October 8, 2019 – Day 1
Arrive in Fairbanks, Alaska
Travelers arrive in Fairbanks after flights from lower 48 states or other Alaska destinations. A shuttle van from your hotel Pikes Waterfront Lodge, (see your pre-trip email for details on your accommodations) will meet travelers curbside for the under 5-minute ride to where you will be staying on this first night of the trip on the banks of the Chena River.
We will meet you in the main lobby of the hotel at 6:00 PM for a pre-trip briefing, followed by a hearty Alaskan welcome dinner at a favorite local restaurant!
During the pre-trip briefing, we will have a discussion on the basics of aurora photography technique. When we return from dinner, you can sign up for the “Aurora Wake-Up Call List” at the hotel main desk and perhaps have an opportunity to practice aurora photography on your first night from the banks of the Chena River.
October 9, 2019 – Day 2
Drive North to Wiseman
After breakfast we will depart in two, 12-passenger, comfortable, customized Mercedes Sprinter vans, (4 people per van) driving north on what some people describe as the most scenic road in North America, the Dalton Highway. The Dalton or “Haul Road” as it is known to Alaskan truckers, was completed in 1974 so trucks could haul equipment and supplies to the recently discovered Prudhoe Bay Oilfields. The roughly 420-mile gravel road begins approximately 100 miles north of Fairbanks and is the only road that traverses the Arctic Circle in the United States. The first 100 miles of the drive is on the Eliot Highway, which traverses rolling hills in the White Mountains, before connecting with the Dalton Highway. The Dalton winds through mountainous terrain covered by boreal forest before crossing the Yukon River at mile 58 of the Dalton. Fall colors have faded into subdued hues as winter and snow overtake this land during this time of year. From the Yukon River, the Dalton climbs into the open alpine country of the Caribou and Ray Mountains passing by Finger Mountain and Kanuti Flats, home to a resident caribou herd. Shortly after passing through the open mountainous terrain around Finger Mountain the road crosses the Arctic Circle, where our crossing will be celebrated! Another hour of driving brings us to the south side of the Brooks Range, which will already be accumulating their winter snowpack by this time of year. The snow-capped peaks of this wilderness mountain range provide for spectacular landscape photography. As we enter the Brooks Range the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which parallels the Haul Road becomes more apparent, standing on steel pillars, as it converges with the road corridor. A short drive later the road enters the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River valley, and we arrive at Coldfoot, the only truck stop on the five hundred miles of road between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay.
Coldfoot was a gold mining town at the turn of the last century and has the distinction of recording the broadest range of temperatures anywhere in the United States! A truck stop, diner, and hotel, Coldfoot gives a unique look into the lives of truckers who make this 1,000 miles round trip year-round, even in the depths of winter when temperatures dip to 70 below zero! We will stop at the diner in Coldfoot to enjoy a meal at this backcountry outpost on North America’s most remote highway!
Our destination for the day is Wiseman, a turn of the 20th Century gold mining town that offers a glimpse into the recent human history of the south side of the Brooks Range. Located approximately 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the heart of the Brooks Range wilderness, Wiseman provides the perfect base for exploring and photographing this region. Accommodations in Wiseman may be considered slightly rustic, but are cozy and comfortable and the hospitality provided by our hosts, the Hicker Family at the “Arctic Getaway,” is legendary north of the Arctic Circle! The three main cabins where we stay, feature five well-appointed bedrooms, sitting areas, kitchen facilities and two full bathrooms that are shared by trip participants. Meals are served family style in the in the “dance hall” of the historic Wiseman community center. Away from the light pollution found in the south, we will spend our first evening north of the Arctic Circle looking for and photographing northern lights (cloud cover permitting). If sky conditions and aurora cooperate, we will stay up late into the evening and get a hands-on northern lights photography lesson. This will be the first opportunity for us to teach the technique and composition of aurora photography in the field, and we will make the most of the evening if conditions are favorable.
October 10, 2019 – Day 3
Explore the Brooks Range Wilderness Around Wiseman
This morning you will enjoy a more leisurely breakfast while you get to know your new surroundings. After breakfast, you will set out for a day of exploring and photography on the south side of the Brooks Range. Autumn has passed, and foliage has been replaced by snow and ice on the mountainsides, while the animals of the Arctic are frantically preparing for approaching winter with its long nights and cold temperatures. Moose and caribou tend to be on the move this time of year as they begin moving into their wintering grounds. As we drive north towards the continental divide of the Brooks Range, you will watch the trees thin as the highway slowly climbs toward Chandalar Shelf and Atigun Pass, and approaches the northernmost edge of the tree line in Alaska. The “Shelf” and “The Pass” are the two main “hills” that the Dalton Highway climbs to gain access to the “Northslope.” The next few miles of the road climb dramatically to 4,800-foot Atigun Pass, the highest road in Alaska, and Continental Divide of the Brooks Range. As you ascend Atigun pass, you will enter the high alpine environment, home to Dall Sheep, Golden Eagles, and Gyrfalcons! Snow typically blankets the landscape at this time of year, and it is not unusual to encounter caribou migrating southward over the continental divide.
After a full day of photography and exploration, you will return to Wiseman and “The Arctic Getaway” for dinner in the Dance Hall. After dinner, weather permitting, we will set up for our second night of aurora photography north of the arctic circle.
October 11, 2019 – Day 4
Drive North to Prudhoe Bay and the Coastal Plain
After breakfast, we will set out on the on the all-day drive to Prudhoe Bay or “Deadhorse” as it’s known, the hub of oilfield activity and the end of the Dalton Highway. The first section of the drive will cover the same territory we saw the day before, but we will be looking for new and different wildlife sightings.
Descending onto the north side of the Brooks Range from Atigun Pass we enter a different world devoid of trees, and home too many species of Arctic wildlife, such as musk-oxen, caribou, grizzly bear, fox, wolf, and moose. Many birds of prey can be found in the open tundra landscape of the Northslope, such as Rough-legged Hawk, Short-eared Owl, Gyrfalcon and Snowy Owl. Additionally, year-round bird residents such as Rock Ptarmigan and Common Redpolls can be found in willow thickets by the roadside. We will budget our time to allow for numerous stops to photograph the scenery, wildlife, and birds in this dramatic landscape. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline snakes over the open tundra parallel to the road and is a constant reminder of what lies at the end of the way on the coast of the Beaufort Sea in Prudhoe Bay. Our destination this night is “Deadhorse” or Prudhoe Bay the hub of oilfield activity and the location of the airport where we will catch our flight the next day. This night we will stay at one of the oilfield hotels that provide food and housing to visiting oilfield workers. This offers a unique view into the life of workers at North America’s northernmost industrial complex, and the place where roughly 20% of the US’s domestic oil supply originates from.
October 12, 2019 – Day 5
Explore Prudhoe Bay and Fly to Native Village
After a hearty breakfast at the oilfield hotel, we set out to explore the area around the Prudhoe Bay oilfields. Most of the species of migrant waterfowl that rear their young in this area on the myriad of lakes and ponds that dot the landscape have already departed on their southward migration, but a few of the last to leave such as Pacific Loon, Tundra Swan and Red-throated Loon may still be found on open water. Short-eared and Snowy Owls hunt the open tundra for voles and shrews, while Arctic Fox stalk ptarmigan and lemmings in the dense low growing willows along streams. The abundance of both bird and mammal life in this harsh climate is impressive and a photographers dream. We will spend whatever time we have this morning exploring and photographing this area before we return to Deadhorse to catch our flight.
Mid-day we will proceed to the bustling Prudhoe Bay Airport and get checked in for our flight to the native village. Luggage weight and size will be restricted on this flight to 50 pounds total per person (including camera gear), so everyone will consolidate their gear and take only what is needed for the next three nights on the Arctic coast. Your equipment should consist of necessary camera equipment and a small duffel with a toothbrush, change of clothing and cold weather gear (Hugh supplies appropriate size duffels for people needing them). Arctic weather conditions will be encountered so suitable apparel and equipment will be required, please see the gear list at the end of this itinerary for what is necessary.
A short (35 minutes) flight takes us over the spectacular arctic coastal plain and the well- known if not controversial “1002” area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Depending on the altitude flown at, we may see wildlife on the tundra or bowhead whales as they migrate west along the Beaufort Sea coastline. Upon arrival in the Native Village in the early afternoon, we will be transported from the village airstrip to our accommodations for the next three nights. Although our lodgings are not luxury, what they lack in appearance is made up for in hospitality and a certain charm. Built from modular oilfield camp buildings, the Inn is basic yet comfortable. Accommodations are in double rooms with twin beds, bathrooms with showers are located down a short hall. All our meals are prepared and eaten in the café located on site and are always hearty and tasty! Our schedule will depend on weather and individual interests, but the best photography tends to be early in the morning and later in the evening, so we will try and schedule meals around our photographic forays! While on the Beaufort Sea coast we will be photographing polar bears in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where we operate under a special “Polar Bear Viewing Permit” through US Fish and Wildlife Service. Polar bear viewing and photography will be both land and water based. For the water-based forays, we will be boating 6 people at a time, with one guide and a local boat driver on the sheltered lagoons that surround the village. For land-based activities, we have a large and comfortable bus with many opening windows, which provides a safe and convenient platform to observe and photograph the bears from. After lunch we will set out on our first boat ride to the barrier islands just offshore where bears tend to lounge during the daylight hours before swimming to the island to feed on whale remains in the evening. For people not going on the boat ride, they will accompany the other guide on the bus for a land-based excursion.
October 13-14, 2019 – Day 6 & 7
Photography and Bear Viewing
These two days will be spent viewing and photographing bears and other wildlife that inhabit this area, both from a boat and from the bus on land. You are scheduled for a total of 12 hours of boating during your stay, spread out over 4 or 5 boat rides. The polar bears are resting, playing, nursing, sleeping and socializing on a barrier island located immediately offshore, so the actually boating dime and distance to where we photograph the bears is short (less than a half mile). The boat excursions are typically scheduled as 3-hour trips every morning and evening (including the trip on the afternoon of your arrival day and the morning of your departure day. Boat trips are weather dependent, but if wind or fog does not allow the boats to operate we have the bus to take you out for bear photography on land.
We will have opportunities to explore the island during our search for bears and other wildlife and may see Snowy Owl, Arctic Fox, and even Grizzly Bear. If we are fortunate, we may have the privilege of witnessing the bowhead whale harvest. If this is the case, we will be allowed to watch and possibly photograph this fascinating Inupiat tradition. Observing and photographing this cultural event will be entirely up to you as the travelers, but this would be a unique opportunity to witness something that few have ever seen. We will have to exercise cultural awareness on this subject and may not be able to photograph the people involved. It is essential that you ask if photos are permissible.
October 13, 2019 – Day 8
Return to Prudhoe Bay and Drive South Back to Wiseman
This will be a long day of travel and our last opportunity to observe and photograph the bears before we depart midday. We will head out early on our last bear viewing foray, staying out on the boat until mid-morning. After a quick return to the hotel to use the restrooms and eat a light lunch we will board our airplane for the flight back to Prudhoe Bay and arrive in Prudhoe in early afternoon (be sure to read the travel section of some essential knowledge about flights). Upon arrival at Deadhorse, we will pick up a picnic lunch and start our drive south towards Wiseman as soon as possible. The goal is to spend as much time as possible exploring the area of coastal plain that we had to pass by earlier in the trip on our drive north to Prudhoe Bay. This will be our best opportunity to photograph muskoxen, and we will make sure that we leave time to spend with these amazing prehistoric creatures. Also, we will be watching for other wildlife in this stunning landscape, such as caribou and Grizzly Bear, moose and fox. This time of year the sunset light is endless and the day lingers late into the evening hours. We still have a long drive ahead, and with photography, stops will not reach Wiseman until later in the evening. After the sun sets, we will keep our eyes peeled for the Aurora, as this may be an excellent opportunity for aurora photography!
October 14, 2019 – Day 9
Explore Around Wiseman
The beginning of this day will be marked by a leisurely morning to give everyone an opportunity to rest after the previous long day of travel and if weather permitted aurora photography. After breakfast, a “local” will take you on a walking tour of Wiseman. Bring your camera to photograph some of the historic gold-rush era cabins and antique steam-powered gold mining equipment. In the afternoon some of you may choose to continue exploring the local area around Wiseman, or you can spend the last afternoon looking for wildlife or photographing along the Dalton Highway on the south side of the Brooks Range. For this afternoon, we can focus on whatever interests you, whether it is the mining history of the Wiseman area, looking for mammals or absorbing and photographing the stunning scenery on the south side of the Brooks Range! This evening will be spent searching the Arctic night skies for aurora one last time and finding the ideal location for you to compose aurora photographs!
October 15, 2019 – Day 10
Drive Haul Road South, Return to Fairbanks
After our last breakfast at the Arctic Getaway and final photos around Wiseman, we will bid our host goodbye and depart for the drive south to Fairbanks. As with the drive north, we will maximize wildlife viewing and photographic opportunities during this day of travel. Upon arrival in Fairbanks, we will check in at the Fairbanks hotel, get cleaned up from a day on the road and head out to our farewell dinner at an excellent local restaurant.
October 16, 2019 – Day 11
After breakfast this morning you will be transported to the Fairbanks airport for your flight home or on to other destinations in Alaska.