Last night we camped at the Arctic Circle, and it was quiet and empty. It is fascinating to travel north and see the changes in the landscape by the hour. One striking difference is the trees. As you enter the land of the permafrost (taiga) the trees turn small and scraggly. There are many of them, but often they are no more than a thin trunk with a tuft of pin needles decorating the top - vaguely reminiscent of a struggling truffula tree… This covers millions of acres as they creep up towards the mountains. We were intently staring out the window hoping to see muskox and caribou - but apparently we were not far enough north. We did however witness an amazing interaction between three owls as they fought over a poor little mouse - the world can be cruel, no doubt…
The Dalton highway winds its way up from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, it touts itself as one of the most dangerous roads in the US - and I can see why. Parts of it is paved, but most of it is muddy, pot holed and one and a half lane with 18 wheelers barreling down slippery hills. Parallel to this 500 mile road snakes the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, this is an absolutely insane feat of human engineering. This 8 billion dollar, 800 mile, 48-inch wide pipeline was constructed over 4 years in the late 70’s. They dealt with issues never before encountered while building a pipe line - it had to withstand extreme cold as well as wildfires. It was built in very challenging and isolated terrain, under very difficult conditions. Today, the pipe line sucks up oil in Prudhue bay, funnels it down at a rate of about 500,000 barrels a day to Valdez, where it is loaded onto tankers and sent to various ports around the US.
As we stopped in Coldfoot, a small town (small in Alaska does mean small - population 10) about 250 miles north of Fairbanks, we got to talk to some of the people who live and work in this beautiful but brutal environment. A trucker we spoke to told us that he drives diesel UP to Prudhue Bay. He spent every day on this road, one day to drive up and one to drive down - week in and week out… Ah, the irony - here we are putting all this energy into getting oil AWAY from Prudhue Bay, then we send it to a refinery only to use it to drive it back up. He also told us that they do not do much work up there this time of year as they are not allowed to drive on the permafrost in the summer, in the winter they create ice roads that they use to get to the drilling points. Apparently, it is so cold in the winter that it only snows between October and December - after that there is no moisture in the air and it is just bone-chilling cold.
We also met a biker who had started his adventure in Key West and was a week away from his goal - Prudhoe Bay. You have got to love it, all these adventurous souls zig-zagging around the world, it’s so inspiring, amusing and emboldening . That is one of the biggest upsides with traveling - meeting happy, crazy people showing us that nothing is impossible.