Monday, June 24, 2013

The Arctic Ocean

I received quite the surprise when I finally reached the Arctic Ocean. It was much more frozen than I expected.

Here I am standing on it...

And here I am standing in it...

In the Antarctic they let you swim in the Ocean. This is as far as I could go here. You don't get a natural hot pool either, so probably best not.

The ice was generally pretty mucky too...

Especially with large bits of rust in it.

The record low for Arctic sea ice was last September 13th (2012), when it was 600 miles from here! It will be interesting to see what happens this September.

On September 14th 1984 - only 28 years ago, the Arctic Ice was still at this coastline!

Hmmm! Maybe I shouldn't be driving so much? Although up here I'm easily the smallest thing on the road.

Preparing for the Dalton Highway

One of the big goals for my trip is the Dalton Highway. It would get me past the Arctic Circle, into the Brook Range of Mountains and up to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. 1000 miles from Fairbanks, roundtrip.

One of the tricky parts of travelling to the more remote parts is judging the information you get on how severe the conditions are. Half the time it is difficult to judge the background of the person you talk to. But then of course they don't know the experience of the person they are talking to.

Rental car agencies generally won't let you take their cars up there. There are a few dedicated to providing vehicle for the trip, but they are generally much more expensive and often supply 4x4s.

Advice and info includes things like, take a good spare (no space savers), take a spare spare tire, no services for 240 miles in places, no grocery stores, expensive gas, take an extra gas canister, take a CB radio, don't bother with a CB radio. Oh yes - don't forget your camera.

In the end I decided on a new set of tires for the truck, lots of food and 4 cameras. The truck needed new tires anyway, the roads up to here are not the smoothest. It also needed quite a bit of realignment, more than I've needed on any other car. It took a while to find a tire place whose alignment machine was actually working in Anchorage.

A set of 4 All Terrain tires with a bit of extra knobblyness made me feel alot more confident and much poorer. It wasn't until later that I bothered to check the spare!

My suspicion was that the most dangerous part of the driving would be the big rigs for whom the road was built. Public traffic was not even allowed initially. Advice on this part took many forms, but basically meant - Get out of the way quickly. This was partly why a CB radio was advised.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Prudhoe Bay

One of the ironic things about the Dalton Highway is that you spend alot of money on fuel, (note the English variant agnostic vocab), fuel that gets more expensive the closer you get to the oil rigs.

Then you can't actually get to the coast. You have to stop 10 miles short. But those generous souls in the oil industry then charge only $50 to drive you the last 10 miles in a bus through the industrial complex to the Bay itself. Before I set off from Fairbanks I had provoked the comment from another traveller, "Are you really going to pay big oil for that last bit of road".

To be fair, I did find trip interesting. Driving through the complex we were given lots of insights into its workings and the life of the gas worker. It seems most are on a 2 week on 2 week off schedule, and noone hangs around for the 'off' bit. They're flown straight to Fairbanks.

I guess I wouldn't stick around in these cabins either...

Even though we could only see part of the complex it was impressive in size.

This is one of the drilling rigs they used to use...

The driver/guide pointed it out more as an example of the biggest tire you will ever see. Massive.

Once they've drilled the well a head is put on it...

Not so big. The landscape seems like it dotted with lots of loos. Admittedly large ones.

The oil or gas goes from the well heads into these large plants, which don't seem to do much processing but direct the stuff towards the pipeline. All the three major companies up there pump their output to the same pipeline. They didn't say how they tell which is which when it comes out 800 miles away weeks later in Valdez. (Yes of Exxon Valdez fame.)

They are clearly concerned about safety...

And don't like spills...

They're even keen on promoting the environment...

All very interesting.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Atigun Pass

The Dalton Highway goes right through the Brooks Range of Mountains. It goes over the Atigun Pass, one of the trickier parts of the road.

It turns out its one of those places to have a CB radio...

The local highway crews monitor Ch19 and can tell you when a wide load or convoy is on its way.

Another way to approach it is look up and see what is coming down...

Sometimes it is an extra-wide load. Fortunately they have lead cars well ahead of them with very friendly drivers, who just tell you to get out of the way, in plenty of time. They don't seem to mind that any old charley with a 4x4 uses the road too.

Then when they've gone you get up there as fast as possible.

As you can see the snow and ice is only just receding.

Finally Crossing the Arctic Circle

A couple of times I have been very close to the Polar Circles, but never actually managed to cross them. In Iceland in 1991 I think we got to within about 100 miles of the Arctic Circle. You had to take a boat for the last bit. In 2002 we got a little closer, around 80 miles, from the Antarctic Circle. This time we were blocked of by too much ice in the sea.

Of course in the good ole US of A the Arctic Circle is just another drive through. Admittedly it is nearly 200 miles north of Fairbanks and you've already hit dirt of the Dalton Highway.

Despite all that hardship I did make it...

Notice the smile has just been wiped off my face by a Mosquito. The new hoody is for keeping off the mozzies. I'm sweating buckets under there.

The next stop is Gobblers Knob. A good place for viewing the midnight sun, and sharing the innuendo of course. One of those occasions when it would be more fun to have company.

The truck is starting to get a nice 2 tone look to it. I quite like it.

... and the bike is starting to look like it should be covered up.

[Hey Mike - if you're reading this, take a look at my back window. We were nearly right. That wierd plastic lump/wing on our 4Runners is for blasting wind off the roof and down the back. It helps to keep the rear window clean, almost]

Staying ahead of the crowds

In my usual style I am travelling whilst trying to stay away from the crowds. This is tricky especially with places like Denali National Park. It's one of the reasons I left the Bay Area and headed north a little earlier.

In Denali especially it is particularly difficult to avoid the crowds as there is only one road into the park. Most people have to take the park buses to enter so there tend to be groups of people around. This of course makes it much trickier to see the wildlife. Being by myself I'm not so keen on hiking a long way away from the road.

I figured out that the cyclists can go anywhere along the road. So the first day I got there, I drove as far in as I could then jumped on the bike. Almost as soon as I got away from the car I started seeing much more wildlife. Dall sheep, mountain goats and then a grizzly. Fortunately he was a long way away. Too far for a photo.

Then it turns out that the buses will take bikes. So I popped my bike on the front of one and went as far as it would take me. (The road wasn't open all the way to the end then.) Then I jumped on the bike and went further along the road.

I was treated to the wonderful but scary sight of these guys...

They look very cute, but that is probably the most dangerous combination in Alaska. Another agressive mother and her cubs. When I first saw them they were on the other side of a small gulley, but they headed off downhill out of sight and I had to figure out whether they were coming back up my side. A little tricky when out of sight. Then of course I had to figure out whether to continue along the road or beat a hasty retreat back to the car park. A park ranger assured me I'd be okay continuing as long as I kept my eyes open. I don't think they could have got any wider.

I hung around a little longer and got the photo above and many other good ones, until they headed off in the direction of blocking off my route home. Then I headed off further along the road to have lunch near a beaver pond. When I came back again later they'd completely disappeared.

In total, that day, I saw 5 grizzlies, 2 moose, 30 Dall sheep (including loads of lambs), 1 red fox, and a few caribou.

I must've burnt up alot of nervous energy that day as that evening I ordered a huge rack of ribs. I finished them before the waiter returned - he said "Wow, Proud of you Man!".

Alaskan Junkyards

Driving in and out of all these Alaskan towns a pattern emerges. After hours of driving through the middle of nowhere you start to see presentations of different styles of rusty metal. Usually there is a hint of vehicle shape about the metal. Sometimes not so much.

Each house on the edge of town appears to take pride in having the largest selection of rust available. Fortunately things start to get better as you progress further into the town itself.

For a photographer these are vast stores of weird shapes and textures. So it is very tempting to stop at each one. Alot are close to what must be peoples homes, so it's a bit awkward to stop and take pictures.

Some places have tidied things up a bit, so I stopped at one place where it had this...

It can't have moved in years. But was a relatively healthy specimen.

I was there only a few minutes when someone came over quickly from one of the buildings. So I thought Oh, Oh I'm in trouble now. But no it was just the petrol pump and store attendant feeling rather lonely and hoping for a chat.

So I asked him why there were so many of these 'displays' of iron around. He claimed that alot, like this one was indeed set out for display and to generate interest in the place. But most are a collection of spare parts that they hope to be able to use again.

I had my doubts about the spare part bit as I'd seen this around the corner...

I'd love to see someone get that engine going again.

And I'll bet there's not a single usable part in this one.

When I mentioned this location to the guy, he said "Oh that's my uncles yard" and admitted there wasn't much usable there. Just the feeling that one day...

Monday, June 10, 2013

Going soft in California

They say that if you live too long in California you go soft because the living is so easy. Well one of the things I've finally gotten used to is the endless switchbacking of the trails in the heavily managed parks. Almost any trail is doable if you have the time.

Well not in Alaska, they go straight up...

That green slope on the left is what I'm hiking up. One of those situations where it's actually easier going up than coming back down. Especially when the trail is loose gravel.

But then the view is starting to look like this...

At this point I have reached the top that I could see from the campground.

But above me is this...

And these guys are above me too...

(His mates are the other side of the hill.)

So I kept going until I was level with him...

Then I kept going until I was above him...

Then I figured I may as well keep going until I reached the top...

I was only sure it was the top when I saw the Tibetan Prayer Flags (this ones for you Fee ;-))

That was one nine hour hike. Good job it never actually gets dark up here in the summer.

Captain Cook woz 'ea

It seems like everywhere I go I am preceded by the miners of the world. Wandering around Colorado late last year I often found myself following an old miners road. Even alot of the hikes in Snowdonia, North Wales are old miners tracks. I guess that especially while I'm driving someone will have been there before me.

Preceding the miners and other extraction professions is usually the explorer. Growing up, Captain Cook was one of those English explorers that always seemed to get to those interesting places. He was one of those boyhood heroes who made me wish I didn't get seasick so easily. Well it turns out he beat me to Alaska too. He was searching for the Northwest Passage to help get the riches of the Pacific back to Europe. Someone should have told him to wait for global warming.

This is the view from Captain Cook State Park...

Absolutely pristine view of Cook Inlet. 

Then you get the binoculars out to search for wildlife. It turns out there are about 15 oil/gas rigs out there, although I only noticed one initially. Then there is also this low level thrumming noise presumably coming from these things.

Alot of the story of Alaska is of the extraction of the natural wealth, it seems that the appeal of wildlife and nature tourism is only just beginning to take hold.

[woz 'ea means "was here" in Brummie]