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.

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