Sunday, September 6, 2009

Tues, Sept 1 On the Haul Road (Dalton Highway) to Coldfoot

It isn’t actually sunny but the sky is clear with high thin clouds and no rain. We can see the sun shining on the Brooks Range so there is hope for a nice day. Rob knocks on our door at 7AM and we all soon find our way to the dining room for breakfast. The cook has our order and starts it as soon as he sees us. It arrives in front of us in a few minutes fresh and hot!

We are on the road by 8AM and make a stop for Rob to get a coffee fix for the road. They have a Starbucks and some other very popular Alaskan coffee house here in Deadhorse. They are everywhere! Our guide is Rob Jordan. He is 30-ish, single and a teacher of Sociology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks in the winter. He is highly educated both formally and self tought. He has two bachelor degrees, two masters and has taken courses in everything from forestry and wildlife management to communications and marketing.
Out on the Haul Road things are quiet. The road is wet from yesterday’s rain, but not slippery and is in good condition. As we head down the road, Rob gives us lessons on the land, the vegetation, the animals and their habits and the pipeline and pump stations. It is very interesting...a living classroom. Plus, Rob has a great sense of humor. This country is not at all what we is really pretty!Rob wants to be sure we see three things unique to the North Slope. The first two have to do with the land...tundra polygons,which are breaks in the top few feet of the ground and pingos, pyramid shaped upheavals in the suface. Both are formations on the surface caused by the action of the permafrost underneath. We see many polygons and a few pingos and lots of small lakes and ponds even though this is considered a desert.

As we get closer to the mountains we come across the last thing Rob wants us to see...Muskox! There are what look to be three laying down by the river a little ways off the road. Rob assures us they are very docile, so off we go on a little hike to get a better look! Of course, they eventually see us and get up. It turns out to be is a calf. They look like a really shaggy small buffalo, and the calves are one of the bear's favorite meals. We see several more groups for a total of 20 as we head up into the Brooks foothills. According to the biologists that watch the muskox there are only about 70 left since the young are a favorite food of the bears in this area.

This is a summer nesting area for a great many migratory birds. Even though the North Slope had its first winter storm of the season this past week there are still a number of birds. As we continue south through the foot hills of the Brooks we see tundra swanwith some fledglings, Canadian geese, greater white fronted geese and a Hawk Owl that zigged when it should have zagged. That is a shame since it is really pretty bird. We also see cariboo and calves. This is their summer calving area.
There are good views of the pumping stations and of course the pipeline is marching beside the road most of the way.It goes underground some, but we can still see the green grass on the surface above its route since that ground is warmer than the rest of the area.
Rob is a fountain of information and we all have tons of questions. He has some snacks in the car so we munch, talk and watch until almost 2PM. He says he has a special place for our lunch. He pulls off on a side road in front of Slope Mountain. There are many such roads for the hunters to use for their camps.We hike in with lunch in hand and find some rocks to sit on. It is special because there are Dall sheep grazing right in front of us! Never mind it is in the 40'sF and a wind is blowing...we are all well layered and having an awsome adventure!We drive over the "Ice Cut" that the Ice Road Truckers talk about. It is "famous" because it has a guard rail on the outside, straight down edge. The rail is pretty dinged up too! Rob says you know it is a bad steep curve because there is a guard rail!
The next stop is the entrance to Gates of the Arctic National Park, Galbriath Lake and Rainbow Glacier. This is a fabulous park. It is hike in only, but the entrance is a wonderful place to bad we don’t have the motorhome so we can stay awhile!

There is a small airport near by. We stop for a closer look at a couple of light planes. As it turns out, a hunter just flew one in from the interior with his moose kill. He and his buddies are up here in their two planes hunting and using the airport field as their base camp. We spend some time talking to him and the guys help him get his 1,000 lbs. of moose packed away. I must say the head and antlers are quite impressive.

Next we pass Pump station #4 on a glacier moraine and head into the glacial valley of Atigun Pass, the infamous pass through the Brooks Range on the Haul Road...made famous on Ice Road Truckers! It is almost straight up and down...Rob says the builders of the road felt switch back were inefficient! It had rained and snowed the day before and the truckers were using chains this morning, but it is warmer now with some blue sky and sunshine so the road is now a sea of mud about 8 inches deep. The pass is beautiful. Near the top a trucker radios Rob that there are sheep near the chain up area so we pull off for a lookand for Rob to get up his courage to go over the pass...he has been dreading it all day...he didn’t want to have to roll around in the muck to chain up! So off we go. It is a neat ride and we have no trouble until we are going down the south side and encounter a truck stuck in the gets tense in the van as Rob weaves through the stopped traffic trying not to slow down enough to sink in the mud himself! The van slips and slides, but we get through. What an awful mess and to think the truckers put up with this and worse all the time! According to the radio traffic the stalled trucker will have to be towed out of the mud. There is constant chatter on the CB between the drivers, including Rob, on road conditions and just friendly banter at times.

Once across the pass, we are out of the tundra and in a beautiful forest painted with Fall colors. To make it perfect, we have left all the clouds behind and are in that perfect late afternoon light that has such a glow. It is a beautiful drive on into Coldfoot, our stop for the night. We have enjoyed the first 240 miles of the Haul Road even if it has taken 12 hours to cover.

Coldfoot is a road house with 52 rooms. It is a truck stop!The buildings are the same as in Deadhouse, just dirtier, mainly because the whole town is, simply put, a sea of mud!It is about 8:30PM when we get there. We get settled into our rooms and meet in the café for some dinner. It is an interesting group..rough and ready truckers with their colorful language, a few independent types like us and maybe 60 cruise passengers on two Holland American tour buses! The cruise ladies are tiptoeing through the mud in their leather high heel shoes and matching colorful ski wear! Some of the cruise lines now offer bus tours to Deadhorse.

After a huge plate of food we head back across the parking mud hole to our rooms and bed. It is still light at 11PM.

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