ARCTIC MISSION: FAIRBANKS - TUKTOYAKTUK Story - Barry
Durbrow /// Pix - Lars Gange
1/9/05 2000 hrs: Barry's passport arrives
in the mail approximately 1 hour prior to scheduled departure. Depart
2788 Waldheim Dr. fully intending to drive all night to Whitehorse, 700
miles down the AK Highway. Lars having slept approximately 4 hrs in the
last 2 days rides shotgun babbling incoherently about women. Barry having
recently returned from Prudhoe Bay after working 14 days of night shift
is the "alert" one and takes the wheel. Fossil fuels exit the
exhaust at an alarming rate. A stop in Delta Junction is required for
fuel and food. As it turns out, at 10 PM at the Delta Texaco it is time
for the hot dogs on the roller to go. More beautiful words have not entered
the ears of the Norwegian tube steak connoisseur in a long time. We gorge
ourselves on complimentary hot dogs while purchasing beef jerky and Odwalla
bars that later give Barry heartburn. As promised, there are Ukrainian
refugees working the gas station. Rumor has it they have squeezed out
all the small time native Deltanan dope growers and now control the lucrative
Delta Indo market. They did not offer up the green, we did not ask.
1/9/05 2300 hrs: Stop for gas in Tok. $60.00...ouch. That's Tok
as in, "Hey man do you want a Tok off this joint?". Not Tok
as in "Tick Tok goes the clock."
1/10/05 0100 hrs: Adrenaline is wearing
off. Lars is falling asleep and without conversation I am done. We decide
to give the sleeping bags a test in the Yukon's sleeping quarters.
1/10/05 0800 hrs: -18 F. Not even a
challenge for the sleeping bags, and the Yukon fires off like it's a 65
degree Florida morning.
1/10/05 0930 hrs: Stop for a coffee
at some summer tourist trap and pick up some "Otis Spunkmeyer"
brand muffins. One bite of my blueberry flavor and it is immediately apparent
that something is very wrong. My mouth and throat burn from some organic
chemical that I image is close to the taste of WD-40. I need someone who
was a huffer as a kid to confirm this. Lars wasn't much of a huffer, but
agrees that the muffin is just not right. I plan on sending back to the
company with a note regarding my pending lawsuit.
1/10/05 1000 hrs: Canadian Border: We are greeted
by an agreeably attractive border patrol agent who is not impressed by
our groggy, unrehearsed, wishy washy answers to questions.
Agent: What is BlackBullet.com
Lars: It is a web design company.
Agent: Do you have a firearm in the vehicle?
Agent: Do you ever carry a firearm in the vehicle?
Agent: Do you have any ammunition or explosives?
Agent: Please show me proof that you have sufficient
funds to sustain yourself in Canada and leave after your vacation.
Lars/Barry: Uh, well we have four platinum credit cards
and two ATM cards between us and $250 cash. Is that good enough?
Agent: No, I need a note from your bank or credit card
Lars/Barry: Uh, well, we don't have that. We can come
inside and log onto the internet and you can look at our accounts.
Agent: We don't have the internet here.
Lars/Barry: O.K., well, we have enough computer, photographic,
and outdoor equipment to pawn and live off the proceeds for about three
years. Is that sufficient until we get to the ATM in Whitehorse?
Agent: No, but I will let you enter Canada this time.
Next time bring a note from your bank.
Lars/Barry: O.K., thank you, we will be sure to do that.
1/10/05 1600 hrs: Whitehorse
A nice town of about 25,000 complete with all the big box store garbage
and a nice little Main St. Lars purchases euro style hot dogs at WalMart
that are unavailable in America. The girl at the Radio Shack recommends
the "Capitol Hotel" without any hesitation as the only place
to drown our sorrows in Whitehorse. After a dinner on Main St. that proceeded
at what can only be described as Yukon pace, we head for The Capitol.
Being that it is a Monday night, we are not expecting much. Nothing much
presents itself. The bar is playing acceptable music, but is staffed by
a heavily inked bartender who could easily double as the bouncer …and
two patrons. The two girls bellied up to the bar are overly friendly and
half way gone when we roll in at 7 PM. They pucker up when it becomes
clear we are Americans. Lars being from Vermont is a "Southerner".
They return to friendly after I state I am Alaskan and a few reassurances
that George Bush does indeed suck ass. We have a beer and decide that
it would be best to forgo the broadband internet and take a room at this
sketchy hotel to facilitate getting drunk and avoiding a potential drunk
driving felony. Forty-six Loonies later we head to the hotel section to
examine our "haunted" room. Refund time. The big problem with
the room is not the police tape on the door across the hall proclaiming
"Enter if you dare", but the single double bed, rusted up shower,
and peeling wallpaper in a room billed as nice and clean. No problem with
the refund, but the Capitol loses its luster. We retreat to the comfort
of high speed internet and deal with the Febreezed linens.
1/11/05 1000 hrs: Apparently food is cooked
and consumed SLOWLY in the Yukon. Breakfast is good as we push from Whitehorse
at -25F at a leisurely pace around noon.
Lars can't keep his camera holstered, big surprise. Thankfully the temperature
drops to -40 by about 3 PM and keeps him under control. The temp is definitely
below -40 as we proceed north toward Pelly Crossing as the sun goes down.
The digital readout on the Yukon's mirror is maxed out at -40 at the tops
of ridges and doesn't budge as we descend to the obviously colder river
valley bottoms. The brakes start to make an odd resonating ring/moan when
not in use and drivetrain noise of the vehicle increases noticeably.
The dump outside of Stewart Crossing is burning trash, sending out an
acrid plume of smoke that is trapped under a layer of the extremely stable
atmosphere. The electric bear fence is down so we check out the smoldering
pile of diapers and plastic bags. Nice.
As the sun goes down appetites grow and it is decided that at some point
we must cook the euro dogs despite the temperature (still somewhere south
of -40). Wisely we don full arctic gear. Boots, insulated pants, puffy
down coats, mitts, and balaclavas come out. Fingers can only be exposed
with thin liner gloves for a minute or so at a time before becoming painful
and unusable. Touching anything metal with bare fingers feels like being
burned. Lars did get burned on his camera of course...The MSR Dragonfly
white gas camp stove performs well despite the stray white gas leak. Once
fully pressurized and lit off, it boils cold water and 6 frozen hot dogs
in about 10 minutes without the heat reflector shield thing. While cleaning
up, the Aurora decides it is a good time for a display. Pretty nice tall
green dancing rays with tinges of red. As we descend the seemingly endless
hill to Dawson located on the Yukon River, the ice fog starts to burn
my eyes from wood smoke trapped in the stagnant air under the inversion
1/11/05 2000 hrs: "Deep Hole Wilson" whom we found
at the Westminster Hotel bar told the following goldminer's tale. For
3 years he dug 68 feet to get below the permafrost, and then hit an aquifer
trapped underneath, with water gushing up everywhere. Pressing on he then
dug another 60 feet with a pump removing the water. At times there was
not enough oxygen to light the dynamite he used to blast in the hole.
Pumping air down the shaft with a blacksmith bellows was required for
survival. When the water was rushing in too fast to place cribbing he
gave up the 3 year dream and started climbing out. Half way up he stopped
and asked himself "Why not just let go?" a few times before
continuing to climb for no apparent reason. His "buddies" forgot
to keep stroking the pump that forced the air down the shaft.
Our new friend works for the phone company and offers the plugin at the
local telco switch station for the BlackBullet. As we leave the bar to
reloate the bullet another "friend" at the table cries out "Move
my truck too!" I say fine and tell him to throw me the keys. "They
are in it and it is running" he replies. I hop in expecting the 1985
era Toyota pickup to be a little stiff, but otherwise mobile. As I roughly
let out the foreign feeling clutch and mash the gas the thing bucks and
starts spinning the rear tires but refuses to move. After a few more tries
with no success I consider turning the hubs on the wheels and slipping
it into four wheel drive but think better of such an aggressive move on
a vehicle of this vintage. It seems pretty remote that the front transfer
case could be frozen, but that is the only thing I can come up with. I
get him to come out and he slips it into neutral revs the engine for a
few minutes to warm the fluid and like this has happened before. It doesn't
seem like this would work with the hubs unlocked, but we move after this
process is complete regardless of its validity.
As the quintessential Tuesday night in a Dawson City bar at -40 wears
on we decide that there will be no hotel rooms needed this night. The
sleeping bags will get a real test. The bar decides we are "homos"
(whatever "Deep Hole Wilson"), and the owner offers us a room
in the hotel for $20. We don't take it. They don't get it. By midnight
we call it quits and make our way back to the Bullet. In the course of
the nights conversation, Ron the telco guy assured us that broadband in
town is not lacking. Thanks to a government grant (of course, it is Canada)
Dawson City has been the recipient of a fat fiber optic pipe. That in
mind, the laptops come alive and a WIFI connection is soon sniffed out
without moving the truck. What a bizarre location to receive a much anticipated
email from most populous city in the US. The absurdity of the situation
is not lost on us as the temperature on the telco thermometer hits -52
F, we surf wirelessly from the parked truck and prepare the sleeping bags.
After a good hour of warming the truck and sleeping bags I am not sure
if the choking wood smoke from the houses outside the car or the sickening
cigarette smoke on my clothes is worse. After shutting off the engine
it only takes about 30 minute for the indoor and outdoor and temperatures
to equalize. We each have a layer of long underwear and socks on inside
our sleeping bags and we sleep like babies despite the misgivings of the
A big thanks to Bob and the folks at the Westminster Hotel & Bar for
the beer and food!
1/12/05 Very frosty sleeping bags in the AM!
The ice bridge over the river in town was open so...we took it. We met
the 40,000 kilo weight limit and the bridge held. The road took us up
out of the ice fog pollution soup a couple miles for a nice overview of
the mist shrouded valley below. A few people have houses just on the other
side of the river from Dawson. Are they essentially cut off from the city
for a month or so during breakup and freezup? Despite the -55 temp, people
are out xc skiing and skijouring below. Unbelievable. I lay off that stuff
Coming back into town for a few final items before hitting the Dempster
we roll past the Northwest telecom building by chance. The frozen Toyota
from the night before is still there, but is accompanied by its owner
wielding the "Taggar Torch". We call them "weed burners"
in AK I think. For the uninitiated this device is a 3 foot ½"
pipe with a 4" opening on the end connected to a 20 lb. propane tank.
When lit it produces a nice 6" long ball of diffused flame. Perfect
for application directly to the oil pan and radiator of your frozen automible
at -50. We jump his truck with the Bullet causing only mild smoke from
the battery terminals. After a quick tour of the telco building with Ron
it is off to the Dempster.
Leaving town the I smell dryer sheets and burnt electronics coming from
the vents. A cursory inspection of the likely culprits doesn't yield any
obvious problems so we continue on. At -53 it doesn't take long for us
to figure out that the heater is no longer blowing. We retreat back to
town, feet freezing in our boots, in search of Ron, Reid, or some warm
place to check things out. The red Toyota is observed idling outside a
local watering hole. Reid is inside waiting on some people to arrive in
town and quickly has us fixed up at the local GM authorized service center
for an immediate consultation. We thaw some tuna-fish-in-a-pouch for lunch
by sitting on it and the technicians of Northern Superior Mechanical soon
have the problem diagnosed as a burned out circuit board in the fan speed
regulator. Since they don't have a replacement on hand, the mechanic jumps
the blower to be on 100% all the time unless we remove the wire feeding
power. Fine, not an elegant solution but it saved aborting the whole trip.
The heat is maxed out all the time anyway. And we are off.
Clearly the Dalton Highway of Canada. Rumbling trucks, one lane down the
middle, and semi plowed. With the huge gas reserve of the Mackenzie Delta
soon to be tapped and a pipeline in the works it definitely has potential.
50KM up the road the rounded snow coated Olgilvie Mountains slide up and
surround us. The natural crook of the mountains frame the remnants of
the sunset as the sliver moon appears over the ridge to the east. Lars
is in photographic ecstasy. The wind is mercifully calm. Dead calm in
fact, which is odd given the wind blasted Styrofoam consistency of the
drifts at the turnout.
Eagle Plains: A classic case of really bad fuel economy
driving the creation of a "town". We aren't complaining as our
gauge drops to ¼ of a tank. The Bullet, ever the alarmist, has
been computing single digit mileages and surprising low ranges. We reassure
ourselves by doing some accounting of receipts and discovering that gas
mileage has been an astounding 10ish mpg. WTF, that is ridiculous. Maybe
not give three days of travel in temperatures of -20 to -55 and countless
hours of idling.
It looks and feels like typical oilfield temporary housing and has pictures
of early oil exploration on the walls. However, the woman working the
bar assures us that the location and reason for being is to make sure
vehicles with the worst range can fuel up. It is now also the Highway
Dept. headquarters for the Dempster. Think all 50 year old guys with beards
wearing insulated flannel work shirts smoking like chimneys....and two
women to work the kitchen/bar. The bartender came up for this job with
her boyfriend. No story was available from the waitress, but as an Eagle
Plains "10", her theoretical boyfriend should be 6'5" and
well versed in the art of knife fighting. I could see this place getting
ugly after a few days of the road being blown in. Not far outside of Eagle
Plains the Richardson mountains roll up around us like sand dunes. The
soft pink light is more than Lars can take. Lenses, bodies, film and flash
cards are everywhere.
Three things I am pretty certain you can't buy: Love, Happiness, or anything
slightly appetizing in Ft. McPherson, NWT. I decide to do cartwheels on
the McKenzie ice bridge instead of eating. It had warmed up to a manageable
-15, but back on the river at -36 we feel right at home.
A former military radar outpost, now the western arctic government hub.
We get a nice crescent moon over some Cold War early warning hardware
on the way into town. The town is mostly standard high arctic architecture.
Prefab corrugated metal siding on the government office buildings and
mobiles homes in the residential areas. As with most of these towns under
the grip of the stable windless high pressure system, the air is terrible.
Inuvik may be the worst yet due to the population.
We stop at a place called "Fast Food" for the elusive caribou
burger. After one look at the place I can't quite pull the trigger on
the ground reindeer. Lars perseveres and lives the dream. I don't think
his was any worse than my conventional mad cow patty. Regardless, gastrointestinal
distress soon follows in both cases. We stick the Bullet in the parking
lot of a hotel for the night because it has plugins. Another -40 night
follows and a rough exit from the warm of the sleeping bag to start the
truck. To make it more unpleasant it takes the rear heat hours to warm
up. If we want any heat in the morning the one sleeping on the obstruction
free side has to climb under the passenger side dash and hack the blower
motor. (See Dawson City)
The next morning I really want to find out if there is a coffee shop or
bakery or anything in town so I hit up the front desk clerk in the hotel.
Of course they say no, and there is one two blocks down the street. A
pang of conscience hits and I ask them if they want five dollars for the
electricity we used. The clerk isn't sure what to make of the situation
so she gets the manager. He proceeds to tell me that we can't park in
the lot and we can't plug in our car if we are not guests...right.
The coffee shop/graphic design house provides an interesting look at the
younger Inuvik resident. The barista is obviously very sick of either
her job or her life in general. When Lars and I compare notes we both
agree that she is extremely pissed off at the world. Her answers to all
questions are one syllable utterances as she shuffles around looking at
the floor. Some of it could be cultural, she looks perhaps half native,
but I doubt it. She is probably one of the prettiest girls in town but
has an absolutely ugly attitude. I half think we should offer her a ride
to Whitehorse on the way out of town. Unless you feel like being left
behind by the rest of the world Inuvik doesn't have a lot to offer.
We find a little cabin rental/dog yard right at the entrance to the ice
roads. Lars goes on a dog sled ride and we introduce Judy to the wonders
of the chemical hand warmer. Judy cuts us a deal on a room which will
be a welcome change from the truck. After the dog sled ride we pack it
up and head to Aklavik. The ice road out of town is a ten lane freeway
on the Mackenzie River. People cruise at 50-60 mph. When trucks come by
the ice makes the most frightening tearing noises as it flexes under the
weight and all the fractures grind against each other. The turnoff to
Aklavik is single lane plowed through a drift off the main artery. It
stays single lane most of the way there with the occasional open ice area.
The sunset is a huge deep red fireball that morphs to a horizontal line
twice the suns normal width as it ducks under the horizon. Aklavik is
bigger than I would have expected. The local grant writer must be good.
The place has a medical facility and nice looking school. The highlight
is the semi parked in the middle of town with a neon "Open"
sign on it. The truck is operated by "The Fruitman". Some guy
who trucks produce to the village on the ice road in the winter. He is
in town and open for one day. The locals were streaming in to buy salsa
and oranges like crazy. We finish off the euro dogs on the ice road outside
of town under the moon and northern lights.
It is an incredible luxury to wake up in a bed after three days of struggle
in the truck. It turns out that Judy's husband Olaf is from Norway. He
and Lars get along famously. Olaf and Judy may be the only people we have
met that think what we are doing is interesting. They actually encourage
us to go to Tuk even though there is a sign on the road saying Road Closed.
It doesn't take much encouragement to convince us.
We roll past the Road Closed sign with no authority figures in sight.
The highway is fine for about 20KM past the Aklavik intersection, and
then we see steam. There is a telecom professional stopped short of the
steaming half frozen overflow assessing the situation. He is on his way
to the oil rigs to set up satellite uplinks that cost the oil companies
"tens of thousands of dollars" per month. He is having none
of this overflow shit and heads back to town. We fool around and take
pictures, but have decided to head back too. That is, until a dualie pulling
a shipping container on skis blasts through without hitting the brakes.
The lure is too much after so many miles. We stay to the side of the road
opposite the main flow and make it without any problems through the 6"
of water. It is a little unsettling to see the ice visibly deflected under
the weight of the water and snow on the other side. We abort the drive
to Tuk at kilometer 110 at the Esso Swimming Point exploration site. The
road crew has only cleared to this point and will not be going on any
further. Another crew will work south from Tuk to open the rest. I wonder
if the road would get 1/10th the work is does if there was no oil and
gas activity. We proceed back to the Ellis Island turnoff and head up
towards some drilling rigs. After 20K we abort the mission. I have seen
enough rigs in my time and gas has cost us over $1000 anyway.
We make it back to town in time for a good coffee and a second try at
a caribou burger. It starts spitting snow as we leave Inuvik. The road
is fine for 200 k until the James Creek highway station where we are met
by a closed gate with flashing red light. They shut down the road maybe
30 minutes before we arrived. Apparently there is some drifting at the
arctic circle area. The situation calls for a gourmet meal. Lars warms
up the spaghetti sauce and stretches it with a can of stewed tomatoes
that just happes to be in the truck. Topped with parmesan cheese hand
delivered from Italy, the effort is worth it. To conserve fuel we set
a curfew of 11:30, geek out on the laptops and pop sleeping pills. Might
as well make the best of the situation.
1/16/05 James Creek Highway Station
We are awakened by "Freddy" pounding on the truck window yelling
"COFFEE!" repeatedly. We go inside to get coffee eventually,
but I think he really just wanted to see if there were any popsicles in
the truck. It is -25 after all. The in truck toaster comes in handy for
toasting raisin bagels. Freddy comes out to update us a few times, mumbling
something about "The Highwayman" and his position. At 11 AM
Freddy informs us that a plow truck is coming through "Hurricane
Alley" and we might get out after lunch. Great. Lunch comes and goes.
We finally hit the road, officially opening the gate to the Dempster south
of James Creek.
An hour north of Eagle Plains the heater blower motor goes 3-Mile Island
on us. Electrical tape and wire insulation around the jumpered connection
has the consistency nacho cheese sauce and is smoking. We find that even
with the blower off enough air is being forced through the heater at 60
mph to keep the windshield defrosted at temperatures down to -30. Not
bad. Coupled with heated seats and the rear heat blasting it is fine even
with the sunroof cracked open for moisture removal.
The stop in Eagle Plains is only long enough to boil water for a boil
in bag camping meal and dry tuna fish sandwiches. The coleman propane
stove barely boils the water before starting to freeze off at -30. Oh
yea, we got gas too, how could I forget. The attendant who we met on the
way up says "You should be fucking dead after what you have done."
I guess we should take that as a truck stop compliment.