After visiting Denali National Park we headed further north to Fairbanks, the second largest city in Alaska, to celebrate the longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice. The Midnight Sun is one of the hallmarks of Alaskan and Arctic summer travel, and we were excited to get the full experience at the Midnight Sun Festival before traveling north to the Arctic Circle and beyond to see what 24-hour sunshine is really like!
You can find pretty much anything you need in this town, and our truck was in need of an oil change which was our first priority. We found a place to dry camp downtown a short walk to the Chena River, which was wonderful because temperatures were reaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit each day. Our arrival here coincided with the Summer Solstice … which for a town so far north, means lots of sun.
Life in the Midnight Sun
Because the sun was up so long, getting to sleep was sometimes be difficult. We found ourselves staying up until the wee hours of the morning and sleeping half the day, partly because the sun had messed up our schedules and partly because the low sun angle provides sunset like golden light for hours on end giving the world a beautiful glow. When it is finally time for sleep, however, we had been enjoying the night shades in the Lance Truck Camper and had a nightly routine of putting up the snap on covers over the vents and skylights that made it like a dark little cave inside the RV for sleeping. Other travels often use aluminum foil to cover the windows to fully block the light.
Midnight Sun Run
One of the reasons we were up so late is because everyone else is too, and Fairbanks takes advantage of the longest days of the year to do some fun activities in the Midnight Sun, one of which is the Midnight Sun Run. This is a 10k foot race that attracts upwards of 4,000 participants every year and starts at 10:00 at night, with the sun still high in the sky. Besides it’s unique late start without the need for flashlights, this race is also known for it’s encouragement of costumes. We dawned some fun animal hats to get into the spirit of things (which turned out to be very warm throughout our run).
The race starts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Patty Center and ends at Pioneer Park, and shuttles were available from the course’s finish area to bring participants to the UAF campus. Camping for RVs is available right in the Pioneer Park parking lot (Campendium site link) if you’re looking for a very convenient (albeit busy) camp spot for the event.
Throughout the run, the neighborhoods it winds through throw block parties and hand out plenty of goodies along the way. We ended up running much more of the race than we thought we would just because of the cheers and enthusiasm of the entire community around us – whether they were running the race or not! We got sprayed with water, invited to random parties and even ballroom danced along the course. We finished the race shortly before midnight under a beautiful orange and pink sunset that lasted for hours! Water, fruit, and celebration met us at the finish line.
Want to run under the Midnight Sun? Find out more info on the Midnight Sun Run Website and Facebook Page. We encourage you to sign up for the race in advance for discounted pricing, and you’ll get a cool souvenir shirt!
Midnight Sun Festival
We recovered from our race spending another day in Fairbanks and visiting the Midnight Sun Festival which takes place downtown. Alaska’s largest single-day event, the Festival attracts more than 30,000 people. Hundreds of vendors, performers, and shoppers crowd the streets in this jubilant event.
The best place we found for info on the event in on the Event’s Facebook Page. (< this link is for the 2019 festival, you will need to search for the next year’s when the time gets closer)
The Festival generally was located downtown between 1st and 4th Avenues, and between Lacey & Barnette Streets. We biked in to avoid having to park, but parking appeared to be available on the streets, and along 1st Avenue west of Barnette St.
This event is held on the Sunday closest to the Solstice. Why not held on the Summer Solstice?? Because while solstice is the longest day of the year, the days directly leading up to and after seem to be just as long. For the people who live there, it’s honestly just better to do it on a Sunday than in the middle of the week ?
Dalton Highway & Trans Alaska Pipeline
Per our late-night schedule, we left around 10PM to head out on our next adventure: driving up the Dalton Highway. Also known as the Haul Road, this famous drive winds its way 500 miles north of Fairbanks all the way to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields on the Arctic Ocean.
This highway was built for one purpose: oil. The Trans Alaska Pipeline runs from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to Valdez, Alaska on the coast, and this road was used to build it in the 70’s. Shortly north of Fairbanks we started following this amazing feat of engineering. The pipeline is 48” in diameter and carries oil at a current pace of 2-3 MPH 800 miles from the drill site to the ships. It crosses extremely challenging terrain, endures yearly temperature swings of over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and crosses hundreds of rivers and streams, including the mighty Yukon River. Because it is built on permafrost, many challenges had to be overcome. Perhaps the most noticeable challenge is keeping the ground frozen.
Permafrost is ground that is frozen year-round, and the metal posts that hold up the pipe can transmit heat into the ground and melt it. This would destabilize its footing and cause damage and spills. To overcome this a unique solution was put in place, refrigerate the footings. ‘Cold posts’ as they are known are filled with anhydrous ammonia that has a boiling point below freezing. This means that if the temperature of the bottom of the post begins to rise, the ammonia will start boiling and take the heat with it. The fins on top of each post are to help re-condense anhydrous ammonia. During the cold months, the re-condensed ammonia drips back into the bottom of the pipe, making this a completely passive system that helps keep the ground frozen during warmer months and is the reason much of the pipe is above ground.
In places where it is underground, compressed refrigeration keeps the ground frozen and the pipe is insulated in cushioning to help protect from movement during earthquakes and expansion contraction cycles. The temperature extremes cause lots of expansion and contraction that are accounted for with skid plates that allow the whole pipe to move back and forth and side to side. This is also the reason the pipe is not built in a straight line, to allow for expansion and contraction like a slinky.
There are not many towns or services along this drive and you need to be able to cover over 250 miles without a fuel stop. What does exist is mostly left over from the days when the pipeline was built. Coldfoot, 250 miles north of Fairbanks is one of the largest towns and offers fuel and limited services to the truck traffic that hauls equipment to the oilfields and tourists in the summer. This town sits at the south end of the Brooks Mountain Range and the corner of Gates of the Arctic National Park. A Visitor’s Center here offers amazing exhibits on this northern country and provides road condition and info on things to do. Here we learned that oil production peaked in the late 80’s and has been dwindling ever since and the flow in the pipeline is reaching its lower limits of profitability. (Source: US EIA) In the event that oil production stops, and agreement was put in place when it was constructed that would requires the pipes complete removal, which leaves this road with an uncertain long-term future.
Dalton Road Conditions
Road conditions along this route are not good. There are attempted paved sections, but building on permafrost guarantees extreme frost heaves, buckling and cracks that made for a very uncomfortable ride. Other sections are dirt and loose gravel which were are better ride for us, but you risk catching a rock in the windshield from the semis that drive very fast. We would slow down pull over and even stop to help prevent this. The dirt sections can also have miles of extreme washboard, but our truck and camper were handling this well with the help of the bigwig airbags. Luckily, we had good dry weather for most of the ride with only a little rain here and there that quickly made a mess of the road.
Check out our LIVE VIDEO UPDATE FROM COLDFOOT from the Lance Facebook page
Part way up the road, we came across the sign that indicated we were crossing the Arctic Circle. While we had seen the sun stay up for long periods of time already, past this point in the middle of summer the sun would not set at all.
Our planet rotates on an axis that wobbles 23.5 degrees relative to the orbital plane. What this means is that during the solstice in the north the, earth tilts 23.5 degrees towards the sun allowing it to shine over the top of the pole. If we could look straight down on the earth from the pole, at the summer solstice on June 20 or 21 (depending on the year), we would be able to see the light reaching all the way across and lighting this area throughout the entire day and night. The line that the shadow of the earth scribes during the solstice is the arctic circle and hence the extra light. In the winter the exact opposite happens, at this line no sun ever makes it here during the winter solstice on December 20 or 21 as the north is tilted away from the sun. These changes in sunlight and solar energy are what account for the seasons.
We were driving this road mainly just to do it, but also because we wanted to see the Brooks Mountain Range, a splendid and nearly untouched stretch of beautiful mountains slicing across the top of Alaska and into northwest Canada. We spent an amazing evening camped in the center of this range alongside a river with one of our prettiest views yet. The flowers were in bloom and the air was sweet with their fragrance.
While there we had a fellow traveler doing the drive on an adventure bike hang out with us for the evening. It was fascinating to hear about his experience doing this drive solo, and on a bike. Meeting people along this adventure has been a highlight because Alaska and these remote places tend to attract people with very interesting stories!
Our final leg of the drive took up to the highest point on the road, Atigun Pass.
We exited out the north end of the Brooks Range where we decided to turn around. From here the trees disappeared and rolling tundra took over for hundreds more miles while the ground slowly slopes down to the ocean. We decided not to continue much further, as we had plans to see the Arctic Ocean in Canada. Prudhoe Bay is private commercial oil property and you cannot camp near the ocean. From here we turned around to make the long drive back to Fairbanks.
Back to Canada
Unfortunately when we got back to Fairbanks, a large wildfire was burning and visibility and air quality were very poor. Because of this, and because we would be visiting Fairbanks again on this trip, we decide to keep rolling south.
Our plans from here took us back down through Tok, AK and back over the Top of the World Highway to Dawson City, Yukon in Canada where we would start our trip to the Arctic Ocean.
We made one last stop in Alaska at a Boondockers Welcome which is a program that connects RVers with property owners willing to host travelers. We had wonderful hosts that even provided us a hose to get some of the Dalton mud washed off the rig and get it shining again!
The challenge with cleaning a vehicle in Alaska is keeping it that way, as within the day we were back on dirt on the Taylor and Top of the World Highways. Crossing into Canada at Poker Creek was again very easy and part way across Top of the World we found an awesome campsite to settle in at to enjoy a few days of peace and quiet in the remote wilderness before making the even longer haul up the Dempster Highway all the way to the Arctic Ocean.
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