Thursday, July 24, 2008

Call of the Wild - July 9 - Deadhorse - Farthest North Spruce Tree

Note: the story begins here:

We get up barely in time for the 10 AM tour of the oil field. After it was raining all night, the weather clears again. This starts looking like a pattern – two days of rain, two days of fine weather.

The tour starts in the presentation room at the hotel. The walls are plastered with various posters that explain how the drilling works, and agitate against feeding the bears. I hear and read this “Do not feed the bears” exhortation so often that I start believing that this is an integral part of American upbringing, at least in Alaska. Young kids are taught not to steal, not to drive drunk, and not to feed the bears.

There are also tons of pictures of wild animals – beers, moose, and caribou. We have now done the entire Highway, and we’ve seen two foxes, three hares, one ptarmigan, and a swan. And this is supposed to be the caribou migration period! I start suspecting that all these pictures are photoshopped, and the animals do not actually exist…

The tour consists of a short speech by a retired worker that does these tours, then a short movie about the oil production, then a bus ride through the oil field to the Arctic Ocean, an opportunity to wet one’s feet, or even go for a swim.

Listening to the presenter is fairly interesting. Several oil companies operate here in close cooperation, and their duties are divided – production, exploration and transportation of the same oil is handled by different oil companies. BP does production, for example, and Conoco does exploration. Long live US energy independence – brought to you by British Petroleum. Around the major players, there operate tons of contractors – companies that treat water, remove sewage, run hotel services, food preparation, etc. Minus the Army, I think I get the idea what the Green Zone in Iraq must look like.

The people here work in 12 hour shifts for 14 days straight, and then get 14 days off. When they are off, they have to leave the area – there is no extra space here. There is a plane that brings them to and from Fairbanks and Anchorage, but from there they have to find their own means of getting home. The hotel space is utilized to the fullest – every room has two beds – one for the person who works day shifts, another for the person who is in the night shift. The companies pay for living, food, laundry, uniforms, and on-site medical care (the workers still have to buy general health insurance, since all complicated cases are treated in Fairbanks or Anchorage).

The guide also talks about local wild life – the caribou herd (that apparently have increased since the facility was built by tenfold, which he says is because it provides some respite from mosquitoes, the caribou’s biggest natural enemy) and the grizzly bears. Wildlife has the right of way here – if it is crossing the road, the equipment must stop and let it pass.

The movie is focused on persuading the viewer that the environmental impact is the top concern here, and that it is very small.

After the movie, the bus takes us through the oil fields to the Arctic Ocean. There’s a bunch of cool equipment lying around. Look at the size of the tires on these things…

The older drill sites are outside the restricted area.

Their footprint is bigger. The newer ones drill wells that spread to cover a huge underground area from a relatively tiny pad.

Halliburton is everywhere, of course. This is where Dick Cheney got his ideas about the “healthy forest” initiative…

Finally, we get to the ultimate goal of the trip – the Arctic Ocean.

We get to wet our feet in it. Technically, there are supplies in the bus for those who would swim and the driver encourages us, but the wind is cold, and nobody partakes.

On our trip back, one thing becomes quite clear – the oil installation is good for the wildlife. We haven’t seen much wildlife on the way here, but on the oil field we finally see caribou – and the wildlife right of way in action.

We run into two more when we leave Deadhorse later that day – a mother…

…and her calf, which was hiding in a ditch until I startled it.

After the tour, Mom stepped on the nail while throwing the garbage away, and had to go inside the closed zone again to get a tetanus shot and antibiotics – there are no doctors in the Deadhorse itself, but there are some in the oil fields, and they kindly agreed to help. The same guy who gave us the trip drove her there – we could not enter the restricted area.

While she was getting help, we dumped our wastewater and filled our fuel tank. The gas pump at Deadhorse is weird – there are fuel hoses outside, and a really weird machine inside. The price of the fuel does not figure anywhere, until you get your final receipt – and for that, you have to insert your credit card again.
This is the pump outside…

…and inside.

We leave Deadhorse around 5, and within the first 40 miles run into a herd of musk oxen crossing the river. We notice them because there is another car parked along the highway, and several people with binoculars. The herd is 200-300 meters from the highway, but I can get within 50 meters to take these shots…

Then within the next 30 miles we run into another herd, this time on the right side of the road. Things definitely start looking up for the wildlife observing.

It starts getting late, but the sun provides just the right lighting for the scenery, and it is beautiful, so we just keep driving. This is the Sagavanirktok valley at 11 PM.

A nice view of the pipeline.

Rolling hills and a really beautiful blue river (this is still Sagavanirktok).

At times, the scenery outside looks almost identical to Windows XP desktop. We snap a few pictures…

A brown spot is barely visible 200 meters off the right side of the Highway. I go to investigate, and startle a moose – he was going to bed in a depression in the ground.

The moose runs away and gets to the other side of the pipeline. Are the sites where the pipeline is buried to create crossing points for big game really necessary, or are they created just to pacify the environmentalists?

A side trip to Toolik lake to take a dip in the lake at 1 AM in the morning, and we’re on the road again. At 2 AM the mountains reflect beautifully in the lakes by the road.

We traverse Atigun Pass at 3 in the morning – again! The Chandalar River really forks here…

Being up really late pays off again – we observe (and photograph) this red fox from literally 10 meters away.

We reach the Farthest North Spruce Tree soon thereafter and drop asleep in the parking lot.

1 comment:

each day an adventure in alaska said...

am enjoying reading about your trip north...we are taking the road to deadhorse this summer. love your fox and musk ox shots.