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Brett Carlson, Part 1
Brett Carlson

Brett Carlson was interviewed on November 17, 2006 by Marie Mitchell in Coldfoot, Alaska. In this first part of a two part interview, Brett talks about his childhood in Alaska, his economic and accounting educational background, and his involvement and work experience in the travel and tourism business. He also talks about leading tours to Coldfoot and Wiseman, driving the Dalton Highway, how the Coldfoot Truck Stop & Cafe started, and his work with Northern Alaska Tour Company.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2006-28-04_PT.1

Project: Dalton Highway Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Nov 17, 2006
Narrator(s): Brett Carlson
Interviewer(s): Marie Mitchell
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
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1) Personal background

2) Working as a tour guide on the Alaska Railroad

3) Starting as a tour guide on the Dalton Highway

4) History of tourism at Coldfoot, Alaska

5) Telling stories and sharing the area with visitors

6) Native Alaskan heritage and mining history of the area

7) Gold mining history of Myrtle Creek and the Koyukuk River

8) History of Wiseman, Alaska, and its connections with Coldfoot

9) Disappearance of mining at Wiseman, and discovery of oil and development of the Haul Road (Dalton Highway)

10) Impact of the oil discovery and construction of the Haul Road on Coldfoot

11) Coldfoot becoming a ghost town after the Haul Road was finished

12) Development of Coldfoot as a truck stop

13) Expansion of the Coldfoot Truck Stop

14) Services provided along the Haul Road

15) Tours coming to Coldfoot

16) Changing ownership of the Coldfoot Truck Stop

17) Challenges of running the Coldfoot Truck Stop

18) Public lands and public access along the Haul Road

19) Visitor services at Coldfoot versus community of Wiseman

20) Sukapak, Inc, as current owner of the Coldfoot Truck Stop

21) Northern Alaska Tour Company tours to Coldfoot

22) Lifestyle of residents of Wiseman

23) Types of visitors who travel the Dalton Highway or take tours

24) Effects of opening the Dalton Highway to the public

25) Winter tourism and aurora viewing in Coldfoot

26) Northern Alaska Tour Company aurora tour package

27) Visitor enjoyment of their tour experience

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Section 1: Brett Carlson was born and raised in Fairbanks. While living in Fairbanks, he thought his parents dragged him to the end of the earth. Brett studied economics and accounting in Delaware. He worked for Alaska Railroad and as a tour guide along the Dalton highway during the summer. After graduating from college, Brett worked with Northern Alaska Tour Company. In 2001, he started working year round in Coldfoot, Alaska.
birthplace -- Fairbanks, Alaska\ raised\ college -- studies\ economics\ accounting\ Alaska Railroad -- employment\ tour guide -- Dalton Highway\ Northern Alaska Tour Company -- permanent employment\ Coldfoot, Alaska -- employment location|

Section 2: Brett learned about Alaska, his home state, while working as a tour guide with Alaska Railroad. When he explained to tourists where he lived, he developed an appreciation for Alaska.
Alaska -- appreciation of\ knowledge of\ tour guide -- influences\ educational\ tourist|

Section 3: Brett worked for Alaska Railroad, the Fairbanks Visitor Center, and for Northern Alaska Tour Company. He worked as tour guide along the Dalton Highway. He describes the tour, "6:30 am you start the tour on Dalton Highway, stop at a trading post, view the pipeline, learn about the Yukon River Bridge and the Yukon River, explore the terrain, stop at the Arctic Circle sign, then return to Fairbanks". Northern Alaska Tour Company was the first to operate tours along the Dalton Highway.
Alaska Railroad\ Fairbanks Visitor Center\ Northern Alaska Tour Company\ tour guide -- Dalton Highway\ Dalton Highway Tours -- description of\ Northern Alaska Tour Company -- first to operate tours\ Sukakpak, Inc.\ Dalton Highway\ Royal Highway Tours -- Mackey, Dick\ Coldfoot Truck Stop -- building\ architecture\ pipeline -- camp materials|

Section 4: Two separate tour companies started at Coldfoot in 1987. Royal Highway and Northern Alaska Tour Company. Royal Highway evolved into Princess Tours. Northern Alaska Tour Company remained independent and branched out, offering various tour routes.
tour companies -- establishment\ Dalton Highway\ Royal Highway\ Northern Alaska Tour Company\ tours -- Arctic Circle\ Royal Highway --Princess Tours\ Northern Alaska Tour Company -- independent\ tour packages\ tour packages -- description of\ focus -- cultural landscape\ Joy, Alaska\ Yukon River\ Wiseman\ Coldfoot|

Section 5: "The Coldfoot region has great stories that are fun to tell," according to Brett. This is a little visited region of the world, so everyone who comes the first time becomes part of the story. "You are somebody just because of your existence."
Coldfoot, Alaska -- story telling\ unique\ seasons -- dramatic\ visitor -- tourist\ experience\ Coldfoot -- visitor\ destination -- not well known|

Section 6: Coldfoot is located in the Central Brooks Range area, which is very remote. It is a tough place to live due to the scarcity of wildlife and resources. Indigenous people were mobile. Inupiat Eskimo lived along the Arctic coast. Athabascans lived south of the Yukon River. There was never a fixed community in the Coldfoot region. People traveled to this region for gold. In 1898, a huge migration from Dawson City came down the Yukon River searching for gold. In 1898, a con man who lived at the confluence of the Koyukuk and Yukon Rivers was telling a story of gold near Twelve Mile Mountain. People believed the rumors, and 68 sternwheelers filled with prospectors traveled the Koyukuk River in search of gold. All 68 sternwheelers were frozen into the ice about 150 miles down river from Coldfoot. So the travelers established five new towns along the river.
Coldfoot -- location\ Central Brooks Range\ remote\ harsh\ wildlife -- scarce\ resources -- scarce\ indigenous people -- mobile\ Iñupiat -- Eskimo\ Koyukuk -- Athabascan\ Coldfoot region\ communities -- non-existent\ people -- mobile\ gold -- impact of\ people -- migration of\ gold -- prospectors\ Koyukuk River\ Yukon River\ con man -- story of\ rumors -- gold\ 12 Mile Mountain -- location\ prospectors -- gold\ travel -- Koyukuk River\ stern wheelers -- transportation\ Koyukuk River -- frozen\ stern wheelers -- frozen into the ice\ Coldfoot -- establishment\ towns -- establishment\ location|

Section 7: In 1899, only 100 of the 900 prospectors survived the journey along the Koyukuk River. Gold was discovered near Myrtle Creek, and a tent city sprung up near Slate Creek and the Koyukuk River. So much gold was found in the area that those living near Slate Creek formed a city. They renamed Slate Creek to Coldfoot, making fun of those who had cold feet and left the area. By 1906, Coldfoot was booming - over 500 people lived in Coldfoot, with seven saloons, a courthouse, and a jail.
prospectors -- gold\ gold -- Coldfoot region\ Koyukuk River\ prospectors -- number of\ death -- number of\ survivors -- number of\ Myrtle Creek -- gold\ tent city -- Slate Creek area\ gold -- plentiful\ Slate Creek -- renamed\ Coldfoot\ Coldfoot -- mining town\ year -- 1906\ Coldfoot -- name origination\ story of\ prospectors -- cold feet\ Coldfoot -- population\ saloons\ courthouse\ jail|

Section 8: In 1907, the largest quantity of gold to be found in this region was discovered. Coldfoot was too far away from the source of gold to be a supply center. Wiseman developed instead, and Coldfoot was abandoned. Many of the nicer cabins from Coldfoot were moved to Wiseman and some of the less desirable cabins were burned as firewood. In the summer of 2006, the last cabin in Coldfoot fell into the river as the bank eroded.
1907\ gold -- discovery of\ Coldfoot region\ discovery -- impact\ negative\ significant\ Coldfoot -- distance from\ Wiseman -- establishment\ Coldfoot -- ghost town\ Coldfoot -- savaged\ cabins\ materials\ cabins -- relocated\ Wiseman -- boom-town\ cabins -- Coldfoot\ non-existent|

Section 9: Wiseman became popular in 1918, and had 380 residents. What happened in Wiseman is what happens to mining communities all over Alaska and the Lower-48. When gold prices dropped, cost to operate a gold mine increase and mining communities disappear. In 1968, oil was discovered on the Arctic Coast. In 1974, Alyeska built the Haul Road and TAPS. During that time, only five or so residents lived in Wiseman. No one was living in Coldfoot.
1918\ Wiseman -- population\ residents -- number of\ gold -- depreciated\ impact of\ Wiseman -- mining town\ mining towns -- boom\ bust\ gold mining -- increase in cost\ profits -- declined\ mining communities -- disappearance of\ year -- 1968\ oil -- discovery\ Arctic Coast\ Year -- 1974\ Alyeska -- description of\ oil companies -- consortium\ Haul Road\ Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System (TAPS)\ Wiseman -- ghost town\ Coldfoot -- ceased|

Section 10: The second boom in Coldfoot was due to the discovery of oil on the North Slope. From 1974-1977, builders of the TAPS, Alyeska, selected the former gold mining town of Coldfoot as one of 29 construction camps to be built along the Haul Road. An airport was built in Coldfoot. Coldfoot soon became the only location for refueling trucks hauling equipment and supplies.
Coldfoot -- boom\ rebuilding of\ oil -- discovery of\ impact of\ TAPS -- construction of\ Alyeska\ year -- 1974\ camps -- construction of\ selection of\ Coldfoot -- construction camp\ truck stop\ fuel supply\ Coldfoot -- air field\ Coldfoot -- services\ trucks -- refueling\ trucks -- hauling equipment and supplies|

Section 11: The second era for Coldfoot was short lived. In 1977, when the TAPS construction was completed, Coldfoot became a ghost town. After 1977, the Haul Road became a private road. After a year of maintaining the Haul Road, the oil companies offered the road to the State. The Haul Road became a state owned highway. Then public pressure directed the State to open the road to the public. In 1981, portions of the Haul Road were open to the public.
Coldfoot -- short lived\ year -- 1977\ TAPS -- completion of\ Coldfoot -- ghost town\ Haul Road -- route\ Yukon River to Arctic Ocean\ built by\ Alyeska -- oil companies\ Haul Road -- private road\ Alyeska -- Haul Road\ maintenance of\ owners\ Alyeska -- transferring ownership\ Alaska -- Haul Road\ ownership of\ maintenance of\ Haul Road -- state owned highway\ public access -- demands for\ year -- 1981\ Haul Road -- public access\ not private|

Section 12: For 500 miles (along the Haul Road), there were no facilities or amenities for the public. The state and federal government decided to lease land near the Yukon River crossing and at Coldfoot to private owners for food and fuel services. Dog musher Dick Mackey applied and was awarded a lease to provide services. By June 15th, 1981, he converted a school bus into a kitchen, and drove it to Coldfoot. There were over 200 truck drivers waiting in line to have food.
Haul Road -- distance\ amenities -- none\ services -- none\ public facilities -- none\ land -- leasing of\ state government\ federal government\ Yukon River Crossing\ Coldfoot\ land lease -- reasons for\ services \ fuel\ food\ Mackey, Dick -- dog musher\ lease -- awarded to\ Mackey, Dick -- story\ Iditarod Dogsled Race -- winner\ dog nose\ Mackey, Dick -- credible\ year -- 1981\ Fairbanks Daily News Miner -- newspaper\ ad -- federal government\ type of\ Mackey, Dick -- applied for\ contract awarded to\ Mackey, Dick -- fuel service\ truck stop\ food\ school bus\ truck stop café\ tent -- sleeping quarters\ truckers -- number of\ appreciation of\ Coldfoot -- truck stop\ truck stop -- re-establishment of|

Section 13: In 1983, truckers took things into their own hands. Mackey's Coldfoot Truck Stop was a kitchen in a school bus and an army tent for sleeping quarters. The truckers appreciated Mackey's efforts, and decided to help build a larger facility using empty packing crates for building materials. The truckers created what exists today -- the Coldfoot Truck Stop and Cafe.
1983\ truckers -- appreciation\ Coldfoot Truck Stop -- limitations with\ Mackey, Dick -- visionary\ truck stop\ services\ Coldfoot Truckers Cafe -- establishment of\ upgrades\ built by -- truckers\ materials -- packing crates\ beam -- structure\ wood -- type of\ white spruce\ center piece\ white spruce -- harvested\ truckers -- signatures|

Section 14: During the Haul Road and TAPS construction, truckers stopped at camps and pipeline pump stations. No other services were available along the road. In 1983, Dick Mackey built a truck stop. Coldfoot was re-established and provided fuel and food services year round. An auto repair shop was built from a TAPS construction camp building. In 1986, oil prices dropped, so trucking activity dropped. Coldfoot was no longer an ideal truck stop, and too expensive to operate.
Haul Road -- construction\ TAPS -- construction\ amenities -- limited\ camp-sites\ pipeline pump station\ year -- 1983\ Mackey, Dick -- Coldfoot Truck Stop\ Coldfoot Truck stop -- amenities\ fuel\ food\ repair shop\ Coldfoot -- re-established\ year -- 1986\ oil prices -- reduction in\ effects of\ Coldfoot Truck stop -- impacts of\ expensive to operate\ decline in revenues\ Coldfoot -- operations\ operations -- description of\ Coldfoot -- economic decline|

Section 15: Dick Mackey experienced many challenges operating Coldfoot Truck Stop, but was fortunate when Royal Highway Tours contacted him. The company wanted to bring tours to the Coldfoot community. Mackey renovated the ATCO barracks from TAPS into rooms for visitors (tourists). Coldfoot was re-established once again. Mackey had many visitors as a result of the tours.
Coldfoot Truck Stop -- challenges with\ costly\ Royal Highway Tours -- tourism\ opportunities with\ Coldfoot Truck Stop -- tourist destination\ tourism -- benefits of\ Coldfoot -- re-established\ economic recovery|

Section 16: The Haul Road was closed to the public until 1981, except for those with a permit to operate a commercial business along the road. In 1990, Dick Mackey sold Coldfoot Truck Stop to an Alaska based corporation. The company subleased it to Troy and Jan Thacker. In 1997, the company sold it to Sukakpak, Inc. -- a Fairbanks based company that owns and operates the Coldfoot Camp and the Yukon River Camp (and manages Northern Alaskan Tour Company).
Haul Road -- private\ public -- no access\ commercial operations -- limited access\ permits\ year -- 1981\ Haul Road -- public access\ Coldfoot Truck Stop -- sold\ Arctic Slope Regional Corporation\ Petro Star\ Coldfoot Truck Stop -- new management\ year -- 1997\ Coldfoot Truck Stop -- sold\ Sukakpak Corporation -- buyer of\ Sukakpak, Inc. -- Yukon River Camp\ Coldfoot Truck Stop\ Northern Alaska Tours|

Section 17: There are many operational challenges in running the Coldfoot Truck Stop Cafe, particularly in the winter. It is very expensive to transport fuel for heating and to order parts for repairs. Fixing and repairing costs more when parts have to be flown in. The generator powering Coldfoot utilizes a lot of fuel when the temperature falls to 50 degrees below. If power goes out, one has 30 minutes to regain the power. That is why there are several back-up generators to provide power at Coldfoot Truck Stop Cafe. Carlson describes the storage units that hold heating and diesel fuel required to operate Coldfoot Truck Stop and to sell to customers.
Coldfoot Truck Stop -- operational challenges\ winter -- effects of\ operations -- expensive\ repairs -- delivery of\ fuel -- expensive\ parts and services -- expensive\ generator -- power\ back-up system\ power outage -- dangers of\ winter -- below freezing temperatures\ heating -- expensive\ fuel -- types of\ oil\ heating\ diesel\ Coldfoot Truck Stop -- storage tanks\ storage tanks -- description of\ fuel -- storage of\ fuel -- general usage of\ Coldfoot Truck Stop\ trucks\ facilities|

Section 18: Most of the lands surrounding the Haul Road are public lands. There is no private land in this area (except in the Wiseman community). Prior to the Haul Road, there was no homesteading. When the road was built, the Homestead Act had ended. Along the 416 miles of Dalton Highway, there are only two tracts of managed lands (Gates of the Arctic National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). There are no roads, trails, or services in the Park -- so one can walk in, drive the Dalton Highway to view the park or contact the Coldfoot Visitors Center. The goal is to leave the area natural.
public lands -- location of\ Haul Road\ private land -- limited\ homesteading -- not available\ managed land -- park system\ Gates of the Arctic National Park\ National Wildlife Refuge\ park access -- limited\ hike in\ Coldfoot Visitor Center -- park access\ parks -- views of\ Dalton Highway|

Section 19: Coldfoot is more of a service center, while Wiseman is more of a community. In Coldfoot, a small air-taxi operator operates in the summer. Coldfoot Maintenance Station has seven half-time residents who maintain the highway for Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT). The Coldfoot Arctic Interagency Visitor Center employs a half dozen seasonal workers. The Visitor Center is an interagency facility managed by the National Park Service (NPS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Coldfoot -- service oriented\ Wiseman -- service\ air-taxi operator -- Coldfoot\ Coldfoot Maintenance Center -- responsible for\ Coldfoot Maintenance Center -- employed with\ Alaska Department of Highways (DOT)\ Arctic Interagency Visitor Center\ changes in\ Bureau of Land Management (BLM)\ National Park Service (NPS)\ United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)|

Section 20: Sukakpak, Inc. is the name of the company that owns Coldfoot Truck Stop. The company is named after a photogenic mountain. Sukakpak is the Eskimo word for a deadfall trap used to catch marten. Today in Coldfoot, Sukakpak, Inc. provides the amenities for lodging, food and truck-stop services.
Sukakpak, Inc. -- owner\ Coldfoot Truck Stop\ Sukakpak, Inc. -- name\ mountain\ meaning\ trap -- deadfall\ trap -- marten\ Coldfoot Truck Stop -- management\ amenities\ services|

Section 21: In Coldfoot, Northern Alaska Tour Company maintains a balance of retaining the original character of the place, yet providing modern services. In the past visitors were segregated -- the truckers, independent travelers, and tour groups. Now visitors are integrated. Visitors can experience the ambience, the character, and the surroundings of Coldfoot, but with the modern amenities. Coldfoot is a work camp, truck stop, and wilderness area.
visitor -- tourist\ types of\ independent travelers\ tours -- group\ tourist companies -- names of\ Holland America\ Princess Tours\ Northern Alaskan Tour Company\ tourist package -- types of\ Northern Alaska Tour Company -- goals\ authentic\ modern\ visitors -- segregated\ truckers\ visitors -- integration of\ Coldfoot -- description of\ work camp\ truck stop\ wilderness area|

Section 22: Wiseman and Coldfoot are complimentary communities. In Coldfoot, there is a need to provide services that is more industrial than natural. Wiseman is more residential and natural; it is not about changing big rig tires. Wiseman has a historic charm, and it is authentic. Wiseman residents live a subsistence lifestyle, but can be involved with the tourism opportunities and earn cash income.
Wiseman -- community\ description of\ Coldfoot -- comparison\ industrial\ service oriented\ Wiseman -- natural surroundings\ community oriented\ Wiseman -- residents\ subsistence lifestyle\ tourism -- opportunities with\ income|

Section 23: 75% of the visitors travel to the Arctic Circle. If visitors travel to Coldfoot, they are heading to the Brooks Range or the Gates of the Arctic National Park. Some want to see the vast wilderness. Coldfoot provides services and amenities for visitors and travelers.
Arctic Circle -- destination\ popular\ visitors -- preference\ Arctic Circle\ Coldfoot -- destination\ nearby parks\ Coldfoot -- tourism services\ amenities|

Section 24: Since the Dalton Highway was opened to the public in 1995, there has not been an increase in travelers. Group-cruise tours do not allow flexibility for tourists to travel, and there are less independent travelers since 2001.
Dalton Highway -- maintenance of\ expensive\ remote\ year -- 1995\ Haul Road -- public access\ public access -- minimal impact\ tourism -- steady\ tourists -- types of\ cruise tours -- limitations with|

Section 25: Brett personally feels Coldfoot is a great place to visit in the winter. Five years ago, he was cynical about the potential for tourism in Coldfoot during the winter season. Now that he lives in Coldfoot, he realizes the beauty of the area. Brett learned that Coldfoot is under the aurora oval, which means during any clear night the Aurora Borealis can be seen. Coldfoot is a great aurora viewing location, with no light pollution and many clear nights.
Coldfoot -- impression of\ winter -- season\ aurora viewing\ Coldfoot -- aurora oval\ aurora oval -- description of|

Section 26: During Brett's first winter in Coldfoot, he only had five visitors. As word spread that Coldfoot was under the aurora oval, more tourists started coming. Northern Alaska Tour Company now offers an aurora package, which is unique.
Coldfoot -- winter season\ visitors -- numbers of\ few\ aurora oval -- tourist attraction\ aurora tour package -- Northern Alaska Tour Company\ description\ Reakoff, Jack\ Wiseman\ tour packages -- selection of\ tour companies -- from Japan\ tourism -- winter season\ increase in|

Section 27: Brett has listened to many nostalgic stories from visitors who experienced the winter season, the Aurora Borealis, and the wilderness. Brett shares a story from one visitor, "The visitor kept asking him to stop the tour and allow him to just watch. The visitor wanted to 'feel' how the area looked". This reaction is not atypical. Coldfoot has regular guests who come every year for the wilderness and the aurora, even though the winter is cold.
visitors -- reaction\ nostalgic\ memorable\ tourist -- story of\ Coldfoot -- lasting impression\ visitors -- regular\ special interests\ aurora\ wilderness|