Located in the foothills of the Brooks Mountain Range, Coldfoot is 250 miles north of Fairbanks and is the half way point of the drive to Prudhoe Bay, on the shores of Arctic Ocean. Originally named Slate Creek, the settlement began in 1898 when thousands of stampeders flooded to the area in search of gold. The town’s name was changed when a group of prospectors got ‘cold feet’ about wintering in the district and headed south (Coldfoot is 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle). At its height, Coldfoot had one gambling hall, two roadhouses, seven saloons and ten working girls (many of the local creeks are named after these hookers). The town also had its own post office. Mail was delivered once a month from Fort Yukon, in the winter arriving by dogsled.
By 1912 the gold stampede was over and Coldfoot become an Arctic ghost town, with only the wolves for company. It came alive again during the 1970s, when it was used as a construction camp for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Once the pipeline had been built, Coldfoot once more became a forgotten place; that is, until an Alaskan dog musher called Dick Mackey set up an old school bus on the site and began selling hamburgers to the truck drivers. Coldfoot is a convenient place for a rest stop during the long drive to and from Prudhoe Bay. All that was left from the gold prospecting days were a couple of tumble down cabins and a graveyard. The truck drivers wanted to make Coldfoot a bit more comfortable, so they helped build a restaurant with old packing crates that had been used to haul supplies up to the Prudhoe Bay oilfields. The names of these truck drivers are engraved on the centre pole inside the restaurant, which is now used as a communications centre with messages hung for the truckers, miners and other folk in the area.
Coldfoot experiences long, cold winters, with 24-hour darkness. Summers, by contrast, bring 24 hours of daylight with temperatures that approach 100F. It’s a place of extremes. On January 26th 1989, Coldfoot recorded the lowest ever temperature in this part of North America: 82 degrees below freezing. Mind you, 1989 was a particularly bad winter and for seventeen consecutive days the temperature in Coldfoot remained at more than 60 below freezing. Coldfoot bills itself as ‘the northernmost truckstop in the world’. Here, in the midst of the Arctic wilderness, as well as the original restaurant built by the truckers you’ll now also find a gas station, hotel, post office, general store and first aid post, specialising, no doubt, in the treatment of frostbite.
As soon as I arrived in Coldfoot I asked after Chris Freeman. I received some cheery news: mine was the first weird little car to have recently come through these parts. This told me all I needed to know. Chris and bruv had got as far as the Arctic Circle and then turned back. Most people who drive the Dalton Highway favour this option, because it’s an easy drive from Fairbanks and you can say you’ve been to that famous imaginary line. Calculating the driving distances, Chris and I must have missed each other in Fairbanks by just a day or so, him southbound, me northbound; northbound for the Arctic Ocean: I was going to be the first man to drive a Citroen 2CV this far north in Alaska. The record was mine.
My elation was somewhat tempered when I discovered the price of a hotel room in Coldfoot: $120 a night. That 120 bucks bought me only a small room in the Slate Creek Hotel, a haphazard array of prefabricated box-like structures that smelt strongly of sweat and hot radiators. On the road journey, Jose and I were paying between $60 and $80 per night for hotel rooms. The thing about the Arctic is, all provisions and supplies have to be shipped in from down south, hundreds and hundreds of miles away. This bumped up the price of everything, including hotel accommodation. Petrol is also horrendously expensive in arctic Alaska, which seemed rather ironic, since we were near the biggest oil field in North America. However, that oil is in crude form. It has to go south via the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to refineries. Then it’s shipped back up to the Arctic as petrol, with a suitable price tag attached.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline has a diameter of 48 inches. It zigzags along its 800 mile route. This is to allow for expansion and contraction caused by temperature extremes, and to allow the pipeline to move in the event of an earthquake. There are a total of eleven pump stations located along the pipeline which move the oil at a velocity of 6 miles per hour. It takes five-and-a-half days for the oil to make the journey from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, where it is loaded into waiting tankers – about 70 every month. These tankers are escorted to and from the port by specially equipped Escort Response Vessels, to ensure safe passage to the sea. Well, that’s the theory… in 1989 the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, spilling 12 million gallons of oil into the sea. It was an environmental catastrophe and some of the oil still remains on the beaches to this day. Exxon paid for the oil clean-up but didn’t pay a cent in compensation to people whose livelihoods were affected by the spill. There’s still a legal battle going on with regard to the $5.3 billion in compensation that it’s claimed Exxon owes the victims of the oil spill.
I ate some rubber chicken and chips in the truck stop then wandered back over to the Slate Creek Hotel. The bar by the entrance lobby was dry. Welcome to the arctic, a place of big corporations making money and governments making war, and lots of strict control; which means that you can’t sit in a deckchair or on a bar stool and just relax and get pissed. The ethos in the Arctic these days is puritan hard work. People mostly come to this harsh land to make a buck, lots and lots of bucks. It’s all dreadfully serious and macho. That’s why the buildings are strictly utilitarian; ugly assemblies of what are basically shipping containers and portacabins. One day someone will build a beautiful structure in the Arctic. It’s just begging to happen, much like the world peace that Miss World contestants blather on about.
I sat up at the counter and drank a coffee. The bar was deserted. I thought about tomorrow, when, if my luck and the car held out, I would reach the Arctic Ocean and the record books. I wondered if they sold anoraks in Prudhoe Bay. My thoughts were interrupted when a group of men began assembling in the bar. They were all big, rugged types, and one looked bigger, older and more rugged than the others. He went by the name of Joe and he was the leader. They were a road gang, about 15 in all, who came from Arizona. Joe settled on a bar stool beside mine. He told me that every summer for the last four years he and his men had taken the shilling from the Alaska government, to come up here to this remote spot and repair the Dalton Highway.
Arizona Joe and his gang did four months work during the summer and earned a very large sum of money. Repairing the Dalton Highway basically meant filling in the pot holes and trying to level it out. This was a never ending task. The condition of the Dalton varied from year to year, depending on how harsh the winter had been and how much rain fell during the summer months. I met people who told me that the Dalton Highway had been in much worse shape the year before. The Dalton is a rough drive whenever you attempt it. From what I could make out, in the summer of 1999 it was in average condition.
The road repair season was over. Arizona Joe and his chaps were throwing an end of term celebration. Joe’s overweight wife had come up to claim him and in the morning they were all flying south, back to the real world. The party was somewhat marred by the fact that there was no booze sold in Coldfoot. Everyone contributed whatever they could, which amounted to a mostly empty bottle of whisky, some rusty cans of Budweiser and two bottles of revolting red wine. Meanwhile, someone called Rusty had been sent to get the road gang’s secret stash of beer. We all waited impatiently for Rusty to return. It was a private party, but in arctic climes no one is a stranger and everyone is a guest. Guests, however, are expected to make a contribution. I put a five dollar bill into the hat that was passed around and supped on a rusty can of Budweiser.
Rusty arrived on the scene and soon I was drinking cans of Budweiser that weren’t rusty. As the beer flowed the different personalities in the road gang began to emerge. They were a nice, if somewhat rowdy bunch of chaps. A beautiful young Indian girl appeared and began strumming a guitar and singing folk songs. From the looks given by the men it was obvious that some of them had been making whoopee with her. Well, it gets lonely up in the Arctic, particularly if your testosterone is flying around… I could see it coming, and sure enough an argument broke out between some of the men and they started fighting. Arizona Joe’s wife managed to restore order. The blood was mopped up and after cheers for an encore the beautiful Indian girl gave another rendition of Blowing in the Wind. At this point I left them all to it and walked along the dingy corridor, back to my box-like hotel room. It didn’t seem possible that just the night before I’d seen Jose off at Fairbanks Airport. Jose would now be back home in London, back in normality, whatever that is. I missed her. I didn’t miss the normality.
Hotel rooms in the Arctic are small but everything else about Alaska is big. It’s the largest state in the union, more than twice the size of Texas (much to the chagrin of the Texans) and stretches 2400 miles from its farthest point east to its farthest west, that’s greater than the distance from New York to San Francisco. More than half of Alaska’s land area is seismically active. Ten percent of the earth’s earthquakes occur in Alaska, but because very few people live there no one really notices them. It has the highest mountain in North America, Mt. McKinley at 20,320 feet, and the deepest ocean depth, the Aleutian Trench, 25,000 feet below sea level. More than half the world’s glaciers are in Alaska. The Malaspina Glacier, Alaska’s largest, is bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Alaska also has the biggest 4-wheel-drives in the world and some of the largest egos to be found anywhere on the planet.
After breakfast, Rob Godfrey had his photo taken again. A man came up to me as I struggled to repair the No.1 car’s broken exhaust pipe. He introduced himself as Tom and looked to be about the same age as me, but with longer hair. Tom came from Switzerland and worked as a photojournalist, spending most of his time on assignment in the arctic. His editor in Zurich would request photos of a particular animal and Tom went out and got them. Tom told me that at the moment he was after the Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus), which is found on the tundra north of the Brooks Mountains. The Arctic Fox is an elusive creature and Tom had already spent two weeks trying to find one. Every week or so he came into Coldfoot or Prudhoe Bay to stock up with supplies. Most of his time was spent out in the wilderness, on his own with just the inevitable howling wolves for company. Unlike most people you meet in these parts, Tom wasn’t there for the money. In fact, he had to scrimp and save every penny to be able to go on these assignments, because the payment he received for his wildlife photos barely covered the cost of coming to far flung places like arctic Alaska. The simple fact was, he loved the wilderness, and was lucky to have an understanding wife back in Switzerland.
Tom also knew about hotel prices in the Arctic. He slept in the back of his transit van. He informed me that you don’t see much wildlife along the first 250 miles of the Dalton Highway. It’s only once you get way up into the Arctic that you start seeing grizzlies, moose, caribou, wolves, and the like, the much famed Alaska Serengeti. He also told me that the last half of the Dalton from Coldfoot up to Prudhoe Bay was a lot smoother than the first half from Fairbanks. This cheered me up considerably. Tom took photos of me and Jamie and the car. He was the first person I met in Alaska who really took to Jamie the Love Doll. Maybe it was her wicked grin.
The sign said: NEXT SERVICES 244 MILES. A beautiful sunny Sunday morning found me and Jamie on the road again. The space and lack of sound in the wilderness give it a spiritual dimension, an ‘otherness’. It’s the silence more than anything that makes the wilderness special. Of course, I was travelling through it during the height of summer. Jack London found his niche writing about the northern wilderness winter, when the silence is even more apparent. He called it the White Silence:
Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity – the ceaseless flow of the tides, the fury of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the long roll of heaven’s artillery – but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot’s life, nothing more.
Twelve miles north of Coldfoot we passed a small track that led to the town of Wiseman. In 1911 the prospectors began to abandon Coldfoot as rich finds were found on the Nolan and Wiseman Creeks to the north. A boomtown soon developed. In 1910, the author, Robert Marshall, described Wiseman as “200 miles beyond the edge of the twentieth century”. They still pan for gold here. In 1994 a gold nugget was found on Nolan Creek. It weighed 42 troy ounces and was one of the largest nuggets ever mined in Alaska. Wiseman has a year round population of 30 people, which swells considerably each summer as people come looking for more big nuggets. These modern gold seekers are nearly always disappointed. Ironically, just yards from the small community of Wiseman there is a 48 inch diameter pipeline through which flows black gold of almost unimaginable wealth.
We had followed the golden vein all the way up from Cache Creek and the Cariboo Mountains, through the Yukon to Alaska, which both figuratively and literally was the end of the line. It seems incredible now that people risked their lives and their sanity by coming to such a harsh and remote land in search of gold, but come they did. Of the more than 100,000 people who stampeded to the Yukon, only 30,000 actually made it to Dawson City, the site of the Bonanza Discovery, and out of these only a handful made big money from gold prospecting. You’d think that this would deter people; but oh no: by 1899 the Yukon Gold Rush was over. The survivors, the dreamers, the insane, streamed out of Dawson City without a glance back. They were off to the beaches of Nome, Alaska, one thousand uncharted miles to the west, near the Bering Strait, where it was rumored the sand was speckled with flakes of gold.
The Alaskan gold rush started in 1898, with an exploration team prospecting the Seward Peninsular. Bad weather drove their ship into the mouth of the Snake River, about 13 miles west of Cape Nome. While waiting for the winds to subside the explorers passed the time by prospecting the surrounding creeks, where they found gold along Anvil Creek. When news of the strike reached the outside world a flood of prospectors arrived at the site and set about staking claims along Anvil and several other tributaries of the Snake River.
The Anvil Creek strike was good, but it did not outshine the Klondike gold fields, except that it led to an amazing discovery. Many of the stampeders who arrived too late to stake claims along the mouth of the Snake River set up tents on the beach, where they found the sands glittered with gold. In fact, there was gold for 40 miles along the water line in either direction from Nome. A few years earlier those magic words: “a ton of solid gold from the Klondike” had caused the biggest gold rush in history. Now, in 1899, “the golden sands of Nome” produced another big stampede.
Those who managed to survive the journey to Nome must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven. The beach strike became a prospector’s paradise where digging the gold was said to be easier than stealing it. The work required only a shovel, a bucket and a crude, easily built rocker. The shallow diggings on the beach were open to everyone, since beach land could not be staked by any individual. If you left your diggings another prospector could move in. Poet Sam Dunham wrote in 1900, “For many miles along the beach, double ranks of men were rocking, almost shoulder to shoulder, while their partners stripped the pay streak and supplied the rockers with water and pay dirt.” At the height of the summer mining season, nearly 2000 men, women and children were rocking on the beach. Here, in this remote spot at the end of the world, it is estimated that the ‘beachcombers’ mined as much as $2 million in gold from the sand.
From When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn, Rob Godfrey’s memoir of 20 years of travels, available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon or Smashwords – note: Smashwords offers a wide range of ebook formats, including Kindle and PDF.