Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Baptism of an Arctic Warrior Part IV: The "Road" Back to Civilization



Oh you thought the tale was told? That the story was over? Wrong-o. 

This guy had a bad day.
We should have known when we saw this car right outside Deadhorse Camp that this trip wasn't going to be all fun and games and toenail painting on the way back to Fairbanks. We had barely survived the trip up with our two (technically three) flat tires, but we were confident that the mechanics at Deadhorse Camp had patched us up nicely.

Wrong-o again-o.

We left Prudhoe Bay at 1230 and barely two hours later we had a flat. We had one spare at this point; it was time for a decision: turn around and fix this tire at Prudhoe Bay (a four to six hour detour), or try to make it FIVE HOURS to Coldfoot without getting another flat? There's no cell service, and we had no other tire, so if this spare went down, we would be stuck on the road.

This is actually from Day 1 but you get the idea.

I'll take the blame for the decision. I cast the deciding vote. The smart thing to do was go back and fix the tire, obviously. But something stirred within me... an inkling of Fate, of Kismet, of Destiny. I could feel a pull towards the South.... maybe it was just my own bed calling. For whatever reason, I voted we push on like REAL adventurers. And push on we did. You will have to decide if I made the right call or not.

As we took some time to mull over our predicament, that tire change took a good 18 minutes, the slowest one by far. We took off, pretending to be optimistic about our chances. We passed a herd of Musk Ox and Caribou (or some other such horned animal), and pointed out some bow hunters stalking them alongside the highway. An hour or so down the road (if you can call it a road), Fortune smiled upon us: the Chinese tour group we had met at the Ocean was stopped at a construction crossing. Let me explain.

The "road" to Deadhorse Camp is under constant construction. At some points it's so narrow (due to said construction) that it becomes a single-lane road. At these points, a construction vehicle called a "Pilot Car" would guild one side of traffic through the narrow lane, dodging a maze of obstacles left behind by various vehicles, equipment, and laborers. Once to the other side, the Pilot Car would drop off its convoy, allowing them to continue them on their way. It would then turn around, pick up traffic flowing in the opposite direction, and lead them back through the maze to the starting point.

The Fates had aligned just so, allowing us to meet up with them at this construction stop as we all waited for the Pilot Car to come pick us up. At this stop we traded greetings and told them about our potential disaster-in-waiting. In a heartbeat, they offered to follow us, and if we lost another tire they would lend us one of their own spares -- their ONLY spare, in fact. What excellent Humans and true Samaritans.

We were very lucky to have them with us, because not another hour later, our final spare blew out. The Chinese were there to help, as they had promised to do. We went right to work; it was already 5:00 PM and we still had a good 8-10 hours to go. Even though we had to fish out the spare from our rescuers' SUV, we were still able to get rolling again in 15 minutes.

At some point we stopped for a quick break, and who should pass us but the California Bros that we dived into the Ocean with! We gave them a fist pump of victory as they screamed by us. That might have been the last time we ever saw them, but nope. We would meet again.

Some time later, the next tire went down only THREE MILES FROM COLDFOOT. If you remember, Coldfoot is the halfway point, complete with a restaurant (omg DINNER!) and a service station. Three miles. Three. Miles.

Americans, amirite?
Our Chinese Rescuers showed up once again, laughed at us, and then agreed to shuttle a couple of us to Coldfoot in order to fix one of our tires. Once fixed, we would ride back out with our tire to the vehicle, put the tire on, and then drive our vehicle the last three flippin miles back to Coldfoot.

The entire process of getting our vehicle to Coldfoot, and then patching ALL of our tires took quite some time. While we waited for tires to get fixed, the bow hunters we had seen on the road earlier pulled into Coldfoot. Turns out that they were some of my co-workers, which was perfect because they carried the message back to my boss that I would not be back to work in time for morning PT. What are the odds, right?

Our Chinese Rescuers were done travelling for the night and settled in at a hotel nearby for the night. We couldn't count on them to babysit us anymore. Luckily - and really, it was extremely lucky - we ran into none other than the California Bros taking a break from driving at Coldfoot. They were true Road Warriors, driving an SUV with a giant snorkel, two spare tires, an air compressor and a tire patch kit. I mean, the air compressor had a button on the DASH to operate it. That's real.

The Bros offered to take the Chinese's place as our babysitters. They even hooked us up with a RADIO that they had brought with them to keep in communication should anything else come up. Like I said, Road Warriors, the three of them.

We finally pulled out at 10:00 PM, with two spares in the trunk and seven hours of driving still ahead of us. Two and a half hours later, the next tire went flat. We changed it in about six minutes and continued. An hour after that one the next one followed suit. This one took barely five minutes to replace.

Seriously, you can't make this stuff up. We were approaching Nascar-standard tire changing time, but we were out of spares. This was it. Hopefully we could make the last couple hours.

Haha nope.

Not long after using our last spare, we hit beautiful, solid pavement. It was sexy. The paint was perfect, the roadway was wide and clear, and there were even guard rails to keep us from skydiving off of the cliffs in our vehicle. We were positive that we were in the clear. So positive, in fact, that we gave the California Bros their radio back so they could pull off and get some rest at a campsite. They agreed with our assessment and told us they'd follow us to the next turn off before hitting the sack.

But Happenstance had the last maniacal, villain-like laugh. On this beautiful, sexy road that I considered marrying, we lost yet another tire. How? I have no idea. I had stopped asking how and why. I had stopped caring about the dense cloud of mosquitoes feasting on my flesh as I helped change tires. I had stopped wondering what time were going to get back. It was approaching 5:00 AM and I was more zombie than man at this point. I hadn't slept much the night before on account of pre-game jitters, and I hadn't slept much in the car because Sir Billy Fix It kept dodging potholes rather forcefully with the intent of slamming my head into the window (it amused him and kept him awake, you see).

The Road Warriors were just about as tired of driving as you are of reading this, but they still hadn't found a turn off for camping. Consequently, they rolled up on us with sunken-in eyes and broken souls, shook their heads in disbelief, and whipped out the air compressor and tire plugs. My man the Taliban Saboteur did work and plugged that tire up right. I think we made his day, giving him a chance to use that nifty system; he made our year by getting us home.

After that final tire, we made it the last 90 or so miles back to Fairbanks with the California Bros' radio in our SUV and their support following behind. They weren't going to leave us now. These true American Heroes escorted us all the way into town to make sure we made it safely.

When you stop to think about it, it's pretty awesome that complete strangers would help us out like that for so long. Both the Chinese Tour Group and the California Bros escorted us for a total of about 15 hours. We had borrowed a spare and been repaired once by them. We had gotten two shuttle rides and kept the Bros up all night. That is true Humanity right there. I'm honored to have shared not only my Arctic Warrior Baptism with them, but the road back to civilization  as well.

Finally, 1000 miles and NINE FLAT TIRES later, we rolled into Fairbanks at 6:00 AM, just in time for me to make it to morning PT at 6:30 AM.

Ha, yeah right.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Baptism of an Arctic Warrior Part III: The Polar Bear Dive

Day 2 started bright and early. So early in fact, that it started on May 16, 2014. The Sun hadn't set on Deadhorse Camp for almost two months by the time we woke up on July 7. For us though, it began at 5:00 AM with a flat tire.

Now, since technically this is the same tire that we filled up with air at Happy Valley - and because I don't want anyone to accuse me of exaggerating later - I'm going to keep our flat tire count at a solid "two" right now. A case may be made that this was our THIRD flat tire, but again, let's avoid even the appearance of exaggeration by keeping the count at two.

At lengths it was time for the tour. Prudhoe Bay is only about 10-15 miles north of Deadhorse Camp, so the trip to the Ocean and back can't be that long, right?  The tour guide tells us: "Oh, the tour is only about THREE HOURS." What could make a thirty minute round trip with a few minutes at the Ocean a three hour tour, you ask? Well this of course:


SEE?! A DUCK! A DUCK IN THE ARCTIC! HOLD THE PHONE! STOP THE PRESSES! And look! It's got a nest! Let's stop here for fifteen minutes and look at it.

On top of that we had to dodge some serious traffic as we made our way through the oil fields. Deadhorse Camp and the Prudhoe Bay oil fields honestly reminds me of Afghanistan more than anything else. It looks like a deployment zone: crappy dirt roads that are much to small for the huge vehicles that ride on them; the temporary housing units that are all mobile and shanty looking; and the food is GREAT and you get as much as you want just for staying there. Oh look at this next pic: there goes AN ENTIRE BUILDING on the back of a truck. No big deal.



I didn't get many pictures of the oil fields for two reasons. First, there was a guy who I SWORE was an ISIS or Taliban agent here solely to blow up the pipeline. This guy was a big with a mean look and a RIGHTEOUS beard. I thought for sure he was on this tour in order to case out the fields and report back to his higher, so I was keeping an eye out. Second, I was slapping myself on the head repeatedly and chanting juvenile pre-game cheers to keep me from getting cold feet (so witty).

FINALLY, after TWO HOURS of bird watching and truck-dodging, we made it to the beach. THE BEACH! Eternal glory was just one ice-cold dip away.



And then this happened:



The water was a bone-chilling 30 degrees, and the ambient temperature was just below 40. You can hear the wind in the video, and it never let up.

I was 100% sure that I was going to go into shock from the water temperature. Sir Billy Fix It was talking to me throughout the entirety of the video footage, but I couldn't hear anything except my own pulse in my head. I just kept thinking, "I'm going to be the only Army Officer in Alaska to get hypothermia in the summer." Then I thought, "Worth it." A moment of pain and discomfort is worth a lifetime of glory.

There are some other parts of this experience that warrant special mention. The first is that the scary terrorist-looking guy was the guy in the video that went into the water with Mr. Smooth Talkin' Newman. He and his buddies turned out to be extremely cool guys from Los Angeles, California. They were on a massive road trip, and the Arctic Ocean was just one stop for them. Turns out later that if it wasn't for them, we'd probably still be at Deadhorse.



The second mention goes to the above group of Chinese tourists that were on an Alaskan adventure. Like the bros from California, this was just one stop for them. We might have never crossed paths again after this chance encounter at the edge of world, but Destiny had other plans.

Finally, after all of it: the years of fearing and avoiding the harsh, unforgiving conditions of the Arctic; camping 14 days in the mountains of Alaska during the dead of winter; surviving two winters and numerous winter training exercises stationed in one of the most remote locations on Earth; a 14-hour long drive with the Prudhoe Bay Crew; a THREE HOUR LONG DUCK WATCHING BUS RIDE; and finally a Polar Bear Dive into the Arctic Ocean on the worst possible Arctic summer day -- after all of it, I can finally claim my fears conquered and the title of ARCTIC WARRIOR. Excuse me while I add it to my list of hard-earned titles on my blog profile there on the right of your screen.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Baptism of an Arctic Warrior Part II: The Road to the Top of the World

Day 1 started bright and early. 3:00 AM early in fact: that's when the sun rose. There rest of us rose shortly thereafter in order to make it to breakfast at the Newman household by 7:00 AM.  Breakfast was crucial to our success as we had nothing to eat until 10:30 PM that night. So I salute you, Lisa "Mess With Me and See What Happens"  and Ciara "Ms. Thing" Newman for making that breakfast. Your dedication to our crazy adventures reflect great credit upon you, the Women of the Newman Clan, and the great state of Alaska.  

Without any more fanfare, we were off. We left Fairbanks at 8:30 AM and quickly lost all cell phone communication. It's always a thrilling and annoying experience to lose service for extended periods of time. Ultimately, the digital cleanse was another crucial part of the Arctic Warrior Baptism. It offered the opportunity to reflect on past and present (mis)adventures, develop a plan to avoid / treat hypothermia and shock, and really appreciate the scenery you will get a taste of below. It was only a few minutes out of town when we came upon the official start of the Dalton Highway - the Road to the Top of the World.



At 1000 AM we got our first taste of dirt road. For anyone planning to make the trip, prepare for some cruddy roads. Though there is a surprising amount of pavement between civilization and the ocean, the dirt road portions will destroy your vehicle. And their tires. All of them. 

1115 AM found us at the mighty Yukon River. This beast of a river is part of a time-honored initiation process for new Alaskans involving three specific rites of passage: peeing in the Yukon River, screwing a Native, and wrestling a bear. The last two are interchangeable. In any case, I was able to knock out the first one right then and there.


We stopped around 1245 PM at the aptly named Finger Mountain. By this point I was already hyperventilating about how cold the water was going to be at our destination and worried that I my body might be shocked into taking in a breath of cold Arctic Ocean water against my will, literally drowning me in my fears. I therefore promptly scaled the highest point of the highest finger (incidentally the middle finger) and zenned out for a bit. Once I had re-centered, I was confident that even if I did take in a lungful of Arctic Ocean, the rest of the Prudhoe Bay Crew would fish me out of the water before my lifeless body floated out to sea. That was enough for me.


Thirty minutes later around 1:30 PM we entered the Arctic Circle. In layman terms, the Arctic Circle marks the portion of the Earth that receives 24 straight hours of daylight in the Summer, and 24 straight hours of darkness in the winter. Science is pretty cool. Also, if I don't look happy in this picture, it's because I'm not. I'm thinking foul, evil things about the Arctic... even though in the Summer it's quite lovely (for like three weeks).




At approximately 3:30 PM we pulled into the half way point: Coldfoot Camp. This camp got its name from some settlers who made it this far north back in the 1900s before getting cold feet (both literally and figuratively) and turned around for more southern climates. Now it's pretty much a restaurant and a service station, but I bet it was a pretty rockin place back in the day: it consisted of one gambling hall, two road houses, two stores, and SEVEN SALOONS.


At 1700 we came upon the farthest north spruce tree, which some A-hole had cut down with a chainsaw and just left there. Don't despair; hope remains. Off to the side of these pictures is another spruce that's growing up in its place. 













Just past Coldfoot is Atigun Pass, a rather sketchy road alongside the mountains with multiple "Avalanche Area" signs to remind you that you're doing something stupid.  

We survived the pass, but shortly thereafter encountered the first sign of trouble. The time was 6:00 PM. 


The beautiful pavement that had brought us this far disappeared past Coldfoot and it became a hard, rocky road that straight tore up  this tire. Undeterred by this setback, the Prudhoe Bay Crew jumped out and had this flat replaced with our spare in 12 (count 'em: 12) minutes. We were back on the road and swore not to tell Lisa "Told You So" Newman about it. 

The road on this side of the pass is nasty. It's narrow, rocky, dirty, and full of construction making it narrower, rockier, and dirtier. It is often reduced to single lanes, requiring one side of traffic to wait while the other side of traffic is guided through the road by a pilot car. At least they were 'Merica though.


At 8:50 PM we limped into "Happy Valley" airstrip. Another tire was flat, although thankfully it just needed some air. We fought our way past a Cujo guard dog and made it to some air before moving on to our final destination.

Quite suddenly, we saw a very distinct cloud wall on the horizon; the ocean was near. Around 9:50 PM we even more suddenly found ourselves in the thick of that cloud wall. Where one moment it was sunny and warm, the next it was foggy, cold, windy, and wet. The temperature dropped just as fast. Suddenly it was below 40 degrees outside. Perfect, since I had only brought shorts and sandals.

About that time, cell service returned with a vengeance. Everyone's phone started blowing up with all of the digital age's badgering. Incidentally, we got better cell reception at that point that we ever get in Fairbanks!



At 10:30 PM - almost 14 hours exactly since we had left Fairbanks that morning - we rolled into Deadhorse, the last stopping point before the oil fields and the Arctic Ocean. We made our way to the hotel, stuffed whatever food we could find on site into our mouths, and hit the sack. It was cold. It was rainy. It was foggy. It was miserable. It was glorious. Exactly the worst kind of summer weather you could imagine.


We had arrived.



Thursday, July 10, 2014

Baptism of an Arctic Warrior Part I: Do or Die a Coward

Way back when, I listed my preferences for my first duty station as a commissioned officer. Naturally I chose Hawaii first because duh. I tried to use my family living there at the time as an "extenuating circumstance" to get me stationed there. Uncle Sam didn't buy it. I figured he wouldn't, which is why I spent much more time considering my number two choice: ALASKA.

My Choices for First Duty Station

So I had heard tales of Alaska and all of its (cold) glory, and I was intrigued by its remote location and (very cold) "otherworldly" reputation. I also wanted to go somewhere outside of the continental United States (preferably where it was warm all the time, ergo Hawaii). Everyone I had talked to said that they loved living in Alaska, and I figured that if I wasn't stationed there I would never go there (because it's so fricken cold). 

More than anything though, I had this primal fear of the Arctic; this nagging reluctance to ever face the ice and cold and snow and ice and cold and snow of the frozen north. There is something unforgiving and cruel about the Arctic that didn't sit well with me, and the fact that something so (seemingly) trivial unsettled me made me feel less of a warrior. So naturally I had to go there and face it or forever be a wuss. 

I had, in fact, dodged an assignment to attend Northern Warfare Training in Alaska as a Cadet by looking my instructor square in the eye and saying, "Sir, I will fight anywhere for you: jungle, desert, forest, plains - hell even under water, but I'm not going to fight in the Arctic. Thanks but no thanks." I ran from my fear a second time when I enlisted in the National Guard and made my recruiter promise me not to send me anywhere with snow. I didn't realize at the time that YOU pick the state you serve in when you enlist in the National Guard, but the fact and principle of me running from the Arctic had manifested itself a second time.

As for how cold it ACTUALLY was, I had been told that the winters were pretty much the same as winters in the Lower 48.  Right?! Anchorage (located in a temperate climate zone) gets cold winters, but the temperature hovers around zero degrees and rarely goes under. It can't be too much worse than Utah's winters - around ten degrees throughout winter - right? I thought sure, I can face the Arctic on my own time while enjoying a temperate climate zone for the rest of my tour. 

WELL THE JOKE WAS ON ME. There are TWO Army bases in Alaska: one in Anchorage and one in Fairbanks. I had no idea there was a base in Fairbanks (located in a SUB-ARCTIC climate zone), where the weather varies between -60 degrees in the nine-month long winters and 100 degrees in the three-week long summers! 

Destiny had the last laugh. I would face my fear weather I wanted to or not (see wut I did thar). I therefore vowed to embrace it fully by taking a plunge into the Arctic Ocean and being baptized a true Arctic Warrior. 

My first year stationed in Fairbanks was spent in Afghanistan. The second year afforded me no opportunity to make the 14-hour drive to the top of the world. I had survived a winter in Afghanistan (a little bit cold but not bad - IEDs were harder to survive than the winters) and a winter in Fairbanks (a true test of fortitude). I had also (barely) survived the 14-day long Arctic Warrior Leader Course operating in the mountains of Alaska for 14 straight days in the dead of winter... but I still hadn't taken the plunge and I only had this one year left. I resolved to do or die a coward. 

Luckily, these three old guys I know in Fairbanks are as crazy as I am and volunteered to come along. I didn't even have to persuade them; I just told them that I was planning to take the Polar Bear Dive this summer or forever wear a bag over my head in shame and turn in my Infantry Blue Cord. They jumped on board and provided damn near ALL of the logistical planning efforts. If it wasn't for them, I'm not sure I would have been able to make the trip. Especially considering what happened along the way... but I'm getting ahead of myself. Where was I? Oh yeah: I salute you Kurt "Smooth Talkin" Newman, Sir William Edward "Billy Fix It" Merritt, and Lance "Lumpy" Lundberg the Bionic Man. You are true American Heroes.



Fast forward through months of planning and scheming and toenail painting sessions (which Billy Fix It declined to participate in), and we were ready to face the Arctic Ocean and take a dive with Destiny.