Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Coldfoot to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

Prudhoe Bay Hotel. A Beamer among the rigs.

Prudhoe Bay Hotel,  Room A103

I was surprised to learn this is an oilfield workers’ hotel. The $110 per night includes 3 meals. But at first, I was put off by the manager’s “attitude”.

"It’s too late for dinner."

"So do I get dinner tomorrow?"


"Is there another restaurant in town?"

"This IS town."

"Any concession since I didn’t get dinner?"


I was tired and getting ticked, so I told her to hold onto the registration form she was filling out.

“I’m going to look around.”

Went out into the frigid evening. ("This is NOT a good idea.") Drove over to the Arctic Caribou Inn, where I found the manager on hands and knees, cleaning the kitchen buffet line. "No rooms available." She suggested I try the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. Thanks. ("This hotel is geared for tourists," she admits.) I inquired about oilfield tours tomorrow that are operated out of this hotel.

Returned to the Prudhoe Bay Hotel, my tail between my legs. “I’m back,” I said cheerily. "Joree" had a softer side than first appeared. I realized later this is a "working" hotel. You don't haggle. She introduced me to "Spike", a large, glass-front refrigerator that the kitchen staff keeps stocked with leftovers, sandwiches, microwavable foods, beverages, etc. Other bins and coolers contained chips, desserts, pastries and donuts.

Though dinner WAS officially over, there was no shortage of food available. Workers come and go throughout the night and day, filling paper sacks with food to take with them out to the job site. I was now embarrassed by my own attitude. Sat down with a “Poor Boy”, brownie and Coke for dinner.

Two TVs on; one with Fox, one with CNN. (I don't recall which one was on the right and which was on the left.) Mindlessly sat on the Fox side. “Hannity and Colmes” on. What crap. “Headline News”: a police chase in L.A. (what else is new?), Michael Jackson trial coverage, a missing American woman in Aruba. What Hillary said. What Howard Dean said. What Sean Hannity said to Rosie O’Donnell. Pure Crap. Years without TV, and I've missed absolutely nothing. On the contrary, time spent in front of the TV comes at the expense of a richer existence.

TV, with its flashy graphics, turbo-charged sounds and frequent camera shifts, lures an audience with a 15-second attention span. This, along with the presenters' uniform vanity and self-importance, is intended to convey dynamism and urgency, while all is boringly the same as when I sat in my mother’s North Hollywood living room 40 years ago. Only the actors have changed.

Outside, my bike is parked among the workers’ rigs. A little while ago, I went out
to photograph the hotel. Freezing, with falling hail.

Unpacking earlier, I noticed the rear mud guard hanging loose. One bolt sheared off, the plastic broke away from another and a third barely attached. This is one set of fasteners I had failed to check in Fairbanks.


Reached Deadhorse about 9:15 p.m. No fanfare, no celebration. There was no one even to call or send an e-mail to. It was too late in the day. The fuel warning indicated I still had a 40-mile range, so the extra gallon added from one of my Sears cans was all the insurance needed. 10,597 miles on the bike; almost precisely 4,500 miles traveled from Santa Rosa.

The Dalton Highway is a constant bag of surprises, throwing almost everything at the rider: perfect pavement, pea gravel, potholes, crushed rock, cobble, mud, mud over hardpan, hardpan, washboard, washboard with gravel or rock, dry ruts, muddy ruts, freshly-graded stretches with soft furrows, elevated shoulderless roadbeds, high crosswinds, rain, hail, sleet and snow, heavy truck traffic. The surface changes abruptly, without any apparent reason and often without warning. Oh, and then there are the wildlife "obstacles". A cold, wild, jarring ride for its finale.

Numerous times I thought I would “eat it” as the front wheel started to "wash out" in deep gravel, but I rolled on the throttle and pulled out. A few times I came to a halt, exhausted from dealing with the stuff.

It’s a totally different experience on a bike than it would be in a 4-wheeled vehicle. Focus was constantly on the road 50 to 100 yards ahead, trying to pick the clearest path. If I happened to glance off and see a spectacular view, I would have to pull aside for a look (and risk becoming bogged in the soft shoulder.)

Koyukuk River at Wiseman

Approaching the Brooks Range, Sukakpak Mountain stands guard over the Dalton Highway

Mt. Dillon, in the Brooks Range

But north of Atigun Pass, the feeling of isolation was inescapable and awesome. A look backward, the rugged Brooks Range rampart. Out ahead, the unknown. Beyond this road, there's vast open tundra and rolling hills. One begins to appreciate the fearless souls who first trekked into this wilderness, long before the white man came.

Just made it across Atigun Pass racing from this storm.

Leaving the storm behind

Over the Brooks Range and out onto the North Slope

Truckers give a wide berth to anyone they pass

The University of Alaska maintains a research station on the shore of this lake (left side of the photo)

Looking out toward the Arctic Wildlife Refuge

Another look toward ANWR

How disappointing, at a hilltop pull-off, offering a magnificent panorama, I come upon a human debris field: “Sobe” bottle, many “Heineken” and "Miller" bottles, numerous styro cups, plastic utensils, an oil can, two or three tire carcasses, paper bags, plastic bags, newspaper, lip balm, “Coleman” gas canister, condiment packs, much broken glass, a milk jug, “Tropicana” juice bottle. Biodegradable? Maybe in a few centuries up here. Not only are the consumers liable, but so are the producers of these things.

Once emptied, that little gas can proved a major nuisance, and dangerous distraction. Trying to keep it properly strapped down, I stopped no less than five times to re-fasten it. I'm tempted to throw away that slippery little devil.

About 80 miles out from Prudhoe, the highway miraculously turned to pavement, and I thought "what a gift!" A few breaks here and there, but I could finally relax a little. About 70 miles out, I noticed the smell of ocean air. The temperature was dropping and a west wind blew steadily across the highway. The gravel resumed about 20 miles from Deadhorse, but by then the end was in sight and it didn't matter any more.

Tricky riding

Someone's sadistic humor?

The Sagavanirktok ("Sag") River

Wide open tundra

Franklin Bluffs

Closing in on Deadhorse, the sky lowered, dark and threatening. The cold was penetrating, and I hoped the home stretch wouldn't be made more difficult with rain or snow. Twenty miles out, I could see the Prudhoe Bay complexes, across the flat, gray landscape. It was a welcome sight. I had made it.


Several people suggested I visit Wiseman, an old mining camp north of Coldfoot. So, this morning, after packing up camp, it was my first stop, just a few miles up the road. Rolling down the gravel path into "town", I was immediately approached and welcomed by "Clutch" and several neighbors. While the others went off to check on their "claim", Clutch showed me the museum, his collection of old mining equipment, a prototype camp structure he's hoping to open to overnight guests and the freshly-seeded ground where he plans to build a putting green.

Clutch gave me instructions on the other sites to see in town. Drove down toward the airstrip looking for Jack Reakoff's cabin. I had read an article by Jack in the BLM's publication "The Dalton Highway". Jack had expressed grave concerns about the pipeline's construction. He has made peace with it since, but is still outspoken on the subject of threats to the subsistence lifestyle. He's a trapper and a true environmentalist. 47 now, he moved to the Brooks Range at 3 and learned how to live off the land.

Cabin at Wiseman

Before I could find Jack, "June" came out of her cabin and asked if I had yet visited the chapel. She took me into the tiny cabin that housed the community prayer chapel.

June's house

On the door at Wiseman chapel

Found Jack's cabin at the end of a drive (maybe 50 yards from June's), arrays of moose antlers all about. He came from around the back of the house and assumed I was here to visit. Without hesitation, he led me into his cabin where we talked about the Alaska Pipeline project and the efforts to open ANWR to drilling. He said opening ANWR is unjustified, especially with recent innovations enabling increased extraction from existing fields. Originally, oil companies expected to extract 18% of the oil from Prudhoe Bay. Now they estimate 45% may be extracted.

But the pipeline is aging, and corroding. Like an aging body, the artery cannot sustain the pressures it once did. THIS is the reason production has plateaued at one million barrels a day, not because Prudhoe Bay is being pumped dry. He says the effort to open ANWR is a power grab, an effort by the oil companies (BP and Philipps, primarily) to gain control of the entire Alaskan North slope. Of course, I sympathized completely with this view (though I'm ignorant of the complex details.)

More troubling to Jack is the effort by a certain state politician (on behalf of his wealthy supporters) to open the pipeline corridor to hunting with 4-wheel off-road vehicles. Currently hunting in the corridor is restricted to bow-hunting. According to Jack, this change would be devastating to the delicate tundra. He told me to compare what I see up north to what I'll see in Denali, where they've opened up the land to 4-wheelers. He said it's a mess down there. and he says the Dalton Highway corridor can't handle more hunting than the subsistence hunting currently allowed.

We went back outside. As I waved at mosquitoes, I asked him how he tolerates them. Jack said he could take 1,000 bites a day before his immune system reacts with a slight fever.

Close-up. Jack with a big mosquito sucking blood.

Mother and son: June and Jack

Jack's moose antler column

Wiseman post office

1 comment:

H-MAN said...

Here's my Sukakpak Mountain photo;
Sukakpak Mtn July 2009