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TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > Anybody Need New Tires?

Deadhorse to Fairbanks, AK  09/28-29/06 (Day 156-157)
Anybody Need New Tires?

At 8:30 am there’s a knock on the door of our room at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel in Deadhorse, Alaska. It’s “Gary” our new helicopter pilot friend. “Let’s fly,” he says with a grin. The fog has finally lifted enough for safe flight and Gary is going to use the break in the weather to deposit a team of surveyors out on the tundra—and we can tag along! His only condition? That we never, ever call a helicopter a “chopper.” Done.

The flight over the tundra is jaw dropping (and not just because Gary’s days as a Huey pilot in Vietnam taught him a trick or two). Flying under the fog at just 100 feet above the ground the tundra looks like an endless patchwork quilt. Foxes race in frantic circles as we buzz by and flocks of brilliant white birds huddle together as our rotors ruffle their feathers.  

With a full freeze still weeks away, there’s standing water everywhere. Strangely, the tundra up here is technically a desert since less than 7” of rain falls each year. The Sahara Desert gets more rain than the boggy mess we are watching a herd of spooked musk ox splash through as we hover overhead.

We are told that the survey team is doing preliminary work out here in preparation for the construction of a road that the oil companies want to be ready to build the instant congress opens the neighboring Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil exploration. The local airport runway is already being expanded in anticipation of the increased flights that would be required to begin accessing the area and everyone we talk to up here thinks drilling in ANWR is inevitable. 

A prediction like that would have inspired instant and total opposition in us just a few days ago. But now that we’ve seen the rich diversity, vastness and sheer number of animals up here we are open to discussion on the topic of drilling in ANWR.

The key, it seems to us, is proper regulation and oversight and a real commitment to finding a way to safeguard the environment (including crucial caribou breeding grounds) while extracting the oil we obviously need to satisfy a gas-guzzling population of which we are certainly a part of (the irony is not lost on us). No easy tasks, to be sure, but a good place to start might be to require anyone involved in the rhetoric (on both sides) or policy making surrounding the issue of drilling in ANWR to visit the area before opening their mouths.

The one animal we have failed to see up here is the polar bear whose future is in very real danger not because of oil drilling, exactly, but because of another by-product of oil consumption: global warming. With ice caps melting, finding adequate food is becoming harder and harder for these animals and things are now so bad that the US Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed listing the bears as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

This makes us want to see some polar bears even more and we know they’re nearby. Every fall the native Kaktovikmiut tribe holds its annual whale hunt in the Arctic village of Kaktovik about 100 miles from Deadhorse. After cleaning the whale carcasses they leave the remains in a “bone pile” on a beach for the polar bears to scavenge from, which is what they’re busy doing right now.

Though we are sorely tempted to hang out in Deadhorse for a few more days and try to find a way out to see the polar bears, we decide not to be greedy and make plans to head south, 500 miles back down the Dalton to Fairbanks.

The drive up to Deadhorse has given us a sense of familiarity and confidence on the Dalton Highway, which comes in handy since it starts to rain during our drive back to Fairbanks turning the road into a ribbon of slick mud and transforming the dust on our Silverado  into something like chocolate frosting.

Still, we return to the pavement in Fairbanks with only one problem: what the heck are we supposed to do with the two extra spare tires we hauled all the way up to Deadhorse and back but never had to use?

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