Saturday, June 07, 2014

Traveling up Alaska's Haul Road, aka the Dalton Highway

The Dalton Highway is a 400-plus mile road that runs from Fairbanks, Alaska, almost due north, to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay in the Arctic Ocean. The road was built alongside the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s to make maintenance easier and to act as a lifeline for the thousands of workers and billions of dollars worth of equipment up in Prudhoe. Last week, I traveled up the Haul Road, from beginning to end. This is what I experienced.

I booked the first trip of the summer offered by Dalton Highway Express. It offers weekly trips for sightseers, hikers, and cyclists. My van was driven by a woman and she was accompanied by her seven year old daughter. There was a couple in our van as well. Six years ago, they went on a two year trip throughout Latin America. They have been saving money since and they are about to ride their bicycles from Prudhoe Bay down to Mexico, along the Continental Divide. Depending on how they feel and how much is left in their bank account, they may go further south than Mexico. And then, finally, there was me.

Our first pit stop along the mostly dirt road was Joy. It's essentially a store and a home belonging to the Griffins. The Griffins have 23 children, most of them adopted. Conveniently, there are outhouses for travelers. This Checker Aerobus was one of several interesting vehicles parked out front.

The southern portion of the highway is fairly green and you'll notice plants and trees getting shorter and shorter, as you travel north. There's also evidence of past forest fires. Gold mines also dot the landscape. I learned that there are two kinds of mining-- mining for gold and mining for investors. When you are mining for investors, you are basically pushing dirt around and deceiving naive potential investors.

Then, we came upon the Yukon River Bridge. This is the only bridge that crosses the might Yukon River in all of Alaska. Before the bridge was built, hovercrafts carried trucks across. Since 9/11, there is 24/7 surveillance on the bridge. If you stop your vehicle on it, a stern voice will instruct you to move along via loudspeakers.

We took another break and took in the grandeur.

After a while, we noticed these strange rock formations called tors. Extreme freezing and thawing of the ground pushed these rocks up above ground. We then crossed the Arctic Circle.

About halfway up the highway is Coldfoot. It has the only gas station along the highway. I had a burger and fries, which were not bad, considering we were in the middle of nowhere.

This is Coldfoot's parking lot. The trailers in the background constitute the hotel. The owner of that BMW motorcycle in the foreground is my hero. He belongs to a club of 40,000 motorcycle riders. In order to join, you must prove that you have ridden 1,000 miles a day. But that's not the best part. He set the record for riding through 49 states (excluding Hawaii) in 8 days 9 hours 37 minutes. Breaking such a record (in a car) has been a dream of mine and I knew that plotting the trip to minimize the mileage (and maximize the speed) was a Herculean task. I asked him if he had written a computer program to figure it all out. He grinned and nodded. Apparently, he started in Maine and just drove down and up, down and up, as he worked his way west.

Once we left Coldfoot, we took a short detour and went to Wiseman (Population: 20), where we picked up a couple of Indian sisters from Mumbai. They had spent the night at a bed and breakfast in Wiseman and wanted to visit Prudhoe Bay. The driver's daughter took a liking to one of the sisters and they talked and played games for practically the rest of the way. It was very sweet.

As you can see, the treeline is getting shorter. To the right is Sukakpak Mountain. It is pure marble. This is also one of the few places along the Dalton where the road is actually paved. There is no rhyme or reason as to where the road is paved. We welcomed the smooth tarmac, as some of the rough sections bounced our van (and our bodies) around quite a bit and we couldn't travel faster than 40 miles an hour.

Here is our van. It's a Ford E350 with a V10 engine. It has heavy duty tires, a CB radio, and a satellite phone. The driver used the CB quite often. We would announce ourselves before entering dangerous, often narrow, stretches. All the truckers were quite courteous. We yielded the right-of-way to all of the tractor trailers, which had anywhere between 18 to 26 wheels.

As we slowly climbed, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up.

Ahead of us lies the Brooks Range.

This is the slow ascent up Atigun Pass (4,739 feet). We let southbound traffic clear first before we set off northbound. I had been checking road conditions the week prior and there was a constant chance of avalanche. No stopping was allowed due to the risk.

As we descended the pass, we saw evidence of small avalanches. The road crew often blasted the sides of the mountains with World War II-era howitzers to mitigate the potential for disaster.

Slowly, the land flattened. There are no trees north of the Brooks Range. It's all tundra and permafrost. You can see the pipeline on the right. We saw a handful of animals-- a grizzly bear, moose, caribou, ground squirrels-- and birds, including golden eagles, swans, and long-tailed jaegers.

The picture below was taken at around eight in the evening. Since the sun never sets in the summer, it was deceptive and hard to comprehend that we had been on the road for 14 hours already.

As we approach Prudhoe Bay, permafrost is everywhere. The road is essentially a thin strip of gravel thrown on top of the landscape. The nearby Franklin Bluffs were beautiful and my smartphone was unable to capture the different colors and shades.

At around 10 p.m., we arrived at our "hotel" in Deadhorse. Prudhoe Bay has the oil fields. Adjoining Deadhorse has all of the living quarters for the approximately 5,000 workers. Deadhorse is divided into camps. Each camp belongs to a different company and its staff. The camp I stayed at belongs to CGGVeritas, a large French company that specializes in geosciences work. Outside our base were dozens and dozens of tracked vehicles and trailers of all shapes and sizes.

This is what you get for $200. A simple room with two beds. The communal bathroom is upstairs on the second floor. Due to the melting permafrost, there is mud everywhere. When you enter the building, you have to either take off your shoes or put on disposable, elastic booties over your shoes.

It was around 30 degrees Farenheit when I arrived, not that cold. But I couldn't figure out how to work the heater in my room, until the cold woke me up at three in the morning. I finally figured it out by turning the heater on and off a few times. Then, it blasted heat like a flamethrower.

In the morning, I was to take a tour of the nearby Arctic Ocean. The land adjacent to the ocean actually belongs to British Petroleum. One can't simply drive to the ocean. I had to pay for the privilege. Before we head off, I have breakfast. Everything, from eggs to computer terminals, has to be trucked up to Prudhoe Bay. Almost everyone up here works two weeks on and two weeks off. The cooks were friendly and had a buffet spread for the guests and workers. This is what I got, a Santa Fe omelet with steak, potatoes, and reindeer sausage.

This is the outside of our hotel in Deadhorse. As you can see, it is very muddy. There are loud water pumps running all the time, but it's a losing battle.

The tour was given by an affable security guard. Prudhoe Bay reminded me of urban sprawl. As far as the eye could see, there were drilling rigs and miscellaneous structures housing the needs of oil extraction. Currently, the drills go down about 9,000 feet and pull out oil, natural gas, and water. The natural gas and water are injected back into the ground. Desalinated water is also injected to replace the extracted oil. There is a ballot initiative to build a natural gas pipeline alongside the oil pipeline. But with the current low cost of natural gas, it does not make financial sense to do so at the moment.

Our guide told us a funny story. A barge towed a desalinization plant from South Korea, through the Bering Sea, to Prudhoe Bay. However, due to the shallow shoreline, the barge could not get closer than two miles from the beach. So, they left it out there and just built a two-mile connector (for vehicles, power, and water). Because it is so far out, it is prone to wandering polar bears. In response, a large shark cage envelopes the entire plant to protect its workers.

And finally, we arrived. The ocean was still frozen.

Despite the long and uncomfortable ride, it was worth it. In my haste packing, I neglected to bring a hat or gloves. Typical Californian.

Here we are, walking back to our tour bus. The bus driver is to the left and the skinny guy on the right is the record-breaking motorcycle rider from Coldfoot.

Before the tour ended, our guide had to show us this joke sign.

The end.

P.S. I had to slip this shot in. It was taken at a rest stop in the tundra. I snapped a picture of the truck because it looked Australian. Very Mad Max-y.


Thomas Freund said...

not fair. should have driven a 2cv6 truckette, maybe ann juell's is up there somewhere.

Shaun Pond said...

Nice article! I've driven a ways up this road, in a rental car. Nice to learn what the rest of it's like.

Also, re your comment "Breaking such a record (in a car) has been a dream of mine..", this may be of interest to you:

Edvin said...

Very interesting tip, thanks for sharing!

Interesting engine choice that V10 Triton in the van. You'd think a diesel would be better suited there? How was the omelet?

Congrats on completing another part of your big journey!

Lukas said...

Good writeup, thanks. Agree re the diesel, the American way seems to be to add more cylinders and/or cubic inches.

Need to watch mad max someday.

Maxichamp said...

@Shaun Pond: Thanks for the link. I'm going to use it as a separate post. Quite a few determined motorcyclists on the road. Saw a German trying to ride to Ushuaia in a KTM.

Maxichamp said...

@Edvin: I don't think you can get a diesel Econoline anymore.

The omelet was not very good, but up there, you appreciate everything!

Thanks. 90+% done.

Maxichamp said...

@Lukas: I can't figure out why Ford doesn't offer a diesel Econoline anymore.

That brush bar is totally Australian, right?

Christopher Diamond said...

That bit about the bridge is really interesting. I didn't know that there only existed one bridge across the Yukon -- is there one in Canada at all, I wonder?

Maxichamp said...

@Chris: 3 in Canada, 1 in Alaska.