Alaska: “The Last Frontier.” The ultimate test of man and machine—which is exactly why the Nitto JK Experience Presented by Discount Tire decided to head north to the cold country and pit its band of Wranglers against the elements. Our epic adventure would start off in Anchorage, and then we would meander (and slog) our way to the top of the country—Prudhoe Bay. Even returning back down to Anchorage would entail numerous other off-road escapades and sightseeing that would stay in our memories forever.
This is the final year of the Jeep Wrangler JK platform, so it seemed a fitting trial by fire to travel to the largest state in the union. While more than a dozen JKs made the trip from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay, a few of them even drove from the lower 48 and back again; a true testament to the durability of even a built Wrangler.
Mel Wade started the JK Experience seven years ago to highlight the vehicle’s capabilities and to promote his shop, Off Road Evolution. He has been a participant on many of the Ultimate Adventure trips put on by our sister magazine, 4-Wheel & Off-Road, and loosely patterned his JKX adventures after that. While limited to JKs only, Mel also allows other shops and businesses to participate—since he’s only interested in promoting the common good. Nitto has been the title sponsor from day one, and supplies all the rigs with its awesome tires should the owners decide to run them. 37s were the norm on this trip, but 40-inch sizes were also in abundance.
Our first trail was up to Mount Baldy, just north of Wasilla. While not the toughest Alaskan trail, the rain and mud (combined with first-day jitters of a 2000-mile-long trip) made for a slip-sliding experience.
Winches were whirring the whole day as the group ascended muddy trail after trail. Expert spotting and a well-seasoned crew helped make it easier.
Local wheelers know the route and are prepared for tight trees and slick hills. Sometimes using body armor to pivot around a tree works best.
Mud slingin’ and speed are essential elements to making the hills. However, care and skill are equally important on these tough sections.
We even stopped by the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry on our way back from the hill climbs. This awesome CJ-3B was converted for fire truck use, and now resides with the other vehicles at the museum. Notice the hardtop/bodied CJ-8 postal in the background?
The next part of the adventure took us to the muskeg area of central Alaska. Muskeg is saturated ground formed by the thawing of seasonal ice, and turns into the nastiest mud bog material around. Speed and momentum are your friends in this environment, as well as a lightweight vehicle.
No one was immune to the swamp, with straps and winches used all day. The road was made famous by the book Into the Wild, about a young man who never made it back from his journey of solitude.
Sometimes the muskeg will support a vehicle’s weight, but as soon as tires spin and break the delicate topping of partially decayed vegetation, the vehicle sinks quickly. Recovery ropes and winches saved the day.
Local roadhouses available for food and lodging are a staple along any highway in Alaska. This is one of the more famous of them, halfway between McKinley and Fairbanks. Hence its name: Skinny Dick’s Halfway Inn.
The Troy L. Péwé Climatic Change Permafrost Reserve is located just a few miles outside of Fairbanks. Dedicated in 1999, it is supposed to be managed by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska. However, an apparent lack of funds has let the entire site become overgrown, so our hardy bunch of bushwhackers cleaned the stage for our group photo. Thanks, guys!
The push to the top of the world, in Deadhorse, Alaska, follows the pipeline laid in the ’70s. The pipe is on raised thermopiles much of the way, which dissipates the heat from the crude oil as it comes from the ground. Otherwise it would melt the underlying permafrost with disastrous results.
The haul road known as the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay is deadly in the winter, and not much better in the summer. While it may look like Kansas during the summer months, hurtling trucks, crazy-ass moose, and clueless tourists make the road a major hazard. In fact, the number one rule is that the trucks have the right of way. Period.
Being prepared with extra fuel is critical on any 4x4 adventure, and even more so on the North Slope. Each of our rigs carried spare fuel for the long stretches of desolate highway. The Dalton is over 400 miles long, and most of it is gravel.
Near Coldfoot, a common stopping point on the Dalton Highway, lies the little burg of Wiseman. A small hamlet with a dirt airstrip and a few mining cabins, Wiseman also lays claim to the farthest north American Legion Post, and more importantly to us, the world’s farthest north WWII MB jeep. Anyone care to invalidate that claim? The “Hummdinger” appears to be roadworthy with new tires and sparkplugs as well.
A side trip along a glacial lateral moraine led us to the Castner Glacier overlook. Lateral moraines are the narrow edges of a glacier’s ancient advance. As the glacier recedes a marginal road can be made on the moraines, but it can still be as sketchy as a shelf road in Colorado.
Our final push back took us to the Knik River Public Use Area, a popular wheeling place for the locals. Numerous stream and river crossings retested the fording depths of our rigs. The rushing water swallowed even the 40-inch tires.
The white tinge to the water is from the glacial outwash, which is ground up silt and sand from the glacier’s base. Known as Glacial Milk due to the color, the fine particles can seep in and destroy bearings and seals in short time.
Alaska is far more than ice and snow, as swamps, dense forests, and running rivers attest. This is one place a snorkel was actually functional.
The Knik Glacier terminus was our terminus as well, just 50 miles short of Anchorage. By now we had done nearly 2,000 miles of road and trail, with plenty of mud, ice, and water thrown in. Check out the web story on www.fourwheeler.com for a huge gallery of photos as well as video from the epic adventure.