Doing the Dalton

Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay
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Caribou grazing in Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay -- the end of the Dalton Highway
Last stop for wildlife

Come morning, conditions remain the same: raw, overcast, windy. Now only 140 miles from road's end, we decide to drive straight through to Prudhoe Bay. Following the Sagavanirktok River, we gradually descend out of the Brooks Range onto the undulating coastal plain of Alaska's North Slope.

Crossing the coastal plain is a lot like crossing the Great Plains prairies. Flatlands stretch as far as the eye can see. But this green plain is underlain by permafrost and it's a mix of wetland habitats: ponds, marshes, bogs, tundra, meandering creeks, and flowering meadows. The gravel highway is smooth here, with lots of flat straightaways that make for fast, freeway-style driving.

The sky opens up and blue replaces gray as we approach the coast, but it remains windy and cold: Today's high at Prudhoe Bay will be in the upper 30s. More typically, midsummer temperatures here reach into the 40s or low 50s. Only during rare heat waves does the temperature reach 70 or above.

End of the Road

We reach Deadhorse at midafternoon. The support town for Prudhoe Bay's oil field operations, this is where both locals and visitors eat, sleep, and recreate. There's not much to do or see — unless you have a passion for industrial complexes — yet Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay have earned a spot on Alaska's packaged-tour circuit. Buses arrive here daily and tourists can stay overnight in one of three boxlike hotels.

We're still three miles from the Arctic Ocean, but for us Deadhorse is the end of the road. Independent travelers aren't allowed to pass through the oilfields to reach the ocean, supposedly for reasons of security and visitor safety. If you want to get there, you have to go on a group tour, so we sign up for one that leaves at 6:30. Our tour guide, Bobbi, tells us that Prudhoe Bay encompasses 350 square miles, has nine main drilling pads with 36 to 42 rigs per pad, and is being worked by 11 companies. There's more, but I begin to lose interest. So, it seems, do most of the others."What's there to do?" someone asks.

"Not much," Bobbi admits. "The only fun is shopping at the store."

We reach the ocean and everyone piles out but there's not much to see: gray choppy ocean, blue sky, and distant structures belonging to the Prudhoe complex. Within a few minutes, the arctic chill has driven us back to the bus. Soon we're back at the hotel.

Homeward Bound

Dulcy and I fuel up the car, then begin our return journey south. Heading out of Deadhorse, she spots dark figures along the horizon: Dozens of caribou graze on the tundra. Members of the Central Arctic Herd, their range overlaps the oil fields, to whose presence they've adapted. Later we'll see more caribou, nearly 250 in all. One large group — a mix of bulls, cows, and calves — crosses the road, single file, within 200 feet of our car. It is, as Dulcy puts it, "a spectacular show." The caribou, more than anything man made, make our brief stay at Prudhoe a memorable one.

We watch the caribou until they're again small dots, then restart the engine. We have many miles still to go before reaching camp tonight.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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