Days 19 and 20

Day 19 (Friday July 17) was one of the days we were especially looking forward to…our visit to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Anaktuvuk Pass up at the north end of the Brooks Range of mountains here in Alaska.

Our schedule was to catch a flight on a twin engine Piper 8 passenger aircraft out of Fairbanks Airport, fly north to Anaktuvuk Pass…a small native settlement…for lunch and a tour of how the native people live then return to Fairbanks about dinnertime.

Things started off pretty well with takeoff from Fairbanks with our pilot John…who it turned out worked for a different part of the Warbelos Arctic Tours company and had only flown into Anaktuvuk Pass by himself once before our flight…I’m sure he flew there while getting approved by his company to fly there but Connie thought it was pretty grim when he pulled out his map…although he was actually checking frequencies and such and not trying to navigate…he was using GPS and Visual Flight Rules (VFR)  for that part…which meant that you watch out the windows to keep from hitting other aircraft or mountains instead of relying on the air traffic control system to route you.

We got some nice photos on the way up and John tried to stay low enough to fly through the pass in the Brooks Range…when we got to the close part he kept circling lower and lower looking for a way through that we could see. Eventually we got to about 500 feet above the ground and looking through the pass it looked like even less than that of clear air…under VFR you don’t want to fly into the clouds and if we switched to Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) we would be much higher. Eventually he gave up…Neil was about to ask him if he really wanted to fly through there…and we started climbing as we headed south away from the mountains. We checked in with the air traffic control folks and got cleared to 10,000 feet which is well above the mountain heights for a direct route to Anaktuvuk Pass. Once north of the range we looked around and eventually found a way to get below the clouds into the valley at the village and after a quick approach we touched down on the gravel runway at Anaktuvuk Pass.

Our plane for the day.

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Aerial view.

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The Yukon River.

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Our pilot John hunting for a way through the clouds and mountains.

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First view of Anaktuvuk Pass once we got below the clouds and into the valley.

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So…Anaktuvuk Pass…what is it. It’s a village/city with a population of just over 300 people…almost all of which are native Alaskan people…these are members (mostly) of the Nunamuit tribe of Indians…very similar to the Innuit or Eskimo people that live over in the coastal areas but the Nunamuit live inland. The Nunamuit were nomadic people back before contact with non native people and followed the caribou herds as they migrated. Anaktuvuk Pass comes from a Nunamuit word that roughly translates to “Place with Caribou Poop”. The climate ranges from -40F or -50F in the middle of winter up to mid summer highs of the mid 50s. Most of the native people living in the village work for the native people corporation that manages the resources of the area owned by the tribe…most of the public land in Alaska including the mineral rights is owned by the various native people tribes. We met several natives…our guide Francis Hugo and also Ben who is probably 70 years old and sort of a local celebrity.

The runway at Anaktuvuk Pass airport.

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Overlooking town.

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Our guide Francis.

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The medical clinic.

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Main Street…USA.

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After a tour around the village to see some of the buildings…at this point almost all of the inhabitants live in government constructed 1 or 2 story houses and within the past few years all have running water, sewer connections, and electricity…we hopped onto an Argo ATV…an 8 wheeled waterproof sort of vehicle that is optimized for travel both on wet, mushy tundra as well as the many muddy roads and areas that the natives travel to…for a trip out into the tundra. We went with Ben who looked for some bears to show us but the local grizzly was nowhere to be found…so we checked out their cemetery and went a mile or so out into the tundra for a walk around. We discovered that tundra is quite spongy in nature…sort of like walking on a very firm mattress but with sticks and rocks mixed into it so it’s not smooth at all. Very strange feeling.

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The mountains surrounding the village.

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Riding the Arto.

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Lichens on the tundra…these are about a half inch in diameter.

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Neil walking around…by this time it was raining pretty steadily and the wind was blowing about 30 knots…mighty darn chilly for July I’m tellin’ ya.

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Francis at the post office.

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Heading back home to Fairbanks…we had to make a brief unscheduled fuel stop. John had burned too much looking for a way through the mountains so as to give us better views so although we could have gotten home he wasn’t happy with the amount of fuel we would have had left. So…we stopped about 1/3 of the way back at a smaller village named Bettles for some fuel then continued our journey home…luckily the weather had gotten much better and we were able to remain under the cloud cover and VFR all the way back to Fairbanks…in fact the weather got pretty nice the last 80 miles or so.

The John River valley…this is the river that runs through Anaktuvuk Pass southwards and we were able to follow it all the way to Bettles.

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The Bettles Lodge.

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The Yukon River bridge on the Dalton Highway between Fairbanks and the town of Deadhorse up at Prudhoe bay on the North Slope where the oil fields are. This is the fourth vehicle capable bridge over the 2000 mile length of the Yukon and the only one we didn’t get to drive over…the other three as well as both pedestrian bridges were featured in earlier posts.

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Day 20 (Saturday July 18) was devoted to two major activities…a visit to Santa Claus’s house in North Pole AK and a trip out to Dredge #8 which mined Alaska gold up until the 1950s.

Here’s where the jolly old gentlemen lives…110 Saint Nicholas Lane, North Pole, AK.

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He’s even got a large statue of himself erected in the back yard to help guide Rudolf and the team home after delivering presents on Christmas. Connie’s standing next to it in the lower right to give you a sense of scale.

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We went inside his workshop…and there might be some stuff that we picked up…but you’ll have to wait until later on in the year to find out.

After the trip over to Santa’s house we came home and had lunch…then left for our tour of the Dredge #8 and some gold panning to see if we could strike it rich. On the way we stopped by the Alaska Pipeline over look and got a nice shot so I can ‘splain to you how it works.

Over it’s 800+ mile length the pipe is constructed either above ground or as a standard buried pipeline…the difference being that in areas that are melt stable…which means that they remain stable geologically whether frozen in the winter or thawed in the summer… the pipe is buried. In areas that are not melt stable…essentially permafrost areas that turn into mud bogs when they thaw…the pipe is constructed above ground with some ingenious mounting hardware.

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In these areas the pipe is supported about every 40 feet on pairs of hollow pipes driven about 30 feet deep into the permafrost. Between each pair a beam is installed and the pipeline is mounted on the swear black piece you see in the above photo so that it can slide back and forth a little for thermal expansion and in the event of earthquakes. To help keep the permafrost frozen (since it isn’t melt stable) the vertical pipes are hollow and have an antifreeze type liquid circulating within them…the gray things on top are radiators which help transfer cold from the outside air to through the circulating antifreeze to help maintain the ground frozen. This ensures a stable platform for the pipeline which is carrying heated oil while keeping the ground frozen.

The pipeline carried about 16 billion barrels total of crude oil between 1979 when it became operational and 2010. The flow has slacked off a bit since 2010 and oil now takes about 16 days to travel the entire length of the pipeline down to Valdez for trans-shipment on tankers. With an estimated 40 billion barrels remaining in the North Slope oil fields…the pipeline won’t reach it’s end of life anytime soon. The pipeline cost $8 billion when it was finished in the late 1970s.

Continuing on to the dredge site we did our tour in a pretty much constant rain. We had a nice train ride…well, as nice as it could be in the rain…looking at some of the old equipment then got to the dredge itself.

This is Earl…he entertained us on both guitar and fiddle on the train ride and was quite a character with lots of stories to tell. After 20 years of being in the band for Don Ho and Johnny Cash he came up here and went to work for the tourism industry

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Here’s the dredge itself…with some explanation after the photo.

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So…how does this thing work? It’s a multi year process actually…first the land owners went around and took thousands of core samples to determine where the gold bearing gravel was and how deep it was found. Once that was finished the dredge company planned where to start the dredge. Next…all of the dirt overburden was stripped off down to the gravel layer…essentially using high pressure water cannons to wash it away. Once that was complete the permafrost was thawed and by the time that was completed 3-5 years had passed.

Next…a large pit was dug at the beginning of a dredge area and the dredge…which was built in Pennsylvania and then shipped via rail to San Francisco then north on a ship to Seward then again via rail to it’s final location where it was assembled in the pit. Finally the pit was flooded and the dredge started it’s work.

Starting from the left side of the photo…the dig arm is essentially a giant chain saw that rotates clockwise as you’re looking at it…only instead of teeth it’s bot buckets that dig into the gravel and bring about 6 cubic feet of gold bearing gravel per bucket. The dig arm speed was about 22 buckets per minute and ground to gravel into the upper level of the dredge.

Once there…it was dumped into a trommel which is a long rotating pipe about 8 feet around and 50 feet long, it’s also angled down about 2 inches per foot from left to right. The gold bearing gravel is dumped into the trommel which rotates slowly and works the large rocks down to the aft/low end…washing it down with water the whole way. The cleaned large rocks are expelled from the trommel at the right end of the barge then dumped out on the tailings conveyor that you can see rising behind the trees on the right side of the photo.

As the trommel rotates the finer gravel along with it’s gold falls through holes in the trommel that are a couple inches around onto another conveyor. It’s then fed into a series of sluice boxes which are angled troughs with a fibrous rug like material on the bottom. Gold…being much heavier than either water or rock…falls into the material while the gravel and dirt continues out the end of the sluice box.

Every 2 weeks the dredge was shut down and the material removed from the sluice boxes…it was then washed to remove the gold and fine dirt which was then again washed to remove the final dirt using an angled vibrating table…this dredge usually pulled about 4000 ounces of gold each two weeks. The dredge master swung the dig arm back and forth and also moved the dredge forward or sideways as necessary to essentially chew through the gold bearing gravel strata that was originally found using the core surveys.

Here’s a shot of Connie panning for gold and also our take…we each got a poke (small sack) of pay dirt to pan and we ended up with about $19 worth of gold flakes by the time we were done.

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Pretty cool huh…although it seems like a hard way to make a living to me.

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With that our day was ended so we headed first off to Mass at the cathedral in Fairbanks and then home for taco nachos with Bill and Linda. While we were looking at the bulletin in the cathedral…we noticed the following advertisement on the back page.

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This Villa is only about 5 miles from Seminole Campground where we winter over down in North Fort Myers…we thought it was funny that we came 7000 miles to Alaska and found an add for a retirement center that close to us.

We’ve now completed 1/3 of our Alaskan adventure…tomorrow we’re off to Denali National Park where we just might be able to see Denali…or Mount McKinley as it was renamed to the dismay of the Alaskan citizens…but with the weather forecast we’re doubting it. We’ll be in Denali 2 days and have only about a 30% chance of seeing the mountain on any given day…maybe it will b e nice enough at least 1 day that we can get some shots of the mountain itself.


About Gunther

The full time RV travels and experiences of Gunther the Bear and Kara the Dog…along with their human staff neil and Connie.
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