Deadhorse, Alaska looks almost as desolate as it sounds, but not exactly. The town, more an accidental tourist stop, is located on the edge of the Arctic Ocean next to the Prudhoe Bay Oil fields. It is where Myra and I, along with 6 other adventurers, flew into from Anchorage to begin our journey of camping alongside the 4-foot diameter Trans-Alaska Pipeline until we reached Fairbanks, 400 miles to the south.
Surprisingly, the North Slope on Beaufort Sea, where Deadhorse is situated, is, geologically speaking, an Arctic desert. It’s not a hot or dry desert, but an area that averages only a few inches of rains a year and not much snow. Permanently frozen ground doesn’t absorb fluid. When it rains, moisture stays in the air until cold temperatures drive the water out. For the entire trip it appeared as if it was about to rain or felt as though it had just stopped raining. Happily I brought moisture-wicking polypropylene undergarments that kept us relatively comfortable.
Prudhoe Bay Hotel sat alongside the airport and looked like a truck-stop trailer camp setup to house refuges. I walked over to have a look-about and discovered that the inside contained a few neat amenities; a stylish restaurant, an expansive gift shop and a car rental. It certainly was an upgrade from the pup tent Myra and I would be sleeping in for the next 10 days. Even so, I preferred the tent.
A short distance away was the general store that at first glance appeared larger than the hotel. All the adventurers were inside buying last minute supplies of nibbles, batteries, and heavy clothes to meet the demands of that early August weather. I noticed a thermostat for sale that was accurate to 100 degrees below zero. A young German couple, Joachim and Veronika, wanted to buy an air mattress to place under their sleeping bags. None was to be had. They wisely took Myra’s suggestion and found two large cardboard boxes that they cut open and used to insulate themselves from the frozen ground. From then on Joachim, Veronika, Myra, and I became close buddies.
Once outside, everyone pitched-in to load all the travel gear that accompanied us on the flight from Anchorage, onto a Ford Van that met the group at the airport. Then we headed off to the Arco Base Camp as guests of the oil company for lunch and to examine several drill sites and the living quarters of company workers. On the short drive to their facility we spotted several caribou, a fox, and one grizzly bear lazily hanging out among the above-ground pipes between various structures. Joachim remarked that we were in for a ‘biased corporate view of environment preservation’. Veronika quipped that ‘Arco may have planted the grizzly bear’ to make it all look so natural. Myra added that it might be a ‘setup but let’s hear their side and keep an open mind.’
Finally I asked, “Is that possible?”
Everyone smiled and no one said anything.
Arco’s assigned guide, a young well groomed fellow, led us to the shore of the Arctic Ocean where we were able to touch the water with a boot-toe. One young woman scooped some water into a small jar to take back to her home in Japan. We were all excited to be on the northern most landmass looking towards the North Pole 1200 mile away.
We laughed when someone shouted, “Look! I can see Santa.”
Back inside the Arco building we were served pizza pie, drinks and given the free run of their vending machines that stocked candy, fruit, crackers and soda pop. There were more amenities for employees here than existed at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. They had the latest fitness-exercise machines, pool tables, ping-pong, library, restaurant, 24-hour kitchen and Internet café. We were led into a movie theater by our well groomed guide and shown a film that gave the corporate view of clean oil field development.
The oil industry narrated a fairly convincing story about the care they took to avoid a negative impact on the environment that includes, moving heavy equipment only in the winter over snow and ice to prevent damage to the soft earth surface that defrosts a few inches in the summer. They construct all buildings on a raised pad with gravel on the ground to avoid any heat intrusion into the permafrost. Each site had dozens of wells drilled at angles in all direction to minimize well structures. Hot oil extracted from the earth is transported by raised, thickly insulated pipes to avoid impacting on the natural permafrost, and many other seemingly sensible precautions. My observations of the facility and the main pipeline confirmed what they showed us. But it was a one-sided tale and all I could conclude was that it appeared to be as they explained it and I was impressed.
We left Prudhoe Bay driving across the tundra of Brooks Range towards the 4,736 foot Atiguin Pass, the highest point on the pipeline. There are no trees, but there were fields of berry bushes full of fruit. We saw dozens of grizzly bears scattered across the tundra, caribou, and groups of Dall sheep grazing on the higher ridges. The only traffic on the Dalton Highway that we encountered was a single, lonely backpacker walking towards Deadhorse. He kept his eyes on his shoes and didn’t look up when we past by. It was as if he was under a spell hiking the most isolated road in America.
I wondered what we would find further on.
Nov 19, 2009 11:03:59 pmby myrrhluz Homepage »
I thought I had commented on this one already, or I would have added more particulars when I commented on the edited version. I really enjoyed this and was hoping you would post more chapters. You are going to post more chapters aren't you? Please? Wonderful descriptions and dialog! I like the way you bring in other people like the Japanese woman and the hiker. Like Patty said, it makes me feel like I was there. Wonderful story!