Day 9: October 27
Coldfoot to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska
by Richard Truesdell and Mark Turner
Waking up at six, I set my watch back to five as it was now standard time. I guess I could have stayed in bed an hour more. The temperature was hovering around thirty below as Mark went out to move our car closer to the front door, noting that we burned about a quarter tank idling overnight.
Driving across the parking lot, Susan Wallis, originally from Barrie, Ontario, was our server for breakfast and recommended the reindeer sausage. Susan referred to the continental US as the lesser 48, rather than the lower 48, the first time we encountered that expression. Sue warned us that it was possible to encounter bears, even at this late date. Large wolves would also be a possibility, so we were forewarned.
Susan suggested on the return trip to stay at the Old Man Lodge, a B&B, south of Finger Mountain, was a place we must stop at. Sandi and Brian and Stacy are the innkeepers. She also suggested Uda and Bernie in Wiseman, who also have a B&B. Susan had a wonderful philosophy on life, which she shared with us while we chowed down another carbohydrate-laden, hearty breakfast.
Wiseman was only ten miles up the Dalton highway, on an improved access road, three miles to the west. We turned off the main road toward the tiny village and found Uda and Bernie’s Igloo Number 8, the one across the creek by the windmill. Rich went inside and made arrangements for a room on our return trip south on Monday night.
The haul road, as it is still called by many Alaskans, stretches across the frozen north, a graveled path populated in the winter only by infrequent pickup trucks bearing the Alyeska logo or huge tractor-trailers hauling supplies to the oil fields. We saw no passenger cars on the road other than the one we were driving through the harsh and dramatic environment. The road parallels the oil pipeline, sometimes crossing it as the two links to the north weave a man-made tapestry across the land. The pipe became our companion, and its bright orange mile markers counting down toward zero our measure of progress toward Deadhorse.
The highway crosses the Brooks Range at Atigun Pass, an avalanche-prone steep and icy passage through some of northern Alaska’s most dramatic mountains. Low winter sunlight highlighted the sharp peaks of the rugged mountains as we approached the crest, then dimmed as we encountered thin clouds on our descent down the north side. From a height of 4280 feet we were to drop to sea level at the shore of the Arctic Ocean 180 miles farther north. After dropping the first thousand feet in only a few miles, the land began to level out until we reached the broad coastal plain more than sixty miles from the sea.
Rich noted that other than the last few miles into Coldfoot last night, this was the most difficult part of the trip yet encountered, from the standpoint of driving. He also noted that when the road is marked "ICY" it is a good indication to slow down. On the upgrade, the Audi maintained traction with no difficulty, in spite of he fact that it was equipped only with the standard Continental 195/65 R 15 all-weather tires. Although tempted, we did not feel that chains would offer much improvement on the snow pack over hard ice surface. Close examination of the road surface, when stopping to take photos revealed that it was very icy, with the gravel offering a bit of abrasion with which the car maintained contact with the surface.
The road conditions north of the mountains were more consistently icy than on the south side, and we quickly learned that when the highway department put out a yellow diamond "ICY" warning sign that the were telling the truth. Rich drove all of this treacherous section of road, and periodically tested the Audi’s brakes and adhesion with the road whenever there was a visible indication that road conditions were changing. Each time we rolled to a straight and secure stop, then continued our northward trek. Just past pump station two we encountered a thin layer of ice fog which reduced visibility to a few hundred yards and turned the last minutes of the slow sunset into an other-worldly yellow-orange glow in the southwest sky. The fog was our companion for nearly 40 miles, blending the windswept snow on the table-flat landscape with the pale blue of the sky above. The view to the side of the road reminded us of staring out over the ocean on an overcast day. There were no points of reference in the landscape beyond the reflectors marking the edge of the road.
Rich commented that sense of desolation was overpowering, the landscape seemed almost lunar, especially after the sparse vegetation disappeared under the accumulated snow drifts. From the moment we emerged from the pass and started our four hour drive to the Arctic Ocean, he seemed to be overcome by the fact that he had pulled off his quest and was almost to the destination, as if he had attained some sort of automotive holy grail.
Prudhoe Bay’s oilfields are brightly lit and those lights beckoned to us across the tundra for more than ten miles before we reached the edge of the giant oil-producing complex as the last light faded from the sky. As we drove around looking for the Prudhoe Bay Hotel, our home for the night, we noticed that ours was still the only passenger car in this outwardly inhospitable land.
For the second night running, we left the engine running overnight. Although the car was winterized to 60 below zero, since we burned less than a quarter tank of gas overnight, we figured that it was cheap insurance that we would start in the morning. Kiffanie, the night time attendant at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel said that just a few nights ago, the mercury hit 50 below and that it was expected to bottom out at 40 below tonight.