Alaska's Other Ocean - the Arctic

Alaska's Other Ocean - the Arctic
Climate change and the environment are often in the news these days. The decaying sea ice of the Arctic Ocean has created a huge debate between those who believe the changes are nature’s ongoing and uncaring evolution, with human-kind only one of a multitude of contributing factors in a process that would have occurred no matter what, and those who believe that the term climate change is interchangeable with global warming, entirely man-made and even now we can “do something” to stop it from further affecting the planet.

Central to the current debate is the Arctic Ocean, with its many individual and separate seas, affecting a number of different countries. The section of the Arctic Ocean laying off of Alaska’s northern most shoreline is the Chukchi Sea, which feeds into the 30-mile wide Bering Strait separating Alaska from Russia’s mainland as well as separating the Arctic Ocean from the Bering Sea of the Pacific Ocean. To the right of the Chukchi Sea is the Beaufort Sea, which shares a coastline with both Alaska and Canada.

Other countries bordering the Arctic Ocean are Russia, Norway, Iceland and Greenland. For a small ocean, it has a big impact.

The arctic ocean itself is the smallest and possibly the least understood of our planet’s five major oceans. Some of the confusion, I’m sure, comes from the fact that so much of it is still permanently covered in ice, with the boundaries of the ice edges changing from season to season and year to year. The winter of 2019-2020, for example, has been the coldest in recent years, with ice thick and widespread.

Tourists often voice an interest in “dipping a toe in the Arctic Ocean” while on vacation in Alaska during the summer. It IS possible, but it is an arduous, 13+ hour-long journey from Fairbanks (this is based on 13+ hours of drive-time, without accounting for any stops and traveling in good conditions – so plan on your actual trip being longer) along a long, rough gravel road, and not to be undertaken lightly.

It’s not recommended to take anything other than a Jeep-type 4WD vehicle, SUV or a truck camper on this road. The Dalton is mostly traveled by large semi-trucks hauling supplies to Prudhoe Bay and you do not want to get in their way. For more details, read my BellaOnline article on the Dalton Highway, also known as “the haul road”.

The Dalton Highway will only take travelers as far as the small town of Deadhorse, which is eight miles shy of the Arctic Ocean. It’s necessary to take a shuttle bus with a guide to make the final jaunt to the ocean for a brief photo op for “toe dipping”. This 16-mile round trip shuttle to the Arctic Ocean must be reserved at least 24 hours in advance, since tourists will be crossing private property on the Prudhoe Bay oil fields.

You’ll be allowed about 30 minutes to view the ocean to either splash a hand, dip a toe or even do the whole “polar plunge”! Be aware though – if you choose to do the plunge, you’ll want to bring your own towel and dry clothes. There is absolutely nothing out there except the shoreline. It’s a long drive for bragging rights, but some folks want to do it.

A good alternative is to reserve a flight to the native village of Utqiagvik, located right on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. From there, you can take a half-day or full-day tour with “Top of the World Tours”. They will not only take you to the Arctic Ocean, but will provide you with local lore about the history of the area, the people and the culture. Well worth the time and expense if you have both.

The Arctic Ocean is considered exotic and mysterious due to the lack of access to it and how little, relatively speaking, is known about it. It’s frozen all winter and stays super cold even in summer. Fortunately, the vast Pacific Ocean and its myriad of fish, marine mammals and sea birds, is a lot easier to reach!

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