I had an unnatural, burning desire to see all of Alaska, at least as much its 700,000 square miles of wilderness as possible. That fervor was how I found myself on the first mile of the Dalton Highway, surveying the seemly empty expanse of the Arctic. Speed limit 50 next 416 miles—that was our introduction to the Dalton Highway, Alaska’s northernmost road. But 50 was faster than the Dalton typically allowed, potholed and frost-heave ridden as it was. We dodged lose gravel from eighteen-wheelers. The gravel showers were capable of shattering the windshield. The Dalton highway began 80 miles north of Fairbanks and snaked 500 miles north to Prudhoe Bay and the oilfields of the Arctic Ocean. My spouse, Andrew, and I hadn’t suspected that we could have driven this far north in a lifetime, much less in the span of a short summer.
My family was free to flap in the wind during the summer of 2019 on our road trip from Colorado to the northern tip of central Alaska. “You really do move fast…I’ve never been to the North Slope,” emailed Martin Boland, the most Alaskan of my new Alaska friends. He was the bush pilot and bear guide I had met a month earlier. I had worked on a brown bear conservation project in the Alaskan backcountry with him. Martin had spent a lifetime mucking through the rugged Alaskan backcountry. If he hadn’t been this far north, I was doing something right during my short summer stay. The only other tourists on the Dalton Highway had come in a rarely spotted vans with a driver. They drove north 115 miles on the highway to snap a picture at the Arctic Circle leaving the rest of the 500 mile journey wide open—only for those most curious about the Arctic. We too got out at the wooden Arctic Circle sign to snap a tourist photo of ourselves. My eyes sagged from the intense amount of driving on the journey thus far. We pulled away from the small groups who loaded back into their vans. Some of them waiting for flat tires on their tour van to be changed. They then turned back south toward Fairbanks, leaving us with a wide expanse of Arctic laying out before us. We continued north alone. The tourist vans certainly didn’t have Colorado license plates that earned us several bewildered looks. We also had a Great Pyrenees smiling from the backseat and our two house cats curled up among the baggage. Our travels had taken us too far during the summer to leave our furry friends behind with a sitter. The tabbies eyes curiously widened when we passed large rock formations. They then assassinated intruder mosquitoes on the windshield each time we stopped for a stretch break to let the felines out of their soft sided kennels. The dog had learned a new trick entirely. With each pitstop he raised his head to look for shadows of muskox or bears on the side of the dirt highway, a trick he’d been doing since Alberta. I could see the headline now: “American road trip family terrorizes local bears with dog-bear of their own”. Sometimes the barking was merited, but bushes and boulders were mostly what became the target of his wearisome barking. In the inside of our vehicle there were scars of the continuous Pyrenees maulings. Insert an eye-roll here. We had suspicions that the goof didn’t see well at a distance. We initially had concerns about bringing our animals to Alaska. Yet, here they were, having the time of their life and used to our travel routine. Our little ragged out Subaru had over 200K on it and we added 11,000 more during our Alaska summer.
The highway led through Alaska’s North Slope and the Brooks Range
to the state’s northernmost town of Deadhorse. The northern reach of the
continent, that’s where we were headed. History was unclear as to how Deadhorse
actually earned it’s name, leaving lots of room for me to wonder on the bumpy
dirt road. There weren’t any horses in the far north. Had mosquitos killed the
filly that lead the first miner to the outpost?
I could only imagine how the town earned the name. The horse of the
first explorers probably fell victim to winter. The legend had been lost to
time, long buried in the arctic snow.
The pipeline was an eyesore. When I first laid eyes on it I immediately despised it. The pipeline was the antithesis of every inch of wild that I wanted the Arctic to be. Initially I wondered if it altered the migration patterns of animals. Every time I caught the silver glint that reflected off the metal out of the corner of my eye, I contemplated the issue of humankind continuously raping the earth for resources. I tried to take a mental step away from my preconceived opinions to look at the situation objectively. I began to obsessively research facts about the resources being taken from the Arctic. I soon learned that the pipeline was scanned daily by helicopter or trucks on the ground for leaking problems. PHMSA, the federal regulatory authority for pipeline and hazardous materials, recommended that pipeline was the safest way to transport oil. As I looked at the condition of the road I didn’t disagree with them. The pipeline had been relatively successful. At 45 years old, there had been few major incidents. The biggest yet was when a drunken captain sailed into a reef carrying oil after it had exited the pipeline in Valdez. Exxon annually spent 6 million dollars a year to prevent similar disasters from happening in Prince William Sound. Other spills happened from sabotage to the pipeline by locals who sometimes got drunk and shot the pipeline. Nevertheless, I was prejudiced by the horror stories I’d heard about mega oil companies fighting to drill in ANWR. Our society was caught in a Catch 22. The incessant desire to go further and buy more was literally fueling mankind’s need to conquer every square inch of the planet and never before had it been this apparently glaring or ugly as the pipeline zigzagging over the pristine hills.
The gravel road and the Trans Alaska Pipeline snaked next to each other like partners playing peek-a-boo in the mountains. The pipeline and the road were the only man made, non-natural sights for hundreds of miles, lost in a sea of black spruce and sky. Under the trees with branches that spiraled up them like staircases, lay a bed of corn spurry and chickweed that resembled dill. The unusual plants made a furry lime green carpet beneath the trees. The dramatic forest scenery disappeared into an expanse of canvas where clouds created spotted shadows on the tundra floor and the hills underneath them. Further afield the grass of the tundra beveled due to the constant thaw and refreeze. White flowers the size of pinheads sprinkled the plane of brown and green reindeer moss. It was difficult to imagine this prolific biota buried in meters of snow.
I stood at the summit of Atigan Pass looking east into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and west over the Gates of the Arctic National Park. I breathed in a breath of icy summer air and felt a wild breeze that had probably never touched the skin of another human. There was a heaviness that laid over the most jagged peaks that I had ever seen. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d later visualize myself here over and over again. This habitat deserved to be protected. But I too also wanted the societal comforts and benefits that oil provided. My internal struggle was the same issue that plagued modern society in ways that were incalculably detrimental due to environmental impacts, but clearly the issue was more complicated than that. Was this really being a good steward of the earth? There had to be a better way.
The Yukon River Camp was the first sign of civilization where I met Yukon Jeremy and his mother. The pair walk fifteen miles a day to sell their handmade crafts like porcupine quill and birch bark earrings made strictly from the land. His mother showed me photos that traced the development of their local homestead from a lot of trees into a primitive hand built home where they braved the Arctic winter of negative eighty degrees year after year. For two months I had lived in Alaska searching for stories from real Alaskans like Jeremy and his mom.
Speaking of real Alaskan stories, at the Yukon River Camp, a small outpost of sea-cans and trailers next to a gas pump and the only restaurant in town (if I can use that word), I stumbled on a buried story of just that, real Alaska. The diner in which I sat once provided shelter for a naughty hibernating grizzly bear four years prior. The bruin snacked on frozen peas and slept on a bed of tourist t-shirts after breaking into an office window. The bear unfortunately, had to be put down because it had terrorized fish camps on the Yukon River for years. After being tipped off from a phone call, the rifle wielding camp owner entered his business followed by two of his employees (one of which had never shot a firearm) toting shotguns as backup. Can you imagine? I felt what I perceived to be remnants of their uneasiness, haunted by the memory of the dead bear, walking through the cafeteria and hallway. I pictured the pool of blood expanding on the hallway floor. This wouldn’t be my first unfortunate observation of the human and nature engaging in conflict in The Arctic.
“We’re going to be two dead horses by the time we get there”, Andrew joked. Deadhorse was still 350 miles north and even though we were already exhausted we knew accommodations were limited until the end of the highway. The color palate of the horizon changed from blue to purple. We dodged the potholes like a video game of Frogger. The guardrail was a snaggletooth smile. A quadruple rainbow played in the mist near Sagwon, a supposed oil outpost, but I blinked and missed it. Every time we stopped to get out of the vehicle a swarm of mosquitos, thousands strong, made a menacing ball and tried to latch onto us. Even they played a delicate role in the ecosystem as pollinators. I wrested with the thoughts of how tiny and insignificant I was in this place yet somehow the journey made Alaska seem impossibly small.
In Deadhorse we were the only tourists amongst oilfield workers. They drove company trucks sheathed in heavy-hitter names like Jacobs, Schlumberger , BP, & ExxonMobil. These trucks each had a special plug in the parking lot to keep the engines from freezing in the winter. The chords hung and dangled uselessly in the breeze of summer. Species of waterfowl congregated near the presence of humans to avoid being snacked on by prowling Arctic fox. I got bewildered looks when I pulled out an extra long Sigma Lense to photograph ducklings splashing in the greywater drainage of soapy shower water. I was irrationally fearful that some oil and gas executive was about to jump out of the truck, rip the camera out of my hand, and run me off as I photographed the sign that read, “It is not recommended to swim or eat unprocessed seafood from this area”. Poor ducks, here they were in the far north and my species had encroached on their space. Hoping the sullage had been treated for chemicals before being leached into the Arctic pond and groundwater, but doubting it, I stood baffled: These were the people responsible for keeping the wild Arctic in pristine condition? This was out in the middle of town in public. God only knows what the environment actually suffered behind the secured perimeter of the oilfield grounds. Considering the septic pond bath time, and the empty to-go containers that lined the sides of the roads throughout town, it was no wonder these companies were responsible for over 200 Arctic oil spills a year. Workers joked that even the tiniest misplaced drop qualified as an environmental disaster. The U.S. currently has had the most stringent environmental controls on oil in the world; a spill the size of one teaspoon technically qualified as an environmental event. I wasn’t exactly innocent either. I had driven 11,000 miles in my ragged out Subaru. I wanted to lay my eyes on the Arctic and see for myself what was actually going on but the road trip wasn’t an eco-friendly choice.