Fly me to the moon: Prudhoe Bay from above

Deadhorse, Alaska

Deadhorse, Alaska. Photo: Mia Bennett

Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The place where polar bears butt heads with the petroleum industry – literally. “If a bear’s spotted, work’s usually called off for the day,” a man in Barrow, 200 miles to the west, told me. Oil workers try to scare away the bear – sometimes a polar bear, sometimes a grizzly – and condition it so that it doesn’t come back in search of food.


On my recent trip to Alaska, I didn’t have the chance to stop in bear-battled Prudhoe or nearby Deadhorse, which houses the airport, lodging, and store for the oil workers. Deadhorse is also the end of the Dalton Highway, which starts north of Fairbanks some 400-odd miles to the south. I did, however, get to fly in and out of Prudhoe Bay airport, which in winter appears to miraculously emerge out of the white tundra.

Anchorage-Alaska-Airlines

Ascending out of Anchorage over the Talkeetna Mountains.

Flying from Anchorage, our airplane soared over the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range. I dozed off soon after the snow-capped peaks transitioned into the relatively flat white plains of the Yukon-Tanana Uplands. When I woke up an hour later, the packed Alaska Airlines flight was descending into Deadhorse, laden with cargo for the winter construction season. The seats that would normally take up the front half of the airplane are replaced with a cargo hold on the airline’s 737-400 Combi planes. Winter is the big construction season in Prudhoe Bay because it’s the only time of year when the ground is solid and snow-covered. This permits driving on the tundra without permanently damaging it.

Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport, Alaska.

Sitting on the tarmac of the moon. Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport. Photo: Mia Bennett

I looked at the view from my window seat and felt like we were descending onto another planet. It was a clear day and the sun bounced off the spindly network of chrome-colored pipes that criss-cross the North Slope. Straight, unwavering pipelines cut across meandering frozen rivers. All of the infrastructure out here is built on manmade gravel pads, for nothing can sit directly on top of the shifting permafrost, which thaws and refreezes every year. In this part of the world, gravel is almost more valuable than oil. The tiny rocks we take for granted down south are in short supply up north. No construction or excavation can happen without gravel.

Prudhoe-Bay-Frozen-Rivers

Straight pipelines intersect with meandering rivers in Prudhoe Bay in winter. Photo: Mia Bennett

The gray gravel pads are all but invisible in winter, however, and instead, the hundreds of miles of pipelines seem to stretch magically across the landscape. It is beautiful in its own way. Human ingenuity (or idiocy, depending on your point of view) has transformed an area that was once primarily used for local subsistence by the Inupiat people into a export-oriented resource frontier by dredging up the ancient seabed underlying the North Slope.

Prudhoe Bay is North America’s largest oil field. The extent of this industrial moonscape blew me away. It measures some 213,543 acres, or approximately 15 by 40 miles. That’s more than double the size of New York City and still significantly larger than Los Angeles. We flew over the oil field for a good long while before the platforms and pipelines faded into the west. Out here in mid-winter, it was impossible to tell where the tundra turned into the ocean, for both were frozen solid.

Prudhoe-Bay-from-Above-2

Taking off again from Prudhoe Bay airport, headed east towards Barrow.

“In space we read time,” reflects German historian Karl Schlögel. Above Prudhoe Bay, I felt as if I was witnessing modernity in all its silver-plated excesses. The sight was all the more jarring having come from Anchorage, where I had wandered down the old main street and read about the bustling heydey of a past boom centered around the construction of the Alaska Railway. Faded murals and maps of the “Last Frontier” were the chief reminders of this wealthy era in the city’s history. Up in Prudhoe, what will this extreme edge of the rush for Alaska’s resources look like when the oil runs dry? Abandoned pipelines and platforms might then no longer epitomize a future-forward modernity, but rather a rusty past.

Anchorage-main-street-historical

The main drag in Anchorage, where curio shops have replaced saloons and even a Japanese restaurant that bustled during the construction of the Alaska Railway.

2016: The Arctic in Photos

In 2016, I traveled to far-flung parts of the Arctic I’d never before visited. I spent over two months of last year in the North, bundling up for deepest winter in Russia’s Sakha Republic and seeking shade from the unrelenting sun of an Arctic summer spent above the treeline in Canada’s Northwest Territories. I also returned to more familiar grounds in Iceland’s charming capital, a city that seems to metamorphose with every visit.

The North’s stark and impressive beauty never ceased to amaze, but more memorable were the people I encountered during my long journeys across tundras and mountains. At times I wouldn’t see another person on the road for hours, and then suddenly I’d be offered a cup of tea made from wild herbs, a bowl of hot borscht, or a piece of fresh-baked bannock in a welcome resting spot.

The hospitality that fills out the wide spaces of the Arctic is what makes it a place that keeps calling me back year after year. Sometimes, in moments when the mercury drops to 40 below, I’ll have fleeting thoughts of switching my research focus to a place like Southeast Asia. But then I’ll remember the mornings sipping Nescafe 3-in-1 out of a quickly melting plastic cup while staring at Soviet apartment buildings, the long evenings playing checkers inside a community center on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, losing every time to a man wearing a ring he had carved into the shape of a polar bear, and the nights spent swimming in the Arctic Ocean under the midnight sun with a sun dog arcing across the orange sky, and I know I’ll be back.

Below are a selection of photos from my journeys across the Arctic in 2016. Most of them haven’t appeared on my blog before.

As for how this year is shaping out, so far, I’m planning to make a trip to Barrow, Alaska for Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation’s Arctic Business Development tour. In March, I’ll make a return visit to the Northwest Territories to travel along what will likely be the last-ever ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. Later this year, a permanent highway connecting the two towns – and therefore connecting Canada to the Arctic Ocean by land – is supposed to open, thereby replacing the seasonal ice road. I’m also hoping to return to Russia and to Iceland, possibly to hike in the Westfjords. Readers, if you will be in any of these places, feel free to drop me a line.

I look forward to another year sharing writings, photos, and maps from the northernmost places on Earth with you and thank you for accompanying me on the journey so far.

mirny-city-mine

Mirny City, Sakha Republic, Russia. The city sits on the edge of the giant Mir mine, the second-largest open pit mine in the world. A plume rises from the city on the right, and a sun dog sits in the sky on the left.

waiting-for-a-bus-siberia

Our little bus waiting for us to finish looking at the open-pit mine in Mirny City.

snowballs-siberia-mirny-city-sakha

Children throwing snowballs in the main square in Mirny City.

cafeteria-siberia-russia

The cafeteria lady at the Mirny Polytechnic Institute in the Sakha Republic.

mirny-city-guide

Our fur-hatted tour guide explaining the local sights. A large poster commemorating “70 Years of Victory” in World War II hangs on a building in the background.

market-fish-russia-siberia-winter-sakha

A Yakut woman selling fish, vertically frozen, at a market in Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic and one of the coldest cities on earth.

school-sakha

Schoolchildren learning about traditional Yakut culture in a school in Namtsy, a village north of Yakutsk.

school2-sakha

Schoolchildren in music class, with portraits of classical composers hanging over head.

ogilvie-river-yukon

Hikers walking on pebbles alongside the Ogilvie River on Canada Day Weekend in the Yukon.

dog-rainbow-yukon

A rainbow at 1am, and a dog, in the Yukon.

goldensides

Taking photos of the midnight light from Goldensides, a trail in Tombstone Territorial Park in the Yukon.

two-moose-lake

A moose swimming in the pink fluorescent rays of the 4am sunrise at Two Moose Lake in the Yukon.

tombstone-territorial-park-panorama.jpg

A panorama of the Tombstone Mountains in the Yukon. Full size here.

girl-dog-baby-tuktoyaktuk

A girl, her little sister, and their pet dog in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada.

kids-oil-rig-reindeer-point-nwt-canada

Kids on their bicycles in the community of Reindeer Point. An abandoned oil rig floats in the water, where it has drifted since the 1980s.

tuktoyaktuk-canada-nwt

Fishing at midnight in Tuktoyaktuk. The dome-shaped objects on the horizon are some of the world’s largest pingos, which are ice-cored hills.

tuktoyaktuk-beaufort-sea

A family out for for some fun at the beach in Tuktoyaktuk. Coastal erosion has caused the ocean to creep up much farther inland than it has in the past.

To understand the road to the Arctic Ocean, first go south.

Ribbon-Road-Dempster-Highway.JPG

The Dempster Highway heading through the Ogilvie mountains, viewed from Sapper Hill in Yukon.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in the Northwest Territories studying the new highway being constructed between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. Work on the road began under Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2013, and it should be completed by October 2017. Once all of the “furniture is put on the road” – that’s to say, all the speed limits, interpretive signs, and so forth” – the highway will open, becoming North America’s only public road to the Arctic Ocean. The Dalton Highway in Alaska only reaches so far as the southern limits of Deadhorse before becoming an oil-company-only access road to the North Slope.

In Tuktoyaktuk, a hamlet of a little under 900 residents whose economy has been in the doldrums since the oil boom ended in the 1980s, people are hoping the new road will bring more tourists while lowering the price of groceries and fuel. Others are worried about the road’s impacts on the crystal-clear lakes it passes as it winds up from Inuvik, a government center of 3,000 people, to Tuktoyaktuk (called “Tuk” by locals), on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Many from Tuk spend the long summer days fishing (or, during the frigid winters, ice fishing) in the Husky Lakes, as they’re called, catching trout and other types of much-needed protein in a place where milk costs upwards of $10 a jug.

The Inuvik-Tuk Highway (ITH) will extend the more famous road that currently terminates in Inuvik: the Dempster Highway. This 740-kilometer long gravel-surfaced road bears the nickname “The Road to Resources.” That’s because the road was originally approved in 1958 by newly elected Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who envisioned opening up the North to resource development via the building of roads. The Dempster Highway was conceived of as providing year-round access to the rich oil and gas resources in the Mackenzie Delta, where surveying and exploration had begun the year before.

After about twenty years, the highway was finally completed. The discovery and development of oil and gas resources next door in Alaska in the early 1970s gave the Canadian government the impetus it needed to jump start the project, which had been put on hold in 1961 after just three years of construction due to political infighting between the federal and territorial governments. The Canadian government’s desire to display sovereignty in its northwest Arctic played a major role in building the Dempster, just as it does today in extending the highway to the shores of the Northwest Passage, where outwardly signifying Canada’s sovereignty was high on Harper’s agenda.

Traveling the Dempster – a mix of gravel, mud, culverts, and potholes which together represent the challenges of road engineering and design in a permafrost-laden environment – gave me a grasp of the vastness and richness of Canada’s North. The irony is that I wouldn’t have been able to see these spaces without the road, but the road has also permanently altered the communities and environment along and around it in ways both good and bad. As one person in Inuvik remarked about the forthcoming ITH to me, “It’s progress, right,” while another person in Tuk commented that the new highway, which will allow permanent, year-round access, will bring “more drugs and alcohol, certainly, but that’s part of growing.”

I traveled the Dempster in the opposite direction of most visitors, heading south from Inuvik all the way to Tombstone Territorial Park and then back up to the North. Most people climb up the road in their RVs, Ford F-150s, or motorcycles beginning in Dawson. (I also spied a couple of avid bicyclists starting out from Inuvik and making their way down to Brazil, mirroring the “Antipodes Expedition” from Ushuaia, Argentina to Inuvik in 2004.)

I’ll write more about my experiences along the Dempster and the ITH in the coming days and weeks, but because time is short and I have my fieldwork to get back to, for now, here are a few snapshots from the road, quite literally.

Dempster-Highway-Engineer-Creek

Big sky country.

Dempster-Highway-Sapper-Hill-Panorama

The Dempster Highway curving along the side of the hills, with the muddy Engineer Creek flowing in the foreground.

Yukon-Rainbow-Ogilvie

A hidden fishing spot off the side of the Dempster in the Ogilvie Mountains, Yukon.

Dempster-Highway-Tombstone-Mountains

The highway as it stretches through Tombstone Territorial Park, viewed from Goldensides.

Dempster-Highway-Dawn-Sign

Time to head back north.

Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk-Highway

The soon-to-be-completed highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, as seen from a low-flying Aklak Air propeller plane.