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Days 29-30 – Deadhorse to Denali National Park

August 6, 2017

After staying the night at The Arctic Oilfield Hotel, which has got to be the northernmost hotel accessible by car in America (the other two hotels in Deadhorse are slightly farther south), I got up in just enough time to take a shower and get to Camp Deadhorse, which, while sounding like a Halloween store, is actually the outfit that runs the tour buses through the oilfield to Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Ocean.

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Deadhorse in the morning.

As I boarded the 20 seat transit van sitting on off road tires, I found myself riding with several of the people I’d met over the previous few days. This happens a lot on The Dalton. Anyone you happen to meet, you’re apt to see them several more times as you leapfrog each other on your respective journeys north.

The bus took us through the oilfield…

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…and deposited us on a gravel berm reaching into Prudhoe Bay:

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I wasn’t wearing swimming trunks, and I didn’t relish having water-logged pants until I got back to my hotel, so I elected not to swim in the Arctic Ocean. I did take my shoes and socks off and rolled my shorts up enough to wade in down to my knees.

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The Arctic Ocean

Standing in the Arctic Ocean was a bit of a thrill, but in the context of this trip, was also a melancholy moment. I realized as I was standing there, arctic saltwater lapping against my knees, that that was it, that particular spot was as far north as I was going to go. As soon as I turned around and went back to shore, put my shoes on, I would be heading inexorably South, and be on the return leg of the trip.

I lingered for a few more minutes.

But time marches on, so I did turn around, put my shoes on, and got back on the bus. While waiting for the bus to get underway, I made a point to take out my phone and pull up Google Maps, just to let the GPS register and look at the Current Location dot sitting in an unusual spot:

2017-07-29_0795_GPS

As I said in the previous post, Deadhorse is an interesting place. Every part of it, literally from top to bottom, both built environment and ecological environment, is outside the norms of my experience.

Oil production, for better and for worse, is a cornerstones of modern life. Most of us put petroleum products in our cars, and all of us buy products made and/or shipped using them. As central as the oil industry is to our lives, we rarely if ever see or interact with the back end of that industry.

Deadhorse is nothing but back end for that industry.  If you are up there and are not an oil worker yourself, you will feel like an interloper. No one made me feel unwelcome, but just about every building*, every piece of equipment, every vehicle, every object, and every person is there for the expressed purpose of participating in or facilitating oil production.

The hotels don’t have continental breakfast, they have commissaries. Because they expect their patrons to be oil workers who deal with all manner of nasty and toxic grime, the hotels require you to put booties over your shoes when you come inside and wear rubber gloves while at the buffet line. When I came in, I didn’t see a single personal vehicle. Everything that wasn’t heavy equipment was a work truck. There are signs in various places reading “Pickup Traffic Only”, which are there to inform heavy equipment operators not to drive through. The only other type of vehicle expected is a pickup truck. The hotels have hallways dedicated to “night sleepers” and others dedicated to “day sleepers”. Etc, etc.

I couldn’t help but feel out of place.

*Speaking of buildings, a lot of the structures I initially took to be buildings were actually mobile oil derricks:

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Note the wheels.

The built environment is further influenced by the location. Granted, while I was there, Prudhoe Bay was perfectly comfortable and livable, but in a few months, it won’t be. In winter, the temperature regularly reached -40°F, with windchills in the -100’s. Many of the buildings are on stilts, I’m guessing so that snow drifts don’t pile up, or maybe it’s to deal with permafrost. Every vehicle has an engine block heater, and every parking space provides an electrical lead to plug in to. The pay at the pump slots at the gas pumps are located inside a weather sealed shack to save you the 10-15 seconds you’d spending outside swiping your fleet card.

The very ground is different, because it’s not ground in the way I normally think of, it’s tundra.

All of which makes Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay feel very, very foreign to my experience.

Then there’s the odd behavior of the sun. Besides the fact that it never sets this time of year, it doesn’t arc over you the way it has my entire life, it more of less circles around you.

With that added to the mix; the sun circling around overhead instead of doing anything else I’d ever seen it do, the area felt positively otherworldly.

But, my revelry couldn’t go on forever. I got checked out of my hotel, discarded my last set of hotel booties, and started back out on the Dalton Highway, now firmly southbound…

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…while dodging the occasional caribou:

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After a few hours, I found myself starting to nod off, so I had to pull off and catch another couple hours sleep. Eventually, I made it to miler marker 270, where the road almost brushes up against the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

I was hoping I would have better luck stepping foot in ANWR than I’d had with Gates of the Arctic the day before… and I did. The Refuge boundary was just a mile off the highway, and I didn’t have to deal with any river crossings. There weren’t even any trees in the way.

There were legions of mosquitoes though. I’ve probably never been in thicker swarms of them. I’d pretty much bathed in insect repellent before setting out, so they weren’t landing on me much, but every time I made the mistake of taking a deep breath through my mouth, I inhaled about a half dozen. Thankfully, they thinned out after I scrambled to higher ground.

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Just inside ANWR

After I took the above photo, I decided I wanted a better view into that valley, so I continued on another mile or so:

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There’s much, much more ANWR where that came from.

I could have kept going for, oh, about another 200 miles, but I didn’t have that kind of time, so I turned around and started back to the car. On the way back, the rain started up, which was great, because it drove away the mosquitoes.

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I happened to be wearing my trail running shoes instead of my hiking shoes (long story), which lead me to on impulse run the last half mile out of the refuge. It was only a half mile, and I was wearing cargo shorts, which are seriously awful for running, but still, for a few minutes there, I was fell running through ANWR. It was a nice moment.

I soon got back on the road, and left the rain clouds behind when I crossed Atigun Pass one last time.

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My last stop of the night was a final attempt to find my way into Gates of the Arctic. I’d spotted another area that looked promising, basically the same as the last one: a wide, flat valley with a river crossing between the highway and the park, about 40 miles upstream from where I’d tried before.

There really wasn’t any reason this was going to go any better than the first time, and I almost didn’t stop, but I figured, “What the hey.”

Twenty minutes after getting out of my truck, I was kicking myself, wondering why I hadn’t tried this spot first. I don’t understand how rivers work. Forty miles upstream of where the Dietrich River was impassible, it was more of a creek. It was never more than knee deep and I was across in about 20 seconds.

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After clearing the river bed, it was just a matter of heading directly west, and checking the GPS on my phone every 10 minutes to see if I was in the park yet. After half and hour, I was in.

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Just inside Gates of the Arctic National Park

I would have continued for a while, but it was 11:30, so I figured it was time to head back.

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I then headed to Coldfoot, fueled up, and found a place to set up for the night.

The next day, I didn’t do much, and didn’t make any stops.

I finished off The Dalton Highway…

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…took the Elliot Highway back to Fairbanks…

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…and then took Alaska Route 3 (AKA the George Parks Highway) south…

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…to my next destination, Denali National Park:

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I’ll be in Denali for probably three days, seeing what kind of trouble I can get into.

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