Not your average travel blog
A few dozen miles into the Arctic Circle lies the place where Luke Skywalker ventured out on his tauntaun…
Beyond the first 300 miles of the Dalton Highway, seeing virtually no wildlife, as well as endless miles of wilderness-covering smoke, we began to see stretches of scenery north of the Brooks Mountain Range. A few dozen miles into the Arctic Circle lies the place where Luke Skywalker ventured out on his tauntaun to investigate a meteor impact (Return of the Jedi, guys. Keep up). Then he met the fearsome wompa. Hoth does exist on Earth, but we call it Deadhorse. On the extremities of civilisation, where inhospitable frozen fields meet the ocean, where desolation meets industry, is the largest, (I loosely say) alcohol-free, frat campus you’ve ever seen (for those British readers, we don’t really have fraternities. Imagine a rugby team’s social, only with teenagers).
On arrival, it’s like driving airside into the largest airport on earth, without the jets. Multiple maintenance stations are piled high with machinery and numerous identical vehicles, which could only have been dreamt up for an assumed excavation of an alien world. It’s a little surreal. At first, nothing is obvious, nothing is signposted, it feels like a staging area to leave earth, and on closer inspection, nothing familiar actually exists here at all…
We found our bearings after I “borrowed” the restroom in the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. A basic, massive, grey bungalow made from what looks like giant sheets of painted plasterboard. It’s the first hotel I have ever walked into where the first thing in the doorway is a sign asking me to wear blue, plastic tootsies for protection. Are they to protect the floor or my boots? I assume many people here suffer from childish verrucas, like that classmate you had when you were six, who had to go swimming with that prosthetic-looking, skin-coloured ankle sock and everyone knew they had a gammy foot problem. Little Michael therefore had nits and no girl would hold his hand. I felt for little Michael. I had a wart once. When I lived in France as a five year old, the doctor froze it off with liquid nitrogen. That’s how they treated young children in France in the 80’s. Just freeze children’s natural problems right off with a liquid so cold, protective goggles and gauntlets must be worn in case it drips on our skin. I remember screaming, but I’m glad I didn’t have to wear the gammy sock. Nightmares followed into my teens, but at least the girls would play with me at school….anyway…
Inside, and after slipping my snazzy blue tootsies on, ahead was a single story, gigantic, portacabin labarynth with dozens of rooms and hallways. Some with “day sleeper” detailed on the doors. Obviously oil companies aren’t discriminant; they still employ vampires. However they can only go out after twighlight (tricky here, as the sun never sets in the summer). Feeling like a 6th form common room or an A&E unit for an American football team made up of too many dusty truckers, it has a massive canteen (or as Americans call it, a cafeteria), a communal shower room with very clean toilets and a reception area complete with vending machines full of coke cans and bags of crisps from the 1980’s. I know I saw some Pickled Onion Space Invaders in there somewhere. Just like the primary school tuck shop!
It’s only a little above freezing outside in the windy, grey parking lot. When I went inside to use the gents, it felt like I was walking down a corridor of a nursing home – like I didn’t belong in the overly-warm and musty dorm. It certainly didn’t feel like a hotel.
It was suggested we either camp out of town, next to a gas station, or across town in the parking lot of the Arctic Oilfield Hotel. Odd that no one nor the guidebook said we could stay IN one of the hotels…but we didn’t ask.
We found a welcoming young manager who informed us that we could camp for the night in the parking lot. He even let us plug in for free, so we could use an electric heater through the night. Bargain, as last night was freezing! We felt obliged to at least buy lunch in the cafeteria the next day. It wasn’t a surprise when we were told that not many tourists stop by, as breakfast was only served between 3am and 6.30am daily. In the giant portacabin lounge, surrounded by middle aged frat boys, sorry, oil workers….it was comfortable, but unnerving. Much like my first day of secondary school where I had to make good impressions and new friends (I was late because my mum broke her arm), I waited to hear if we would able to see the ocean (there’s a background passport check). I felt like Vader himself was vetting my passport, and leaving me out in the cold was like I was waiting to find out if the Death Star was going to give me the storm trooper job I’d interviewed for. Good salary, awesome uniform, but lacking life insurance.
This vast, multi-portacabin dormitory block has pool tables, a huge flat screen TV and a larger cafeteria. The Arctic Oilfield Hotel is half full of burly men filling up with soda and a school dinner-style lunches. There was no spotted dick and custard though. I actually blended in with my red and black Woolrich shirt, dirty pants, and Viking-style beard. I didn’t get any concerned looks in the common room as I borrowed their slow but useful wifi, and I didn’t have to cover my feet in the plastic blue tootsies. No gammy footmen in this hotel!
Deadhorse is a company-designed town solely for contracted workers and I heard a rumour that when the pipe did burst a decade ago, BP shut down the wifi and signals while they dealt with the spill. Agree with it or not, that’s one of the first priorities of a strategic plan to manage a world altering disaster. Stop people talking about it.
Nobody lives here. Everyone is on a two weeks on/two weeks off contract. No church, no school, no family accommodation, no club or bar, in fact no social amenities exist whatsoever outside of the “hotel” common room; no grocery store, no Main Street, no chemist, no restaurants and oddly, no storm troopers. We’re told that one of the “camps” (grouped together shipping container-style blocks, with dormitories on massive rubber wheels to move on ice, which house up to a hundred people) has a gym, a running track, a couple of squash courts, and this was generally the only social centre here. Church services are advertised, but where? I assume in the common rooms of the hotel’s – but when you work two weeks solid on 14 hour shifts and then fly home, there isn’t much time for church, games of squash, or even for a few beers in the middle of your shift. There is a small airport, a hardware store for emergency trucking supplies, and two gas stations – both of which have a Tardis-like cabin with a card machine inside to self-pay. Everyone who works here is flown by the oil companies from Anchorage or Fairbanks at either end of their fortnightly shift. All accommodation, food and transport is handled as part of their contract, and unless you fancy a late night flap jack or a root bear (or maybe a cheeky packet of space invaders) from the vending machine, you can only get your food in the cafeteria. If you want anything shipped in, I’m also going to doubt that Amazon or Walmart don’t deliver here.
We tried to explore, and went to as many places around town as we could (about four), but each had a “no entry without authorisation” sign outside. There are no children and no elderly here, and from what we could see, no access for any wheelchairs. There is however, a fairly healthy mix of men and women. We’re told there are a few women trucking up and down the Dalton and we saw plenty of ladies working the handheld stop signs as part of the road maintenance crews – standing in the freezing temperatures, welcoming us into town with perfect teeth. We saw a few women working in the hardware store, half a dozen cleaning and working in the receptions of the hotels and another handful working in the kitchens or cafeterias. I couldn’t find any male to female ratios for the area, but it’s fair to say that compared to the number of men, there are not many women here. There doesn’t appear to be many ladies working directly with the oil extraction (we could tell as there were no women having breakfast or lunch with the shift workers). Deahorse isn’t exactly a community-driven town. It’s where people come to work two week long shifts, living in basic accommodation with little to no social amenities in some of the harshest and coldest conditions on earth. One might assume it isn’t what most ladies would choose to do, or maybe oil companies choose not to employ women. It’s likely correct to assume that it isn’t what the majority of people in general would choose to do. One thing women would find here though, is men. Lots and lots of men. Much like the Death Star.
It’s quiet at the moment, and surprisingly winter is when the oils fields are busy. There are roughly 4000 people working in Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay in the summer (that doubles if you consider they all swap shifts every two weeks). In winter the numbers increase to around 7000 (14,000 with the shared shifts). Work is lean in the summer, as the top few inches of permafrost melts and the ground turns into an unearthly wetland. Touch it, and enjoy a near frozen mud bath. It’s too soft to work on.
All of the machinery parked around the fifteen or so square miles is dormant until the land is frozen enough to operate on. It’s easier to transport oil rigs and drills, machinery and heavy duty maintenance equipment up to 60 miles over solid ice roads (which they create every winter), than it is over a squelchy, chilled swamp in the summer. Right now, it is ghostly in the freezing winds and if it weren’t for feeling the cold, it could easily resemble an industrial outpost in the Wild West.
The sun won’t set tonight, and it will be just below freezing outside. There is nothing but flat wetland between Deadhorse and the ocean (as well as a lot of pipe and industrial oil works), and fifteen or so miles away is the most northern point accessible by road on the U.S. map. We have just found out that we have passed the background check to be taken through the oil facility, to the Beaufort Sea. Tomorrow, we see the Arctic Ocean.