Prudhoe Bay in February is probably as close to being on another planet as an earthling could ever experience, at least in this lifetime. The 2000 edition of the Alcan 5000 gave us an excuse to make the journey, which I don¹t think any of us would have attempted on our own, nor are any of us likely to do again, at least in the winterů.
Once we crested Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range, the only color we saw was WHITE. Not a tree, not a bush, not a solitary twig, not a blade of dried grass, not even a stone broke the surface of the rather shallow layer of snow that covered everything. The peaks were sharply chiseled of pure, solid white ice, snow, or rock, it didn¹t matter it was white. There was a full moon of brilliant white gleaming in a whitish blue sky. And this was still mid-afternoon. The thin rays of the sun cast a clear, white light. The road was white. It was well plowed: in fact an Alaska-sized road grader/snowplow was grooming the already smooth, level surface. The blade turned up a pure white berm perhaps a foot high, and if you looked closely, you might detect a faint, bluish-white shadow to mark the edge of the road, where just enough depth lurked to suck in any errant wheel that dared to stray from the trackless path.
As we descended from the Brooks Range onto the North Slope, we saw precisely why it is so named. The land, or what we presumed to be land, rapidly leveled out, and became gently rolling very gently rolling. Sort of like the country north of Waterville that we¹ve seen on ES 1000s, only totally, blindingly, numbingly WHITE. All of it. Everything.
Our convoy tightened up without any prodding from Redneck John, the wagonmaster. Nobody wanted to disappear along here. Surprisingly, there were 3 or 4 sideroads marked by STOP signs, and I think two of them were plowed. One went a short distance to some kind of industrial-looking collection of structures. Another disappeared over the horizon to God only knows where. We weren¹t about to go checking out alternate routes. Several times Steve asked for help in discerning the right-hand margin of safety, especially in the proximity of one of the BIG trucks that carry the freight in Alaska.
John¹s voice came over the radio, warning us of two big rigs descending "the Ice Cut." Discretion, and our previous experience with these hairy mammoths caused us to wait quite docilely at the bottom of the grade for the juggernauts to pick their way down. The equally slow descent of dusk in the far North kept light in the sky much later than we expected, but by the time we approached Deadhorse, the "town" that serves the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay, the only lights visible were those of our caravan and the unexpectedly numerous strings of glowing points that marked human attempts at existence in this unforgiving environment. The road appeared to be built about four feet above a pancake-flat plain, covered by a shifting layer of blowing ice crystals.
But the food was good and the rooms were warm at the Oilfield Motel, and the next morning¹s tour of the industrial complex that makes up Deadhorse/Prudhoe was fascinating. The view of the Arctic Ocean was a bit disappointing, however. No whales or seals or even polar bears, just a whiteness over the rail of demarcation that was otherwise indistinguishable from the whiteness on our side. Five minutes exposure to 20 degrees F with a wind chill of -50 made my exposed forehead ache, giving me fear for the underlying brain cells, if any. A stop for fuel at one of the two stations serving the region (motto of drivers in the North: Never Pass Gas!), and we were on our way to Fairbanks, 500 miles to the temperate South.
A bulletin in the motel and John¹s warning over our radios predicted a Class 1 Blow. This means all vehicles travel in convoy with lights on. As the lights of the BMW sport-ute ahead of us began to disappear, along with the outline of the vehicle, we heard concern expressed about the laggards still in Deadhorse. The Class 1 was rapidly becoming a Class 2, and we were advised that in a Class 3 you stop -- wherever you may be, no excuses, not quite in the ditch but as safely off the road as possible. When we could no longer raise Deadhorse on the radio, Sweep was dispatched to go back and round up the Isuzus, presumed to be off on a photography mission. For the next hour we thought about the smallness of our little convoy on the Arctic plain, and squinted our eyes against the blowing snow as we hoped the boxy shadow ahead of us was following another shadow that was still on the road. We were much relieved when we drew closer to the Brooks Range, whose icy peaks now looked like old friends against the blue sky. The blow had abated, the tail end of the wagon train had closed up, and we were treated to glorious views in all directions.
We had made it! We had conquered the Frozen
North, had dreamt our Arctic Dreams, and emerged, if not quite back in
civilization, at least well along its road. Twigs, brush, even tiny trees
reappeared, and moose were sighted in the thickets along the frozen river.