A new character was born on our trip to Prudhoe Bay. We called her Wilderness Woman. Wilderness Woman could take care of business in the wild. She would pee along highways unabashedly, leaving a trail of tampons in her wake. Wilderness Woman would stay up to all hours with the sun and weather the ferocious mosquitos and other insects that bit her in unlikely places. And…she would not complain.
The trip to the Arctic Ocean was surprisingly uneventful, though challenging and definitely tedious. Luckily, it was only 11 hours to Deadhorse from Fairbanks, rather than the projected 16 which meant that the overall length of the trip was only 22 hours rather than 32. That’s a big difference when we’re talking about not getting any sleep.
The thing is, though we drove for 22 hours total, the sun never set, which was weird and a little disorienting. When it was 11:00 PM, it could have just as easily been 11:00 AM.
But more notable even than the sun’s relatively static position in the sky were the roads which were sometimes acceptable, but mostly pretty crappy. Frost heaving creates some interesting patterns in the tarmac and the whole trip was mostly white-knuckle because of it. For the person driving, there was no “space-off” time to chat or really enjoy the scenery.
And there was scenery. Most of our Canada and Alaska journey could be described with one word: trees. But this part of Alaska was different. Gates of the Arctic National Park was situated along the Pan-American Highway that cuts through this area and it was a striking, unique set of landforms and vegetation, different from anything I’ve ever seen before. Rather than heavily treed mountains, the topography was highlighted with bright green and yellow mosses that gave the landscape a surreal appearance, like the negative of a photograph. Gates of the Arctic isn’t as accessible as Denali National Park, but it’s definitely got more Wow Factor, in my opinion. Even on the outskirts of this national park in Alaska, the landscape is awe-inspiring.
As we neared the Arctic Circle, the ice road truckers populated the roadhouses where we’d stop to fuel up and get water or a snack. Truckers lined up for the pay phone inside these rustic log structures. One of them had figured out a “system” and had his wife call back as soon as she got the payphone number. “You got the number?” John heard the man say on his way into the restroom. Then the man hung up and moments later, the phone rang again. As we walked inside, the men looked me over like a popular college girl at a party with my matted hair and smeared mascara. Those men hadn’t seen a woman for a long time.
I had hoped for a certificate that I’d read about online for reaching the official Arctic Circle latitude line. My urbanized brain envisioned a solidly built Visitor’s Center where a nice lady in a green vest would sign and stamp a certifying document for us that we could proudly display…somewhere. But alas, when we got to the Arctic Circle, there was nothing but a sign, some elderly folks who were on a bus tour, and bloodthirsty mosquitoes.
We posed for a photo, but the mosquitoes buzzed around us perilously. They weren’t ordinary insects and we weren’t exactly prepared to cope with frenzied blood-sucking mosquitoes on a trip to the Arctic Circle. We swatted and flailed and tried to stand still long enough for the photo. Camile hopped on one foot and rubbed her arms trying to protect them from bites. Lydian screamed and ran off, her arms flapping. “Hurry! Hurry!” John exclaimed and held the camera out in front of us. We gathered into the shot trying to look “cool” or like we were having fun, but the mosquitoes were unrelenting and the photos reflected it. Back in the car, we complained about our various bites.
We neared the Arctic Ocean and Prudhoe Bay around 11:00 PM at night. It was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside and the wind was blowing. The mountains receded into the background and the earth became flat, though the road twisted through marshy, grassy areas lined with gravelly riverbeds. In the distance, we saw a thick blanket of clouds descending over a bluff. It appeared to be a cold front and as we passed beneath it, the winds began to churn and John watched the temperature as it dropped 10 degrees within minutes. On July 8th, when we made the trip, it was only 36 degrees at the end of a long day of sunshine at the Arctic Ocean. And even under these cold, windy conditions, there were still mosquitoes out on the prowl.
Intrepid, leather-bound motorcyclists made their way through the treacherous weather. People were tent camping
along the roads and rivers. Tent camping. Eleven hours into our marathon trip, observing their structures, weakly braced against the blustering winds with little holes through which mosquitoes could gain admittance, I was not jealous of them at all. Though I would’ve considered camping at Gates of the Arctic National Park, the Arctic Ocean and Deadhorse would’ve pushed my limits. My body is only rated down to about 40 degrees. When it’s 39 degrees or colder outside, I start getting lazy and inconsiderate toward others.
At 11:00 PM at night, John and I were a little concerned about getting fueled up in Deadhorse. We had expected to arrive around 7:00 AM in the morning, but the GPS calculations had been wrong. There weren’t many people out and about at this late hour (though it only seemed to be between 6:00 to 8:00 PM at night) and many of the modern conveniences that we take for granted in the lower 48 are hard to come by the further north you go. Card readers weren’t available in Deadhorse or many of the roadhouses along the way. If you can’t pay by cash, you can’t get gas at a lot of stations.
Deadhorse was a small town, but not especially intuitive in terms of finding one’s way around. The “city” reminded me of agricultural businesses in Nebraska where one might go to dump a grain truck or get a tank of anhydrous ammonia. Trucks were parked along special pipes with electrical cords hanging out of them so they could plug in and keep their engines warm in the inhospitable climate. It was the epitome of civilized desolation.
We fueled up after much searching at a little station that didn’t look anything like a convenience store. John had to go inside a small, empty building to start the process.
We stuck our hands in the water of the Arctic and then, within 30 minutes, we turned around to go back to the tent camper in Fairbanks. About 45 minutes later, we passed beyond the bluffs beneath what appeared to be the same embankment of clouds that were still whirling and raging with a wintery fury. I looked back into the rearview mirror at the stark line of dark blue clouds that were tumbling furiously through the sky and it occurred to me that we were at the top of the world. Perhaps the cold and the clouds and the wind were always at this pitch in this part of the world.
On the way home, as we passed through Gates of the Arctic, the fog was so thick, we couldn’t even see the mountains as we passed through their midst. Visibility was perhaps only about 20 feet for about 30 minutes while John, Lydi, and Camile slept, but I was entertained (in a sleepy sort of way) by the bumpy, irregular roads as they surprised me again and again with potholes, frostheaving, and various ups and downs through the fog. John woke up at one point with a start in the passenger seat. The view out the window was nothing but a creamy white, which contributed to the overall disorientation wrought by constant daylight and a lack of sleep. He wanted to know where we were.
I thought for a moment, trying to come up with the correct answer.
“Alaska.” I said finally.
And anyway, we didn’t die on our big adventure, but we were very tired when we arrived “home” (to the tent camper) the next day. As all the other women tosseled their hair that morning at the RV park to add extra body to it and put on eyeliner to get ready for the day in the public bathrooms, Lydian, Camile, and I were just changing out of our daytime clothes and cozying up in our jammies after a much needed shower. The lack of daylight was a little messy as far as sleep was concerned, but we were tired enough that sleep came pretty easily for all of us over the next day and a half. After spending 22 hours in the car, the tent camper felt quite luxurious, at least to Wilderness Woman.