Sunday, September 12, 2010
Prudhoe Bay to Coldfoot
We had to have our bags outside our room by 7AM so they could be loaded on the bus so Denny and I were up early, hitting the buffet line for breakfast. We sat with one of the housekeepers who works at Prudhoe on a 2 week on/2 week off schedule, as well as with one of the cooks who was working a 3week/3 week schedule. These women have it a little harder than the men I think, as Prudhoe seems it would be a cold and lonely place. But the money is good--the housekeepers earn between $55,000-60,000 for the equivalent of 6 months work. The employees get their pay, their rooms, their food and their clothing provided by the oil company they work for. If they live in Anchorage or Fairbanks they get free plane fare to and from Prudhoe Bay. If they live in the lower 48 or elsewhere in Alaska they have to pay their own plane fare when they come back and forth every two to three weeks and that can cost them $700 a flight, so most find apartments/rooms in those two places. The employees are more than willing to talk to the tourists about their lives in Prudhoe Bay and elsewhere and most are content with this unusual lifestyle. One of the funny things was that there was a no cussing, no gambling rule. Yeah, I bet those get enforced!
Our first stop of the morning was to the general store in our Prudhoe Bay camp. Items and materials are delivered to the area in three ways; the Dalton (Ice) Highway, barges and air transport. Our group was soon to find that stopping at gifts shops was de riguere for our Princess Alaska land/cruise. The post office was also in the same building so some of us took pictures while others took the opportunity to purchase and send off post cards from Deadhorse, Alaska.
We were able to see some of the equipment and buildings more clearly in the bright morning sunshine. I forgot to mention in yesterday's post about the mobile modular units that sometimes those huge orange units on wheels are moved while the employees inside are still sleeping after their shifts!
There are no doctors in the oil camps around Prudhoe Bay but there are PAs--physician's assistants. If someone is injured too severely to be helped here, a helicopter is dispatched to pick them up and take them to Fairbanks or Anchorage.
There are three phases of weather by which the employees work with the worst phase being phase 3. In phase 3 you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face due to blowing snow and cold so everyone is placed in virtual lock down until the phase 3 is lifted. Our local guide Grant was once stuck in his security guard shack at the entrance to the oil field for three days while a phase 3 condition was in effect.
Grant also mentioned that members of his native culture (they use the word culture rather than tribe) crush the red leaves of a small plant that flourishes here with the white blossoms of another plant to create a soapy lather for washing.Who would have thought there were sand dunes in Alaska? But indeed there are and they provide an area for brown bears to make their dens. Are you learning anything yet?
I'm not sure of the proper spelling but our guide called these "rollagones". These monster machines have only 3 to 5 psi in the tires so the tires roll softly over the tundra without creating too much damage. The companies here are very conscientious about the ecology of the land and the limiting the damage that they do. In fact, they hire summer interns to walk on the tundra to pick up trash and these students have to have a special permit to walk on the tundra and permafrost because that is a practice that's not normally allowed here.
After everyone had shopped and taken their pictures at the store it was time for us to start heading down the Dalton Highway.We boarded the bus for the 240 mile trip to Coldfoot, traveling at 20 to 30 mph for the most part. Yeah, it was going to be a long day.
One of the things pointed out to us by our driver Chuck was that the pipeline had to have cooling coils installed along the sections since the oil comes out of the ground hot and the heat would melt the permafrost that the stanchions are built upon so the oil needs to be cooled as it flows through the pipes. There was so much the engineers had to think about and plan for in the few months they had to get this entire pipeline going. It truly is an engineering marvel.
After three hours of driving we had traveled 70 miles, passing from flat tundra to the Franklin bluff and working our way towards the Brooks Mountain Range. Not far past the bluffs we saw the musk oxen. I will apologize in advance for the quality of many of the photographs as most were taken from inside the buses and trains and therefore there is some window glare and blue coloring from the window tint.
Our first pit stop occurred about 90 miles down the Dalton Hwy and was going to become a familiar ritual over the next couple of days. While we were waiting our turn at the one-seater, our driver Chuck took some of us over onto the tundra to show us a piece that had been cut out so we could see what the ground looked like. Me, I was more interested in watching the hunters with their bows and arrows as I noted some caribou on the ridgeline near our stop. It seems in Alaska hunters can hunt from the roadways, simply stopping their vehicles, stepping out and shooting away. Scary.
Our driver, Chuck.
After watching the hunters for a few minutes we all boarded the bus again for our southward trek down the Dalton Highway. The tundra started to show more and more color and when we finally stopped to eat our box lunch that had been prepared by the kitchen staff at Prudhoe Bay, we enjoyed a terrific vista even though we were sitting on the berm of the gravel road like a bunch of first graders.
Because we had a nice sunny day, Chuck did not have to work hard at cleaning our windows so that we could view the scenery and the animals. This is a relatively clean bus for the Dalton Highway! And no dead mosquitoes smashed on the windows, either!
As we rode the group saw distant (as in white grains of rice) Dall sheep on far mountain sides, fall colors in the tundra, aspens turning golden and even a brown bear and cub along the pipeline. In Alaska it would be easy to have sensory overload, I think.
Finally, after nine and a half hours on the road, we arrived in Coldfoot. Again as we stepped off the bus we were handed our room keys and told our luggage would be delivered. Denny and I waited until we had gotten our bag and then wandered over to the camp's restaurant which was yet another buffet line. After dinner the two of us wandered over to the visitors' center across the highway and listened to a talk on mosquitoes. But it's been a long day of driving, Patches has jumped in front of the computer to let me know she wants to go for a walk and I am ready to get some fresh air myself.Spartan, no TV, no clock, no radio, no ambiance. But clean.
To be continued....