A rugged ride way up north to Deadhorse

414 miles of stirring Alaskan sights

Email|Print| Text size + By Angela Posada-Swafford
Globe Correspondent / August 31, 2003

DEADHORSE, Alaska -- Three hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, the American part of North America comes to an end. Constant winds blow clouds of dust over grassy flatlands seemingly devoid of definition. The Beaufort Sea lapping the coastline is just a southerly extension of the Arctic Ocean.

Since 1968, when oil was discovered here, companies have rushed to build extraction structures that look like science fiction cities. In winter, the area disappears under a thick layer of snow and ice, and polar bears walk across the frozen sea.

Down the road from a collection of old trailers, a control tower, a landing strip, warehouses with heaps of ice-cutting heavy machinery, a motel (the Arctic Caribou Inn), and a general store, is a sign that reads "End of Dalton Highway. Mile 414." Under that it says, "Welcome to Deadhorse, Alaska. Population: 27."

Deadhorse -- there is no set story of how it got its name -- is a loose-knit community serving the needs of people working at the huge oil wells of Prudhoe Bay, the largest wells in North America.

It is also the arrival -- or departure -- point for tourists, occasional adventurers, and a few biologists on field trips. The adventurers come in small chartered planes that have picked them up at other lost towns (in Alaska, where there are fewer roads than in Bolivia, there are more small planes and pilots per capita than anywhere in the world). The biologists and oil industry people get off the plane limping after three hours of being stuck in cargo aircraft or on one of Alaska Airlines' twice-a-week commercial flights from Anchorage. Most of the tourists arrive driving dusty four-wheel-drives rented in Fairbanks, 414 miles south.

Located roughly in the middle of the state, Fairbanks, a low-profile city of 80,000 residents with a well-known university, is one of the few spots where one can rent a car to drive the Dalton Highway, the only road in north Alaska.

More than a highway, Dalton is a narrow ribbon of loose gravel that travels through undulating hills, crosses the Yukon River (where gold diggers made fortunes), passes over the majestic Brooks Range (the northernmost mountain chain in the Americas), penetrates the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, and finally gets lost in the eternal plains of the Arctic tundra, where tens of thousands of caribou graze in late summer. Its only reason for being is to supply the needs of the oil community: Every three days huge cargo trucks drive up, loaded with everything from ice cream, lettuce, and fresh apples, to screws, paper napkins, and electricity generators.

Anyone contemplating the road trip from Fairbanks to Deadhorse must first check conditions by phone or e-mail with the park. Another key point: After crossing the Arctic Circle, at Mile 115, the next gas is Mile 175, in the historic mining town of Coldfoot.

From then on, until you reach Deadhorse, you won't find much in the way of human habitation, except for the constant presence of the great Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which begins at Prudhoe Bay and ends at the refinery at Valdez, on the Pacific Coast. At one time, as many as 9 million barrels of oil may be flowing through the line, an engineering marvel that carries 18 percent of the total US oil production. If you listen carefully, you will hear the "whoosh-gloop" of the "pig," a little mechanical device that runs up and down the tube, cleaning it and scanning for metal corruption.

More than just stopping a few minutes to stretch the legs, this is a trip for camping at random, sometimes simply by the roadside, at other times because there is a pretty lake in the distance. The Arctic is better absorbed when traveling by the schedule of migrating birds and having breakfast under a huge sky. The immense landscape has the power to make you feel tiny and alone -- an Alaska that differs vastly from those tall pine forests that greet passengers cruising the southern islands.

Before starting out, you must be equipped with waterproof boots, both warm clothes and light clothes, and rain gear. Always store rain gear in your day-pack because weather here changes suddenly. And you will get it all: heat, cold, wind, and showers, with an average summer temperature of 50. The minute the wind picks up you will be shivering. You will also need a hat, heaps of sun lotion, mosquito repellent, and lots of water. Plus, a tent and a winter sleeping bag. And, the biggest treasure you can have: several pairs of dry socks.

The most spectacular part of the drive begins after the Yukon River and the Arctic Circle sign, as you come to the slopes of the Brooks Range, whose mountains average 7,000 feet. It is a theater of rock and ice where grizzly bears, Dall sheep, swans, bald eagles, Arctic foxes, geese, and ducks appear and disappear on cue. At 4,800 feet, in Atigun Pass, the mountains open in a dramatic gash that spills its contents into the Northern Slope.

Here, the highway bisects a landscape of plains and rolling hills. To the right is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, stretching to the Canadian border and which President Bush proposed to open for oil drilling. This Arctic is a vast place. In the distance, thrust faults and other geological formations are eye candy that slowly disappears as you drive north.

Sheep look like bread crumbs stuck to the hillsides. Closer to the road, musk oxen that look like exotic creatures from the last Ice Age drag along clumps of their muddy wool coats. From the car, the vastness looks like a postcard landscape. But in reality, the grasslands are made up of annoying tussocks, springy mounds of mosses, and herbs that twist the ankles and land you in cold puddles.

This ground rests on the permafrost, a carpet of soil and ice that remains frozen all year a few feet underneath the surface. During summer, the upper layers melt, and mosquitoes come in -- armies of them. There are so many that locals say their state bird is not the elusive willow ptarmigan but the northern mosquito, whose eggs hatch in the stagnant water of the tundra. Some people opt for wearing a head net so that they do not breathe them in. Biologists who come here for climate-change-related fieldwork have bets as to who can kill more mosquitoes with one slap -- 170 at last count.

Here, the pipeline lies close to the road. At certain spots it goes underground to allow the passage of thousands of caribou that migrate north in August, part of the complex network of circumpolar animal movements that give the Arctic a unique rhythm. During summer, whales, narwhals, foxes, bees, geese, bears, and cod lay eggs, give birth, eat, and hunt as if there is no tomorrow. The heat and light season here is so short that life happens furiously, and everywhere there are small explosions of color and activity.

Stories of lonely bears accompanying visitors to the tundra are not rare. But every so often one hears of hair-raising encounters in which bears charge tents and backpacks looking for food. Neglecting the trash is one of the most dangerous mistakes anyone can make in a bear-populated region.

In the Arctic, the notion that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West does not apply. In these latitudes the sun appears slowly to the south and then, with an intense pink glow, disappears in almost the same place. Nights here are "white nights": Instead of getting dark during the summer, the sky fills with a milky light and one has to cover windows and tents with black trash bags in order to give the body the darkness it is used to.

When you finally reach Deadhorse, a visit to the oil wells at Prudhoe Bay, where guided tours are offered, is in order. Then you have to turn back -- unless someone else will return the car while you fly away home. But before you go, visit the Bay General Store, the only store in a 500-mile radius, whose dusty shelves are stuffed with T-shirts, postcards, potato chips, magnets, cigarettes, all at prices four times what you pay in the Lower 48. But they also have an exclusive jewelry line made with little balls of plasticized caribou dung, and that is something you cannot find below 70 degrees latitude. After all, in the Arctic, nothing goes to waste.

Angela Posada-Swafford writes about science and adventure from Miami Beach.

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