When a Winter Destination Becomes a Home

A woman’s Arctic adventure inspires her to change her life dramatically

Aurora Borealis over Minnie Creek, Alaska. Photo: Jackie Veats

When she came to Alaska as a tourist in the winter of 2007, all Jackie Veats wanted was a break from her 80-hour-per-week corporate job. With the aurora borealis dancing overhead, Jackie found much more.

Jackie Veats

Her epiphany came when she traveled as a tourist to tiny Coldfoot, Alaska, one of the few service areas north of Fairbanks along the rugged Dalton Highway. The sparsely paved, 414-mile road ribbons through some of the most remote, pristine landscapes on earth. There are three National Wildlife Refuges, a National Park and other public lands in the area. It’s home to a rich diversity of fish and wildlife and the summer breeding grounds for millions of globetrotting birds.

As soon as Jackie got back to Northern California, she called Coldfoot Camp, the service operator in Coldfoot, and asked for a job. “I’ll do anything!” she said. They offered her a seasonal job as a dishwasher. That was enough for her. She quit her job and headed to Alaska. She kept coming back, year after year, though not to wash dishes.

Jackie’s trip to Alaska in 2007 wasn’t her first. She’d visited Southeast Alaska several times and spent some time in the northern city of Fairbanks. She appreciated seeing the University, going to aurora lectures, and visiting the Ice Carving Competition. But nothing compared to Coldfoot.

Canada Lynx
Canada Lynx
Canada lynx on Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: USFWS/Lisa Hupp

“The aurora was jaw-dropping beautiful. I tossed aside my camera and just laid in the snow to watch it every chance I got.”

Jackie now works as a tour guide for Coldfoot Camp, and she folds the things she has learned, researched, and experienced into the tours she leads.

She describes the quiet of the north this way: “Winter is so quiet that it’s almost deafening. I know that sounds funny, but it’s true. When you walk in the cold, you hear the crunching of your boots on the snow. When you stop, the silence is all-encompassing.”

Here, Jackie has found community.

Telephone phone booth near Coldfoot, Alaska. Photo: Jackie Veats

Jackie and her husband, Steven (now retired), finally bought a cabin in Wiseman, about 17 miles up the road from Coldfoot. With a smile, she says, “I really ‘moved’ to Coldfoot a long time ago…Steven just didn’t know it for a while!”

Jackie and Steven’s cabin in Wiseman, Alaska.
Jackie and Steven’s cabin in Wiseman, Alaska.
Jackie and Steven’s cabin in Wiseman, Alaska. Photo: Jackie Veats

While a trip to Coldfoot might not lead you to quit your job and move, it could be the magical break you need.

Find Your Way North by Milepost: Wildlife Refuge Highlights and Coldfoot Camp

The Road to Coldfoot

The Dalton Highway is one of the most remote highways in America, a road that is famous for its rugged miles and tough, solitary truckers. As you make your way north on the Dalton Highway, you’ll find more is going on than first meets the eye. An eclectic mix of people use this route as a way to access immense swaths of public lands and to commute to rural communities and the North Slope. Hunters, miners, birders, geologists, researchers, hikers, locals and visitors, aurora photographers, and dog mushers… this journey connects unique places and people.

Welcome to Fairbanks, Alaska

Start your trip in Fairbanks, Alaska, like Jackie did. From there, drive north on the Elliot Highway to the Dalton Highway.

Fairbanks International Airport. Photo: USFWS/Andrea Medeiros

Milepost 56: The Yukon River

This enormous river stretches nearly 2,000 miles from Canada through the United States into the Bering Sea. As you look out at this sinuous waterway, picture the many communities and lands it touches. The river’s main channel and tributaries reach far and wide, connecting several of the wildlife refuges in Alaska, including Yukon Flats, Nowitna, Innoko, Kanuti and Yukon Delta national wildlife refuges. People who live along the Yukon River depend on its five Pacific salmon species for their livelihoods. Birds you see in your backyard could have hatched from these lands! What birds have you seen in your backyard?

View of the Yukon River from the Yukon River Bridge. Photo: USFWS/Andrea Medeiros

Milepost 86: Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge Overlook

Stop here to look out over the sweeping landscape of Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. With more than 40,000 lakes and ponds, the 8.63-million acre Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge is an important area in Alaska for spawning Bering Cisco, Inconnu and tens of thousands of salmon. It’s also a major breeding ground for waterfowl. Waterfowl banding done here in the 1950s and 60s showed that an area in San Francisco Bay was an important winter destination for canvasback ducks. This led to the establishment of San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge in the 1970s to protect the wintering area for canvasback ducks. In the 1980s, the Yukon Flats Refuge was established to protect breeding and rearing habitat for canvasback ducks among other things.

Aerial view of Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: USFWS/Andrea Medeiros

Milepost 105: Kanuti River and National Wildlife Refuge

At Milepost 105, you see the Kanuti River. Approximately 12 miles west of the highway is Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge’s eastern border. The refuge is about the size of Delaware and straddles the Arctic Circle. It was set aside primarily because of its rich and diverse waterfowl habitats. Over 130 species of birds have been document on the refuge.

Milepost 175: Coldfoot Camp

This service area includes lodging, a restaurant, and gas station among other amenities. A small interagency visitor center is periodically opened during the winter to share information about the public lands in the area. Visitors can get a certificate stamped and signed for passing over the Arctic Circle (Milepost 115).

Winter visitor center, left. Visitors proudly show their certificates commemorating their crossing the Arctic Circle. Photos: USFWS/Andrea Medeiros
Stickers left behind by visitors on a window at the facility in Coldfoot, Alaska. Photo: USFWS/Andrea Medeiros

Mile 244, Atigun Pass
Drive over Atigun Pass on your way north to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Dalton Highway twists and turns its way up and over the more than 4,700 foot pass. The views of the mountains that surround you are stunning. The Coastal Plain sits beyond the Brooks Range.

Truck driving northbound on the Dalton Highway over Atigun Pass.
View from the Dalton Highway on the south side of Atigun Pass. Photo: USFWS/Andrea Medeiros

View a video of a spring drive over Atigun Pass.

Mile 271, Atigun Gorge and the western border of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
You are close to the western border of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Porcupine caribou herd and Central Arctic herd migrate over hundreds of miles from Canada to the United States and may be seen browsing on shrubs, grasses and lichens near the Dalton Highway. Atigun Gorge is an important wintering area to Dall sheep. Because it is close to the Dalton Highway, it is a popular spot to access the wildness of Arctic Refuge. There are no trails, so feel free to wander on your own. Let the land lure you on your adventure and disperse your steps. Learn more about how to minimize your impact in this guide to Day Hiking in Atigun Gorge, so others can enjoy it, too.

More photos:

More information about a journey up the Dalton Highway: https://www.travelalaska.com and Dalton Highway Visitor Guide (summer).

Story by Andrea Medeiros, Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Alaska.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service