So where were we......
Just entering Alaska, branded the final frontier. The country side was still wild and rugged as we continued north west towards Fairbanks, the largest city in northern Alaska. As we had entered Alaska late in the afternoon, we located a picturesque pull over on the side of the road, with a gorgeous view of some snow capped mountain ranges. A typical Alaskan view. With any luck maybe tonight we might view the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights.
Just as we had completed our afternoon tea formalities and were enjoying the tranquil surrounds, two elderly Americans pulled in with their huge 5th wheel (an oversize caravan.) Great! One guy came over and started chatting, hopefully we didn't mind them staying there as well, they usually stay here etc etc. "Sure dude it's a free country!"
"Oh and by the way, it gets quite chilly here at night, we need to keep warm so will be running a generator all night. Hope it's not too bothersome but it's fairly quiet anyway."
So they started the generator and disappeared indoors. Well it may be quiet while you are locked up watching TV with the heating on, but it sounded like have a 2 stroke petrol engine parked on our bonnet! What arrogant w*****s! James went over gave them a piece of his mind, we packed up and found another spot to camp in for the evening.
Up early the next morning, it was cold and drizzly; we packed up and hit the road to Fairbanks. Just before Fairbanks, late in the afternoon, we arrived in North Pole. Genuine, a town called North Pole, where on Saint Nicolaus Drive, we visited the original Santa Claus House complete with Santa and Mary Christmas and 2 reindeer.
On arriving in Fairbanks, we booked into an RV Park with free showers and spent the next couple of days, waiting for the weather to clear a little, catching up on laundry and soaking up as much hot water as possible. The weather this far north as you can imagine is still fairly chilly.
We waited for Monday morning, did a big shopping, filled up both tanks with fuel and then begun our final push north to the Artic Circle and beyond. Our destination was Deadhorse, the furthest north you can drive anywhere in the world by road, a mere 10 miles from the Arctic Ocean and Prudhoe Bay. Reached by driving 170 miles up the Dalton Highway to reach the Arctic Circle, along mainly dirt roads, and then a further 240 miles north to Dead Horse along complete dirt way, crossing Brookes Mountain Range, snow covered all year round, entering the Arctic Tundra for the final drag. The whole time you drive alongside the Trans-Alaskan Oil Pipeline, running from Prudhoe Bay in the north to Valdez in the south, some 800 miles. An impressive feat of engineering by any-ones standards.
The volume of the Alaska Pipeline (48 inches by 800 miles) is 380,696,402 gallons; that much oil had to be pumped into the pipe before the first gallon could come out of the other end. At $12 per (40 gallon) barrel that oil is worth $114,208,920.
Half of the 800 mile pipeline is above the ground. This was done to keep the warm oil (approximately 140 degrees Fahrenheit) from melting the frozen ground (known as permafrost). The pipeline is held up off the ground on a small platform supported by two 16-inch diameter vertical support pipes that are buried between 15 and 60 feet into the frozen ground. These vertical support pipes are cooled by refrigerant coils which help to keep them from transmitting heat into the ground and consequently melting the frozen ground which supports the pipeline. These refrigerators, usually two and sometimes three in each vertical support, are completely passive; that is, they work automatically, requiring no power, whenever the surrounding air temperature is lower than the ground temperature.
Well we were warned, the roads are bad, the main traffic is huge lorries taking supplies up north and travelling at over 100km/hr most of the way, it is cold and at the moment very wet. Just before we got on the Dalton at mile 0, we fitted our protective wire screen to the windscreen and cut a small hole for James to see through so he did not suffer tunnel vision, and then hit the dirt roads. The roads are covered in hydrated sodium chloride as a dust inhibitor, sort of like salt for freezing, anyway, when wet this turns to a sticky fine cement which covers the vehicle in muck. As it dries it becomes bad dust and goes everywhere.
The trucks were something else, not slowing down for anything, we tried to sit at between 35-45 mph where we had open stretches and were being overtaken by "Extra-wide" loads which should be crawling along. They head north fully laden and return empty, i.e. twice the speed. The only thing possible for mere mortals was to pull over on the side of the road every time one came towards you and then duck, close your eyes as it sped past showering you in mud, dirt, pebbles and some cases rocks. Our screen saved us on more than one occasion.
The scenery was as you would expect, wild rolling forests, breaking out into scrub and then thinning out as you hit the mountains. We passed into the Arctic Circle late in the afternoon and a little further on camped in a gravel pit off the side of the road, we went to bed as usual and have never closed the sun roof once having climbed through into the base of the tent. Well, in the middle of the night, 1.30am to be precise, Kerry wakes me to say there is an animal climbing around on the car - "IS it a BEAR!!" It sounded too small so we started making a lot of noise to scare it away. It carried on jumping around and we soon realised - It was in the cab!!!!!
Well, we are upstairs, the car is locked, the keys in the ignition, access only through the sun roof. James poked his head out the side of the tent and peered in the car, right into the face of a panicking mink, who proceeded to jump over everything in the car. Well the only alternative was to get the spare set of keys hidden on the car elsewhere. So James, in a pair of shorts, freezing cold temperature climbs out the side of the tent, clings to the side of the Lodzi, schimmy's over the bonnet and around the other side of the vehicle, locates the keys and comes back, opens the door and lets the bugger out! Cheeky thing has the audacity to jump out, turn around and stare at James for a brief moment before walking off into the bush. From now on all wild camping has a closed sunroof.
The weather was unfortunately really cold and wet so we pressed on as quickly as we could, completing the final 270 miles the second day. A long tiring drive as it was necessary to concentrate on the bad road the whole time. We came across Musk Oxen grazing in the fields and once in the Tundra, the autumn colours were breathtaking. Unfortunately there are a lot of Caribou (relative of the reindeer) in this area and as we were in hunting season, the law allows Bow Hunters to hunt within 5 miles of the side of the road. We therefore saw more hunters than wildlife cruising the main road in search of migrating Caribou. They would then hop out the car in full cammo, stalk the prey and shoot. We saw numerous hunters stripping dead animals, one hunter chasing a winged bull Caribou he was hunting and even some guys trying to chase us away as they were stalking an animal right beside the road. Not on your life buddy so they moved off and we had saved one Caribou, for a while longer at least. James was over the moon as we saw numerous Peregrine Falcons and a pair of Golden Eagles which he was thrilled about.
We arrived in Dead Horse at about 9pm in the evening where the street/gravel roads are the worst we have ever seen. Just small pothole after pothole. It is an industrial mining town which we were warned about but it really was a s**t hole. You could do a tour into the oil fields, a further 10 miles for $35 per person for an hour which we passed on as our aim had been to drive as far north as possible.
After seeking out the general store which our good German friends Bernd and Barbara had advised, we managed to find a spot hiding around the back by the generators and out of the wind. It was extremely cold and the fog sits over the whole area like London on a very miserable day. The following morning we had a short walk through the general store, picked up a spare fan belt for the one we broke on the way up and decided to get out of "Dodge".
Our weather was pretty miserable all the way up the north slope, over the Atigun pass and Brookes Range. We were pelted by rocks every time a truck flew past us but had learnt by now to come to a complete stop as far on the right of the road as possible. The evening cleared as we set up a wild camp with sweeping views through two valleys and had a nice peaceful night.
The following day we drove back towards Fairbanks, heading a short 60 miles east just before we hit town to visit Chena Hot Springs. Set in the mountains, this expensive Retreat also offers alternative cheap camping. We spent the next couple of days soaking all the stress and worries in our lives away. That took all of 10 min so the remaining time was spent just soaking. They had a beautiful landscaped outdoor heated Natural pool which was fantastic and the spot we spent our entire time. This is also one of the best spots in Alaska to view the Aurora Borealis but our luck was out as the weather was over cast the whole evening.
On our way back to Fairbanks we decided to wild camp beside a river in the bush and had been advised that there were numerous moose in the area, not a threat, and also hundreds of Beaver. After dinner we were both sitting inside the front of the car keeping warm when Kerry suddenly screamed at the top of her lungs that there was a Bear ripping our dustbin off the back of the Landy. James jumped out and ran over waving his arms to get the dustbin back (idiot!) It fortunately worked; the bear dropped the bin and ran off into the bush. We quickly packed everything away and were just in time as he returned 2 minutes later and was sniffing around the back of the Landy. Kerry totally freaking out by this stage missed some awesome photo opportunities of him standing on his hind legs about 3 metres from her door sniffing the top of the Landy. Enough is enough so we started the car which sent him scampering away and did not return. Phew!
Back in Fairbanks we settled in for 1 night at the RV Park we had stayed at on the way up as they had awesome hot showers before hitting the George Parks highway south west and onto Denali National Park.