design stage means the pipe is able to withstand earthquakes and avalanches, cross 3 mountain ranges and run above ground over vast areas of permafrost. I could go on, but perhaps this is one very unexpected Alaskan highlight that you’re better off seeing for yourself.

 

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