Adventures at the Top of the World

Sep 8, 2013 | 0 comments

A steady snowfall of big, fat clumps of flakes descends from the gray, mid-afternoon sky, mixed with cold rain, and illuminated by an industrial floodlight on an adjacent building. The ground is muddy with puddles the size of small ponds outside. A faint aroma of gasoline and burning fuel wafts in through the slightly opened window pane, an ironic contrast to the soft touch of the Arctic ice crystals floating down from the heavens.

I am in Deadhorse, AK, sitting in a shipping container-turned-bedroom at an oil company work camp. I came here originally to visit someone for a few days, but that stay has turned into over a week, thanks to my flight getting canceled for foggy weather. I don’t mind too much. It’s been an interesting soul searching sort of experience here at the top of the world, I suppose.

Deadhorse: almost as far north as you can get in AK

To be honest, I’m a little intimidated by Deadhorse. It’s all oil companies, industrial work sites, and man camps full of grizzled Alaskan men working 12-18 hour days on the pipeline, roads, and airport. I’ve seriously only seen about a dozen other women, and probably hundreds of men since I’ve been here. I feel so out of place.

Yes, their sign on the general store has a dead horse on it.

The landscape is flatter than Florida Everglades, if that’s even possible. It’s brown and marshy with the patterned frost heaves I’ve seen in the coastal areas around the Seward Penninsula, yet so much flatter. I keep thinking its foggy outside, but then I realize I’m looking all the way to the horizon under a flat, dark gray sky that gives absolutely no depth perception. Technically we still get 15 hours of daylight here, but it still seems dark and cold and gray all the time.

Pump station for the Alaska Pipeline

This entire town seems like one big construction site. If you’re not wearing a reflective vest and hard hat, you probably shouldn’t be here. Nonetheless, I got to see a little of what these guys get paid $30/hr to do, for a couple days. I spent some time in a rock lab, where I learned how to sort and weigh dry samples of rock material, and how to wash said rocks for further drying and weighing. It takes a really long time, and seems like there could easily be machines to get the same results.

Everything everywhere is just mud and dust and rocks and dirt. They even make you wear little blue coverings over your shoes in every building you walk into, just to keep the floors minimally clean. Fascinating.

Road Trippin’

The Long and Winding Pipeline

On Labor Day, we were able to take a road trip down the Dalton Highway, which starts a little north of Fairbanks and ends in Prudhoe Bay, cutting through the Brooks Range and in between Gates of the Arctic NWR to the west and the Arctic NWR to the east. Our destination was Coldfoot, but we never made it that far. Nevertheless, the drive was drop-dead gorgeous. The terrain transitioned from its flat, brown marshiness to a spectacular rise of the mountains. The whole length of the several hundred mile highway is paralleled by the Alaska pipeline.

Gorgeous rock formations

Well, as luck would have it, about 2 hours into the trip, the gas light came on with a cheerful ‘ding!’ Being the Dalton Highway there are no gas stations. Also being the Dalton Highway, however, there are lots of work camps, and fortunately, private fuel stations at some of these for their private rigs. Our best hope was to press on, my dear friend having some inside knowledge that there was a fuel station closer ahead of us than behind us, and we could possibly perhaps win enough sympathies of some of the workers that they’d help us out.

Well, we drove and drove and drove through increasingly gorgeous mountains, ascending in altitude as our fuel gauge descended its needle down past the E for Empty. Expecting the engine to die out at any second, we pressed on through the snowy spires of dramatic peaks and shining ridges smoothed by recent avalanches. Somehow, the engine held out for over an hour, with the needle well below empty.

Just before Atigun Pass

We were driving carefully up the last, and particularly treacherous incline, known as Atigun Pass, before the fuel station, when suddenly the engine tuckered out as we slowed to let giant semi truck by on the narrow pass. The roar of the passing vehicle faded away into silence. The poor car sputtered a couple times with a last attempt to turn the key, before sighing into a resigned slumber.

Time to start walking. We loaded my backpack up with 6 bottles of water, and began the 3 mile trek to the work camp to get to the fuel station. Thank goodness it was such a breathtakingly gorgeous place and with such good company! I couldn’t ask for a better adventure. Uphill, downhill, uphill again, passed by speeding semis. We could have hitchhiked, but the weather was perfect, chilly and sunny, we were enjoying the walk way too much and figured it would be easier to hitch on the way back carrying a fuel can and with more cars coming from that direction.

Eventually we made it to camp, found some friendly acquaintances, and got fuel and a ride back to our truck. We drove back to fill it up all the way and hung out with the workers a bit, as they all ranted about their boss and long work hours, using such colorful language I haven’t heard since college.

The drive back was much less harrowing in terms of fearing the car was going to die, but this time challenging because we were so exhausted. I took the wheel on the way back, traversing the potholed road with such skill as one can only glean from driving in Nome for the last year. 😉 Despite the mishaps, it was a better day than I could have ever dreamed of.

On one of my last days, we took a hike out on the tundra near camp before the fog began to roll in thick and heavy again. We tromped around for a while looking at birds and animal tracks, and on our way back, noticed a man standing in front of one of the buildings, smoking and staring pointedly at us.

“Y’all are brave to be walking around out there!” he called as we clambered back up to the parking lot. He had kind of a New York mafia vibe about him. “There was a family of bears here last night!”

We got to talking, and he showed us photos and videos on his phone of two adult grizzlies and a cub climbing around the dumpster just below the building the night before. He remarked they had run off right into the tundra where we were hiking.

He then showed us a picture of a polar bear — “I seen this guy just a few days ago, 30 minutes from here!” he said, scrolling through relatively close-up pictures of a polar bear off the side of the road. No way! Although I didn’t get to see one myself, I somehow derived great satisfaction from the fact that it had been spotted so close to where we were during the same week I was there. 🙂

In the following days I was stuck in Deadhorse, I enjoyed a much needed vacation from Nome, regardless of not liking the town that much and missing so many days of work. It was a good eye opener to yet another part of lesser-known Alaska and the inner workings of the industries that make the rest of our world go round, so to speak.

I came up to the top of the world for many reasons, but as with all great journeys, I have discovered more that I didn’t expect, than things I anticipated. Life has a funny way of working out, and the more we see and experience, the more we grow in so many ways.

Though now tired and horrendously behind on work, I feel refreshed, fulfilled, and ready for more adventures to come, quite in spite of the near future’s uncertainty.


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