Thursday, July 14, 2016

2016 Epic Road Trip - Day 53 - 56

2016 Epic Road Trip
July 5 – 8, 2016
Days 53 - 56  
Fairbanks, AK to Prudhoe Bay (Deadhorse), AK and back again...

We took a 4-day excursion up the Dalton Highway (formerly known as the Haul Road) 500 miles north to Deadhorse, which is as far north as one can drive in Alaska.  Dead horse is located on Prudhoe Bay, a bay on the Arctic Ocean where oil was discovered in the late 1960s.

Prudhoe Bay, which was previously only accessible by air or water, was connected to Fairbanks, via the “Haul Road” which was built in the summer of 1973 to haul workers and equipment to build the infrastructure of Deadhorse and the Alaska Pipeline, which runs along the Haul Road. The actual road was started about 75 miles north of Fairbanks at the settlement of Livengood.

The road was constructed in 3 months, with workers on the clock in 2 twelve-hour shifts, 7 days a week.  After it was constructed, the road became a solid convoy of trucks hauling engineers, geologists and other pipeline workers and all the equipment, machinery and pipeline materials needed to complete the pipeline in about 3 years.  It runs 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay south to the port of Valdez, AK.

When I say the road was “constructed”, I use the term loosely.  It remains a mostly a hard packed dirt road, not quite 2 lanes wide, although some stretches have loose gravel or chip seal surfaces.  The gravel and stones are kicked up, causing lots of busted windshields, and so most car rental agencies won’t let you drive the Dalton Highway in their vehicles or charge you double the rate for a rental that is authorized to travel the haul road. 

In addition to this truck which had overturned, we also saw the remains of a car that had a dreadful mishap with what I believe might have been a big animal.
We rented a “gravel car” for this adventure...Other than having a cracked windshield when we got it, it supposedly had better suspension and a CB radio, two spares, a big tool box and a first aid kit that filled the whole back of the car.  ...It started out like a regular car at the beginning of the trip.

We booked through a “self-drive tour” company, which also made reservations for our 3 nights of lodging and a tour of the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay.   The puppy was dropped off at a spa and we began our trek on Tuesday, driving 250 miles to Coldfoot, AK.  From Fairbanks driving north, we climbed up into the mountains and enjoyed beautiful vistas of every shade of green.

We crossed the Arctic Circle.  An old wive’s tale is that your lifespan is increased by one year for each time you cross the Arctic Circle.  Some folks there were doing little dances back and forth, trying to get their longevity in.  It did make a nice photo op.

Coldfoot was established back in the late 1800s or very early 1900s as a mining town.  There was gold in the hills.  In its heyday, it had about 80 log cabins, 8 saloons, a gambling hall, etc.  The name Coldfoot was given because this was a spot that many would-be-miners got cold feet and turned around to go back to the lower 48.  It made a bit of a comeback in the 1930s, but mining here was soon abandoned again.  It the mid-1970s, it was set up as a camp for the pipeline workers, and it remains in that condition to the present.  Most of the old log cabins are gone. 

Today, there is a restaurant, which was built by truck drivers coming up and down the haul road and which was constructed from their excess shipping containers, wood, or whatever other supplies they may have been carrying. There was a gas pump and lodging and a visitor center across the road.  That’s it.

Lodging (which costs over $200 per night per room) is in a pre-fabricated building.  Some of the rooms are clearly shipping containers; ours certainly looked like it.  Nothing fancy would be an understatement, rustic is probably a polite adjective, but we slept.  Once we got onto the Dalton Highway, there were only two stops with food, and no gas from Fairbanks area until Coldfoot.  Of course, we did fill up the gas tank, even topped it off.

On Wednesday we drove the next 250 miles to Deadhorse.  Between Coldfoot and Deadhorse, there were no gas stations or restaurants or anything else, other than a moose and her babies. 

 Except, there is the sign and rock showing where the road building crews from the north and the south met up.


It was a beautiful drive, but the road got progressively worse as we went farther north.  

Note the crack in the windshield.  There were also about a half-dozen rock chips in it that hadn't spidered out...yet.
We went through several avalanche areas....

There are several areas where crews were improving the road.  Because of the climate this far north, the ground is frozen a few feet under the surface.  The road crews were putting down 3-inch thick Styrofoam sheets  on the road and then covering it with about 2 feet of dirt, then gravel.  The Styrofoam insulates the ground under the road to keep it frozen, so it doesn’t thaw and make “frost heaves”, the wavy bumps in the road that make your teeth chatter when you drive over it.  The ground condition is called “Permafrost” because the freeze is pretty much permanent.

As we went farther north, the spruce trees were stunted, due to the short growing season and about 10 months dormancy per year.  Finally, we were out of the mountains and into the tundra, boggy ground since the melted snow and rainwater can’t penetrate the frozen ground.

See the dip in the pipeline, where it is buried, this was done to allow wildlife to cross over it.
One of the problems with the boggy, swampy land is that the Alaskan State Bird - the Mosquito - swarm all around.  At one point, while we were stopped at some construction, they were everywhere. It took a while to swat all of them that got into the car. 

We spent our second night in Deadhorse and got up early Thursday to take a small tour of the oilfields. Saw a bit of wildife, lots of oil and gas lines, and hundreds of little pump houses.  There is no drilling in the water......yet.

Caribou near water.  Alaskan pipeline in the distance at Prudhoe Bay.
We went as far as we could go.
Insiders' joke, since no trees grow in Deadhorse - or for many miles around.
We took the Polar Bear Plunge in the Arctic Ocean and all received certificates of authenticity.  There was snow/ice at the edges of the water, although not visible in this picture.  The air temperature was about 42 this morning; water was much colder!

This is the location of the road across the water shown on the reality show "Ice Road Truckers"  They drove on the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay, and then across the water/Ice to take supplies to outlying native villages.  The natives were able to get their supplies by airplane or boat in the summertime.
Oil Field at Prudhoe Bay, bringing the oil from the pumping houses toward the Pipeline.  Some are carrying oil, some are carrying natural gas, and some are carrying other things..hydrogen, etc.
Caribou in the fog at Prudhoe Bay.

A raven at Prudhoe Bay.

After the tour, we drove the 250 miles back to Coldfoot and spent Thursday night there.  Got up Friday morning and made the last 250 miles back to Fairbanks.

"Headache Bar" installed near the pipeline at access points. This is supposedly so no trucks with ill intentions can potential damage the pipeline...not sure it would stop a determined interloper.

A highlight of our drive from Coldfoot back to Fairbanks was being flagged into a turnout until a truck carrying oversized cargo heading north could pass us.  The truck had 80 wheels and carried a 400,000 lbs. piece of equipment used in cleaning the pipeline. It was called a 'pig launcher'.  The truck and cargo took the whole road width and then some.  It had been on the radio that the road would be closed in sections to allow that truck and his entourage to pass.

Big truck with his cargo coming down the mountain.
Approaching us.
There were two "pushers" behind him to help him get up the mountains.
After all of the excitement of the trip, we arrived back in Fairbanks, a wee bit dirtier than when we started.

And then we turned in our rental car!

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