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Travel Blog

The Slow Road to Deadhorse

Deadhorse!

The community of Coldfoot lies halfway along Alaska’s Dalton Highway.  Local folklore says gold prospectors, heading for the northern Koyukuk River in the early 1900’s, got this far and, seeing the Brooks Mountain Range rising in the distance, got ‘cold feet’ and turned back.

Today, Coldfoot is the last stop on The Dalton; there is nothing between here and Deadhorse, 241 miles to the north.  I rolled into the muddy truck stop, refuelling at a primitive fuel station.  Three huge Peterbilt trucks – each towing two articulated trailers – were parked in the middle of the lot, their engines thrumming.  Peterbilt’s are iconic American trucks; long snouts house the engine, the driver cab mounted above to the rear, generous living quarters housed behind.  I recalled Chris Eubanks having one; he once drove it around Parliament Square in some form of protest.

I picked up my keys to my room and trundled across the mud to a Portacabin on the east side of the lot.  There were two single beds and a shared bedside light. The walls were exposed chipboard. It wasn’t fancy, but it was clean. And dry.  Having successfully negotiated the southern section of The Dalton, I decided there was only one thing for it: it was time for a pint.

It was 11pm but still light outside, although the low cloud and gentle drizzle brought a gloomy grey hue to Coldfoot Camp.  The bar was empty.  After a few minutes, a giant-of-a-man walked in, acknowledging the barman and taking a stool. He gently lifted his eyebrows in acknowledgement of me.  “Hi,” I said.   He ordered a Miller Lite and supped heartily.  “You work here?” I asked. 

“Err, kind of.  I drive a truck.  A Peterbilt.”  He wore a Peterbilt cap.

“Which way you heading?”

“South.  I came from Fairbanks this mornin’, dropped off a generator in Deadhorse, headin’ back to Fairbanks in the mornin’.”

He’d done three times what I’d done in a day.  “Wow,” I said, impressed.  “And where you going after Fairbanks tomorrow?”

“Back to Deadhorse.  That’s all I do – Fairbanks to Deadhorse.”

“Hmm,” I said, trying to supress emotion.  “How’s the road north of here?”

“Fuckin’ terrible.  Full of holes.  Worst it’s been all year.”

“Oh?  Is it better in winter?”

“Much.  Like driving on carpet after the snow falls.”

This guy was the real deal, a proper Ice Road Trucker.  I looked at him as he perused the menu.  He was enormous, maybe 25 stone, with no discernible neck.   He order a loaded burger with fries.

Another large man arrived.  “Hey, Jim! You ignorin’ me? I gave you a wave down at Hess Creek this mornin’!”

“Sorry, Bill – I didn’t recognise you in the Pete!” 

“Ah, yeah, just swapped it out.”  The two of them proceeded to talk trucking with intense enthusiasm for the next hour: issues with the CB radio; state of the road on the north side of the Brooks; and “that bitch Shelly in Dispatch.”  I listened intently until gone midnight, finished my beer and wished them a goodnight.  Bill was polishing off his enormous burger as I left, just managing to raise a ketchup-covered finger in acknowledgment.

The next morning I was up early, ready for The Dalton. To my surprise, Bill was already in the truckers’ café, tucking in to numerous rashers of bacon, scrambled eggs and a stack of pancakes.  I took a banana and a coffee to-go and headed north into the grey Alaskan dawn.  The road was paved initially – about half of The Dalton is – and followed the gurgling Koyukuk River as it climbed gently into the Brooks Mountains.  I drove slowly, hoping to spot wildlife on the roadside, but the density of spruce made it difficult.  As the road climbed, the river narrowed, the trees thinned and the road turned back to mud.  70 miles north of Coldfoot and the road ahead of me changed: it became a mountain pass, cut into the step dark rock formidably rising ahead of me.  This was the notorious Atigun Pass. 

It had been raining for three days and The Dalton was sodden.  As I started to climb the Atigun, I thought back to a conversation I’d had with two Kiwi’s who’d driven this a few weeks previous.  I asked them if my car would make it – it’s only two-wheel drive, I told them.  “You should be alright,” he’d said, without conviction.  It was this point on the Atigun where I realised what he meant by ‘should’ – my wheels started losing traction and the front-end was light.  But my trusty Ford Escape kept chugging and soon, under gentle gas, got a firm footing and climbed along the knife-edge pass. 

I’ve always had a terrible fear of heights and so was glad when the shear escarpment down to the valley floor disappeared from my sight as I entered low cloud shrouding the mountain’s summit.  The road plateaued for a mile or so before starting its descent.  I heard a truck ahead of me and pulled over, waiting for it to appear through the cloud before moving again.  It wasn’t much further until I broke through the cloud, and there, right below me, was the Sagavanirktok River Valley spreading into the distance, The Dalton snaking its way across the valley floor.  The sun had broken through the clouds and lit the land with green, purple and orange hues of an early autumn.  The site was glorious; I could have been in Wensleydale. 

There are no trees north of the Brooks Mountains.  Permafrost – permanently frozen earth – prevents it.  Dig just six inches down here – even in midsummer – and you’ll hit frozen land.  Trees can’t take root.  This is the tundra.  I kept a more optimistic eye out for wildlife, able to see miles across the flat land they call the North Slope.  I spotted several migrating caribou and the odd mink chirping on the roadside.  After 30 miles, something caught my eye in the middle distance; I pulled over, grabbing my binoculars for a closer look.  Ah, just a large rock, I told myself, sharpening the focus rolling the wheel between the eyepieces.  Then it lifted its headed, horns curling out from the side of its face:  Muskox!  My heart started beating apace at the sight of this near-mythical creature.  The gold-miners I’d met at the Yukon River had spent seven summers up here: “we’ve seen just about every critter there is, but we ain’t never seen a muskox.”  Its head sat low, tucked into its body; its thick fur like a blanket laid over its back, drooping down to its ankles.  The muskox is surely the only creature that could walk out of its natural habitat, straight onto the set of a Star Wars movie.  I sat in wonder with him a while as he nibbled at the meagre shrubs that make up his summer time diet.  It drops to -60 degrees up here in winter; he was stocking up for the coming freeze.

The last 80 miles of The Dalton was pancake-flat.  The road had been washed away the year previous as the Sag River flooded, and was being heavily upgraded.  I followed a Pilot Car single-file down a makeshift stone road for the final 38 miles; it was late in the day, grey and cold.  Rain pelting on the windscreen started to splatter; it was turning to sleet.  And there, low through the cloud, I got my first glimpse of Deadhorse, my destination for the past two months.  Gantry cranes; makeshift buildings; snow-tractors waiting for freeze-up.  I drove through the muddy street, heavily potholed, past industrial equipment and dimly lit pre-fab buildings.  The place seemed deserted.  It was utterly ghastly, and, I thought to myself, the antithesis of Key West.  With absolutely nothing to do, I retired early.

The last ten miles to the Arctic Ocean runs through the privately owned oil fields of Prudhoe Bay.  I’d booked onto a tour – the only way to get there.  It trundled through the BP facility, passing towering drilling rigs sitting idle, waiting for the price of oil to rise, before finally reaching a gravel beach and the Arctic.  The chilling wind spat drizzle into my face.  I managed to dip my hand into the frigid water.  Six weeks from now the ocean would freeze over and polar bears would return.  A few foolhardy folk stripped off and dived in, squealing in shock.  But I’d had enough experiences on this trip.  As Maynard, our jovial tour guide, fired up the engine and engaged reverse, I saw the ocean start to move away from me.  At this very point I smiled with intense gratitude as I reflected on the 5,500 miles and four time-zones I’d covered. This vast continent had taught me much about itself and its people. Through it all I’d spent many hours in solitude, contemplating my life to this juncture.  I’d been alone, I'd missed my wife, but I was never lonely.  Maynard turned the minibus around and headed back into the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay.  I was ready to go home. 

James AnthonyComment