Road Report #5
Fairbanks to Deadhorse return
July 18, 2008
The big box lane is where all the life is. WalMart was positively bustling. Stopped in there because I realized the main reason I am doing laundry so often is to keep a clean supply of underwear in the drawer. That is stupid. Why not buy a dozen extra pairs and quit wasting so much time watching the dryer go round and round. Thus, WalMart.
The Tanana Valley Campground in Fairbanks is their municipal facility and a good place to bunk down in the city limits for $18. Old but very clean with free WIFI. Tomorrow morning we are starting up the Dalton Hwy for Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean.
But it is also known for its spectacular scenery, offering a rare opportunity, in the far north were there are so few roads, to actually traverse a remote, unpopulated wilderness. And it is the only way, in North America, that one can actually reach the Arctic Ocean by road. So off we go.
The highway was built because, in 1969, oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay. Engineers overcame permafrost, mountain ranges, mighty rivers and climatic extremes to push a pipeline through from Valdez, an ice-free southern port, to the oilfields.
The Dalton Highway parallels the pipeline over 1280 km (800 miles).The pipeline itself has its own beauty. Strange thing to say, perhaps, but there is something magnetic about how it snakes up, down, around and under. We’ve been following it now since Valdez and there is something compelling about the determination of the men who made it happen.
As far as Coldfoot the scenery is your basic taiga (skinny, no-branch, stubby spruce) alternating with your basic tundra (dwarf shrubs/trees/plants and lichen on the rocks) at higher elevations. Not too interesting.
But after Coldfoot we cross into the Brooks Range and these mountains are magnificent. They swirl with colour: cream with copper highlights, charcoal grey with blonde layers, solid slate stone grey. Spectacular.
On the map Coldfoot looks like an actual town but it is really an old oil pipeline camp. There is a roadhouse with a restaurant, a gas pump, and a bunk-house style motel. These buildings are pretty much all just a series of construction trailers chained together and sitting in a big field of mud. Nevertheless, the pie at the cafe is great and the fuel pumps a welcome sight.
Mud is what we have been dealing with today. I had heard so much about the dust that creeps through the doors and coats everything inside, we duct-taped the back of the truck shut this morning. But there has been so much rain that there is no dust, just mud that sticks to the van in cement-like clumps.
When we stopped for the night we discovered that we could not get in or out of the van without stepping into massive mud pies on the steps. Even the door handles were greasy with muck. To remedy this we drove over to the river. While I banged and scraped the largest chunks off with a tire iron Steve carried buckets of water up from the river, dashing them over the steps and door handles.
We’ve had a series of mishaps today.
Nothing serious there, just trying.
We pulled over for the night at Mile 239. This is a free “wayside”. These are rest stops with pit toilets. They are located at regular distances on all of Alaska’s major roadways and visitors are encouraged to camp at them. Some are scenic, located on lakes or over glaciers. Others like this one are strictly functional, there to give truckers a safe place to rest.
Mile 239 is just short of the biggest, baddest, steepest hill on the Haul Road, the Atigun Pass. After 10 hours of slopping along in the mud we are tired. We are not going to attempt this pass while we are so tired. When I get out of the van to use the facilities, I nearly slip into the greasy mud myself. It is slick as an ice rink. Unfortunately, as I lie in bed here tonight I am listening to the sound of rain pounding on the roof. Hope it stops and we get some sun, but no matter, this is where we are going.
But that sounds like this is all awful and that is absolutely not the case. The Dalton Hwy provides an opportunity to travel by road through two spectacular areas: Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge and the spectacular Gates of the Arctic National Park. It is obvious why so many people in the far north fly their own planes – the roads barely touch the edges of the magnificent wilderness, but we are grateful for what we get to see of this wildly varied landscape. It is worth every mud-slicked mile.
One of the joys of traveling is being surprised. On this trip one of the best was seeing how colourful the far north is. The roadsides abound in wildflowers, one of the most prolific being the bright purple fireweed. So many times we came over a hill to see acres of purple carpeting the meadows before us. Just stunning.
There is an Arctic Interagency Visitor Centre in Coldfoot. They can help you plan your trip and answer questions but aside from that, there are no tourism services, medical or mechanical services aside from that in Coldfoot.
Occasionally one sights work camps off in the distance. Invariably they have signs posted at the road, “No services.” I can’t imagine they would not help in the case of a true emergency, but the message is pretty clear. Take care of yourself out here and don’t come unprepared. At the cafe in Coldfoot I watched an incredulous couple argue with a waitress about paying $5.95 for a small loaf of bread. Apparently they had not brought any food north but were not willing to pay the going rate for someone else to haul it north for them.
They are actually very polite. When we see a truck approaching us we pull over to a stop at the side (the road is usually not much more than one lane) and wait for them to pass. They usually slow right down to creep past. This is the polite thing to do because the faster you are both traveling, the more likely you are to have a rock spin into your windshield. And the faster either of you are going, the greater the velocity of the rock and the greater the likelihood of damage. For the record – no windshield damage for us on the Dalton Hwy. Thanks to all the Haul Road truckers.
Day two on the Haul Road and the weather is much improved. The roads have dried out and we make it up and over the Atigun Pass with no difficulty. Cannot help noticing, however, the chewed up mud holes where trucks were obviously spinning their tires yesterday.
The view through this area, in the heart of the Brooks Range is magnificent with peaks generally topping 7,000 feet. This is where the Continental Divide passes through, rivers to the south flowing into the Pacific Ocean or Bering Sea, river to the north flowing into the Arctic Ocean.
We are now heading full stop for the Arctic Ocean. The area where the oil fields are is actually called Prudhoe Bay. But the town that services it is called Deadhorse. I could not find any explanation for the name, perhaps it is self explanatory.
The climate here is cool, windy and foggy at the best of times. Summer temperatures are in the 30s and 40s. That is Fahrenheit! We were warned that snow can occur at any time but is a certainty by fall when the temperatures drop so steeply that vehicles are normally left running 24 hours a day. Apparently fuel trucks drive around refilling vehicles as they sit idling.
This far north the sun never sets between May 10th and August 2nd and never rises between Nov 18th and Jan 23rd . It is strange indeed, to be in a land where you can sit and read your book without a light at any time of the night. I never seem to feel tired. When I look at my watch and realize it is past midnight I make myself go to bed but it is not because I am tired. The body just does not get it. Once I am lying down with an eye mask shutting out the light I sleep with no problem, but up to that point I am not getting the usual biophysical cues that tell me to go to bed.
The tourism literature says that Deadhorse is like no town you’ve ever been in and that is quite true. It is all about servicing the oilfields up here – acre after acre covered in heavy equipment – most of it rigged up to be pulled on sleds or fitted out with caterpillar/tank tracks. This place is all about winter, when the frozen ground lets them drive heavy vehicles around without getting mired in mud.
We are parked at the Arctic Cariboo Inn so that we can use their facilities. Not so much a “hotel” in the normal sense, more of a collection of construction trailers up on blocks and linked together. There are some larger structures in Deadhorse too, but most housing consists of pre-fab units suspended on blocks. Kind of like living in a shipping container.
There is a big mess hall that consists of 5 or 6 containers opening onto each other. Eating here is on the honour system. Go in and help yourself. There are no dinner chits or anything. They assumed you’ve paid. The dinner buffet was worth every one of the $20 we paid - prime rib and salmon, fresh asparagus, baked potatoes, homemade tomato soup, rice, salads – and that is just what I can remember. There was anything you could think of to drink and a big cooler full of desserts of every description. I get hungry just thinking about that meal.
The airport landing strip is adjacent to where we are parked. Crews typically work two weeks in, two weeks off with their flights in and out of either Anchorage or Fairbanks paid for by their employers. All day planes land and take off without pause.
July 21, 2008
The tour includes a talk about life in the oilfields and a film that explains how incredibly environmentally sensitive BP and Phillips are. Okaaaaay. We were then taken on a bus tour behind those security fences, seeing the buildings and equipment and oil wells pumping away through the windows of the bus.
Then on to the Arctic Ocean /Beaufort Sea. No dramatic seascape here. Full-on fog so we could not see very much but I don’t think there would have been too much to see anyway. It is all VERY grey. Our friend Bruce actually stripped right down to his bathing suit and totally went under, as did about a dozen others. Steve took his shoes and socks off, I dipped my hand and collected some rocks. But there you go. I have now seen the Arctic Ocean.
July 22, 2008
Stopped at Wiseman, an almost ghost town. It was established in 1907 when miners discovered gold in nearby Nolan Creek. Today most of the homesteads are abandoned but a few people seem to be scratching out a living here in the old cabins they’ve renovated. There are a few newer homes too and a small plane gathering dust at the end of an overgrown runway.
The town has a museum with a lot of photos taken in the past 100 years and lots of contemporary photos to show what it is like there in the winter. There is trading post selling a few things on the honour system. I bought a crocheted Christmas angel for $15.
One of the cabins had a huge dog yard with individual kennels for the sled dogs. The fellow was exercising the dogs by having them pull him around on his bike. And there are bears here. A big fat black bear was trundling down the road when we first arrived.
Ended the evening at the wayside marking the Arctic Circle, Mile 115. We thought it would be a good place to sleep. Or try to. All night long cars kept pulling up to the marker/map/globe, falling out of their cars yelling, “We made it!!!!” then instructing each other on how to take their pictures. At one point Steve got up to use the toilet and had people calling him over to take their photos.
July 23, 2008
The veggie garden at the Hot Spot Cafe was interesting: big black plastic blankets covered raised beds of earth, holes cut in them where veggies and flowers were growing out of. They don’t have a long growing season here but because of the endless hours of daylight the produce grows HUGE.
Our van is again absolutely plastered with rock-hard, cement-like mud. Back at the Tanana Valley Campground we spend two hours working hard at first of all chipping it off, then scrubbing the greasy muck off. We realize that we are going to have to do it again in a week when we come off the Dempster Hwy but in the meantime, if we don’t wash this off we’ll be carrying literally hundreds of pounds of mud along with us.
Discovering that our telephoto lens is jammed we find a camera repair shop in town. While Steve is in the shop with the camera I was sitting in the van and a fellow sidles up and engages me in a strange, disjointed conversation. I was uncomfortable with it but could not put my finger on exactly why – he was standing beside the van, talking to me in my window which was partially closed. My door was locked and Steve was on his way back so I wasn’t frightened, just perplexed. Eventually he glanced around and took off.
Later we discovered that someone had attempted to break open the Stowaway, our wheel-less trailer on the back hitch. So I guess he was engaging me in conversation to keep my attention away from what was happening at the back of the van.
When we went back to pick up the camera the next day we noticed how many rubby dubs there were down there. The scenery of Alaska is magnificent but the cities all seem to be somewhat challenged and neglected looking.
From Fairbanks it is just 11 miles down the road to the North Pole. The town of North Pole, not the actual magnetic north pole. A savvy entrepreneur has taken advantage of that and built “Santaland” full of Christmas gifts and ornaments and decorations and so on. Yes, there is an authentic-looking Santa and Mrs sitting there and for a price they will even send a Christmas letter to your children big and small.
We followed this trip to unreality with a visit to Pioneer Park. Located in the centre of Fairbanks, this park is the place where a lot of the historical cabins and buildings in the area have been moved. Many of them have been restored and decorated by non-profit societies. Others are being used to sell arts and crafts.
There are also several museums here. Steve really enjoyed the aviation museum which was packed floor to ceiling with old planes and engines and memorabilia. The place is run by people with a real passion for old planes. One of the fellows working on restoring an old plane is actually up from New Mexico. Says this is what he does on his holidays.
In the morning we’ll head over the Top of the World Hwy to Dawson City, back in Canada.