Travel to the North Slope, Alaska

Hello All!!                                                                              July 11, 2012

This is another rare letter but I want to tell you about our latest great Alaska adventure. This writing is originating from Barrow, Alaska. The trip, of course, originated from our home in Anchorage several days ago.

We elected to make the long one-day trip (360 miles; about 6.5 hr. driving time) into two half-day trips. As it happens, we selected Healy as our half-way point. The second day took less than three hours. We went in and out of rain, wind, and traffic, but mostly, it was just long. Lumpy-bumpy frost heaves were obnoxious and tiring. Then the bad news… the check engine light lit up. There was nothing we could do but keep on trucking. We arrived in Fairbanks, checked in for our Monday tour, and found our way to our camp site.

This was on Sunday and I must have spent nearly two hours searching for a working diesel mechanic. Nothing. We started our tour early on Monday morning. Karel and I were in the last two seats of a nine passenger van and I was frantically working my way through the list of phone numbers I had accumulated. Finally, another referral. Bingo! Friday, we have an early morning appointment scheduled for a diagnostic. With luck, it will be innocuous and we will be on our way. If not, who knows? Hopefully, we can be home Friday night.

Okay, what are we doing anyway? We spent Monday and Tuesday in the van with six other tourists. We started on the Elliot Highway. (Remember that in Alaska, although major highways are numbered, they are more commonly referred to by name.) We wound our way around the bogs, over the hills, and passed defunct and active gold mining sites. After about 40 miles, we started north on the Dalton Highway - often referred to as the “haul road”. The Dalton is the primary supply artery for the Prudhoe Bay oil field. The 460 mile Dalton Highway is gravel with occasional interruptions of paved surface.  The oil pipeline was always nearby.

July 20.   We put in long days… from about 7AM to 7PM. This was surely remote Alaska. We stopped at the Yukon River where most travelers shed a shoe and inserted their foot into the river water. At about the midpoint of our trip, we stayed the night at Coldfoot, a left over construction camp. The next night was at Deadhorse, just south of the Prudhoe Bay oil field. Both provided adequate if barely comfortable conditions. In the evening after we arrived in Coldfoot, we took a short flightseeing tour through the “Gates of the Arctic in the Brooks Range and visited the remote native village of Anaktuvuk Pass with a population of about 200 people. The village is accessible only by air or by snow machines in winter. These natives subsist mainly by hunting caribou. The village was compact and busy. The Brooks Range and the Gates of the Arctic were beautiful and impressive.

Outside of Coldfoot, we visited the tiny mining town of Wiseman. Here we met and talked with a non-native who lived by trapping during winter and subsisting on moose, caribou, bears, and some fish. Wiseman was a neat and pretty small village.

Prudhoe Bay was a fascinating experience. Drilling rigs poked up from the horizons. Pipes of all sizes streamed across the landscape. No trees. Flat land. Clean and neat. There were about 5,000 workers and, during winter about 10,000. Five hundred miles of road. It is a big area. Most of the tourists kicked off their shoes and went wading in the Arctic Ocean. The ice had just gone out a couple weeks prior.

Interestingly, while we were in Barrow, the air temp was warmer than the temperature in Anchorage. Today, it snowed in Barrow. Barrow is the northernmost city in the U.S. with about 4,000 people. It has been occupied by Inupiat Eskimos for 1,000 to 2,000 years. It is a large village with all the usual features of any village. Dirt roads, community center, clinic, airfield, store, church, etc; but this village has something special. A football field for the high schoolers. It is edged on one side by the Arctic Ocean. Subsistence is the rule here, but the focus is on marine mammals. Whales, walrus, and seals. Many hunters were out taking advantage of the good weather. During our tour, we saw a couple hunters butchering two bearded seals and two women cutting the fat from a seal skin. Unfortunately, we could not access the tip of Point Barrow. The sun was in the northern part of the sky and it did not set while we were there. icebergs drifted by and late in the day, the sea ice pushed near to shore. I spotted a cute saying someone had written: SAVE THE WHALES… so we can eat them.

Much of the trip north was through forested lands, mostly black spruce with some birch and aspen, with alder around wetlands. So we were lucky to see a cow moose and a calf that burst onto the road ahead of us. And another that was out feeding in a lake. Otherwise, I was a bit disappointed with the amount of wildlife we saw. A dot of a Dall sheep and a single musk ox. Just south of the Deadhorse, we spotted a far off string of about 100 caribou and during our Prudhoe tour, we saw six more, close up. A red fox was bringing a lemming for the kits. And we were shown a sow grizzly with a cub. We saw some spouts from gray whales and some interesting birds: golden plover, Pacific loon, whitefronted geese, swans with cygnets, longtailed jaeger and a short eared owl, among others.

In all, we traveled nearly 2,000 miles.

Oh, that check engine light…

The mechanic had merely forgotten to reset a switch.

Keep in touch.

BillKarel