Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Dalton Highway

Hello again. The road is calling, but I'm going to take time out to update you on the trip.

After Delta Junction and the end of the Alaska Highway, we did not take a rest like sane and normal human beings. Instead, we decided that we'd done well so far and continued to move north. We drove through Fairbanks and continued on our way to the Arctic Circle, the northernmost road in the US, the Arctic Ocean, and the furthest point of our trip from home. The Dalton Highway runs 494 miles from Fairbanks, AK to Deadhorse at the Prudhoe Bay oilfield. It is a mostly gravel road for supplying the small city at the top of the world all for one thing -- oil. Our goal, however, is not to find oil, but an incredible part of the continent that few people ever visit.

Fairbanks lies in a huge plain right in the middle of Alaska. To the north, hills rise and roll up and then down to the Yukon River. It runs for 2,400 miles from Atlin Lake in British Columbia to the Bering Sea. After the Yukon, the road again rises into the hills. Here, the trees become stunted, especially in low, flat areas. The trees can't grow roots through the permafrost and have a very short growing season. Even further north, open tundra become intermixed with the dwarf forests. Next comes the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle is the latitude line 66 33' 39". It is the southernmost point at which there is 24 hour daylight.

Sorry to be so didactic, I'll try to tone it down. Our biggest shock at this point came when we got out of the car to take the picture. We were instantly swarmed by mosquitoes. Let me take a moment to explain my prior experience with these insects. I've fished in the Everglades and other swamps countless times. I've paddled in the Boundry Waters, where mosquitoes literally sounded like a motor boat. I've been to Alaksa and experienced the state bird on seven previous occasions. I thought I knew mosquitoes. Sadly, I was wrong. Greg and I stepped out of the car, and we were immediately confronted with them. They looked like a cloud of nats, but they were bigger, much bigger. I waved my hand randomly and hit several. I brushed five off of the right arm of my jacket, and then I knew that this would be a long trip. We ran to take the picture and fled inside the car. I'd never seen mosquitoes like that, but it only got worse. The Arctic tundra continues and becomes more prevalent north of the Circle.

The Brooks Range in contained entirely north of the Arctic Circle and has several peaks over 9,000 feet. This is one of the most extreme environments on the planet. Coldfoot on the south side has the record for the lowest recorded temperature in the US at eighty below. During most of May, June, and July, the sun never sets, and the reverse is true for the winter. We camped just outside Coldfoot and braved the worsening mosquitoes.

From Coldfoot, it's 240 miles to the nearest services of any kind at Deadhorse. This is the longest stretch of road without gas in the US. Pressing on the Ocean means crossing the Brooks Range and leaving all trees behind. From here it's all tundra, and you can see for miles and miles and miles. The absense of trees gives the mountains a forbidding, harsh character. We crossed the pass and looked out for the first time on the North Slope. The land falls away in gold and green tundra interspersed with ponds and bogs. We thought we could see all the way to the coast, but it was a mirage. This landscape continues for well over a hundred miles. Many would call this a barren wasteland, but there is no place left like this on earth. The Great Plains have been civilised and farmed so that the endless grasslands are gone. The buffalo no longer roam and the antelope no longer play. There's something majestic and terrifying about the Arctic Plains. You can stand and look in all directions and see nothing all the way to the horizon. Here, you realize your own smallness your own frailty. We live in a constant state of shelter. We stay in our towns and know that the nearest hospital is only a few miles away. We see the comforting presence of our fellow human beings all around us. Out on the Arctic Plains you can be over a hundred miles in every direction from a town, a gas station, anything. You stand and look and realize that your securities are gone. Trees or hills which might divert your attention from the fact that you're on your own and tiny are absent. The concept of forever takes on a new meaning. It's like looking at the stars, but with stargazing there is relief. Look at the land around you and you'll see something, anything to bring you back to your own sense of time, place, and scale. In the Arctic, you have no relief. There is no comforting presence. There will be no darkness to hide it. It's endless day in the endless plains.

But eventually they do end. There is an end of the road. It's called Deadhorse. I don't know what I expected to find there, but I know I hadn't expected the reality. Deadhorse is the support town for the Prudhoe Bay oilfield. It's a world-class industrial operation. The only way to describe the architectural style is Soviet. There's more heavy eqiupment there than I have seen in my life. The sound is a constant drone of diesel engines. There are heavy and light machinery repair shops. There are six airports, over a dozen companies, and everything you could possibly need to pump and transport oil and anything you could possibly need to repair or replace that stuff. It's incredibly well concieved and organized, but I still can help but think that it's out of place.

You have to buy a tour to go the Arctic Ocean because of oil company security regulations, but we had to go. The Arctic is calm and not very salty, but it is cold. Greg brought a bathing suit and decided to swim, but I only went wading.

Our return trip, we saw it all a second time and even some musk oxen to finish it off. The musk ox looks like a moving brown stack of hay at first, but then you see horns and decide to convince yourself that this is a real animal. A baby musk ox looks exactly like an adult, but smaller. They're easily the strangest animal I've ever seen.

We stopped on the northern side of the Brooks Range and watched the midnight sun. It looked like it was about 6pm at home. That much daylight really does mess with you. It's tough to know when to sleep and when to eat and when to be awake, but if you make yourself, you can believe that it's time to sleep, so that's what we did.

There's more to come, as always.

No comments: