Arctic Spring break, part II

When I left you last week, my truck had broken down en route to Prudhoe Bay and was towed to a Fairbanks GMC dealership.

Tired, blurry-eyed and shivering in the snot-freezing cold, I waited outside the GMC dealership door for them to open so I could begin the wallet draining process. They took my information and said they would get to it as soon as they could. “Do you have a phone number we can reach you at?” the guy behind the counter asked.

I half laughed and replied, “No, but I'll be in the old Dodge van with smoke coming out of the chimney, parked in the back.”

An hour later, I was woken up by a knock on the window and an estimate for $1060! I talked the price down, made a few calls to the bank, sold my soul to Jon “J.D.,” the money man of the group, and we were back on the road by 3:30 in the afternoon. Driving the Elliott Highway, the road turned to gravel 30 miles outside of Fairbanks. The next 1100 miles of our trip would be spent testing shocks, tires, nerves, and stamina on dusty washboard roads. Seventy miles from Fairbanks the haul road or Dalton highway begins with Prudhoe Bay at the other end, 414 miles away.

The Milepost road guide is riddled with red printed cautions warning of rough steep grades, sharp turns and heavy industrial traffic. My favorite warning would have to be “Steep descent…followed by steep ascent; dubbed the `Roller Coaster.'"

Like an amusement park ride my truck gained momentum down hill, 50…60…70 mph; followed by a sinking feeling in our stomachs, the speed decreased back to 50 then slowed to 40 until we crested the hill.

The late winter's sunset turning the snow covered peaks purple in the evening's waning light. Shortly thereafter, we pulled up to and parked on the Arctic Circle for a long awaited steak dinner, Micro brew beer, and sleep.

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Morning came bringing with it a radiant sunrise, crisp cool air, and clear skies. Lynda “Auntie” Price, Tyson “T dog” and myself avoided the stuffiness of the van and slept outside. T-dog and Auntie slept inside their warm, cold weather sleeping bags while I wrapped my body in three old sleeping bags, four blankets, and full clothing. It was by far the warmest sleep I had ever been able to enjoy in the Alaskan winter.            

The van, known as Cooter and RD TRIPer, the GMC pick-up dubbed for its liscence plate “RD TRIP,” were started and warmed up for the 300 mile drive to Prudhoe Bay. During the trip we would drive through Atigun Pass, which crosses the Brooks Range at an elevation of 4800 ft making it the highest roadway in the world this far north. It has between 40-50 avalanche chutes that cross the steep winding seven-mile-long section of the Dalton Highway. Each chute is marked with a post and sign similar to mile markers declaring the number of each avalanche path.

Two vehicles pulled back onto the gravel highway leaving behind the Arctic Circle headed for our next gas stop in Coldfoot. During the winter, between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, Coldfoot is the only place to get gas. And even though the pipeline carries millions of barrels of oil, no more than a mile away, the price of gas was $2.19 a gallon.

Sixty miles north of Coldfoot is the famed Atigun Pass. Having heard and read stories about it I was very interested to see what perils awaited us at the highest and farthest north mountain pass. The roads had been covered with ice for many miles and gravel road was hardly seen again until we crossed back over Atigun Pass on the return trip. Gravel was frozen into the ice, providing traction when driven within normal limits.

The bright sunlight reflected off the snow-covered peaks, some 7,000 feet high, as we made our way slowly up the pass. Little peril ever presented itself, minus an occasional 18-wheeler until we reached the arctic plain. There the winds picked up blowing snow across the road reducing the visibility to a quarter mile or less. The last 37 miles is known for having the worst winter driving conditions of the entire highway.

As the sun went down Prudhoe Bay came into sight seeming to appear out of nowhere. Warehouses, a few oil derricks, and equipment made up the town of Deadhorse near Prudhoe Bay. There wasn't a car in sight only big work trucks that were never turned off due to the cold. Being the only two non-commercial vehicles in town we felt a bit out of place.

Parked at the general store we set up for the night. The van's block heater was plugged in and the truck turned off, praying that it had no trouble starting the next morning. The temperature dropped to negative 25 degrees during the night and never rose above negative 14 degrees. Condensation froze on any exposed metal inside the van, some a half inch thick in places.

Morning brought cold with the realization that the wood stove had long since died out. The fire was stoked up, breakfast was cooked, and the vehicles started. Rather, Cooter started after being plugged in all night long and RD TRIPer gave great protest. As I had done before, I placed a camp cook stove under the oil pan to warm the engine.

“Hey T can you look out the window and see if that smoke is coming from my truck?” Certainly enough, smoke was billowing from under the hood, something had gone very wrong. I jumped out, ran around the van and dove on the ground to see a ball of fire engulfing the engine. I grabbed the stove and threw it out into the open parking lot, ran into the van, grabbed the fire extinguisher and put out the burning stove and wires.

For some of the people on the trip this was the most intense time as they sat in the van, not knowing or seeing what was going on outside.

Luckily, only five wires to the four-wheel drive were burned. And with the fire the engine was warm enough to start.

The repair for the mishap was to tape each wire to keep them from shorting out. This is easier said than done, since tape hardens in less than ten seconds in the cold. A small electric heater was used to keep the tape and my hands warm during the fifteen minute fix in blowing wind that felt like forty degrees below zero.

With the truck running, four wheel drive working and some adrenaline still coursing through my veins we left behind all the buildings, oil rigs and barren lands for Manley Hot Springs, some 500 miles of gravel road away. The drive was long and draining, averaging 36 mph. But what would the day be without another misadventure?

On the narrow two-lane road, late that night, miles from anywhere came a truck. We both slowed and moved to the sides of the road. My tire caught the snow and tried to pull the truck off the road. I over corrected, sending RD TRIPer into a collision course with the Dodge Ram. Rather than try to make the narrow fit and risk crashing, I drove the truck off the road into a foot and a half of snow.

The big Dodge diesel stopped and pulled me free of the newfound predicament. And once again adrenaline flowed keeping me awake for the last few hours of the drive to Manley.

After many hours of sleep were caught up and breakfast made we pointed Cooter and RD TRIPer towards one of only three hot springs in Alaska for a relaxing dip.

Shelling out $30 granted us access to a large greenhouse that contained three varying temperature concrete tubs. We were instantly transported into a tropical environment with green plants and humid 80-degree air. Insulated by only a thin sheet of plastic the greenhouse stayed amazingly warm. The six of us sat in the warm water almost comatose, enjoying the vast contrast between there and Prudhoe Bay. The heat soaked through to our cores until we could take it no longer.

On the return trip from Manley, with no gas gauge and due to a mathematical error, Cooter ran out of gas. It wasn't a major problem, because we came prepared with 12 gallons of extra gas. Enough for Cooter to drive back to Manley and fill up. The trip was nearing the end with only one more night to be spent in Fairbanks before the seven hour drive back to Anchorage.

The last night was spent celebrating in the Fred Meyer parking lot trying to finish the flat keg of beer and our last meal of steak and bratwurst. The few fading memories of the night were caught on the remaining video tape footage.

During the last few hundred miles, Cooter started giving Tyson and Richard trouble, leaving doubt about the likeliness of making it home with two vehicles. Tension was prevalent among everyone as the road wore down spirits and asses went numb from sitting for five days. Cooter held out and everyone remained good friends.

Anchorage awaited us with its many cars, buildings and people. It certainly was a change from the vast, barren desolation on the Arctic Circle.