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TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > Eat Your Heart Out, Marlin Perkins

Wiseman to Deadhorse, AK  09/25/06 (Day 153)
Eat Your Heart Out, Marlin Perkins

We’ve made it up Alaska's Dalton as far as Wiseman without incident, but everyone warns us that the road gets worse and worse from here on up to Deadhorse. The first ominous sign is the Farthest North Spruce which marks the line beyond which trees disappear. Sadly, some moron girdled the thing in 2004 and it’s now dead.

Then, with Wiseman less than an hour behind us, we find ourselves putting our Silverado into 4-wheel-drive low for the first time on the trip as we creep slowly up the snowy, icy Atigun Pass (4,739’) then back down the other blustery side of the Brooks Range surrounded by the Gates of the Arctic National Park. Piece of cake!

Once we’re safely on the other side of the mountain range, the snow disappears and true arctic tundra takes over. It is silent, pristine (except for the pipeline snaking alongside us) and profoundly wild. We even manage to catch a fleeting glimpse of an elusive wolverine (picture a huge badger with a bad attitude) as it hunts along a hillside just off the road. Shy (or maybe just anti-social), wolverines don’t like to hang around once they’ve been spotted and this one high-tails it in the opposite direction, stopping occasionally to shoot a dirty look back at us as it retreats as if to say “If I wasn’t already full I’d eat you both.”

But the wolverine is just the beginning. In the last 100 mile stretch before reaching Deadhorse we see more than half a dozen enormous hawks (we think they’re rough legged hawks) who use the road marker poles as perches since there’s not a single tree in sight. We also see scores of red foxes, arctic foxes, owls (we think they’re snowy owls), even a dead musk ox by the side of the road.

Conveniently, the arctic foxes and snowy owls have already turned white in anticipation of winter, but snow accumulation is still weeks away making it ridiculously easy to spot these bright white animals against the orange, yellow and red tundra.

We spot four pure white arctic foxes hunting for lemmings in the tundra, then notice a pair of big white owls dive bombing them from above. We’re not sure if the owls wanted to eat the foxes, chase them away from their nests on the ground or steal the lemmings in the fox’s mouths but it’s an impressive assault.

We are so mesmerized (and the animals are so oblivious to our presence) that we pull over to watch the show. As we’re standing next to the truck we look up and discover that the owls have begun hovering overhead in a less than friendly way. As they magically hang in the air they swivel their flat round heads and stare at us with their intense black eyes. We’re not too proud to admit that the display prompts us to move along.

In early fall enormous groups of caribou (mostly the Central Arctic Herd) also migrate through the area in their thousands (if you haven’t already seen the movie “Being Caribou,” rent it today), sometimes holding Dalton Highway traffic up for hours as they stream across the pavement (we’re sure the big rig drivers just love that). We’ve missed the main migration, but a small group of stragglers does cross the Dalton in front of us, their hooves make the strangest clickity-clack noise like high heels on the first floor of Bergdorf’s.

The whole experience is like driving through our own private episode of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” We only wish we had Jim Fowler to send out into the mucky tundra to put a tracing device on those owls!

The wild peacefulness is shattered, however, by the sight of the ramshackle, industrial outskirts of Deadhorse which, it must be said, is one of the ugliest places we have ever been to.

Every building looks like it was built by the Soviets and abused in Siberia for a decade or so before being dragged here. In the fall there’s a perpetual low-lying fog that’s both creepy and cold. There’s a constant rumble from all the enormous machinery at work in the oil fields of nearby Prudhoe Bay. And did we mention the mud? Factor in three months of total darkness and sub zero temperatures (during which everyone has to leave their vehicles running all the time to avoid freezing up) and you can understand why Deadhorse is not exactly set up for tourists.

Basically, there are two “hotels” and zero restaurants in town. We end up at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel since the other “hotel” is closed for the season. Built by connecting a series of ATCO trailers via makeshift hallways, the place is mostly used as a home away from home for contractors working for the oil companies employees who trudge up to Deadhorse for shifts lasting a few weeks at a time before trudging out again for a few weeks off.

The place charges us each $75 per night including meals for a room with a shared bathroom. Suffice to say it’s never a good sign when there’s a car freshener hanging in your room.

Breakfast starts at 4:15 so those on the early shift can get up and out and food remains pretty much available for the taking 24/7 with snacks (ice cream, chips, sadly ignored fresh fruit) available between each heaping hot meal service.  Most of the workers stationed up here seem to be taking full advantage of the bounty—a Prudhoe Bay jokes goes that you can tell how long someone has worked up here by counting the number of rings around their waist. Ah, yes, arctic humor.

The battle of the bulge is not helped by the fact that half the time people don’t seem to go to work due to bad weather, so they end up just sitting around in their rooms or in the cafeteria all day. Usually in sweats.

In addition to listings of the day’s dinner specials, the hotel’s walls are decorated with message boards full of ads for tanning services (10 tans for $50) and horses/houses/boats/walking stick make out of bison penises (really) for sale plus pictures of arctic foxes and caribou placidly meandering under the pipeline and cavorting around huge pieces of oil field equipment.

All in all, the Prudhoe Bay Hotel looks, smells and feels like a cross between a college dorm and a minimum security prison. Luckily, we are not here for the ambiance. We are here to get to the Arctic Ocean and we are not about to let a little thing like oil industry rules and regulations get in our way.


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