Friday, August 19, 2016
Healy, Alaska is about 350 miles from the Arctic Circle – so close, at 66⁰33’. Of course we had to go. This required rising at 4:30 am to catch a flight leaving the Healy airport a little after 6:00. We checked in at the log cabin terminal and met Caleb, the pilot for our Arctic Circle Air Adventure. Caleb flies for Northern Alaska Tour Company, a subsidiary of Warbelow’s Air, which specializes in charter air transportation throughout Alaska Arctic, and has been delivering mail, supplies, groceries and other cargo to small communities in Northern Alaska for almost 40 years. They will even pick up high school students to bring them to prom with other students. Most students in those remote communities are home schooled.
Caleb flew a 10 passenger Piper Navajo that can be easily converted to a cargo plane as needed. Mark had the privilege of flying shotgun on the way up, which he was pretty excited about. He could watch the instruments and ask questions about the airplane’s operation.
We flew over the small town of Healy, a coal mining town of about 1,000 people. The mine is owned by Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc. and it operates year round, employing a little over 100 people. The coal here is very clean, with a very low sulfur value. Production is between 1.2 and 2 billion tons per year, and we were told that there is enough coal here for 300 years of mining. The coal is strip mined, and the ground then planted with trees.
There is a wind farm about 14 miles north of Healy, the Eva Creek Wind Project, which has been operating for about four years. This is the largest wind project in Alaska and it has a capacity of 24.6 megawatts.
We made a stop in Fairbanks for a fuel check, and then we were back up and headed to Coldfoot, Alaska. The town got its name during the gold rush when about 400 prospectors settled there. Those who remained named it Coldfoot to make fun of those who got “cold feet.” True story? Maybe.
This part of Alaska is considered to be an arctic desert. The temperature ranges from about 80⁰ above to about 80⁰below. It can sometimes be warmer in Coldfoot than in Denali. The snow all melts off, even in the mountains, beginning in May as the hours of sunlight increase.
Minto, a town north of Fairbanks, is one of the wettest areas of the state.
We flew over the small Koyukon Athabascan community of Stevens Village, in the middle of the Yukon Flats. In 2010, there were 87 residents who make a subsistence living here.
There is still gold mining in Alaska. The town of Livengood was founded by Jay Livengood in 1914 after the discovery of gold here. At one time there were 21 operating mines here. Today, there is only the Livengood Mine, owned by International Tower Hill Mines Ltd. which culls small pieces of gold from water. It generates about $127,000 in gold every summer.
Our flight route mostly followed the Trans-Alaskan pipeline, operated by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which stretches 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. The actual distance is 799 miles, but an extra mile of jags were built in to accommodate expansion and contractions and for seismic activity. Prudhoe Bay was chosen as the head point since it has the distinction of being the only port in Alaska with access to the Arctic Ocean that doesn’t freeze over in winter.
The pipeline was expected to be used for about 20 years, but is still in use almost 40 years later. Over 30 billion barrels of oil have been transported, and the current load is about 500,000 barrels per day. About half of the pipeline is above ground and about half underground. The oil comes out of the ground at about 150⁰. This temperature would melt the permafrost, thus damaging the support system for the pipeline. There is only one physical structure over the Yukon River – the pipeline bridge. The bridge is 2,000 feet long and was constructed in only two weeks!
We crossed the Arctic Circle at about 8:30 this morning. Caleb did a little bounce to make sure we were all awake at that point. He pointed out the dotted line but I couldn’t see it.
We flew near the Brooks Range, which is actually part of the Rocky Mountain Range, before landing in Coldfoot where we boarded a van to drive about 10 miles to Wiseman, at latitude 67⁰12’, 63 miles north of the Arctic Circle – not quite the top of the world. The North Pole is another 1,500 miles north of here, and the northern most area of Alaska is almost 300 miles north. Wiseman has a year round population of about 12 – 15 people. Again, this is an old mining community. The log homes built here in the early 1900’s have been rotting at the bottom when the frost melts, and they are slowing shrinking in height. However, several are still occupied.
We met with Jack Reakoff who lives here with his wife and daughter. He was a boy when his parents moved here in 1971. Jack spent about an hour telling us about his subsistence lifestyle in Wiseman. He hunts, traps, fishes and gardens to provide his own food. The growing season is very short, about 6 weeks, but the intense suns allows the plants to mature quickly. Vegetables can be stored underground where the temperature remains a fairly consistent 40⁰. The river that flows by town keeps the ground from getting too cold.
The town of Wiseman is off-grid, so he provides his own power with a generator and solar panels, and uses high efficiency LED bulbs to light his home. In the winter, he runs the generator only about 4 hours per day to conserve energy. Also, he shovels snow around the cabin to retain as much heat as possible.
Jack serves on regional subsistence advisory committee for the National Park Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Back in Coldfoot, we paid a visit to the Coldfoot Cafe at Coldfoot Camp, the northernmost restaurant, truckstop and bar in the United States. An Alaskan dog musher, Dick Mackey, started selling hamburgers to truck drivers in 1981 out of an old school bus. Truck drivers were delivering materials for the pipeline, wanted to make this a more comfortable place to relax, so they started dropping off the packing crates that had been used to haul pipeline insulation. These crates were used as building materials. The truckers also helped Dick build the cafe.
At the time of the 2010 census, 10 people were living here. Our van driver, Jackie Veats, said she tried living and working elsewhere but found that Coldfoot was much more to her liking. Besides driving van, she is the local Postmaster. Mail is flown in to Coldfoot three times per week, and Wiseman’s mail is driven up there once a week.
We arrived back in Healy around 12:30 pm, just in time for the next adventure.