In preparation for my visit to the Artic I decided to brush up on my 5th grade geography and read about the tundra. In this commercial culture thus, I was not so shocked to see that the Yahoo search engine listed several links to the Toyota Tundra Truck before any link to what the classic meaning of the tundra would be. I learned that starting at minimally $35,950 I could have the toughest, most capable, advanced shining ToyTundra truck outfitted for a wide range of adventures but I doubted the ToyTundra will get you very far out on the authentic naturally occurring Artic Tundra…Now dirty muddy big trucks are a staple in Alaska. Just go to any Fred Meyer’s or Wall-Mart parking lot and you will find a massive number of big gas guzzling mud spattered trucks driven by lots of big bearded Alaskan men.
Now for the ToyTundra to tackle the true Alaska tundra, one would have to drive the Dalton Highway, beginning north of Fairbanks, 414 miles to Deadhorse ( latitude 70 degrees) to Prudhoe Bay. The Dalton remains about 75 percent gravel, with tire-puncturing rocks, at times a bumpy teeth jarring washboard surface , either dusty or icy, slippery in wet weather… with services few and far between.This road is mainly used by heavy/huge trucks for oil transportation from the Arctic. NOW I am quite sure a ToyTundra would relish this adventure winter or summer BUT, it would be driving on the graded terrain of the highway, not the un-groomed tundra. If one thinks summer might provide a tundra drive or even a great hike, I became aware that much of the top layer of seasonally-frozen soil melts away above the Arctic surface allowing for a soggy soil and the tundra is covered in marshes, lakes, bogs, and streams during these warmer months.
So I decided NOT to buy a ToyTundra to adventure into the Arctic but decided that traversing Alaska with its vast distances would best be negotiated by opting for air travel. So bush planes became the preferred mode of transportation of this self from Point A to Point B.
Besides it was the only choice to get up to Bettles. So after bidding farewell to the not-so-super Super 8, the rental car was returned to the airport. Wright Aviation (our charter up to Bettles) was right across the Fairbanks main runway – but for obvious reasons we were forbidden to just hoof it over there across this runway…so a cab ride was in order. So we popped into a very well used cab and I was about to find out that cab travel just might be more expensive than air travel – as our very short ride rivaled any New York City cab fares. We arrived at Wright Aviation at the appointed hour of 11:00 AM for a 12:30 departure for the 1.5 hour flight. Now below is a picture of the Wright Terminal and it behooves me to comprehend, given the size of this “terminal, ” the need for 1.5 hours window to departure. Now airlines get a bad rap for their long queues, mishandling of baggage, their no-so-on-time departures but … but really I doubt that would ever be an issue here … So I perched myself on a hard plastic chair, most definitely bemoaning the fact that I was unable to relish an extra hour at the not-so-super Super EightI NOT!
Of course the 12:30 departure hour came and went but I managed to keep myself amused especially when I discovered a large moose rack peaking out from under a tarpaulin by the baggage loading area. Dared I look, as I certainly was hoping there was no carcass attached to the rack … there was not but just several plastic bags of moose meat and a swarm of flies. I was hoping that this cargo was not in the queue for loading on our flight. So finally about 1:15 we were ready to take off on our 1 hour and 15 minute flight in our gaudy yellow-gold big bellied 208B Caravan. I then looked at the pilot and he appeared to be about 14 years old . I began to wonder, since this was a holiday, if all of the seasoned pilots had the day off and this kid drew the short straw! But you can see I lived to tell this tale. Additional evidence of his youthfulness was watching him eat Oreo cookies for his lunch in flight and not offering to share. No cabin service here! Soon we were tucked into out seats with no worries that our baggage would get lost since it was strapped right into the passenger seat next to us.
Seems that when flights have cargo space, loads of supplies may get transported up to isolated villages. Supposedly direct, but now our not-so-direct flight went via Allakaket, mainly an Athabascan community on the Koyukuk River. As we approached the runway I realized that I now was going experience another FIRST…landing on a gravel runway. Hopefully it was not the bumpy teeth jarring washboard surface of the Dalton Highway. Fortunately our kid pilot handled it quite adroitly, so no worries for future landings which I anticipated would also be gravel. So after offloading much of the cargo we were again on our way.
I have discovered that the word “arctic” and “tundra” are quite loosely used to refer to the massive marsh and bog sighted below our relatively low bush plane … though actually I am the only one I have heard using it quit loosely. So, I again reviewed the lesson in the geography of the Artic. So skip ahead if you choose not to embrace this learning curve.
By definition the Tundra latitude is 71.2 degrees N and it features include permafrost where the soil is permanently frozen as well as a lack of trees due to the frozen soil. It is a major zone of treeless level or rolling ground. Bare rocks can support lichens and moss and certain varieties of berry. The southern limit of Arctic tundra follows the northern edge of the coniferous forest belt. In North America this line lies above latitude 60° N. The Artic Circle lies at 66 degrees north and our Bettles destination is at about the same latitude. Clearly that very circular/straight line of the map or globe is not an exact science…. YIKES!!!! I really AM BEGINNING TO SOUND LIKE MY 5TH GRADE GEOGRAPHY TEACHER!
Bear with me. This all leads up to the fact that most of what I was viewing down below (though magnificently beautiful) as well as the pictures below that I am posting was not all tundra but mostly taiga, also called boreal forest, a biome of vegetation composed primarily of cone-bearing needle-leaved evergreen trees, white and black spruce, birch, poplars. Thus, there was a brilliant palettes of fall’s golden colors winding its way progressively southward below us.J oin me on a flight-seeing tour of our path from Fairbanks to Bettles.