North to Alaska: Arrival at Dalton Highway Mile 56

Posted June 10, 2011, at 7:09 p.m.
Catie Zielinski
Courtesy photo
Catie Zielinski

I landed in Fairbanks, Alaska, at midnight, according to the woman making the announcement on the plane, but my body and mind were at odds with physical clocks. By the Eastern Standard Time that I left back in the Bangor International Airport, it was 4 a.m., and as much as I tried to sleep on planes and in airports, I was still exhausted. On the other hand, by the sun’s position in the sky, and the soft pinks and golds delicately caressing the clouds and snowcapped mountains in the distance, it was maybe 8 p.m.

A friend from college picked me up at the airport, and I slept in his spare room that night. Again, “night” wasn’t exactly the correct term for two reasons: one being that I needed to be at the office of the Northern Alaska Tour Company at 5:45 a.m., so I had three to four hours to sleep, and the other was that it didn’t actually get dark. Intellectually, I knew that in northern Alaska, near the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t disappear in the summer, but to physically encounter the Land of the Midnight Sun was different, and just plain weird.

By 6:30 a.m., the sun was fairly high up in the sky (sunglasses required), and I was on a van tour to the Arctic Circle, which would drop me off on the way at the Yukon River Camp. I fell asleep in the van, which didn’t surprise me at all, given my tiredness and the fact that as far as dirt roads go, the Dalton Highway is a pretty good one. “It’s a state-maintained highway,” I explained to my parents, “not some backwoods dirt road from northern Maine that only gets used by hunters and raft guides, and gets graded once a year. This road is used by truckers heading up to the oil fields.” Potholes are not that common, and it is so well-maintained that in some spots it even looks and feels as if it were paved.

The Yukon River Camp is made up of several buildings patched together from old trailers that the workers used when they built the highway from 1974 to 1977. And from the outside, it looks like it. Everything is brown and dull, but once you walk inside the cafe, you realize that this isn’t some little run-down place on it’s last legs, but that here you can get a decent burger, or even salmon fettuccine with wild king salmon. After much handshaking and a lot of people saying “she’s finally here!” (the season began three weeks prior to my arrival) I was finally able to settle in.  I have my own room, and there is even satellite cable TV — talk about plush.

By 8 p.m. I was really ready to crash.  Because of my jet lag, and the lack of darkness, time had lost about all meaning to me, but I started work the next day from 2 to 10:30 p.m., which meant that I had to get my body on Alaska time, so I forced myself to stay awake until 10 p.m., which meant playing solitaire on my floor for about an hour, because by 9, reading would have put me right to sleep.

Editor’s Note: Catie Ziellinski graduated from Bangor High School on 2007 and is a recent graduate from Cornell University, she is working this summer 120 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, at the Yukon River Camp.

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