In the first installment of Arctic Visions, my copilot, David, and I make it past Coldfoot Camp and experience a show of the Northern Lights that leaves us stunned. Click here to read through part one.
The actual objective of driving the Dalton Highway is really less of an adventure than I anticipated. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is stunning and the road is rugged compared to any standard highway. But, without any major breakdowns or harrowing wildlife encounters it’s not much more than a roadtrip. If there’s one piece of advice I can give to help someone enjoy the journey: stop the car. Do it properly though and get completely off the road as truckers blast through sections of the road at 100 mph or more. Take the time to hike and explore the Brooks Range. I didn’t and I regret it. I had to be back in Anchorage in a fairly short timeframe, but I wish I had taken the opportunity to hike out into the mountains and scale some random peak for the fun of it. The miles roll on and we get into the heart of the Brooks Range area. We encounter some hunters who are pulled over at a viewpoint and David strikes up a conversation with them. They show us the black bear they just bagged via bow and arrow. We talk about hunting and it’s pros and cons. We go our separate ways. The asphalt and gravel road stretches out for 414 miles and is packed with mountainous beauty right up until you leave the Brooks Range. Past that point the land recedes into a mist covered bog that stretches across the northern longitudes for thousands of miles until it finds the glacial wastes of Nunavut. Of course, the beauty is still present, the roving muskox and the darting arctic fox, but the emptiness seems absolute at times. I think of the nomadic Inuit traversing the wild lands. Strangely enough, I’m comforted by the desolate landscape.
As we roll into the oil drilling community of Deadhorse one can’t help but be impressed by the rigid functionality and the efficient design of the oil rigs. Somehow, their complete lack of architecture or art makes them to be some apocalyptic, abstract piece of art. They intrigue me and I wonder what makes art, “art”. After walking into one of the local cafeterias and sitting down to a free meal (confidence is key), we begin talking with a worker named Danny who informs us it’s near impossible to reach the Arctic Ocean on your own. “You’ll have to take a $70 dollar shuttle with the Deadhorse Camp folks. Or try to talk your way into getting a badge somehow. I guess you could try telling them you’ve got to get to the barge… Probably won’t work, but you could give it a shot.” We look at a map of the oil rigs with Danny and talk for a while longer about life in Prudhoe Bay. He’s a small scrappy guy with a panther print tattooed on his neck. We decide we’ll roll through our options from most legal to least legal. We inquire about the shuttle and immediately write it off. It’s overpriced and seems like a ripoff. We turn to the badge office. Immediately shut down. Not to be duped, we decide to make friends. We chat people up and get them laughing, then offer to pay them to sneak us to the ocean in their work truck. Ends up most oil workers aren’t interested in losing their six figure job for a $10 taxi gig. A heavy mist and fog sets in and the industrial complex takes on a Gotham feel. We decide to try and slip through the security checkpoints with the tale that we’re on our way to barge the 4runner to the small town of Kaktovik. We make our way North again towards the ocean. We roll up to the security shack and a large man walks to the side of the 4runner.
The oil field security guard has a lot of features similar to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. My co-pilot, David, waits patiently in the 4runner as I stand before this hulking man who has an air of inflated importance and leather wristbands. I think to myself, “I wonder if those wristbands come with a subscription to Muscle and Fitness…” I should really be thinking about how to sell this blatant lie so I can get past his security shack and make it to the endpoint, the goal of our journey. This is our last shot, so I pitch my story with gusto and false confidence. He asks me questions and I come up with some pretty decent answers. He tells me to get out of the truck and come inside. “So let me get this right before I call the security captain” he says.”You’ve driven from Colorado to deliver your truck to the barge dock, so they can ship it to your uncle, Tom Skinner, who lives in the remote community of … where does he live again?” My mind goes blank. We looked it up on the atlas in the car but I can’t remember the name of the tiny settlement on the Northeastern coast of Alaska to save my life. Ahhhh. It starts with a K, but man, it’s gone. I stumble for words as The Rock straightens his back and gives me a suspicious glare. “It starts with a K, it’s uh, yeah man, all these weird tribal names you know. It’s like Kinaknik I think. Yeah, yeah Kinaknik” He leans to the left and puts his palm on his thigh making a 90 degree angle out of his arm, as if to say, “Be wary, evildoer”.
He knows I’m full of it, now he just has to decide what to do about it. I start getting nervous, they probably don’t take kindly to trespassers in a world where eco- terrorism could be a possible threat. “You know, the barge isn’t scheduled ’til the first of the month, and I’m surprised you weren’t given previous clearance for this months ago. I’ll just call the captain and we’ll go from there…” he says and goes to pick up the phone. Time to bail. Things only go downhill from here and a mission abort is the name of the game now. I lay on the southern accent and suddenly become concerned with my crop of bermuda grass I must certainly get to planting: “Actually, it’ll probably save both of us time if I just get in touch with my uncle Tom, he’ll be able to clear it up, he’s good like that. I’ll shoot him an email from the Deadhorse Camp and I’ll drop back by tomorrow if that works for ya’ll.” Emphasis on “ya’ll” to highlight country good-doer ness. Tip my hat, spin on my heel and get up out of that office. David and I crack up at our failure with the security guards and look to any remaining options. Things look bleak, literally and figuratively. In a last ditch effort we ask about a flight with one of the local outfitters. They want somewhere around $1500.00. Obviously isn’t an option. We now reconsider the shuttle, and decide it isn’t worth it. We’d have to wait around another day and a half in Deadhorse and to be honest, I think the goal of making it to the Arctic Ocean for free was more to keep us entertained than to actually succeed. Such is life.
We convince ourselves the lake along the main road is a tributary to the arctic ocean through the cycle of precipitation and call it good.
We camp that night right outside of Deadhorse on a gravel shoulder with the cicadas of diesel engines lulling us to sleep. David in the tent, me in the 4runner. It’s 34 degrees, I feel bad but David makes it just fine. We load up the truck the next morning and fire the ignition. Silence settles for a moment as the truck warms up.
“Let’s get the hell out of here man.”
“Yep, let’s go.”
“Til Next Time,