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Going for the Fun in Land of the Midnight Sun

June 14, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

DEADHORSE, Alaska — May was about to become June and the temperature had soared to nearly 25 degrees above zero.

New snow softened the ice sculpture left by winter. The midnight sun was like a shadowy moon behind the clouds, a promise that the wildflowers of summer would soon be here to welcome a tourist season that will be a first in Alaskan history.

It was in February, 1980, that my wife and I first visited the oil company town of Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay in the far north of Alaska, 250 miles above the Arctic Circle. The temperature was minus-55 degrees when we landed at Deadhorse Airport.

Now we were here at the end of springtime to preview the route of a new tour that began early this month. During the past winter, there were again some 56 days when the sun didn't rise. There has been daylight around the clock since early May, and it will continue until mid-August.

Largest Oil Field

This season of the midnight sun will be the 10th anniversary of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which carries oil 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay and the nation's largest oil field to the port of Valdez, from where it is transported by tankers to Southern California refineries and processing plants in other states to supply 10% of U.S. petroleum needs.

Now, for the first time, the 2,500 men and women who still live and work year-round in the community of Deadhorse and the Prudhoe Bay oil-producing facilities will be sharing their cherished sunshine season with visitors brought here to the North Slope Borough of Alaska by a new kind of tour package.

It's a package put together by Princess Tours and sister companies that include Tour Alaska and Royal Hyway Tours. All have become part of P & O, the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., world's oldest and largest shipping company.

The tour package was made possible when the northernmost section of the gravel Dalton Highway paralleling the pipeline was opened for the first time this year to motor coaches carrying visitors.

Private auto travel is banned to protect the environment by keeping sightseers from wandering off across the tundra. Trucks that use what is known locally as the "haul road" aren't likely to stop for tundra walks; they usually roll along nonstop with vitally needed supplies for the oil rigs and support facilities at Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay.

A Tour Combo

The land portion of this summer's 12 tours north of the Arctic Circle combines motor-coach travel with the redesigned and restored vista-dome rail cars of the Midnight Sun Express.

The three-day/two-night tours include flying one-way between Anchorage and Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay. We flew from Anchorage into the Arctic airport at Deadhorse, then returned by motor coach and railroad through some of earth's most spectacular and least-known mountain scenery.

The tours can also be combined with a Princess cruise between Vancouver, British Columbia and Whittier, port of Anchorage.

Each of the 12 tours scheduled for this first summer will accommodate a maximum of 40 passengers. Advance bookings have indicated such popularity that 78 tours are already planned for the summer of 1988.

The Midnight Sun Express covers the 356 miles between Anchorage, Denali National Park and Fairbanks. Motor coaches travel the 416 miles of the Dalton Highway between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, where caribou graze around the oil wells.

Through the windows of the vista-dome rail cars, views range from the rich farming areas of Alaska's breadbasket in the Matanuska Valley to the soaring and ice-coated grandeur of 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, highest peak on the North American continent.

The horizon is always crowned with snow-capped peaks. Far below the train tracks, rivers tumble through awesome gorges, sometimes bouncing orange-colored pontoon rafts over the wild white-water. Beautiful scenery and roaming wildlife framed by train and motor-coach windows are a continuing temptation for photo stops.

A Grand Opening

Harper Lodge, a new $6.3-million Princess Tours facility, had its grand opening last May 29, and will be a regular overnight stop for summer tours. So will the far more modest but comfortable new Arctic Acres Inn, now open for a tour overnight in the community of Coldfoot.

Another choice to consider in planning a visit to Alaska is Holland America Line Westours, which, along with its Gray Line, are operating six McKinley Explorer glass-domed rail cars on the same Alaska Railroad line between Anchorage, Denali Park and Fairbanks, with an overnight stop in the park.

From the early days after the completion of the pipeline in 1977, the Nana Development Corp. has been carefully limiting the number of visitors by air from Anchorage for an overnight experience at Prudhoe and the surrounding North Slope.

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