Until 1968, the only way to get north of the village of Livengood, Alaska, about 80 miles north of Fairbanks, was by bush pilot or Nodwell, a tracked vehicle specifically designed to traverse wilderness terrain in winter.
That year, in order to supply the Prudoe Bay oil fields, Alaska Governor Walter Hickel ordered a temporary winter ice road to be created. The process has been described as lining up three bulldozers abreast, lowering their blades, and driving to the North Slope. In fact it was a little more complicated, what with supplying the crews with fuel and food, and building an ice bridge over the Yukon River, but it was not too much more than that. The construction crews arrived in Sagwon in March of 1969, and trucks began hauling supplies up the road shortly thereafter, but the near-total disregard for the special difficulties of road-building on arctic permafrost would come back to haunt them with alarming immediacy.
At the time I was stationed at Fort Wainwright as a green Second Lieutenant in the Ordnance Corps. I had requested Alaska as my first station because, like Lieutenant Dunbar in Dances With Wolves, I wanted to see “The Last Frontier” before it was gone.
I got my wish, experiencing my first backpack in Mount McKinley National Park, and traveling the only land route to the Arctic Circle in North America. Little did I know that I had taken advantage of a one-month window of time that would close by April.
No land route would exist again until Alaska Highway 11, the Dalton Highway, was completed in 1974, after which anyone with the inclination, a reliable car, and gas money could drive all the way to Prudoe Bay on civil-engineered pavement.
But in April of 1969 news reports appeared saying that the highway was under five feet of water. The scar left by the bulldozers had exposed the underlying permafrost, which began to melt, rendering the road impassable after little more than a month of operation.
As a result, the Alaska State Senate introduced a tongue-in-cheek resolution on April 23, 1969, to have the Hickel Highway added to the Alaska Marine Highway System. The road was an ecological disaster, creating a scar that in the weather-slowed creep of natural healing in the North, would take decades to close.
When we decided to attempt it, we had little information about the road, except that it started in Livengood. With the carelessness of youth, I loaded five or six Jerry cans of $0.48/gallon gas into my Toyota Land Cruiser FJ-40 and early on a Saturday, set out with two eager enlisted men from my platoon for companionship – and strong backs, just in case.
Our goal was to reach the Arctic Circle. Of course there’s no such thing on the ground, but our Army Corps of Engineers maps had a line on it, and we trusted to our terrain navigation skills to tell us where we were, and when we had reached our destination.
Right away we struck a test of our nerve. A short distance from the start, there was a frozen creek. I had to decide whether it was safe to cross. We reconnoitered it on foot, and I crept over it gingerly alone in the Land Cruiser, later realizing that our little trucklet was no challenge compared to the heavily laden big rigs that normally pass this way. From then on we gave little thought to crossing or fording any water we encountered.
Weather was bright and sunny during the late winter days, and we made the 55 or so miles from Livengood to the Ice Bridge over the Yukon in the afternoon.
On the way into Stevens Village west of the bridge, we met a dog sled team mushing out. The villagers were very friendly, generously offering us commercial pastry that must have been hard to come by so far from any population center. They also gave us homemade caribou jerky. I am not very adventurous regarding food, but it was certainly no worse than the stuff you can buy in a store now. I felt guilty having nothing to offer in return.
A scan from a Kodak Instamatic 500 slide of a brilliant Saturday in the interior of Alaska, early April, 1969. that’s my Toyota Land Cruiser FJ-40 on the Ice Bridge over the Yukon River, just east of Stevens Village, about 130 miles north of Fairbanks.
Somewhere along the way we stopped just to have a look around. I deliberately shut the TLC down and walked a good distance from the car so I couldn’t hear the ticking of metal as it cooled. That’s when I first experienced the deep subarctic quiet. Any sound was instantly sucked up by the blanket of snow. We’d hardly seen one other vehicle the whole trip, and with no other traffic for miles, and no commercial aircraft overhead, I got to know what Robert Service, Poet Laureate of the North called “the silence that bludgeons you dumb.”
Most of the trip was uneventful, and apart from the newness of the experience and the daylight pristineness of the scenery, rather dull. We passed occasional derelict machinery, including a huge transporter ingeniously created by welding a flatbed between two wheel tractor scrapers where the hopper would have been. It was broken in two in the middle.
There was a narrow valley where the trail led through a stream partially melted. Unseen submerged ridges of ice had me concerned for the Land Criuser’s oil pan, but I brazened it out, jouncing and bumping as I tried to keep the tires on high “ground.”
As the sun set, we began to see a little wildlife, with ptarmigan in winter-white plumage, an arctic fox, and the occasional snowshoe hare flashing in our headlights. The biggest thrill was chasing a huge (in our eyes) black wolf for about a quarter mile before it lept the snowbank and disappeared into the night.
Somewhere along there we came upon the strangest sight of the trip. Along the side of the road, a man sat on an old mattress. We stopped to see if he needed help, and learned that he was a trapper waiting for his ride to the next point where his trap line crossed the road.
I remember his name, Sullivan Wright, because those are the last names of two great architects, Louis Henry Sullivan and (of course) Frank Lloyd Wright. He invited us into his lean-to where he had several of his quarry skinned and drying in the winter-dessicated air.
We were decidedly weary when we reached a pass that had a small metal building, and we curled up in our sleeping bags for a restless night.
The next day we were impatient to reach our goal, a little concerned about getting back in time for evening role call. Any little sign that some human had marked some spot was taken by my companions as evidence that we had reached the Arctic Circle, but our maps always indicated otherwise.
Finally, we found ourselves descending a gradual slope alongside a tapering ridge on our right that looked just like the contours that led to the Circle on our map. As the ridge petered out, there was a stream crossing the road that our maps said was right on the Arctic Circle. We’d made it.
John, our resident amateur ecologist, got out and collected some wildlife scat. Although there was nothing remarkable to document, I took a couple of pictures (long since lost), and we were all too glad to turn back south.
All went pretty well until we reached a meadow where an icy stream had carved a ditch across our path. The road had been relatively clear and level, and I had unwisely disengaged the 4-wheel drive. The front axle bounced in and out, but that slowed us enough so that the rear wheels became trapped in a wide grove in the ice, filled with icy water.
Overconfidence (and fatigue?) had me running in 2-wheel drive when we encountered a ditch in the ice, carved by snow melt. With no winch, all our Army Recovery and Evacuation training looked to be inadequate for the situation.
Experienced 4-wheelers know the value of a good winch. We now had first-hand experience to prove it. We didn’t have one!
As we stood around trying to come up with a technique that would get us out of our pickle, one of the only other travelers we had seen on the trip showed up.
It was a guy with a huge Mack flatbed, who had just delivered a Nodwell to a camp up the road the day before. I got the impression that he was mildly amused at our predicament and our amateur attempt at Arctic exploration. But whatever comments he may have been contemplating, he kept them to himself, and simply wrapped a stout chain around our bumper and yanked us out with as much effort, it seemed, as a fisherman landing a small trout. It left a dent in the bumper, but I wasn’t complaining.
John steadies the steering wheel of my Toyota Land Cruiser FJ-40 as a good Samaritan big-rig driver prepares to pull it out of a snow melt-carved ditch on the Hickel Highway.
The rest of the trip went without incident until we got back on real roads, where fatigue finally overcame me and I misjudged a curve, landing us deep in a snowdrift, rear wheels spinning, having forgotten to lock the front hubs.
I had done all the driving to that point, probably 400 miles of often rough going. So I yielded the controls to John, and after a brief stop at a public phone to call in and prevent our being listed AWOL, we made it back to Fort Wainwright.
There’s a postscript to that story. I had joined the local Sports Car Club (whose membership qualifications must have been pretty loose) and competed in a few competitions on closed roads and parking lots. At the grandiosely named “North American Autocross Championship,” held on a course plowed out of the snow on the Alaskaland parking lot, I won the “Top Eliminator” trophy. The only one to beat my best time was the driver of a Myers Manx Dune Buggy – the same guy who’d yanked us out of the ditch on the way back from the Circle.