alaska

All posts tagged alaska

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You have probably figured out by our lack of postings that the “Big 2014 Alaska” trip, for all intents and purposes, is over. We arrived at our cabin/second home in rural New Mexico in late September. We thought we would venture out from the cabin on a short trip or two since we planned to stay through the end of December, but other than a few hikes and a little back road exploring, it just didn’t happen. We still have to get back to Florida, but that will mainly be a road trip visiting friends and family along the way.

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Our cabin is an ongoing project and we just keep finding things to do! One of the first projects was to import a little Inuit cultural influence in the form of an “Inuckshuk”.  We were introduced to these in Western Canada and immediately decided we needed one of our own. The Inuit used them for various purposes including navigational markers and indicators of a place of significance.

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We had tentatively planned to go to Moab, Bryce Canyon, and the White Rim Trail but ultimately decided to save those for next year. With winter quickly approaching and no trips planned we decided to winterize  the trailer and put it away for the winter. It was a bittersweet moment…

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… but a timely one!

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We had been planning this trip with Alaska as the focal point for many years. Sometimes you worry the experience will not equal the anticipation but that was definitely NOT the case. This trip delivered! Look for some “best of” photo compilations in the near future. We hope you have enjoyed following along on our journey and rest assured there will be more in the future.

For now it’s back to Florida and I have some interesting vehicle projects on the agenda.

Stay tuned…

After the the repairs in Glennallen were complete, we were anxious to hit the road again, partly because signs of autumn were appearing and partly because our time in Alaska was coming to a close. Alaska had always been sort of the “primary goal” of the trip, and everything there and back would be “icing on the cake”. So it was time to move on to the next chapter of the trip.

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We very much enjoyed our trip through British Columbia and the Yukon on the way to Alaska, so we were both a little surprised that neither of us were looking forward to crossing Canada again. Perhaps because we now had first hand knowledge of the length of time required to reach the lower 48 through Canada, not to mention fuel and food costs being higher.  But we forged ahead, and vowing to make the best of it, we headed toward Chicken, Alaska.

“Beautiful Downtown Chicken” home of the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever eaten.

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After visiting Chicken, we crossed into Canada via the Top of the World Highway and made our way south towards Whitehorse where we joined, once again, The Alaska Highway. On our way North, we joined the Alaska Highway via the Cassiar Highway just west of Watson Lake and drove to the end in Delta Junction, so now we would complete the Alaska Highway to mile zero in Dawson Creek.

A view from The Top of the World Highway

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No, we didn’t drive it. I’ll be back!

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Everything was again very scenic and enjoyable until we reached Fort Nelson, then it took a turn for the worst. The oil, gas, and logging industries made the drive from Fort Nelson to Calgary a very heavily trafficked, large truck congested experience. On top of that, we noticed an increase in roadside litter and graffiti after entering Alberta. Rest areas, trash cans, roadside pit toilets and pullouts virtually disappeared. Jasper and Banff National Parks were the only redeeming qualities we could find in this part of Canada. In short, unless you feel like you have to drive the entire Alaska Highway as I did, I would suggest skipping this part.

Banff National Park

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It was the Russian architecture that prompted me to visit the Kenai Peninsula, but it was the scenery that captivated me. Of all the places I visited, this is, by far, my favorite location in Alaska.  The beautiful Kenai Fjords National Park is located on the peninsula.  The northwest coast of the peninsula is marshy and with less elevation but is the home to a clear and inviting beach.  Several large lakes extend through the interior of the peninsula, including Skilak Lake and Tustumena Lake. There are also several rivers but my favorite is the Kenai River, famous for its salmon population.

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   The beach was peppered with jelly fish

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Fishermen on the Kenai River

I witnessed salmon, my favorite fish, swimming upstream. Of course I knew that salmon swim upstream to lay their eggs and then die but I had no idea what a spectacle it would be to actually see it occur. As I sat on the bank watching the salmon in various stages of their journey upstream, I couldn’t help but to reflect on how their journey mirrors life, my life specifically.

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There were salmon swimming along with lots of energy as they fought the current. They were so determined to make it that they would often times leap forward out of the water to gain a few more feet. Others would progress a couple of yards, only to have their progress undermined by the current and lose what distance they gained and sometimes, be pushed further back by the current. Some of the salmon were so exhausted that they made no progress at all. These salmon used the last of their energy fighting the current to stay in place, making no progress upstream. Others were dying, floating on their sides as they tried in vain to right themselves. Many were dead already, leaving behind the miasma of decay along the river bank.

As I sat beside myself, there were reflections of the times in my life when I moved forward with life with Herculean-like speed, feeling unstoppable. All was good and then, as it is with the ebb and flow of life, I would experience a set-back, sometimes minor, sometimes major. There were other times when I would feel exhausted by life and made no progress at all. I would be stagnant and was merely existing. Yet, unlike the salmon I have had more than three to seven years to try to figure out what’s truly important in my life because I know that like the salmon, I too, will one day be unable to right myself and will die.

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This is me at the end of the rainbow NOT finding financial security!

It was bound to happen. We’ve had a few mechanical issues to deal with on this trip, but nothing that left us disabled on the side of the road. Luckily, when it did happen, it was only the trailer and not the truck. We were thirty-five miles east of Glennallen, Alaska, eastbound, when I looked in my driver’s side mirror and saw smoke billowing out from the trailer fenderwell and my left trailer wheel sticking out a few inches and cockeyed!

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Once I surveyed the damage, we dropped the trailer and high tailed it back to Glennallen to the NAPA store. The problem was that even though I was driving way too fast for the road, we figured we would have a five minute buffer before the store closed. While I was driving like a bat out of hell, Pamala was on the phone pleading with Gary at the NAPA store not to close before we got there. We arrived at NAPA just in the nick of time and Gary was very helpful but they didn’t have all the parts I needed. He called around  town (population ~ 500) and found out that Scott, owner of Glennallen Fuel and Auto Service next door had the other bearing I needed. Scott cleaned up the brake drum and changed the bearing races for me. All in all, I still only had enough parts to limp back to Glennallen but not enough for a permanent repair.  Scott said we could order the parts from Anchorage in the morning and have them by five o-clock the next day. So back to the side of the road we went to patch it together.

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We drove slowly and carefully back towards town and camped on the outskirts. The next morning, we drove back to Glennallen Fuel and Scott ordered all the parts I needed to completely rebuild both sides of the axle, just as a precaution. I offered to pay Scott to do the work but he said he was slammed that day and offered me a concrete pad to park on so I could do the repairs myself.  So I spent the morning and early afternoon prepping and waiting for parts.

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The parts arrived almost precisely at five o-clock and in a little more than a hour later, we were ready to roll. As it worked out, being “only” 35 miles from a parts store and helpful people was great since we were headed for the “Top of the World Highway” and some very remote country when it happened.

Again many thanks to Gary at NAPA and Scott at Glennallen Fuel; both made the situation a lot easier to deal with!

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Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska. It has the accoutrements of any urban area and of all the places we visited in Alaska so far, it has the least Alaskan aura. Nevertheless, it has many offerings worthy of mentioning. First of all, the bike paths throughout the city are phenomenal. They are converted to cross-country ski tracks during the winter months that allow pedestrians on foot, skies or bicycle to safely traverse the city through wooded areas, along the ocean as well as paralleling city streets.

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On a portion of bike path along the ocean near airport

The Botanical Garden is beautiful and show cases native, rare and different varieties of flowers and vegetable plants. Thanks to our daughter Claressa for suggesting that we visit it.

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We patronized the open-air market, the cultural center, and acres and acres of park grounds next to the ocean that has a large network of hiking trails.

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Could not resist the fruit at the market!

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Performer demonstrating his athletic prowess

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At the park enjoying all the green space and flowers

Since the native Alaskans have used dogs for transportation well before the first Russian appeared, we felt we would have been remiss if we had left Anchorage without experiencing a sled dog ride. It was probably the pinnacle of our time spent here, however short-lived it was.

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Traveling to Alaska, I expected to meet people from all over the United States and the world since Alaska is a destination for people worldwide. I camped next to a couple who journeyed here from Austria. I met a group of four who hailed from Australia at Tetlin National Forest. A couple traveling on motorcycle from Brussels; another couple on motorcycles from New Zealand. Closer to home, I ran into a cyclist from Salt Lake City, Utah en route to Denali National Park. It occurred to me that my world is smaller than I realized when checking in at the Chena Hot Springs Resort outside of Fairbanks, one of the employees told me that she is from Cape Coral, Florida which is our sister city. My world continued to shrink when Pamala met and went running with a fellow traveler in Cooper Landing, Alaska that is from our neighboring county in Florida. While in Canada, a couple saw our Florida license plate in Jasper National Park and introduced themselves. They lived 30 miles south of us in Naples, Florida before moving to northern Florida. Even the proprietor of “Beautiful Downtown Chicken” in Chicken Alaska (year round population between 17 and 37) had family ties to Fort Myers.

The most interesting small world encounter during this trip happened in Wasilla, AK. Bear with me as I give a little background: several years ago a guy named Rob came to work for me in Fort Myers, Florida while I was an Air Traffic Controller. He was prior military as was his dad. As we were talking, I mentioned that I was stationed on Adak in the Alaskan Aleutian islands while serving in the Navy twenty-five years prior. Rob told me he had also been there as a small child when his dad was stationed there. Rob couldn’t remember exact dates but it seemed as if he and his family and I had just missed each other. Over the next few years Rob and I became friends and we participated in several athletic events together where I got to know his parents Bob and Rhonda, as they were often there to support their son. Bob was also an Air Traffic Controller in the Navy and we talked briefly about our military service and our time on Adak but never in detail.

Fast forward a few years, Bob and Rhonda moved from Fort Myers to Wasilla, AK earlier this year. We stopped in for a visit during our Alaska travels and they graciously hosted us for the evening and fed us an awesome home cooked meal as well as sharing their laundry facilities and spare bedroom. The next morning Pamala was sleeping in and as Bob cooked breakfast, we got to talking more in detail about our Navy years. I mentioned how when I left Adak what disarray the facility was in, both militarily and Air Traffic-wise. Come to find out Bob knew exactly how bad it was as he was sent there as the new commanding officer for the very purpose of straightening it out! It seems he got there within two months of my leaving. It truly is a small world.

I know Bob and Rhonda are readers of this blog, so thanks again for the hospitality and I hope we can reciprocate next time you are in Fort Myers.

Our gracious hosts

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Because I had seen plenty of black and brown bears already, when the subject of visiting Denali National Park arose, I was uncommitted about going. Jim, as well as other people I had met in Alaska, encouraged the trip. Jim has fond memories of Denali based on a visit during his teenage years. He remembers standing on a viewing platform at what is now the Eielson Visitors Center and viewing the entire mountain from base to peak, a rare occurrence I am told due to clouds frequently obscuring the peak. (Frequent clouds in Alaska?) Jim also remembers the 66 mile drive into the park in his parent’s vehicle and seeing a variety of animals in abundance.

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Time stands still for no one and this adage definitely applies for Denali National Park. Currently, private vehicles are not allowed past mile marker 15 or beyond your campground. The wilderness area of the park begins well beyond mile 15. Of course we could have hung around until September and applied for the lottery, as the lucky winners of the lottery are allowed to drive private vehicles through out the park. But since we didn’t plan to be in Alaska in September (I can’t even imagine what fall would be like here) or were willing to put much faith in winning the lottery, we were left with three options: hiking, biking or paying for a tour on the park bus system.

We opted for the minimum length tour bus ride of 6 hours (maximum tour is 12 hours) because neither one of us wanted to spend more time on the bus than required and got off the bus at its turn around point and hiked quite a distance deeper into the park, fording river tributaries and enjoying the majestic views.

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We knew that we could catch any outbound bus back to the park’s entrance. Prior to getting off the bus, the bus driver reviewed the rules of engagement while on foot in the park. Of course the main concern in this part of the country is bear encounters.

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Rule number 1: never approach a bear. “what sane person would?”

Rule number 2: if a bear is accidentally encountered, back away slowly but don’t run.  “accidentally? what other way would an encounter occur?”

Rule number 3: if the bear charges you, stand still. It is likely bluffing and may veer off at the last minute. “honestly, who could overcome the instinct to run in this situation?”

Rule number 4: if you are attacked by a black bear, fight back. If you are attacked by a grizzly bear, play dead for several minutes because the bear will hang around to ensure you are indeed dead. If after several minutes of playing dead the bear does not retreat, then fight back! “ I would like to meet the person who has successfully survived a grizzly bear attack by playing dead or fighting back. If attacked by a grizzly, if you aren’t armed with a gun or bear spray, say your prayers because your life will likely end! I am sure people who have successfully survived a grizzly bear attack by playing dead were indeed praying.”

According to our guide, there have been no recent bear attacks in the park. In fact, deaths in the park occur each year from attempts to climb North America’s highest peak, the Denali Mountain, as opposed to animal attacks. Nevertheless, we carried our bulky container of bear spray because we didn’t want to be the ones to change those statistics.

We saw grizzly bears while on the bus and not while hiking, thank God. One of the park’s patrons encountered a grizzly bear while he was hiking but spotted him in time to back away. He wisely retreated a quarter of a mile or so and caught the bus that we happened to be on. As the bus progressed down the road, the bus was stopped when we arrived at the bear’s location for photos.

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In addition, we saw caribou while hiking; arctic ground squirrel and moose while on the bus. Unfortunately we did not see other animals that inhabit the grounds of the park including dall sheep, wolves, coyotes, foxes, pika and snowshoe hare.

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I don’t regret my decision to visit the park. Although the animal sightings weren’t as Jim remembered and we were relegated to a tour bus, I enjoyed being in the open wilderness and was grateful that the sun was shining with clear skies. In Alaska, I have quickly learned to appreciate a clear, cloudless day because they are so few and far between. Yet I know that the frequent precipitation contributes to the beauty of this great state!

Multiple days were spent in the city of Fairbanks because it was the preparation point for the trip to Purdhoe Bay and the recuperation location upon returning from Purdhoe Bay.  The weather was great; 80 degrees, no rain and lots of sunshine the entire time after our return from Purdhoe Bay!  While there, we attended the Denakkanaaga and Tanana Chiefs Conference Cultural Program where we received information about the culture of Alaskan tribes through music, storytelling in native languages (translated for the audience) and dance. It was informative and entertaining. I especially liked dancing with the performers when the audience was invited to the stage.

tribe distributionMap of Historical Tribe Distribution in Alaska

performers Native Dancers

Chena Hot Springs was summoning me so Jim and I went to the Chena Hot Springs Resort and in addition to spending time in the soothing hot springs Rock Lake and getting a waterfall massage (aah), we visited the Ice Museum. The sculptures were amazing. We decided to forgo renting a suite in the ice museum for $600 per night, though. Sleeping on an ice bed inside an ice building did not appeal to me, notwithstanding the fur bedding they promised to provide.

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ice barThe building was equipped with an ice bar and ice stools!

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Appletini served in an ice glass, anyone?

The Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is located in Fairbanks and is a must see for any car enthusiast or anyone that can appreciate excellent restorative workmanship. I thought electric cars were a recent phenomenon but learned that the first electric car was manufactured in the early 1900s. I was also amazed at how LARGE some the early automobiles were, and I thought the cars in the 1970s were boats on wheels!

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I did find a couple of sporty little cars hiding here and there!

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Jim always says he was born later then he should have been.

 

 

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I’m not sure why but I very much dislike the term bucket list, so I will just say the Dalton Highway was on my to do list for a long time. I lived in Anchorage, AK for two years during high school in ’78 and ’79 and was vaguely aware there was a road to Prudhoe Bay as they had recently finished the Alaska Pipeline. The full length of the road to Deadhorse was not open to the public until 1994, long after I had departed from the area. I can’t say exactly when or how I became aware that it was open for civilian travel, but the concepts of it being one of only two roads north of the Arctic Circle on the North American continent as well as ending at the northernmost point in North America reachable by road captured my interest. I realize that an untold number of people using many different forms of transportation have made this trip over the last twenty years, but in some respects it still seems to me like a small group.

In my opinion, the most important thing to remember about the Dalton Highway is that it’s about the journey and not the destination. At least not the destination in the traditional sense. Sure, it is the northernmost point reachable by road and all but upon reaching the end of the road you are greeted by a giant industrial complex designed to house 3,000 to 6,000 oil field workers, not a typical tourist destination or scenic wonder. There is no town, there are no campgrounds, and there is not much of anything resembling a habitable place. Even if you pay BP to have a security person give you a bus tour to the Arctic ocean you end up standing on a bleak, man-made gravel beach built by the oil companies. Not exactly tourist nirvana. But if you’re going to go to all the trouble to get that close to the Arctic Ocean, I recommend you take the tour and dip your toes.

The trip up and back is a different story. The climate and topography are ever-changing, rewarding you with spectacular scenery, wide open spaces, and wildlife. Yeah the road is rough, very rough, but in the end I say well worth it. And yes, we took the trailer all the way up and back. Oddly enough we did not see any other camp trailers there. Go figure.

A collection of signs at the beginning of the Dalton Highway

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Impressive hunk of rock!

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The Alaska Pipeline is visible for most of the trip

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This reminds me of a freight train headed uphill

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The obligatory Arctic Circle pic

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Meet Sho. No matter how tough or adventurous you think you are, someone out there is more so. Sho told us he was covering 20 miles a day! He started his journey at mile zero on the Alaska Highway in British Columbia. When this picture was taken he was well past the Arctic Circle and about to climb Atigun pass. On our way back the next day he was several miles north of the pass and still walking. He calculated it would take him another week to week and a half to get to Deadhorse.  Bear in mind once you leave Coldfoot there are no services for 240 miles until you reach Deadhorse. Tougher than me!

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Our “campsite” in Deadhorse. Actually just a man-made levee between the road and the Sag River. 36 degrees and 27 degrees wind chill!

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I guess it helps to have a sense of humor to live here.

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Notice who has their feet in the water and who doesn’t. And after all that talk of “dipping my toes in every body of water I see”.

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Caribou in Deadhorse

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Musk Oxen just south of Deadhorse

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The long journey back made longer waiting for a pilot car.

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Success!

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Jim  Jim at the Dalton Highway Junction

For years Jim talked about driving the Dalton Highway and visiting Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. So of course when we planned our journey here, it was definitely on the itinerary. The morning that we set off to begin the two-day drive from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, I was very excited and anticipated a great adventure. The drive was challenging but I didn’t mind the poor road conditions, road construction and tractor-trailer rigs creating dust clouds so thick that they impaired visibility because the destination, I thought, was going to be worth all that and more.

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I was pleasantly surprised that the sun was shining and the temperature was balmy as we began our trip. We drove to the Yukon River and had a wild-caught salmon taco lunch at the Yukon River Camp that we enjoyed immensely.  At mile marker 98 of the Dalton Highway, we stopped for a half-mile hike across the alpine tundra (good thing we had both purchased rain boots) to reach the Finger Mountain tor.  From there, we drove to the Arctic Circle.  I was a happy camper when it was 73 degrees Fahrenheit there.  The trip was progressing great so far.

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We drove a total of eight hours before stopping for the night just past Coldfoot at Marion Creek Campground. The next day, we continued our trip down the Dalton and enjoyed the changing landscape. We saw majestic green mountains, rocky mountains, avalanche zones, a glacial lake, and struggling spruce trees due to the permafrost. We crossed the Continental Divide at Atigun Pass and saw vivid bluffs.

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I noticed a distinct temperature change after we went through Atigun Pass. The beautiful views began to erode and the undulating terrain gave way to flat, desolate land. Ugly, cold, barren, and not fit for human habitation. That was my first impression of Deadhorse when we arrived and it all deteriorated from there.

We camped on the Sagavanirktok (Sag) River the night of our arrival. The camper was beaten non-stop by the howling wind, which only added to the already 36 degree Fahrenheit temperature (wind chill 27 degrees) we were experiencing. Did I mention, there are no trees AT ALL for miles to assist in blocking the wind that comes off the river? Even though there are 22 hours of daylight this time of the year, there was absolutely no sunshine AT ALL, not even a glimmer while we were there.

In order to gain access to the Arctic Ocean, we had to pay for a guided tour because the oil company, BP, won’t allow unauthorized personnel on their property. So the next morning, we were escorted behind BP’s guarded gate, and the tour guide/security officer drove us around the yard and pointed to buildings and recited facts which could be obtained from Wikipedia. The tour culminated with a stop at the Arctic Ocean with the caveat that no swimming was allowed, as if I would swim in that freezing cold water!

artic oceanThe Arctic Ocean with driftwood from Canada on its shore and a pipeline to the left

We left immediately after the tour. I did not want to spend an additional minute there in spite of the fact that I knew I had to endure the same two-day drive back to Fairbanks. To drive the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse appears to be a right of passage for overlanders, but to say it was anti-climatic for me would be an understatement. I don’t understand the pull it has for many. Perhaps had I known the trip to Purdhoe Bay was about the journey more so than the destination, I could have altered my expectations. As it stands, I feel I should have checked into the Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks while Jim fulfilled his dream of driving the Dalton Highway and experiencing Deadhorse. When we were in preparation mode for the trip, if I had the foresight to have questioned the wives of some of the men we met in Fairbanks who had just returned from their voyage up and down the notorious Dalton, I would have a different story to tell, filled with minutiae about my body massages and relaxing soaks in the hot spring.