Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The land of the midnight sun - doin’ the Dalton
Once across the border from Canada to Alaska we descended from the Top of the World towards the vast  Tanana River valley passing many streams where people were still attempting to make their fortunes from gold, equipped with generators and pumping equipment which they would take upstream by boat. 
Not a "chicken"...but the next closest thing - a Spruce Grouse
Our route also took us through the ramshackle mining town / tourist stop of Chicken, supposedly so-called because the early miners wanted to call it Ptarmigan, after the birds that frequent the area. Unfortunately, no one knew how to spell it, so they settled for “Chicken” instead!

More like the Northern Territory in Australia...

...than the northern states of the US.
Alaska Ranges from Gerstle River Bridge
As we approached Fairbanks the Alaska Ranges rose in the  west, providing a backdrop to our first Alaskan camp on the Gerstle River, with a foreground of wildflowers.  Here, we shared our river-side campfire with a couple, Brett and Bettina and their two dogs, whom we had met weeks previously in a campsite in Glacier National Park. 
B&B with dogs
Christine with antlers...Fairbanks
A day in Fairbanks was all that was required to replenish supplies, a process that involved a chat in the supermarket parking lot with a local botanist who gave us lots of ideas of places to hike around Fairbanks and invited us to call them up when we were back in town - Alaskans are like that!

The Trans-Alaska pipeline
After spending the next morning attempting to sort the paperwork for extending our US visa, we finally hit the road to tackle the Dalton Highway, the infamous route to Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean. Prudhoe is considered the northern end of the “Pan-American Highway” which extends (in fiction if not in concrete fact) from Prudhoe to Patagonia. If we can conquer this, then we can set our minds to aiming for the other end! The Dalton is also known as The Haul Road, as it only exists to enable the shipping of lots of big bits of stuff on 
big, fast-moving trucks to Prudhoe which is the source of oil that is pumped 800 miles (1288 km) down the Trans Alaska Pipeline to Valdez where it is then shipped to the south, converted to gas (petrol, for non-Americans) and pumped into cars like ours that then drive it back up again! The Haul Road is probably better known to most of you as the setting for the documentary “Ice Road Truckers.” And, of course, the Exon-Valdeez grounding which released vast quantities of oil that had been pumped through the pipeline, will also be remembered by most of you. Tales of blown tires, rolled vehicles, smashed windscreens and stone chips all over the front of your car prepared us for a challenge, but frankly, it turned out to be a bit of a doddle. The road was in pretty good condition (at least by Australian back-road standards) and the sealed sections were actually harder to drive than the gravel sections. “Frost-heave” caused by the freezing and thawing of the permafrost under the road can be graded out of the gravel sections but not out of the paved bits, so the latter were pretty bumpy but not a problem if taken slowly. 

Northwards from Fairbanks, one climbs steadily through Spruce forest, extensive areas of which seem to be dying off, through high rolling ranges bisected by fast flowing rivers including, once more, the mighty Yukon, until finally we reached the Arctic Circle - apparently defined as the southern most point at which the sun doesn’t set on the summer solstice - traveling is always a learning experience! All we had figured out was that it wasn’t getting dark anymore.
It appears that the Spruce die off is at least in-part attributable to changing climatic conditions with “extreme and geographically expansive multi-year outbreaks of the spruce beetle, which had been previously limited by the cold, moist environment” (Amber et al 2006. Hey, there’s still a bit of the scientist in me yet!).
On the hunt....

...bad day to be a ground squirrel!
As we progressed northwards we emerged from the forests into broad  tundra landscapes - vast expanses of extremely diverse, low vegetation - mosses and lichens, tussock grasses and myriads of wildflowers. The plants (not to mention the mosquitoes) all seem to think that it is summer here, although the temperatures are failing to convince us that this is the case. 

A figure walking off into the remote landscape from their parked car with a backpack full of technical, non-hunting, gear was, obviously to me, an ecologist, so we pulled to a halt to chat to a young lady from Alaska State Uni who was doing her masters on the population ecology of Smith’s Longspur (Google it if you really want to know). She happily took us out to show us their nesting sites, with four day old chicks in the nests (there’s a hint - they’re probably birds), and told us about their banding program and how a significant number of the adults and chicks returned to the same area from year to year after their extensive southern migrations over winter. She also told us where to find a Golden Eagle’s nest further down the road, where a hike up on to a ridge revealed two chicks on the nest, surrounded by a flock of Dall Sheep.

Our northward climb eventually brought us out onto the Brooks Ranges, a strong divide between the arctic tundra plains to the north, and the rolling hills and boreal forests to the south. The cold air coming in off the Arctic Ocean met the warmer (less cold?) air from the south resulting in clouds cascading off the back of the Brooks ranges like vast vaporous waterfalls. 

The Brookes Ranges
Associated with this abrupt change in the landscape was a complete shift in the suite of animals (and, I suspect, plants) with encounters with caribou, musk ox, snowy owls, white gyrfalcons and “red” foxes that were anything but red!
Red(?) fox. Apparently a silver phase. 
Musk Ox enjoying the late evenings
On the banks of the Sag River

Our camp on the banks of the Sagavanirktok (the Sag) River heralded our first midnight sun, waiting till the bewitching hour to watch it skim towards the horizon in a shallow arc before turning upwards once again without going to ground. Put on our airplane eye shields and climbed into bed to arise again at a later version of morning. 
Celebrating the midnight sun
Eventually we rolled into Deadhorse, the publicly accesible face of the adjacent mining town of Prudhoe. A bleak aggregation of functional but totally unaesthetic buildings that did what they were intended to do but no more. One of the remarkable things about these buildings was that they were built on refrigerated slabs - what the?? Surely, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean where temperatures dropped to minus 50 degrees, you would build them on heated pads? But no - they need to be kept cold, otherwise the heating from the building would melt the permafrost that the houses were built on and they would sink into the melting ground (see pictures from the previous blog). It was becoming apparent pretty quickly that this was not a normal place to live! 

Checking to see if it really is the Arctic Ocean
Mini iceberg
Prudhoe oilfields in the ice fog
Now the big problem with Prudhoe is that, whilst it is the end of the Dalton Highway, it is not quite on the Arctic ocean, and the only way to get to the northernmost sea from here is to go on a tour through the very secure oil drilling operational areas. The net effect of the tour was that, while one may not be supportive of the idea of pumping more fossil fuels out of the earth and piping it across some of the most pristine parts of the planet, you couldn’t help but marvel at the engineering feats that were being carried out in these incredibly harsh environments. We were also impressed to find out that our guide, a local Inuit, was making arrangements to fly in / fly out from Hawaii, where the rest of his family had moved to, presumably funded by the profligate salaries that people earn here. 
Our tour finally took us to a little gravelly spit that jutted out into the Arctic Ocean. The ice fog had lifted enough to reveal lumps of floating ice drifting off the shore and the grey silhouettes of seabirds floating on, or skimming above the glassy, misty surface of the frigid ocean. While it was fascinating to get to this point, it was particularly frustrating to be whisked away after 20 minutes, knowing that a longer stay would reveal a remarkable diversity of birds and sea and land mammals that can’t be easily seen elsewhere. Corporate benevolence allows the opportunity for the public to have a taste, but also denies the opportunity for a much richer experience that could easily be had without much more cost to the companies involved. I guess they would argue that they are there to pump oil and company profits, not to entertain indulgent tourists. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have been able to get even this far. And we did use their gas to get here!

A bit dirtier than when we started

We then hit the re-wind button and retraced our steps back to Fairbanks, the scenery no less impressive when viewed north to south. Caught an outdoor concert on the lawns of Alaska State University by The Glass Bead Game, a band name which suggests the vintage of the group and the era of their music (it was a 40 year re-union). Lots of covers of Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison etc delivered brilliantly by the strong vocals of Susan McInnis the lead singer. With a picnic dinner and a beer, it made for a very pleasant evening.
Mandatory burger stop

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