Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Alaska's Dalton Highway: Deadhorse-Fairbanks, a 15-hour marathon drive

The Dalton Highway: Prudhoe Bay-Fairbanks

Sunday June 1, 2014

Due to Arctic ice winds, our scheduled flight from Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Fairbanks is cancelled. 
So we must return the same way we came – by road.  
We had arrived yesterday, after driving 800km over two days, on a tour in a 10-person van from Fairbanks, with an overnight stay at Coldfoot. 

We had driven through central Alaska and over its handsome mountain range to the frozen shores of the Arctic Ocean and the only town in these parts: Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay.

Somewhere in central Alaska

However, we are due to return from Deadhorse to Fairbanks by plane. 
The short flight is the final leg of this three-day tour, but, after our overnight stay at Deadhorse, the weather closes in...

The weather closing in at Deadhorse

So we take up Michael’s offer - he was our driver/guide from Fairbanks - to drive us back to Fairbanks in a marathon 13/15-hour overnight run. 
Thing is: he has to return the van to Fairbanks anyway, so we agree to keep him company - just as we had on the way to Deadhorse - but this time, there would be no overnight stay in Coldfoot.  

The plan is to drive through the night (or what constitutes night in an Alaskan summer, as the sun hangs around for 24 hours, and darkness is not an option) along the only road: the notorious Dalton Highway.  
You can come too on this marathon drive.  Just pack a few woollies... 

But before we set off, there are a few things you need to know about the Dalton Highway.  

1)  It is no ordinary highway: it is considered to be one of the most dangerous highways in the world, 
--> and was featured in a 2011 British TV series ‘World’s Most Dangerous Roads’. And with no population along the way, it is probably the loneliest: it has no cell phone coverage, no cafes, and despite the fact that it follows a pipeline transporting over 700,000 barrels of oil per day, there are only three gas stations along its 667km. 
2) It is a rough industrial road, largely unpaved, that starts 134km from Fairbanks. It is a haulage route for semi-trailers bringing supplies to Prudhoe Bay.
 3) It is twinned with the Trans-Alaska pipeline that conveys oil from the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.  Together, they traverse the Arctic tundra, cross the Brooks Range Mountains, the Yukon River and the Arctic Circle.     
We gather up food supplies, pillows and blankets and hit the road.
Time of departure: 3.20pm.  

Goodbye Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay.  The next gas station/cafe is Coldfoot and, all being well - seven hours away.


Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse from the air. Includes snow, frozen lake and a section of the Trans-Alaska pipeline.

Deadhorse national forest

From here on, me and my ipod track our progress, hour by hour.

Dalton Highway landscape, near Deadhorse: Arctic summer setting.
Hour one: As we depart Deadhorse, the highway sets the scene - it is a jaw shattering corrugation – but we have a clear view of the lovely patchwork across the Franklin Bluffs over the river. 

Franklin Bluffs

There are four of us, plus Michael at the wheel.  Wendy rides shotgun in the seat beside the driver. Her husband, John, in the seat behind;  Rodger and I are in back. 

On the road. You can see the tractor/trailer rig approaching...

Skies grey with a flurry of snow. We drive beside the Sagavanirktok River (locals call it Sag) with its cargo of unlaundered ice chunks as it tries to commandeer the highway that is, at this point, merely a raised wedge of gravel. 

The Sag Rivers laps at the very edge of the highway

(A note on gravel:  it is mined from a nearby sprawling excavation and is essential as a foundation for the Deadhorse camp buildings to prevent subsidence by permafrost.)

Prudhoe Bay's gravel excavations

(A note on permafrost: it is a permanent layer of frozen soil – an ice mattress if you like - just below the tundra in much of Northern Alaska.  It can melt and shift and bring a building down and is the stuff of stories where half a cottage falls into a hole.)

Hour two: we discuss the issue of toilet stops – there are no toilets until Coldfoot - and we all agree that we can do al fresco.
The highway alternates between corrugations, then a treat of smooth bitumen, then clouds of dust. The pipeline, which had been buried under the treeless plain makes an appearance. So do hills.

The pipeline marches across the tundra
The temperature rises from 33 degrees F. to 43.

 Hour three: into the gully, still following the river and the pipeline. Dark clouds above, but sunlight on low hills ahead. With patches of snow they are giant haunches of friesian cows.

Isn't Alaska gorgeous?
We are trapped behind a truck carrying a giant cotton reel of orange coil. Mountains veiled in mist form a guard of honor.  The road is wet and the truck kicks up mud and freckles our windscreen.
Comfort stop. The men scatter. Wendy and I discard all modesty behind the muddy van.
We snack. Bananas, apples, chips. Michael cleans the windows.
The highway goes low and we are under the mist. It blots out the road behind.
There is no going back.
We rattle on. The ceiling and interior walls shake. The CB radio makes the occasional comment to all listening on its channel. It is channel 19, and is an open communication for truckers, fellow travellers and pipeline security along the highway. At one point, when Michael was following a slow truck, the radio chirped: 'You can pass now'. And the truck's body
 language followed suit, pulling close to the edge and slowing down.
The mist drops across the road ahead. Headlights loom, followed by a large shape - a semi trailer heading straight for us. 

Two semis on a highway built for one.

(A note on Dalton Highway etiquette: Size Matters.  Trucks have right of way and smaller vehicles are tolerated if they slow down and pull to one side.  Headlights must be on at all times. )

Over the hill and a landscape painted in broad strokes of snow spreads before us. We catch up with the cotton reel truck.

Dalton Highway - a mere thread - weaving among mountains

Hour four: cotton reel truck calls on the radio: 'You're right to go now '. And we do. We'll miss him. We had started to bond with him.
Temperature now 36 degrees F.
We pass one of many frozen pools. Shallow streams trickle through the tundra. The grasses are just wet sponges sitting on a table of permafrost. This surface wetness argues with the technicality that this area is a desert because it receives so little rain.
No one walks the tundra, or lives by the frozen lakes. The tundra is a bog and you sink to your ankles with every step.  The summers are too short, the winters too long and deeply cold, coming in at -50 degrees F.

Shallow streams running through the tundra
But the pipeline marches on, a many-legged endless caterpillar. Can it be seen from space?

(A note about the pipeline:  It is one of the world’s largest pipeline systems: it is 1,300 km long and was built at a cost of $8 billion between 1974 and 1977.  The 1973 oil crisis overcame vigorous environmental, legal and political objections, and then its construction had to cope with frozen ground and the occasional earthquake.)

Fellow travellers: the pipeline and Dalton Highway

The mountains loom up ahead. 

Looming mountains

Wendy lies along a seat with her pillow and sleeps.  John now in front seat.  Conversation covers Steve Irwin and tall stories about bears. 

Then John, who is Australian, is describing the Nullarbor Plain, our salt lakes, the vast lonely treeless distances of Australia’s deserts - and as we traverse Alaska’s empty tundra and 
mountains, I feel both countries have much in common.
Temperature 41 degrees F.

Hour five. Atigun pass (elevation 1,444m/4,739feet)
(Note: The Atigun Pass is a high mountain pass across the Brooks Range.  It is where the Dalton Highway crosses the Continental Divide.) 

Atigun Pass
A nervous 10 minutes as we pass a sign saying 'Danger avalanches. Do not stop'. Mist is thrown in. We do not stop. 

Atigun Pass with mist
Banks of snow tonnage lie menacingly on the steep mountain slopes above us, ready to unload and sweep down the mountain and over the road.

Atigun Pass' roadside snow

Our van nervously making its way through avalanche territory

Avalanche area

Yesterday's avalanche

We hope the semi does not set off an avalanche

Avalanche after the snow plough clears the road

More of yesterday's avalanche

If a van can tippy-toe along a road, then that is what it does.  We all hold our breath.  For that reason, we make it through - but not all drivers do. 
Once through the pass, the sun is gone and mist blurs the surrounding mountains. They are dark walls scribbled with graffiti of snow.

Artistic shot

 We drop to the tree line and sight our first lone tree since the coast. Then there’s a few scattered trees, so we can become accustomed to them; merely suggestions that they are planning a forest.

A few trees acting as a starter forest

The sun shows no sign of setting. This is indeed a long day's journey into night.

Mud and an Alaskan night sky
Rodg rides shotgun. John moves to back seat, having tired of the job of navigating. We commend him for leading the way and not getting us lost.
Temperature: 41 degrees F.
Now we are surrounded by stands of trees, mostly black spruce. We are no longer in a desert. Rainfall on this side of the mountains is much higher, capturing it all and leaving little for the other side. It is also warmer as the mountains shield this side from the arctic winds.

Black spruce

Hour six: Rodg and Michael talk philosophy and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (which Michael loved) and students (both are university lecturers).
Road now dry. No corrugation but back-breaking potholes.
We pass a broken down truck. Deserted. As we near Coldfoot, we know we will cross paths with the next tour group who are on their way to Deadhorse and doing the same tour as we did just a few days ago. They are probably in bed by now and John suggests we wake them up.

Hour seven: Coldfoot (population 10 - if you include us).  We stop for dinner.

On the road again: Bitumen road. I read these notes so far to my fellow passengers, and everyone wants a copy as a souvenir of this marathon. 
I am riding shotgun.
(Note on riding shotgun, seated beside the driver: this is a duty we all share.  Shotgun has several responsibilities, the most important being to engage the driver in conversation and distracted from any temptation to close his eyes.  Other minor duties include navigation, which is fairly simple on the Dalton Highway as there are no turn-offs or byways or four-way roundabouts.  It just follows the pipeline.  Finally, shotgun must be alert for wildlife sightings, such as moose, caribou, lynx, dall sheep – because nothing much else happens out there.)
The highway does bitumen and we pass stands of black spruce, a small tree that has adapted to the shallow bog above the permafrost.
(Note on black spruce:  like the Australian eucalypt, it will seed after a wildfire, which again like Australia, are a summer phenomenon in Alaska.  Fast-food chopsticks are often made from black spruce.)
We are seeing the backs of the trees we passed on Friday. No traffic. We are not in peak trucking season and besides it 11.15pm.

We saw these trees from the other side on the way to Deadhorse
Temperature 40 degrees F.
The pipeline sticks close.

Pipeline with tundra...

Pipeline in mountain setting...

Pipeline getting a wriggle on...

Pipeline in profile

Hour eight: we cross Jim river.
(Note on Jim River: in January 1971, the Jim River weather station recorded the all time coldest temperature of -80 degrees F.)
Michael spies a grizzly bear and we watch him scamper into the forest, looking back to see if we are chasing him.
Now we have ticked the box for sightings of bears, musk oxen, caribou, foxes, moose, dall sheep and the ptarmigan (Alaska’s state bird).

Polar bear and brown bear in their natural setting: the hotel lobby.
Now we are at Gobblers Knob and the last view of the Brooks Range mountains. 

Gobblers Knob
On the ridge, you can see where the sun will NOT set in mid summer on June 21. It will rest its chin on the horizon then rise again.
(A note on Alaskan names: they like to set the scene, Gobblers Knob being typical, along with Deadhorse, Coldfoot and Disaster Creek.  Another example is a native village where Michael lived for a year.  It is called Place of Caribou Droppings.)  

The weather is misty and drizzly as we cross the Arctic Circle. 

We feel the transition, a small vibration, an earth tremor.  We know we’ll never be the same. 

Our fearless leader, Michael. Hat logo is inspired by mountain peaks through window.
Michael spots a lynx - tailless and out for a midnight date. The lynx has a wide foot so he run on snow and hunt the snowshoe hare, which also has a broad foot, so has equal chance to do a runner. In the natural order of things, lynx will prey on hare until numbers are decimated and then lynx will prey on other lynx, until their numbers are decimated.  Thus allowing snowshoe hare numbers to build up...

And around it goes - survival of the fittest and call of the wild and who gets eaten and who gets away.   

And, for that matter - who gets to be a trophy.  This archway in Fairbanks is made from over 100 moose and caribou antlers.  They did not get away...

Antler Archway in Fairbanks
 But I digress.  On a rock face on the mountain ahead, snow melts and spills a string of pearls down a granite slope.

Snow melt waterfall

Hour nine: all's quiet in the back van.
It is almost dark but mainly because of a low rain cloud. We are on the look out for the last on our animal check list: wolves.
We pass between finger rock (yes it is shaped like an index finger pointing skyward) and its answer, fist rock, (yes, shaped like a fist) on the other side of the highway.

Finger rock
Finger Rock still stands today because it is tough. And you have to be tough in these parts.  Someone took a chainsaw to the spruce that grew farthest north on the Alaskan pipeline, despite - or with spite - as the sign said 'Do not cut'. 

It just don't pay to be the farthest north spruce tree

The pipeline is still with us.  After all these hours together, I am responding to its endearing doggedness.  It is always beside us, either marching on high legs or wriggling up a hill or bridging a river.   

It keeps on keeping on, and is a belt around Alaska – in fact, it is a money belt.  It provides nearly 90 per cent of Alaska’s revenue.  Alaskans pay no personal income tax and, on top of that, they receive an annual oil dividend. 

I think I have lost an hour – I am getting sleepy – is it actually Hour Ten? Did I count the hour we spent at Coldfoot?
Moving right along: muddy road through forest.  Michael takes it slow.
A muddy section of the Dalton Highway

Hour Ten: (I think) We are into the hard grind where we are tired and the road seems long and the kid in the back is asking 'are we there yet?'
The iPod is running out of battery.

Hour 11: we cross the mighty Yukon. Road still muddy.
It is as dark as it gets at this time year - kinda dim but you can see the green of the willow shrubs.
At 1:55am the sun is a decorative pink glow on the left horizon. Word is that it will rise in a few minutes.

1.55am night sky

 This is indeed the land of the mid night sun. It crams as much summer as possible into a few short months and nighttime is not an option.
A truck waits by the road and its driver steps out to signal us to stop. He asks for anti-freeze. Michael checks his boot. No luck. But now we know there is someone else in the world beside ourselves.
John is carsick and he sits in the front to minimize motion.
It gets darker – as it does before the dawn.
Hour 12: the sun lies in wait just below the horizon. The landscape waits, bleak, still.
At 2.37am Michael and I are the only two awake along with the windscreen wipers.
Hours 13/14/15:  Me and my ipod sleep. 
At 5.30am, we arrive at Fairbanks.  It is a proper town with buildings and street lights and paved roads. 
We have no time to adjust to the shock of civilisation: Michael takes his van, spattered to its roof with the mud of the Dalton Highway, home; the rest of us have a plane to catch.
Mission accomplished – though it feels like an anti climax, because we all know that the point of a journey is not the destination - but the journey itself.