Current news – We are in the outskirts of Los Angeles staying with a friend whom we met in Alaska. We are planning a circular route East into Arizona and Utah to include the big attractions before we resume our southward trend.
Blog 287 Prudhoe Bay or Coldfoot return
The rains stopped almost as quickly as they had begun but the road was still lethally slippery. Was this the end of our Prudhoe bay attempt. We discussed it for a while, having been in wet slippery clay mud in Russia we knew just how hard the next 1oo miles could be. We sadly came to the conclusion that to turn back would probably be prudent and so we pulled the tent back down. A bad accident up here could be really serious as you are a long way from help.
Just at that moment a car pulled over and a family we saw at the Arctic circle piled out of their 4 wheel drive. They were returning from Deadhorse and informed us we were in the worst bit if we could just make about 4-6 miles of these conditions things improved further up. We decided we were not beaten yet and turned towards Deadhorse with renewed vigour. We have mixed feelings about the whole “you must go the furthest north point” or you must do this or you must do that but Prudhoe Bay is such an overlanders rite of passage that we felt having got this close we ought to complete the journey. Added to this was the fact that we saw travelling cyclists slogging through the mud to get to the end, they made us think if they are going to that effort we should too.
It was by now about midnight, we could not remain where we were so we slithered and slipped around and got going again. We managed to remain upright but the 4-6 miles was an underestimate, it was more like 10 but then we were back on better dirt once again. The knobbly tyres made a huge difference and we were so glad we found and fitted them as without them we would have had to fit our outriggers for sure but with them we had just about enough grip. We put some miles in before we thought it safe to stop around 2am to get some shut eye having been riding in seemingly broad daylight.
We didn’t have a very good rest partly due to the two thousand mosquitos we had to kill inside the tent before we could relax but we did at least get some sleep. They were still just as ferocious the next morning when we emerged and everything was done wearing headnets. The bike was wearing her new caked in mud look and you couldn’t even see the number plate.
We finally rode triumphant into the town of Deadhorse the end of the road at the Prudhoe bay oilfields.
We made it !!!
It was the discovery of “black gold” on the North Slope that caused this ribbon of road to be constructed. Oil was discovered at Prudhoe bay in 1969. America was critically short of oil and dependent on Arabian nations (this was barely two years after the Six-Day War). Plans for drilling the oil were thrown together at dizzying speed, as the U.S. government and oil companies worked to settle land claims with Native Americans, attain proper permits, ensure environmental safeguards and work on building ways of accessing this extremely remote area.
The road was built as a supply road for the large tractor-trailers to provide access for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline under construction and called the North Slope Haul road, it was hastily constructed in just 5 months and was finished in 1974.
Prospect camp an old pipeline construction camp is the site of the coldest official temperature in the USA -80deg f or -62.2deg c recorded on 23 January 1971. After completion of the pipeline, the road remained as a supply route for oil operations at Prudhoe Bay. In 1981 the Haul road was opened to the public (with a permit) until Disaster Creek at Mile 211 and named in honour of James W. Dalton, whose knowledge of northern Alaska greatly aided the oil exploration of the region.
The Dalton Highway or The Haul Road to use its local name is the most northerly traversable road in Alaska and the whole of North America. In 1994, the public was allowed access to the entire highway to Mile 414 in Deadhorse, without permits.
The hotel may not be not be the Ritz but it’s pretty amazing for out here. Camping is most definitely not permitted this far north due to polar bears, far more dangerous and unpredictable than black or grizzly bears. They have been observed to stalk humans and anyone working outside of the base up here would have an armed spotter looking out for them. We camped close enough that we could ride in and back out in a day.
As we took pictures outside the Deadhorse sign the post mistress came by, “Oh, can you hang on a minute I’ll get my Polaroid and I can add your picture to my wall” It turned out she like to photograph travellers, the more unusual the better and so we fitted the bill. It was hard to think the next stop from here was the Arctic ocean. The only way to see it is to book in advance and pay $50 each to go on the oil field tour as the company owns the shoreline, we were content just to have made it to the end.
The freezing temperatures in the winter months bring about their own problems and we saw rows of electric plugs before we realised it was to plug-in the cars. They need heaters to warm the cylinder blocks, battery and oil pan without these heaters the cars would not run in the freezing temperatures, once the vehicles are started in the morning they leave them running all day even outside stores etc until they are plugged back in again at night.
The mosquitos were following our every mile and if we dared slow or stop for a photo they swarmed us. We had to stop however to replace the pulley off the alternator, the corrugated road had shaken its retaining bolt loose. Fortunately the sump guard acted as a basket and caught the pulley with the bolt still inside so it was a simple job to wipe it all clean, refit and retighten it.
The pipe is over 800 miles long from its beginnings in Prudhoe Bay to its end at Valdez. It snakes the countryside with big swathes of seemingly random design. The reason for the zig zag route is to allow for expansion and contraction due to extreme temperature variations and earthquakes. It can reach +80 degrees farenheit here in summer and -80 degrees farenheit in winter.
In a few locations the pipe disappears underground and you wouldn’t know it was there. There were many engineering challenges to overcome building a huge pipeline in such an extreme climate. Most of the route covers pristine wilderness and much of it is permafrost.
The oil comes out of the ground at 155 to 180 degrees F and enters the pipeline at 145 deg F, it is still 103 deg F when it gets to the marine terminal at Valdez 800miles away. The first oil entered the line at Prudhoe Bay on 20th June 1977 and reached Valdez almost a month later on 28th July 1977. If the pipeline was buried directly in the ground or its supports were uninsulated it would melt all the surrounding permafrost making the ground unstable and risking fractures and spills. To combat this much of the route is suspended and the steel supports all have heatsinks which dispel any accumulated heat into the air rather than the ground. You can see the finned heatsinks in the picture below. There are three short sections which had to be buried in thaw unstable ground for road and animal crossings in which the ground surrounding the pipe is actually refrigerated to maintain its integrity.
This is pump station three, one of the ten pumping stations along the entire route through to Valdez, they’re needed to pump the oil on its way, the pumps are huge jet powered turbines. Just after the Atigun pass is pump station 5 which is unusual in that it actually slows down the flow of the oil rather than boosting it as it descends down from the Brooks range. The pump station is built on refrigerated foundations that keeps the heat from the buildings melting the permafrost below.
The road back was like riding it afresh, the ever-changing road surface meant what was once wet was now dry and sometimes vice versa. The point where we almost stopped was now being graded by the ever-present road crews and we easily made it back over the Atigun pass for some more beautiful views.
Riding down the Atigun pass we passed once more in to the tree line and photographed what was the furthest north spruce tree, it looks a bit sad due to some vandal trying to cut it down in the 1990′s but it’s hanging in there somehow.
On our route back we stopped once again in Coldfoot, this time we did not fuel up but topped up from our extra tank supplies thinking we would top up again at Yukon river. We did go in for a hearty truckers meal. Once on the road again we were delighted to see another moose this one eating water weed in the lake. Each time Kev took a photo the camera clicked and the moose looked up just to make sure he was holding a camera and not a rifle ?
Stopping once again at Yukon river we thought had blown it when the notice on the fuel bowser stated no fuel. It was a bleak place to camp the night. Jeremy our saviour came rushing over “I have gas” he said, he laughed and also said “you’re lucky when I get low the price will really go up”. He was doing a roaring trade at slightly inflated prices. The couple on the BMW were only riding a day to Yukon river and back which is why they looked so clean.
We were all grateful for the gas so not only did we pay his price we also went into his wife’s shop and had a look at the trinkets and bags she made. Karen bought a bracelet of birch bark and natural pearls which pleased everyone.
We pushed on back to Fairbanks and Marianne and Rad’s that night, the wild fires had got worse in our absence and from Yukon river back it looked at though were riding into a sunset. The smoke became really heavy like a fog and we could smell the soot while the air was tinged yellow. Reaching the end of the Dalton we were back on the tarmac of the Elliot highway and relaxed a little. Maybe we relaxed a little too much as we caught a bad frost heave at about 50mph which had the bike fully airborne and us both out of the seat. The seat bottomed out on its springs when we landed then we both hit the roof then we repeated the same sequence again with arms and legs going everywhere. Somehow both Kev and the bike clung to the road and we breathed a sign of relief as we continued to Fairbanks. We arrived tired, dirty but happy and a received real welcome “home”, thanks guys. Mission successful now where’s that shower.
Next up – Fairbanks car museum