Musings and Prose of Greg Gough

An opportunity to experience my world

Archive for July, 2008

The Dalton Highway

Posted by ggough56 on July 12, 2008

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood….no wait, let me start over.  One road went into a green wood that was teeming with life.  The road was high and the road was long, leaving the task ahead very daunting and turning many away at it’s threshold.

We began the 414-mile, more than 10 hour trek at 1:00 AM Alaska Daylight Time (GMT-8).  It was a rough start because the road begins unpaved and with caution signs that warn of heavy industrial traffic.  Never-the-less, we continued because we knew we must make it to our destination.

Where were we destined?  Well, at first it was the town of Deadhorse, AK, which is right on Prudehoe Bay, just off the Bering Sea which is part of the Arctic Ocean.  Also, we knew this was the location of the North Slope Oil Fields.  We intended to view these, the ocean and the amazing scenery along the way.

To catch you up on some history, oil was discovered in Prudehoe Bay in 1968, which lead to the construction of a road that was used to build the Alaska pipeline.  For so long this road was called the Haul Raod, as it was used to haul all of what was necessary to construct the pipe and the camps at the North Slope.  Oil began to flow July 20, 1977 (two days before I was born) and has been going ever since.  The busy season is winter because ice roads can be made to drill for oil that is under the ocean, otherwise, significantly less is done in the summer because there are only a handful of land drill sites.

Now that you’re caught up on some history I can share with you the fact that no one would ever see what was in store along the Haul Road, now called the Dalton Highway (Alaska 11), had it not been for oil discovery.  There would be 414 miles (roughly) of unexplored and mostly unseen Alaskan  wilderness.  Part of the motivation to drive the road was to view this exquisite scape that God had made.

So we began early in the morning, though it was a very good dusk that gave us plenty of light.  There was little concern that we would not see any animals on the road and we certainly had no need for headlights.  Up and down and down and up the dirt/rock road.  Some parts were very nicely paved as long as you watched for frost heaves and large potholes.  Honestly, the road made my local Kalamazoo avenue a walk in the park (thankfully they are repairing that one now).  I believe the steepest grade was 12% and it was quite frightening passing a fully loaded semi-truck heading down one of these.  Mostly we’d veer to the side of the road and hope for the best.

One of the first destinations is the Yukon River Bridge.  This is the only bridge that crosses the Yukon in Alaska and the Yukon is a major and rather large river.  The bridge has a significantly higher south bank than north bank so the bridge is not level, it descends as you head north.  The pipeline is under the bridge as well, as the bridge carries it across the Yukon River.  The Yukon Bridge was the last portion of the Haul Raod to be completed.  Interesting that the crown jewel, in a manner of speaking, is the bridge, connecting North and South Alaska.

There is a little visitor center on the north bank and we stopped there (actually on our way back down the Dalton Highway) to check things out.  We ate some raspberries that were growing wild on the side of the road.

Next stop was the Arctic Circle.  We probably arrived (as I recall from our log) around 2:30 AM AKDT and it was such a wonderful view and the light was plenty to see far distances into the mountains.  For those of you who are less familiar with the Arctic Circle, let me explain.  The Arctic Circle is an imaginary line around 66 degrees 33 minutes north of the equator where the sun does not set below the horizon for a 40 day period around summer solstice (in the northern hemisphere).  So between approximately June 2 to July 15, you will never see the sun set.  You could call it the 40 days of day.  It’s quite fascinating to experience if you have not before.  It makes you much less tired and we slept far less, though it could have been our excitement as well!

We traversed past the Arctic Circle and on to Coldfoot, AK, which is basically the farthest north truck stop.  It’s not like one of those in Iowa, with electronic pumps and full blown convenience store, no it’s manual pumps for gas and it’s a small cafe with several rooms in temporary buildings out back.  You’re free to park overnight where ever you like and you can camp anywhere you like as well.  We arrived around 5:15 AM AKDT and I was pretty tired.  I filled up with gas and I waited until 6:00 AM when the Prudehoe Bay Hotel was open to take reservations for a trip through the oil fields and up to the arctic ocean.  Once I was registered, I went to sleep.

We were at the visitors center in Coldfoot by 10:00 AM (when it opened) and we checked out what they had there.  It was interesting to read on the specifics of the environment in that area and some about the wildlife that inhabits those parts.  We continued up the Dalton Highway, working toward the midway point, near mile 207.  Coldfoot is near mile 176.

Some of the more rural and isolated sections of the highway were in this stretch north.  We came upon the Brooks Range of mountains and at Atigun Pass we crossed the continental divide.  I’m not sure exactly where the exchange from the Rocky Mountains to the Brooks Range occurs, but none-the-less, we crossed at Atigun Pass.  It was near mile 244 and it was quite beautiful.  From here there was no smooth asphalt if the road was paved, it was more of a chip-seal, as they called it.  It’s basically sealed rock road, so it’s quite rough and you must watch for potholes.  They are large potholes and they are nasty.  Given the large amount of permafrost and the continual changing in the ground it is difficult to build a road and will continue to be stable year after year.  They must actually dig to rock that does not move during season change and backfill to put a more permanent roadbed on top.  I’ve heard this can be as much as 25 feet into the ground.

After Atigun Pass you come upon a stretch of tundra.  There are two types of tundra, one that is because of your high lattitude, Arctic Tundra (which we were in) and another that occurs and high altitude.  Either way, the idea is about the conditions at each, rainfall, temperature, oxygen, etc..

Many of the trees as you more further north get very small.  Though they could be a couple hundred years old, they are very short.  The time each year that is allowed for photosynthesis is short, so there is not much time to grow tall.

Mile after mile, we longed to see Deadhorse, which would be a good sign of civilization in this wilderness.  Though absolutely spectacular, we would need more gas.  The only fuel availability between Fairbanks and Prudehoe Bay is Coldfoot.  It’s nearly 500 miles from Fairbanks to Deadhorse.

Finally arriving in Deadhorse, it was quite different than we expected.  It was not a town at all, there were no customer friendly services and there was no gift shop.  No restaurants, no mass number of tourists, just an oil field.  There were oil pumps, rigs and equipment as well as many temporary buildings that housed necessary items to function year round.  They had a general store and there were three “hotels”, though you might consider them more “camps”.  One can stay in these for about $100 per night per person.  It doesn’t matter which hotel, they are all about the same.  We got a hot meal at one hotel and it was $20 each.  It was not al all that fabulous.  It was basically cafeteria food.  They were serving steak that night, but honestly, I’ve had better.

We explored the oil fields, to the extent that the general public is allowed and we fueled up at a self serve gas tank.  Literally a tank was behind a hut that contained the pumps for diesel and gas.  We could pay by credit, but it was quite different than what we were used to.

That night we stayed at a turn off that was along the north end of the Dalton Highway near some water that was probably from melted snow.  The mosquitos were CRAZY and rather abundant.  You enjoyed the cool breeze (it was in the 60s and 70s temperature wise) which kept the mosquitos unable to fly with any semblance of direction or target.  When you’d park your car you could count on the side that was out of the wind being covered by mosquitos.

We used a baby carriage screen (this is an elastic screen netting used to put over a baby carriage) to cover one of the doors and we rolled down the window while we slept.  I woke up around 1:30 AM, 2:45 AM and 3:30 AM to find that the sun was simply floating along the northern horizon.  It had fooled us into thinking it set earlier that night, but it was making it’s way back to the east to rise high in the sky again.  The sun is actually quite high in the sky during Arctic days in summer, but at night it is very close to the horizon, waiting to rise in the east.  40 days of night has to be an even more thrilling (and haunting) experience.  40 days of night occurs when they are most busy on the North Slope.

We arrived at the Prudehoe Bay hotel at 7:30 AM AKDT to get on the tour that would be taking us to the Arctic Ocean.  They began the tour at 8:00 AM AKDT and it was some education from BP (British Petroleum does much of the management in the North Slope).  We got on the bus and we headed through the oil fields and they educated us on how they engage with the environment and how they have strict regulations regarding alcohol and treatment of wildlife.  There is no alcohol what-so-ever and wildlife always has the right of way.  So much for Mike and I getting a glass of wine to celebrate our Arctic Ocean tour.

We got down to the ocean and it was a bit breezy, though when you’re along any body of water you increase the chance for wind and temperature decrease.  The water was supposedly at 34 degrees, which was far to cold for me.  I put my hand in the water and felt it’s temperature.  By the time my hand told my head that the water was too cold I had pulled out.  Mike, on the other hand, stripped to his boxers and jumped into the ocean.  He did a breif breast stroke and came out shivering.  He’s fine now, but I objected to him getting sick as a result of his silliness.  Haha.

After the tour, around 10:00 AM AKDT we headed back down the Dalton Highway.  We passed everything we had seen before and we arrived in Fairbanks around 9:45 PM AKDT.  We stopped into a Boston’s restaurant and got a bottle of wine to celebrate with our meal.  We enjoyed our ham sandwiches, but it was nice to get something prepared in a kitchen with other flavours than bread, meat and mayo.  I enjoyed the BBQ sauce for my turkey wrap (nice fresh lettuce and tomato).  Mike enjoyed a sausage pizza.  We had a bottle of Yellowtail Shiraz.

Thus concludes the story of the Dalton Highway.

The Dalton Highway is also a story of faith.  Many encounters along the way, assuming our choice of vehicle was not good enough or that we would get a flat tire.  We did not bring extra gas or tire along the way.  We decided not to, intentionally.  For me personally, I realise how much I only see what is in front of me and how easily I let my world be controlled by my circumstances instead of my faith.  If the road was too steep, I would be afriad of overheating.  If the road was too rough or pothole filled I would be afriad of a flat tire.  If there were animals on the road, I was afraid of running into one.  Mike reminded me all the way that we would travel the road just fine, we would arrive and be safe.  We prayed a blessing along the way.  I remember asking Mike to pray aloud about 10 miles into the highway because I was thinking of heading back myself.  Soon that went away and we were bent for more.

There were several inclines and declines that were daunting on this gravel road.  Afraid of going too fast to slip off to either side as you descend and not sure if you can manage to balance engine RPMs well enough to get to the top.  Let alone if there is a semi-truck coming the other way or from behind.  They like to travel about 50 miles per hour, which is the speed limit on the road.  I understand, after having travelled it, because it’s so long, you must travel at least that fast when you can.

We entered a section that was covered with fog, this just before Atigun Pass.  Honestly, there was a mile or two where we could not see much in front of the car for headlights or potholes.  I don’t even know how anyone would travel this road in the winter conditions they have up there.  Though they have been doing it for many years.

I really had to rely on believing we would  be alright and arrive in our destination, come what may.   This was a new mentality for me to truly live in, but it made it possible.  That is why I say the Dalton Highway, to me, was a journey of faith.  We’re not guaranteed a smooth, safe ride with no trouble, we are only guaranteed a destination and great company along the way, no matter what the conditions.  I now must cynergize this with my current mentality.  I don’t know that I will ever be free of my “practicality” as I call it, but I want to step into more living out of faith in something.

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