Day: 15/16 (I think)
Distance: Over 6K (I think)
I'm back in Fairbanks! I haven't slept in 48 hours and I am really really tired. I found a decent hotel on Hotels.com (free plug!) here in Fairbanks so that I can recharge my depleted stores of sleep. I've also overdosed during this leg of the trip on fear, anger, annoyance, angst (probably more angst then anger). I've really overdosed on annoyance. Let me take you, gentle reader, to yesterday after I entered my blog at Coldfeet and was about to leave...
Wanting to get a flight to Barrow so that I could see the Arctic Ocean and play with the Narwhals, I got back on the Internet excuse they call the satellite access and proceeded to go through more agonzing hell of trying to pull up Alaska Airlines and get my flight. Well, for some reason I assumed that Alaska Air was more of a regional commuter(bush flight in these areas anyway) and would have the same price as when I checked it 3 weeks ago. I should have known better. The price was now 5 times higher then when I looked at it earlier. Well, that screwed
up my planning for this leg. I really couldn't justify the cost just to go rub the belly of the CocaCola mascot. I was pretty bummed. Really. Bummed. Out. I now started thinking that maybe I should just turn around and head back to Fairbanks and proceed with the rest of the trip. I ended up talking myself into going north by figuring I could decide on the way up. So I headed north and wrestled with the pros and cons about taking that flight. On the way I realized that the main point of my entire trip was to drive as far north in a car as I could possibly get (Western Hemisphere you knitpickers). The Arctic Ocean was always something I threw in after the fact and was a nice-to-have and not the end all, be all for this expedition. I 'd forgotten that. The thought cheered me up immensely and I felt better going north.
Going up SR 11 (Dalton Highway), once you get past the Arctic Circle, the vegetation becomes sparse and low lying. I had never thought about it, but the further north (or south if you are at the bottom of th world
) you go, the tundra line drops so that by the time you get at the extreme latitudes, the tree/tundra line is virtually sea-level. The reason is three fold: wind, temperature and growing season. The biggest reason is the growing season. With a short growing season, vegetation does not have the luxury to spend energy to grow tall, complicated structures. It stays low to the ground and spreads out to capture the waning sunlight. As I crossed over the circle, the tree line became lower and lower and before I knew it, it was gone. At the end there, my altitude was barely above sea level with nothing except low lying scrub. No tall plants anywhere. Basically at the top of the world, from a plants point of view, you are just on a tall mountain. Another tidbit: at the equator, the tree line is at 19,000 feet! See, you learn something by stoping at those signs along the highway!
Besides the trees disappearing, snow became increasingly common. I went through valleys that were completely covered with snow. It was majestic. Even the tundra, completely covered with snow was beautiful with it's unceasing monotony of unblemished fields of brilliant
Calves are there somewhere (I promise)
liquid light. Gorgeous. At one point, I saw an Arctic Fox running through the tundra leaving a delicate trail behind him.
I stopped at an overlook where a valley lead up to mountains and in the far distance I saw lots of trails all over the snow that led back to my overlook. I looked down and frozen in the snow/mud were hundreds of large wolf paw prints. Never saw nary a one, despite scanning the land with my binos.
I didn't see that many animals. No bears or wolves. No moose or deer. I did see a herd of Musk Ox with their calves and a herd of Caribou with their calves. A nice trucker driver lady gave me the heads up about them. She saw that I was a tourist and just waved me over and told me. Though she might have done a double take when she saw my shotgun in the seat next to me. Hopefully she didn't get back in the truck thinking she just sent a bunch of animals to their doom.
As I drove further, I spied a large snow ridge that streched from the mountains to my left, across
the valley in front of me and continued out of sight on my right. There was a snow fog/cloud streaming off the top of the ridge that was just incredible. I stopped and just stared at it for who knows how long. Finally I decided that I would find camp somewhere near the base of that snow field. I saw a turn off and from looking at my map there was a primitive camp area near there. So I pulled onto the road, drove past what I assumed was an empty weather/NOAA/DoI station and proceeded on a partially snow covered road. Unfortunately the road leading back into the the interior was snow bound and I didn't trust Blue to move through there. But I did spot a turn off that I thought would be an ideal location for a camp. I pulled in and got out. HOLY CHIHUAHUA it was cold. The temp was 17 and the beautiful ice crystals in the were blowing right at me. I had no idea what the wind chill was, but it had to be at least in the single digits. SHAZAM! Time to pull out my cold winter gear! So I opened up
my case and threw on my cold weather garb. I was nice and toasty warm as I went and proceeded to setup my Arctic camp. (I was jazzed - sleeping in the outdoors above the Arctic Circle). Down comes my mallet on a tent stake. BANG! Nothing. Bang Bang Bang. Nothing. Ahhhh, dang it to heck!!! To be fair, it wasn't the frozen ground (I think), it looked like the entire area was covered with tightly packed gravel/sediment (hell - for all I know it was from the retreating ice sheets of the last IceAge). So I went out into the snow figuring I would put the tent on the tundra itself. My foot sank through the snow and into the turf below and then into the mud below that. This wasn't a hard packed snow covered permafrost/tundra but a partially to mostly thawed out Arctic meadow that was just seething with water below the snow. Everywhere I walked was just squishy icky freezing mud. The irony is that above the insulating layer of snow, it was frigid cold. The snow did a good job keeping the temperature above freezing below the snow. Ugh.
Well crap. I packed up
and got back on the road dejectedly. I wasted over an hour on this attempt and now it was getting late. Also, I had gone far enough north that there really wasn't anymore places to camp. You can camp on the turn outs but they were covered with snow and ice at this point and it was hard to tell which was a turn out and which were entries into the interior for the various companies. So I decided to just book it all the way to Deadhorse and see what was up there. I had no choice anyway. I needed to gas up the car. I had gone past the point of no return. As I was traveling the rest of the way, I fancied I would talk to a bush pilot and talk my way in going with him on a supply trip to Barrow. How we kid ourselves.
I know I haven't yet mentioned road conditions for this trip segment. Let me address that deficiency. The Dalton Highway is by far, with no stretch of my imagination, the single hardest most demanding drive I have ever done. We are talking about nearly a thousand miles of
pot holes, cracks in the ground, gravel the size of large rocks or small boulders, crazy truck drives who drive too fast (my cracked front windshield can attest to that), ice fog for over a hundred miles (I kid you not and that was only one way - the damn fog was still there when I came back), 12 degree or greater inclines going up and down mountains, hairpin turns, uneven roads, narrow one lane roads with no shoulders, avalanches (apparently I had just missed one by a day), rock falls with the occasional rock or larger tumbling from who knows what height and suicidal ptarmigan. The birds either died when I hit them (never did see a body or heard anything) or practiced some kind of theurgy since they disappeared from sight and I never saw them fly away. The birds just sat there as I barreled down on them and didn't move. After the third such time almost killing myself trying to avoid them, I quit trying and the results were the same. No bird bodies. That was a little spooky.
I pulled into Prudhoe Bay/Darkhorse after 11PM. I want to say it was pitch black and I couldn't see anything but HAH, that's funny. It was nice and bright and dead as a doornail. That was a little spooky too. Deadhorse is decidedly an industrial town first and foremost. There was no semblance of small town America anywhere. Think of a scene from the research station in The Thing (the good John Carpenter version) or the miner town on LB426 and you have any inkling of the industrial punk Deadhorse exuded. That was the first charming feature. The second were the roads. Did I tell you the Dalton highway was the hardest drive I had ever done? WELL I LIED!!!!!
THE FREAKING ROADS HAD NO SIGNS, NO PAVING, HUGE WATER FILLED HOLES IN THE STREETS NESTLED MENACINGLY AMONG MILLIONS OF POTHOLES THAT RANGED FROM GRAPEFRUIT TO VOLKSWAGEN BEETLES SIZE(I swear I saw one at the bottom of a hole). DID I MENTION THAT THERE WAS NO CLEAR SPOT BETWEEN HOLES GREATER THAN 4 INCHES?????
The entire town and streets (including parking lots) are like this. The few semi-trailers out and about were moving gingerly like me; all of us tentatively trying to find the path of least resistance (and least damage to our spleens).
IT WOULD BE AMUSING IF IT DIDN'T TAKE SOMEONE AN HOUR TO MOVE A QUARTER MILE!!! ARRRRRGGGGGGG!!!
After an hour, moving a half mile searching for the gas station, I thought to myself:
• Screw the ocean
• I hate narwhals
• I'll get my bear skin rug somewhere else
• I didn't want to fly in a plane anyway
When I found the station, it was disguised in a roll top enclosure that hid its purpose. Once I figured it out. I filled up. I then checked off going to the top of the world on my bucket list; turned around and headed south shaking my head "get me out of here."
I drove for a couple hours looking for a place where I could pull over and camp in the Arctic Circle (in my car but it still counts).
As I was looking, I spied this light off to the north east in the clouds (remember the fog/clouds?) I looked at it and I started thinking could this be glow from the norther lights shining through the clouds? The lights seem to shift and I started taking a bunch of pictures. I did this for a while and then the clouds started breaking up and it was the gosh-darn sunrise at 2:30 in the freaking morning!!!! Double Arg.
I drove down for another 15 minutes and I noticed the clouds breaking off to the west and saw the sunset over there!!! I couldn't believe it! The sunset and sunrise at the same time. No northern lights but I can say I have seen both at the same time (ok you knitpickers, I am not saying I saw the sun, I just noticed the dusk and dawn lights on the horizon.)
I did pull over eventually, slept in a very uncomfortable position for a couple hours. Got up, and drove back to Fairbanks. Just go in reverse, everything I have written above, and you will have a nice summary of my journey back.
I'm now in Fairbanks planning for tomorrow. I got my fishing license (with my King Salmon endorsement) so hopefully I can find some good fishing. I believe the Denali National Park will be my next stop.
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