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Alaska : The Loneliest Road in the Far North

July 30, 1989|RICHARD JOHN PIETSCHMANN | Pietschmann is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

ON THE DALTON HIGHWAY, Alaska — On the other side of the pipeline, less than 200 yards from this storied 416-mile gravel road leading into Alaska's far north, a huge grizzly sow browsing for berries glowed golden in the slanting rays of the Arctic summer's never-ending sun. Nearby, her two cubs tumbled in a bruising game.

About 100 yards upwind, a big cow moose and her spindle-legged calf grazed, knowing they were protected from the deadly grizzly by wind direction and the bear's terrible eyesight.

Alaska natives can spend a lifetime without seeing a single elusive grizzly, much less a family of three at one time, but we were lucky.

Reluctantly, we left the grizzlies and climbed back aboard the bus to continue our journey over the Brooks Range, jutting impressively ahead, and on to frigid Coldfoot for the night. The next day we would plunge into the vast Yukon River Basin, then roll into Fairbanks in late afternoon.

Departure from Prudhoe Bay's remote oil camp was early in the morning on the only road connecting Prudhoe with Fairbanks nearly 500 miles to the south. We had been paralleling part of the 800-mile Trans Alaska Pipeline System--at $8 billion, the most costly, privately financed construction project ever.

We had arrived by air from Fairbanks a day earlier and had been driven around the oil fields and pipeline terminus. We saw distant bands of caribou (it was too early for the vast herds that arrived later), stayed overnight in the Arctic Caribou Inn, which had been left over from the boom days of construction and exploration, and dined in a cafeteria with bemused oil workers.

Road travel is closed to private vehicles above the Arctic Circle, and casual visitors are prohibited from leaving Prudhoe's airport at Deadhorse.

Virtually everything is owned by the oil companies and closed to outsiders; there are no taxis, no restaurants and no hotels that aren't private.

The bus tours offered by Princess Tours and Westours' Gray Line of Alaska are the only way to reach, explore and overnight at the forlorn place at the end of an arid tundra wasteland that daily produces two million gallons, or one-fifth of the country's domestic oil.

The fascinating and somewhat primitive tours began just three summers ago when a handful of experimental tours, using the Dalton Highway and empty facilities owned by the Prudhoe area's Native Alaska Trust, were approved by the state and the oil companies controlling access to Prudhoe.

The tours launched by Princess were soon expanded into a robust program that this summer is providing 73 northbound and southbound departures by Princess and Gray Line.

One key to establishing the tour programs was to get permission to travel the narrow, fragile ribbon of the Dalton Highway that is open only to permit-holding vehicles. Another was convincing Dick and Cathy Mackey to add an inn to their restaurant and truck stop in Coldfoot, which is about halfway between Prudhoe and Fairbanks.

Construction on the Dalton Highway began in 1974. Built as a supply conduit for the pipeline, it is closed to most traffic past aptly-named Disaster Creek because of the dangers inherent in driving in the empty Arctic.

The Mackeys, proprietors of the world's northernmost truck stop (as well as America's northernmost saloon), were persuaded that enough travelers would pay for tours above the Arctic Circle.

The state eventually gave its approval to a limited number of bus trips, reasoning that experienced drivers and radio contact minimized the chance of a mishap along a road so remote that there is not a single structure--except for isolated pipeline facilities--all the way from Coldfoot to Prudhoe. Then the Mackeys built their Arctic Acres Inn, which has been expanded to 52 rooms.

Our tour began in Fairbanks, where we boarded a jet and flew to Prudhoe Bay. But it didn't look like the last day of May as we circled to land 1,300 miles from the North Pole.

The pilot had warned us, issuing what sounded like a gleeful chuckle, that snow was blowing and it was 27 degrees at Prudhoe.

A Treeless Plain

As we banked low over the still-frozen Beaufort Sea for the approach to the ominously named Deadhorse, the ice merged with the tundra to produce a seamless vista of flat, featureless gloom.

Not one oil well or a single caribou was visible on the great treeless plain of Alaska's North Slope, which is famous for both.

The plane bumped onto a runway that no one ever saw and rolled to a stop in front of low buildings that were the same shade of dull gray as the overcast that blanketed everything. When we stepped outside, snow stung our eyes and the cold made our teeth rattle.

Deadhorse and Prudhoe have no permanent residents for a very good reason. The isolation is mentally stressful, particularly in the dark Arctic winter, where, for 56 days, the sun fails to rise at all. Workers generally are limited to nine weeks of 10 to 12 hours on the job daily before being flown south. It's no wonder that both firearms and alcohol are banned.

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