Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Leaving Alaska

Rob and I spent a couple of days back in Fairbanks, recovering from our Haul Road trip and preparing my rig for the long drive south on the AlCan back to Seattle.

Before leaving Fairbanks, I encouraged Rob to give some serious thought to whether or not he really wanted to stay with me for the eight long days of driving that the AlCan requires. We'd had a great time on the drives from Anchorage to Fairbanks and on the Haul Road, but I warned him that the AlCan is something else entirely. I also pointed out that Fairbanks is an easy place to fly out of (hint, hint). He said he wanted to "give it a go", so we set off.

During our first two days, we got to enjoy many beautiful vistas. We also, however, had to endure the rough roads and constant parade of heavy trucks which zoom by, kicking up dust and gravel. Facing the prospect of six more days of it can do funny things to your brain.

So, I brought the subject up again when we got to Haines Junction yesterday. I reassured him that it was really okay with me if he wanted to bail, and pointed out that our pass through Whitehorse today would be the last opportunity he'd have to fly out if he wanted to.

He confessed that while he really didn't want to "abandon ship", he was pretty worn out. Plus, he'd already been away from home for two weeks and was feeling some pressure to get back and take care of business. I reassured him that he had already gone "above and beyond" and that I was good to go for a solo return. He made what I think is a good decision to fly out, and we toasted our very enjoyable and successful road trip together.

We pulled into Whitehorse this morning, got him a seat on a pair of Air Canada flights to Seattle and said farewell. I've motored down the road to Watson Lake and called it a day. I'll probably just set my jaw and push on from here, probably not posting anything until I get back to Seattle.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Driving The "Haul Road"

In the previous few posts, I've tried to give you a sense of what it's like to drive the James W. Dalton Highway -- "The Haul Road" -- from north of Fairbanks all the way up to Prudhoe Bay. The truth is, it's impossible to do justice to the 400+ miles of "out there" road, but in those posts and this "start to finish" video I've given it my best shot.

Using some of the many hundreds of shots from my "DashCam" -- taken once each minute along the entire route -- along with some narrative video and a few other still photos, here's a ten minute overview. Like I said, it's impossible to truly represent this amazing drive, but I hope this will give you some sense of it.

For those of you who are "Ice Road Trucker" fans, this will at least give you a start-to-finish perspective on what it's like for Lisa and her colleagues in the summer. It's obviously way, way more difficult in winter! Thanks to my friend Rob who rode along and shared the experience! Thanks also to Alaska's Hobo Jim for a couple of perfect tunes!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Haul Road - Return

Driving back down the Haul Road brought several things into sharp focus for me. First, if you drive the road, you will get to enjoy many, many beautiful vistas along the way.

But along with the beautiful comes the not so pretty. You have to remember that the Haul Road is a working road. It's really there for the trucks to bring equipment and supplies to the oil field. You are a "guest" there, and you have to be patient. Even better, try to be entertained by the amazing assortment of rigs you see go by.

Here are a couple of video clips to illustrate my point:

You'll have your high points, like when your trusty truck takes you boldly over the Atigun Pass. You will also have your low points, like when you have to wait for the driver of the pilot car to put some gas in her tank.

When you get back to Fairbanks, wash your truck. It will be filthy, and the chemicals they put on the road are highly corrosive. So "get after it" immediately, then hurry off before the car wash manager sees what you left behind!

Driving the Haul Road has been a fantastic experience and I am so glad I've done it!

Rob and I are going to hang out in Fairbanks for a couple of days to prepare my Road Rig to leave Alaska and make the long drive down the AlCan highway... Stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Haul Road - Prudhoe Bay

If you're going to drive to Prudhoe Bay, "just getting there" had better be the only reward you seek, because there's not much else there to see or do. As you enter the area, you are greeted by immense compounds of machinery and equipment. This is, after all, really nothing but a working oil field, and they've got all the stuff there for it.

When we finally reached our accommodation at the Arctic Caribou Inn, Rob got out and moved to the middle of the parking lot to call his wife. I don't know, but I'm guessing the conversation was along the lines of, "Hi, honey. You'll never guess what my friend has gotten me into!"

He probably would have had an even better story if he'd waited until after he saw our room and then had dinner with the pipeline/oilfield workers. Burger night at the dormitory, yummy!

Early in the morning we got up and took the "tour" of Prudhoe Bay, the only way you can see it. Basically, you and a few other crazy visitors climb in a bus, drive past buildings and equipment, then dismount and stick your hand, toe, whatever in the arctic ocean. On the way back you pass the "forest" which is actually a nice bit of humor because there isn't a tree around for 200 miles!

I certainly can't say that Prudhoe Bay is one of the nicest or most interesting places I've been, but that was never the intention. I just wanted to get here, and I did!

Haul Road - Day 2

We continued from Coldfoot early this morning, on what ended up feeling like an endless day of driving. There was vista after vista, but after a while it all started to blur together. The day was made more endless by the frequent and often lengthy waits we encountered for construction, equipment, pilot cars, etc. We often resorted to keeping ourselves entertained by playing TV shows from my iPod on the truck's dash monitor. That helped a bit, but not a lot.

A high point -- literally -- was crossing over the Atigun Pass to which the road is very steep on both sides. It was a bit "sporty" in mid-summer, and I can see how it could be treacherous in winter. On the other side, we spilled out onto a pretty flat plain and barren road. Again, we frequently had to slow or stop, often for caribou crossing.

After not seeing any wildlife on our entire first day, we were delighted to finally see some. Next stop, Prudhow Bay!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Haul Road - Coldfoot Camp

Coldfood Camp is a remnant from the pipeline constructions days, when it -- and a number of other camps -- housed the thousands of workers who built not only the pipeline but the Haul Road itself. Coldfoot is near the half-way point, and was left here (I'm told) as a mid-trip service center -- perhaps oasis -- for truckers and travelers to and from Prudhoe Bay. There are always a number of large trucks parked in the huge lot.

The big rigs generally have immense fuel tanks that are sufficient for the round trip, but for the rest of us Coldfoot is an important fuel stop. I also found a small dog yard, though I have no idea how they may be employed.

As you might imagine, construction worker lodgings are spartan affairs, and these have not been improved since their original use. My faithful Mac is doing his best to provide us with some entertainment, but it is still pretty modest accommodation.

A cold beer did little to sway Rob into finding the place idyllic, though I suspect that he was partly bummed out about not getting to meet Lisa, his favorite "Ice Road Trucker." We leave early in the morning to continue north... Stay tuned!

Haul Road - Day 1

We left Fairbanks in proper form this morning and made our first stop at another pipeline viewing station and visitor center, mostly because they offered coffee. I pointed to the sunrise/sunset sign, and warned Rob that the sleeping trouble he was having in Fairbanks due to it being light so late was going to get even worse when we were in 24-hour daylight above the arctic circle. This is, after all, the summer solstice.

When we reached the proper start of the Haul Road, we stopped for the mandatory photo and regretted that we didn't have any stickers to add to the collection. Almost as soon as we started rolling, we passed this sign and Rob gave me a sideways look. I think he was finally figuring out what kind of trip he had signed on for!

The pipeline is your constant companion on the Haul Road, as are the big rigs which hurtle down the road and pass you at every opportunity. The road itself is paved in a few stretches, but is mostly hard gravel with lengthy patches of dirt/mud thrown in for good measure.

All of which explains why Darth was already looking pretty colorful by the middle of the first day. We also stopped for the mandatory photo at the arctic circle, but mostly we just motored on the seemingly endless road through endless expanse toward Coldfoot Camp.

Here are a couple of video clips from our first day of driving the Haul Road:

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Haul Road

The James W. Dalton Highway, usually Dalton Highway (Alaska Route 11) is a 414-mile road in Alaska. It begins at the Elliott Highway, north of Fairbanks, and ends at Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean and the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Once called the North Slope Haul Road -- or simply "The Haul Road" -- it was built as a supply road to support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in 1974.

The highway, which directly parallels the pipeline, is one of the most isolated roads in the United States. There are only three towns along the route: Coldfoot (population 13) at Mile 175, Wiseman (population 22) at Mile 188, and Deadhorse (25 permanent residents, 3,500-5,000 or more seasonal residents depending on oil production) at the end of the highway at Mile 414.

Despite its remoteness the Dalton Highway carries a good amount of truck traffic: about 160 trucks daily in the summer months and 250 trucks daily in the winter. The highway comes to within a few miles of the Arctic Ocean. Beyond the highway's terminus at Deadhorse are private roads owned by oil companies, which are restricted to authorized vehicles only. There are, however, commercial tours that take people to the Arctic Ocean. All vehicles must take extreme precaution when driving on the road, and drive with headlights on at all times. There are quite a few steep grades (up to 12%) along the route, as well. (From Wikipedia)

I have wanted to drive The Haul Road since the moment I first learned of it over 30 years ago!

Rob and I will hit the road in the morning. Our "plan" is as follows:

Day 1 -- Fairbanks to Coldfoot Camp
Day 2 -- Coldfoot Camp to Prudhoe Bay
Day 3 -- Prudhoe Bay to Coldfoot Camp
Day 4 -- Coldfoot Camp to Fairbanks

We will be relying on trusty Darth to carry us -- hopefully without "incident" -- over 900 hard miles... Cheer for Darth and wish us luck!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Following The Pipeline

Our plan -- insofar as we have one -- is to follow the Alaska pipeline along its entire route, from Valdez all the way to Prudhoe Bay. The first, relatively easy leg of this journey is from Valdez to Fairbanks on the Richardson highway. I've driven much of this route many, many times, but only in winter. So, once again it was fun to see the scenery in broad daylight and not covered with snow.

It was also fun to stop at some of my "old haunts" -- such as the lovely Paxson Inn shown here -- and see what they're like in "the other season" as well. We made another important stop at a pipeline viewing area along the way, where Rob got his first "up close" look at the thing. I didn't tell him that the "562" sign meant we still had 562 miles to go to Prudhoe Bay, nor that most of them would be along the famous -- infamous! -- "Haul Road."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Valdez, AK

I picked Rob up at the Anchorage airport and we headed east, then south to Valdez. He took a turn at the helm, and it was fun for me to be a passenger for a change. The scenery is even better when you don't have to keep your eyes on the unpredictable Alaskan roads!

Valdez is know for two things: fishing and oil. The town is pretty basic, but the fishing business is still fairly robust. The oil facilities across the bay are immense, serving as both the terminus of the Alaska pipeline and the origin of supertanker transport to distant ports.

Like all Alaskan towns, Valdez has its character and its characters. Rob is a huge fan of coffee, and when Miss Peggy came by our camper park he just had to have some. As you can see, he was a good sport about it!