N64° 49.635’ W147° 48.458’
This is a shorter entry than usual as it revolves solely around the last leg of our overland trip from Ushuaia up to Deadhorse. We finally made it to Deadhorse on 22nd June after driving along the
Elliott and Dalton Highways for 835 kms from here at Fairbanks to our trip destination close to the Arctic Ocean
Are we happy about achieving our goal? Yes indeed! Did we enjoy this last leg? Yes and no. Yes because it was the culmination of our Pan America Overland journey. No because to be honest the drive north to Deadhorse from here is not that pleasant, it’s long taking at least two days, and the
Dalton Highway is no highway in the generally accepted sense of the word. Much of it is rough, corrugated gravel, or packed dirt onto which the frequently encountered road repair crews seem to enjoy chucking thousands of gallons of water supposedly to reduce the levels of dust chucked up by vehicles. In our view this somewhat misplaced policy results in a bigger potential hazard – an
often slippery surface that makes a truly horrible mess of one’s car or motorcycle. There are more tourists driving the Dalton to Deadhorse on 2 wheels than 4 and the road conditions are an even bigger challenge for them. One motorcyclist travelling as part of a group of some 20 others whilst we were driving the Dalton came unstuck on the run up to Deadhorse, fell on a dirt section where the road crews were busy grading and broke his collar bone and two ribs.
At various stopping places along the route such as the occasional roadside café one can find photos of other sometimes more serious incidents on the Dalton with big trucks going off the raised edge, trailers upside down and smaller vehicles that have maybe hit wildlife such as moose or maybe bears
. Even the infrequent tarred sections are often in poor shape, with the road
surface very uneven producing big and unexpected changes in camber along with severe humps which can cause a normal car’s suspension to bottom. And the tarred sections often exhibit another trait that seems to be prevalent all over much of Alaska and northern Canada – uneven transverse joints in successive sections of roadway which are usually spaced between 30 and 50 metres apart and cause a thump as one crosses each one. After experiencing this for hour after hour one can become very sick of this which seems to be down to plain bad standards in road building. We have been told and have read that the reason for the tarred roads up here in the north being in such bad shape is because they are built on permafrost and the permafrost sometimes melts to varying degrees under the road base causing deformation, varying levels and even complete break up of the top surface. That may be so, but how come the Scandinavians in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, big chunks of whose countries also lie in high north latitudes and where permafrost is a feature, manage to provide almost entirely tarred main roads which are in far better shape than some here such as the Dalton and Alaska Highways to name a couple? Methinks
it’s a case of a lack of will to fix the problem and the need to provide sufficient funds to do so
. I cannot believe the road departments here do not have the skills and knowledge needed. But then when all is said and done, the odd tourist in a small vehicle, on a motorbike or even the odd pedal cyclist represents the minority of road users on this, one of the classic road trips in the world. The big trucks carrying much needed supplies up and back from the huge oilfield at Prudhoe Bay where Deadhorse is located are the main users of this long and tough drive. If the trucking outfits and their drivers are happy with it as it stands – and it seems they are – not much will change.
One thing is sure, some of the scenery along the Dalton Highway is beautiful and impressive. However, the real appeal of the scenery is directly affected by the weather one experiences along the route. We left Fairbanks in overcast conditions and experienced rain for a major part of the
northward trip so didn’t see the best that the landscape could offer. Furthermore, in some parts the corrugations on the highway were so bad (as bad as anything we had encountered in Bolivia and elsewhere in south America) that the vibration caused the limit switches on Jambo’s windscreen wiper motor to shake loose. This resulted in the wipers not “parking” where they should when switching them off between showers and the intermittent wipe facility to pack up altogether
. Bad roads inhabited by the occasional huge truck/trailer combo travelling at speed and throwing up stones which can severely damage ones windscreen and lights also need much increased levels of driver concentration which is mentally pretty tiring. We split up our journey up and back between Fairbanks and Deadhorse stopping around halfway at Marion Creek campground (N67 19.038
W150 09.813) but the two 400 kms legs totally drained me. Thankfully, nothing significant went wrong with the car but there is always the nagging thought in the back of one’s mind that it just might……
Not far from Marion Creek we stopped off at a sign indicating we were at the Arctic Circle so took some pics at the obligatory sign and were handed our free certificates to say we had crossed this imaginary but significant line in the northern hemisphere. It brought back memories of doing the same back in June 2010 when we crossed that same line in Finland thousands of kms away from where we are now.
Apart from a small herd of caribou not far from Deadhorse on the northern leg and two moose (is that mooses, mouss, muss…?) near the road on the drive back to the south we saw little in the way of wildlife other than the occasional suicidal ground squirrel tearing across the road in front of
. The guys at Prudhoe Bay insisted that even up there at some 71 degrees North grizzly bears inhabit the area. Polar bears I could believe, but grizzlies? When asked what a grizzly around Prudhoe Bay would live on the reply was lemmings and ground squirrels along with grass and sedge. Maybe the odd tourist at times to increase his protein intake? Conversely, polar bears would only appear around the oil fields on the mainland in the colder months. One wonders what the outcome would be if two of these big and dangerous bears were to meet……
Much of the journey north traverses mountainous country such as the Endicott and Philip Smith Mountain ranges along with the Brooks Range from which one descends in the last half of the journey down the Atigun Pass to the flat and largely featureless North Slope. Our highest elevation on the road was however only around 1450m. The last 230 or so kms across the North Slope is a boring drive which makes one wish for Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay to pop up over the distant horizon as soon as possible. On this stretch one will see not one tree. Apart from tundra and some standing water, in places still frozen, there is little to grab one’s attention. Of course as we headed further north the balmy summer weather of Fairbanks was replaced by the much cooler temperatures at Deadhorse – from 28C down to 8C. But that had one distinct plus to it – no
mosquitoes at Deadhorse. En route, especially when we stopped and camped both times at Marion Creek campground the mozzies set about us as soon as we got out of the car. Only once we were liberally coated with the dodgy but effective bug spray containing 40% Deet did they relent.
We had no advanced sleeping plans for Deadhorse and had it been a lot warmer and the car a lot less filthy on the outside from the mud sprayed up from the watered roadway we might have camped
. But both factors made another plan necessary. We arrived at Deadhorse Camp (N70 11.296 W148 26.182), the second building one encounters when finally pulling into Deadhorse, with whom we had booked over the phone the day previously for a tour of the oilfields and the chance to get right to the shore of the Arctic. Prudhoe Bay being the massive oil field that it is is a controlled area and private vehicles and their occupants may not enter much of it. The only way is with a guide on an official tour in a bus which is what we had booked earlier for a not too shy $49 per head (“you wanna see the ocean, so pay and be glad you did”)! But we had arrived one day earlier than we had envisaged so on arrival asked if we could bring our tour ahead by one day for that afternoon. An hour after we arrived we were accepted on the 3pm tour which was a big plus. An even bigger but costly one in the circumstances was that for a whopping $199 we could have the very last twin bedded room available at nicely heated Deadhorse Camp avoiding what would have been an otherwise chilly and unpleasant night sleeping in Jambo. For extra money they would give us dinner and breakfast too over which we relented with little resistance. After all we had to celebrate our safe arrival here at the top of Alaska in a nice way. Along with a bunch of motorbikers and others we took our turn eating after the resident working crews also billeted at Deadhorse Camp. Being hard working guys doing as much as 18 hour shifts these employees demand and get good food and lots of it
. But before they can eat, even enter the warmth of the building, they first have to either remove their muddy boots or place rather dainty pink, yes pink, lace bootees
over their boots so as not to tread mud into the building’s carpeted floors. The building like many at Prudhoe was supported on piles well clear of the ground. This is because permafrost (permanently frozen ground) lies just below the surface and if the building were placed in direct contact with the ground its interior heat would melt the permafrost below causing the building to deform or possibly collapse. Special provisions have to be made for the seriously cold winter temperatures that prevail up here outside the short “summer” months of June and July such as ensuring that water pipes do not freeze and that interior building temperatures are maintained at acceptably comfortable levels. Every vehicle up here is fitted with electrical heater coils in the sump and sometimes the fuel system which are powered by external electrical leads at every parking position. One hops out and plugs this into a short cable dangling out of the vehicle’s grille and presto the engine should start next morning at -40C. Special winter grade diesel is also called for in these conditions as normal diesel simply will not fire at very low ambient temperatures. All in all a whole different regimen to what we southerners are used to!
Brandon our guide drove us all in his bus around the huge oilfield complex at Prudhoe Bay and then took us to a spot on the “beach” (N70 18.788 W148 18.851), the farthest north that we reached, where after checking around for possible grizzlies he let us all out of the bus to either paddle in the chilly Arctic water, stick an enquiring finger in it, or in the case of one intrepid biker to partly strip and jump right in!. It wasn’t a picturesque spot, just a gravel shore backed by strings of ugly oilfield buildings stretching away into the distance, some natural gas flares belching flame and
smoke, and a few chunks of winter ice marooned on the shore. But it was the top of the world for most of us and that’s what counted. Shame we didn’t have a bottle of bubbly to celebrate (it was probably forbidden by oilfield regs!), and unlike our Cape to Cape trip we didn’t have a pebble from Ushuaia to write on and leave on the shoreline.
Those interested should check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prudhoe_Bay_Oil_Field where there is a wealth of info about this, America’s biggest source of oil by far. Also some may be keen to find out more about the 48 inch diameter Trans Alaska pipeline that moves the oil almost 1300 kms from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez
. Checkhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Alaska_Pipeline_System The
whole set up is one monstrous engineering masterpiece!
Then it was back to the camp bunkhouse for a great supper and a welcome sleep through the midnight sun that shone through the blinds of our room throughout the night. Before that we drove Jambo to the only fuel pumps in the complex (odd when we were in the midst of the biggest oilfield in north America), paid a hefty $5.54 a gallon (about 3.8 litres to the US gallon) and were only allowed $100 worth. Luckily we had also filled our 20 litre roof rack jerry can with diesel back in Fairbanks before leaving on the up leg. We also made a short trip to the complex’s only retail store and bought a couple of humorous stickers for the car.
Next day it was breakfast, pack up and take on that hideous drive back to Fairbanks via Marion Creek campsite again for a midway night stop.
And so now it’s a bit of a feeling of “well that’s it, what now?” We are still a seriously long way from Halifax on the Canadian east coast from where we hope to ship Jambo home to Cape Town. The next several weeks will entail plenty more kms heading back into the Yukon and Canada to stop at Dawson City, and then slowly east and south towards firstly Grand Prairie in Alberta where
we hope to stop by and see Diana’s younger Canadian niece Susan and her family. From there it will be the long haul across central Canada to Diana’s big sister Wendy and husband Jerry in Mississauga just outside Toronto where we hope to impose on them for a short while and catch up with them. From there we will be finalizing the plans to get Jambo back to South Africa.
We hope the accompanying pics will let you into a bit more of the story of the long haul that was needed to complete the last leg of our overland trip from Ushuaia in Patagonia (we’ve almost forgotten it!) to Deadhorse, Alaska in almost 16 months and close to 60,000kms.Note the
Alaskan humour pics which so aptly summarize Alaskan people.