Four hundred and ninety-nine miles. That's how far it is from Fairbanks to Deadhorse. The road is mostly packed dirt and gravel, with 18-wheelers roaring along as if they own it, which, more or less, they do. The road was built along with the pipeline by private oil companies thirty-five years ago. Now trucks carry supplies in and the pipeline carries oil out, and there you have it: the source of a heck of a lot of money.
Driving up to the Slope, as it is called by the many people who work up there, entails a couple dozen hours in the car; long stops for construction; only two places to get gas along the way; exorbitant food prices; and, at the end of it all, utilitarian pre-fab buildings and gigantic, mysterious mining rigs. The only question is, why have I spent 21 years as an Alaskan without making this spectacular trip??
My friend Holly mentioned this trip months ago, when the dark winter was making us dream of summer adventures. Greg was still in Czech, but he was ready to bite at anything Alaskan. Though dubious--my trip to the Arctic Circle two years ago, less than half the way up the road, didn't leave me overly enthusiastic--I agreed to it and penciled, "Jump into the Arctic Ocean" on my bucket list.
The itinary was simple: Drive ten or twelve hours on Thursday. Camp on the side of the road. Friday would be the big day: drive the remaining distance to Deadhorse for lunch and catch the afternoon tour to the Arctic Ocean. After the tour, hit the road again and drive as long as we want. Camp. Whatever is left would be Saturday's drive.
Thursday morning, Holly, two other girls, me, and Greg as the lone male, converged at our house. We loaded Holly's sturdy Jeepjeep to the gills, gased up, and headed out. A plastic red container of emergency gas perched on top of it all, a bold flag braving the dust and wind and mud.
At first the terrain was familiar: tall spruce and white birch, shrubby willow. Slowly the trees became fewer, and for miles at a time all greenery would disappear and there would be nothing but tundra, brilliant in fall colors. Finally, at Atigun Pass, we drove by “The Farthest North Spruce Tree” and anything taller than six inches gave up the ghost. For the next two hundred miles it was nothing but mountains, rocks, pond-studded tundra, and that persistent pipe snaking along the road. At every rest stop and construction delay, silty mud would inavoidably smear on us as we got in and out of the car.
North and north and north. We passed tiny towns with interesting compound names: "Livengood", "Coldfoot", "Wiseman," finally pulling over at what are our Milepost reported as a "primitive campground,” a big dirt parking-ish area. The clouds and wind made for a cold night and a frigid morning.
From there, though, the day improved. It was a short drive into Deadhorse and we warmed up over a filling, if not gourmet, buffet, surrounded by dirty, tired oil workers. Our tour guide was personable (which is pretty standard) and relaxed (which is not), pointing out different animals and giving us lots of information about the tundra and oil production. And though I didn't exactly swim in the Arctic Ocean, Greg and I did wade in, entering what was, for each of us, our third ocean. (We both have Arctic and Pacific; he has Atlantic and I have Indian. Yes, we track this kind of thing. All the time.) The weather was much nicer for camping that night, and we were able to have a leisurely drive with many stops the next day and still get back to Fairbanks at a decnt hour.
Here's some cute animals Greg captured with his camera:
As Holly remarked on the way back, it feels important, somehow, to have seen this barren landscape, which makes up so much of Alaska, and see a little bit of the industry that provides most of Alaska's revenue. Many friends and friends' husbands have been "working up on the Slope," the two-week-on, two-week-off torturous money-making job. Every year I happily recieve my Permanent Fund Dividend; now I've seen where it comes from. On top of it all, we saw some of the most unique, profound, and desolate a beauty we have found anywhere on this earthy.