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Trashed! Volunteers haul tons of garbage out of Alaska wilderness

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Dalton cleanup

A truck passes by a volunteer cleaning a wayside on Saturday, May, 25.

Update: Over the course of two weekends this year, volunteers picked up a total of 13 tons of trash.


 

On the drizzly Friday before Memorial Day weekend, I joined about three dozen people and one friendly German shepherd as we headed north to pick up trash along the Elliott and Dalton highways.

The trip was organized by the Northern Alaska Tour Company, which takes tourists north to the Arctic Circle and beyond year-round.

Travelers want to go up the Dalton for a couple of reasons, says NATC guide Robert Weeden, who has been driving the road since 1998.

Dalton cleanup

Cleaning up the side of the road. 

“One is a very simple bucket list check-off of the goal of crossing the Arctic Circle,” he said. (And) “people want to be able to see what those wide open wilderness spaces of Alaska are like. We’re taking people into this region that people see as pristine, untouched wilderness, and it’s kind of embarrassing to take them up and everywhere you look there’s garbage.”

The company has done informal cleanups for decades, Weeden said, but last year was the first time it organized a formal expedition. That effort yielded nearly 10 tons of trash over nine days. My group easily filled a big container donated by Alaska West Express in less than three days. 

Dalton cleanup

Volunteers, including Sadie the German shepherd, stopped for a group photo at the Arctic Circle after cleaning up the campground there. 

Volunteers ranged from teenagers to some who had moved to Fairbanks as adults more than 50 years ago. We were joined by Bureau of Land Management employees — the BLM oversees the pipeline corridor — and a driver from Alaska West Express. We traveled north in a bus and van driven by Weeden and NATC guide Don Kiely; a pickup driven by a couple from Eagle River who drove up to volunteer with their German shepherd, Sadie; two BLM trucks; and the Alaska West Express truck. It was a terrific group of people to travel and hang out with for four days. 

The Dalton, formerly known as the Haul Road, was built in five months in 1974 to support construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline. The 414-mile road, which begins 84 miles north of Fairbanks, bisects thousands of square miles of untouched wilderness, crossing the Arctic Circle before ending at Prudhoe Bay near the Arctic Ocean.

For most of its length, it’s a narrow, rugged gravel road, with steep hills and blind corners. The big rigs heading north and south to and from Deadhorse have the right of way. Weeden and Kiely kept tabs on traffic via citizens band radio channel 19, advising oncoming traffic when they were approaching difficult stretches of road such as Beaver Slide, Roller Coaster and Atigun Pass. 

Dalton cleanup

Volunteers work together to load trash into the Alaska West Express container on the third day of cleanup along the Dalton Highway. 

We stopped off at turnouts, informal camping areas and walked along stretches of the road in three segments. The first day, we cleaned the southern half of the stretch from Fox to the Yukon River. The second day, we cleaned the first half of the road from the river to Coldfoot and on the third day from Coldfoot to the foot of Atigun Pass before heading up to Toolik Lake.

 

Volunteers hauled in tires, yards of plastic, hundreds of plastic bottles — some filled with urine — beer cans, soiled diapers, dozens of blue and green plastic endcaps used to protect pipes, plastic bags and rusting metal. Among the odder finds were a handful of fake fingernails found on a rock at Serenity Lake and a sex toy on the side of the Elliott Highway.

Dalton cleanup

Probably the oddest thing found on the Memorial Day cleanup trip was a collection of fake fingernails that had been left on a rock near Serenity Lake. 

Besides truckers and tourists, hunters and outdoors enthusiasts are the other major users of the road. 

“The trucking companies are absolutely the biggest polluters on the highway,” Weeden said. “All the plastic that we find, all the tires that we find, all the brake shoes, that’s pretty much a result of the industry and not human carelessness and disregard. They may not even know if plastic gets blown off the truck. It’s a very bad practice, in my opinion, but I don’t think it’s correct to say they’re disrespectful; it’s just the nature of the industry.”

Dalton cleanup

Barrels, tires and lots of plastic bottles were among the items found along the road.

It’s the independent travelers that are likely responsible for the beer cans and personal garbage strewn along the road, he said. “The diapers that are being thrown out the windows, that’s not the truckers,” he said.

Dalton cleanup

The Alaska West Express container is at capacity on the south side of Atigun Pass.

It wasn’t all trash. Even the volunteers who had traveled the road multiple times were mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape and eagerly looked for wildlife (final tally: a grizzly sow and two cubs, at least a dozen Dall sheep, caribou, moose, a porcupine, beaver, muskrat, dozens and dozens of arctic hares, and several birds of prey). 

We spent the first night at Yukon River Camp and the second two nights at Coldfoot Camp. Although my Fitbit tells me I walked more than 25 miles in three days, the food was so good, I probably need to walk another 25 to work it off. A second volunteer crew is on the road this weekend cleaning the sections we couldn’t get to.

Heading back to Fairbanks, we stopped to stretch our legs on the tundra at the top of Beaver Slide. Tiny arctic flowers were everywhere and the air was full of birdsong. Looking north, the snowy tops of the Brooks Range could be seen on the horizon, while the wilderness stretched endlessly on every side. From our vantage point, there wasn’t a plastic bottle or tire in sight. It was spectacular.

Dalton cleanup

Contact staff writer Julie Stricker at 459-7532.