Not your average travel blog
There are three seasons in Alaska – Autumn, Winter, and; If the ground isn’t frozen, and if there isn’t a white out causing everyone to stay indoors for a few days (common at the north end of the Dalton Highway), it’s Road Maintenance season. When you think of a white out or an Arctic blizzard, think of a horizontal snow storm that’ll cold grate your face off, give you frost bite in 30 seconds and while your knees snap off and your lungs freeze up, you’re buried under 10feet of snow until spring….snowball fight, anyone? In winter, the Dalton Highway, sees such weather and maybe one day, I’ll venture north again to experience it…from indoors.
Between (roughly) Fairbanks and Deadhorse, the Dalton journeys 490 miles north to south. It crosses some of the most remote, rugged, desolate and challenging landscape in North America, and the only reason it was built was to service the Trans Alaska Pipeline (see previous update). From the south, the Elliot Highway leads into the Dalton. It’s a rough excuse for a road just north of Fairbanks which really should be marked in the guidebook as “more dangerous than the Dalton”. Thinking you’re safe on a paved section of highway – Think again. When we reached the gravelly Dalton, we were actually relieved. Shoddy work guys, shoddy.
We headed due north. The truck bounced and bungled through the washboard and potholes causing a few moans and groans from the cockpit, as well as some unexpected gas (what? You wanted details). We just hoped it wasn’t going to induce further flatulence, or be this rough for the entire 1000 mile round trip. I also may take beans off the menu for a while…
Over the first 70 miles or so on the Elliot, we had already driven through one of the many hundreds of forest fires Alaska has experienced this year. A particularly bad year due to a warm winter, we expected to see both fire, and some of the thousands of square miles that have burned. People we spoke to before heading out warned that if you can see the smoke, it could be coming from a hundred miles away, but when you can see the flames, we should worry. We saw the flames…and the numerous water-carrying helicopters, dozens of men pulling their hoses amongst the trees and a few staging areas where all the firefighters appeared to be stationed while working around the clock.
My first experience of a land plagued with fires and it soon became obvious as to just how massive these phenomena are. The state have had in excess of over 800 fires so far this year, and managing them isn’t a simple task. Although the land is ravaged often, the lighting which starts them is a welcomed payment and a perfectly natural catalyst for wild rejuvenation. It’s much like going at your face with a giant, exfoliating glove – harsh, but soon after, you begin to see the benefits. The forests and it’s creatures need fire to revive and refresh – otherwise, like a leathery old, unwashed politician, things stagnate and inevitably die without progress. Humans choosing to dwell or take up pastime in the vicinity of the flames inevitably get in harms way. Build your house in a forest out here and at some point, the rain won’t stop it from burning. The firemen aren’t always trying to put the fires out either, merely manage them so they doesn’t destroy homes, amenities, and here – the 800 mile pipeline.
We were completely fine, even with the flames in clear view, but what it did mean was that we drove almost 300 miles over the next two days in the smoke and fog – not seeing a single mountain or distant forest. We had to imagine what the rivers looked like, which we could only hear as we drove alongside them. We should have been viewing some of the most extreme mountains in Alaska, jolting a few thousand feet upwards from beside the road. We should have been seeing cracks and veins of crystalline, cinnabar, copper and quarts among the folded and crunched limestone rock faces – much of which has now naturally turned into marble. Instead, when we did see a mountain, it was because we drove over Atigun Pass (the highest mountain pass in Alaska, at only 4740 feet and the only road pass over the Brooks Range) and although enjoying a dramatic respite of almost vertical, black-sided walls of rock on the elevated gorge, we had no view beyond a smokey 40 yards. I’ve grown a little quiet, and beginning to feel a little sad.
To summarise, roughly 300miles was dominated by a smoke-shrouded pipeline, the potholed gravel in front of the bonnet, a dozen or so trucks wildly growling as they passed by, and the ephemeral outline of a few trees, oh, and smoke. Wildlife? No. Every time I put my arm out of the window just to see if there were any buzzing around before I opened the door – only hundreds of relentless mosquitos appeared out of the ghostly haze. If I ever write to Marvel to request to become a superhero, I think “Mosquito Man” might be available.
I have my fingers crossed and my heart set on seeing a few things on this drive north to the Arctic, but right now, I’m deflated. Even though the current atmosphere is very much part of this landscape, and I can see and experience it first hand, morale in the emotional camp is low. It doesn’t take much on these long trips to put life and a few frustrations into perspective. Oddly, lack of wildlife, incessant mosquitos, and a few hundred square miles drenched in thick, white smoke makes me realise what I miss when I’m so far away from familiar comforts. I’m hopeful for some wind. Maybe putting beans back on the menu will help after all.