Prudhoe Bay

Day 3-6 - August 23-26

Fairbanks to Coldfoot to Prudhoe Bay and back through Coldfoot to Fairbanks

Friedl, Mike and I departed Fairbanks on Monday, August 23 with bright shiny motorcycles and clean clothes.   We waited for the sun to begin to warm the surroundings and headed out at 9:00 a.m.  We ride approximately 60 miles before reaching the haul road (the Dalton Highway).

For the entire length for road from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, there are only two state troopers on the ground – and we find one of them.  Here Freidl and Mike take instruction on how not to pass in a no-passing zone and on how to keep the speed down.  Freidl, normally fluent in English, could not speak a word of it upon running across this officer.

He was a very polite and informative officer – apparently three motorcyclists die on the Dalton Highway each year - he explained that when it rains, the mud on the dirt road is slippery than ice and that the road surface can change suddenly from smooth to deep potholes.  He also said that concentration and keeping your speed down are the most important things to remember. 

The highway is in much better shape than the last time I road it ten years ago.  Back then, when a truck passed the dust was unbelievable.  Apparently they are spreading a hydroscopic material on the road to keep it moist and the dust down. 

We come across a young German riding his bicycle 500 miles to Prudhoe Bay – fortunately his return will be in an airplane.  Friedl and he spoke fluent German and we wondered if he wasn’t telling him what tremendous asses we are.

Near Fairbanks the trees are dense and bushy but nowhere near as big as in Ohio in Michigan –

But as we get further north – the trees are puny and look much like the marginal trees at the tree line in the Colorado Mountains. 

From what we have heard, forest fires are only dealt with when the threaten residences, otherwise they let them burnout on their own. 

The pipeline is nearly always visible and it’s an interesting story:

I spoke with my old boss at Sohio, Frank Mosier, before I left and he shared some of his knowledge of the pipeline with me.  In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, oil in the US cost $3-4/barrel and the price was more or less controlled by the Texas Railroad Commission.  At this time as a nation, we were self sufficient and did not rely on imports – but the situation was changing as the US demand for oil increased. 

There was a huge controversy over whether or not to build the pipeline and its approval became deadlocked in the Senate.  Spiro Agnew broke the deadlock and voted for the pipeline – and for you skeptics, Sohio did not pay bribes.  When Standard Oil was split up in 1911, Standard Oil of Ohio (Sohio), was left without its own supply of crude.   In 1970 this was a serious situation for Sohio.  BP was in a similar situation and couldn’t possibly get the pipeline approved without strong US support.  The deal that the two of them struck was BP would receive 25% of Sohio in exchange for the North Slope oil and when the pipeline production exceeded 1million barrels/day, they could raise their stake to 52%.

Pipeline costs escalated from an initial estimate of $770 million to $8 billion – but at the same time, as we began to depend on foreign oil, the price of crude went from $3-4/barrel to $35/barrel.  Congress, seeing the huge increase in the cost of gasoline at the pump, put a 92% excess profit tax on profits exceeding $19/barrel – but with creative accounting, this had a minimal effect on the project.

The pipeline company charged $7/barrel for using the line and that cost nearly doubled when added to the costs of the tankers and the Panama Canal.  Later BP reneged on a verbal promise not to purchase the remaining stock in Sohio and tendered a low priced offer ($55/share).  During the lengthy negotiations Frank Mosier and his cohorts managed to increase the offering to $75/share.  It’s interesting that one of the pipeline workers told me that the current price for a barrel to traverse the pipeline is over $50/barrel!

Back to the trip

As we approach the Arctic Circle the topography increasingly changes – from tundra sprinkled with rocky glacial debris -

To broad Montana-like expanses –

In the above picture you can see that the pipeline is raised in one spot to allow for the passage of animals.

This photo shows some of the pipeline construction detail – the aluminum-colored thin structures on top of the vertical supports are intended to conduct cold down into the foundation of the structure so as to keep the structure cold and therefore not melt the permafrost.

Another detail is that the pipeline is not firmly attached to the foundation – it is allowed to move back and forth.  When the hot oil first entered into the line – the pipeline grew four feet per mile.  Thus the 800 miles of pipeline grew a mile as it was being filled.  Although there is a lot of clever engineering in the pipeline – that alone is not what makes it so amazing.  What is breathtaking is the number of things that had to happen simultaneously:

  • Selling Congress and the Senate – only won by 1 vote
  • Predicting the price of oil in the US would increase 10 times (a huge increase was needed to make the project feasible)
  • Convincing financial institutions
  • Being able to put together a consortium of companies to pull it off

The credit goes to the Sohio management team led at that time by Charlie Spahr.  For Sohio, with no crude oil in an emerging scarcity of oil – it was a “hail Mary” pass on which they had to succeed.

We were all intensely excited to reach the Arctic Circle (even though it wasn’t very far from Fairbanks) -




We observed foreigners taking pictures as well – just as stupid as ours perhaps, but a bit more imaginative; such as holding up the globe with their hands.  There is no shortage of visitors to this important area.  The Arctic Circle is an imaginary line that marks the latitude above which the sun does not set on the day of summer solstice (usually June 21) and does not rise on the day of winter solstice (usually December 21).  North of this latitude, periods of continuous daylight or night last up to six months.  We’re glad to be here in the summer.

As we the Yukon there are significant areas where the trees are replaced by a patchy mossy material that is bouncy when you step on it. 

We passed over the majestic Yukon River Bridge – really the pipeline bridge, carrying trucks as a bonus.

We enjoyed a salmon patty at the Yukon restaurant:

Which I believe contributed to my illness for the rest of the trip.

We reach the site of the coldest reported temperature in the US – 80 below zero on January 23, 1971 and a pipeline construction site.

Imagine trying to rush a civil construction project through with temperatures like that. 

This picture is taken from a placard describing how horrible the weather is and how difficult the weather was – it shows two trucks on the Haul Road – notice the incredibly small space between the wall and the steep drop.  The picture, taken in the 70s, rivals anything we saw on “The Death Road” in Bolivia.

Because of the extreme winter temperatures, energy is a major cost to most Alaskans.  We met a group of engineers working on the plans for a huge natural gas pipeline running from the North Slope to Valdez – I believe essentially the same route as the Alaska pipeline.  They plan to liquefy the gas in Valdez and then ship it to the US for re-gasifying and injecting into the natural gas pipeline system.   The economics of this venture must be questionable with a current natural gas market price of only $5/1,000 cu. ft.   If the price of natural gas were to increase perhaps 5 times, this might be economically feasible – but think of what a price like that would do to Clevelanders with big houses and manufacturing facilities.  The Alaska line cost $5 billion nearly 40 years ago and currently to transport a barrel of crude oil through the pipeline it costs $50/barrel.   A sixty inch pipeline today would probably cost $60 billion and on top of that would be the liquefying plant, the fleet of LNG tankers, the gasification plant and the terminal.  There is a general misunderstanding among the Alaskans I have spoken with about the basic economics of natural gas and pipeline construction costs.

Halfway to Prudhoe Bay, we stopped at Coldfoot for the evening and stayed at this typical Haul Road hotel:

The room was adequate:

But at $200 (the price for the main Dalton Highway hotels) it seemed a bit pricey.

Princess tour buses would roll in and a large group would waddle off the bus and into the buffet line looking as though they hadn’t eaten in a month.

We met this father/son & friend team (standing with Mike) continually along the way. 

The father is from Houston, the son (left) is from Boulder and the friend (right) is from South Carolina.  They rented BMW 800’s in Fairbanks and drove the Haul Road like they were running from the devil.

Down the road in Wiseman we discovered a perfectly nice place off the beaten path for $77/night.

It was a quaint little mining town with a collection of old equipment and a log cabin post office.  I asked one of the young men we met there about their schooling.  He explained that a village in Alaska needs at least 10 children in order to have a school - - Wiseman only has 3, so they are home schooled through a company called Raven Correspondence (part of the Odyssey Program).  He seemed quite articulate. 

From Coldfoot we headed into the foothills of the Brooks Mountain range – a little over 100 miles over muddy roads through rough but majestic scenery:

The range gradually rises to about 5,000 feet.

There is a light drizzle caused by the condensing fog and the road is wet.

North of the Brooks Range, we traversed approximately 40 miles of tundra – flat, very wet with splotches of water and sprinkled with shallow slow running streams. 

Deep fog rolls into the tundra – this poor driver (driving very slowly) got just one wheel off the road and truck rolled down the slope and turned over – totaling his truck.

There was a BP oil spill simulation with perhaps 200 people spreading out booms to deal with a simulated spill.  They had a satellite communication system and all sorts of trucks and equipment.

Spills are a constant concern – a few years ago, a native Alaskan shot two holes in the pipeline with a rifle.  We were told that oil shot out of the hole in the line over 200 feet and it took several weeks to close the holes.  The indigenous Alaskan is still in jail.

Along the road in the tundra we ran across many people searching for Eskimo/Indian artifacts.  They were spread in a line across the tundra on both sides of the road.  It was reminiscent of a large group of beaters in a Scottish bird shoot (could play well also on the natural gas pipeline application under “no native artifacts were found in the right-of-way”).

Then there were the hunters - - there are some interesting rules for hunting near the pipeline – bow hunting is allowed a safe distance from the road but rifles cannot be used within 5 miles of the road.    

We saw large numbers of hunters along the road – perhaps 50 – but only one caribou approximately 200 yards from the road with several hunters trying to sneak up on it.  We of course stopped to photograph it which spooked the caribou and left us with some angry words from the hunters. 

The large herds of caribou are not expected until after Labor Day.

These guys bagged this caribou 6.5 miles inland with a rifle and then had to carry approximately 100 lbs. of meat over the tundra. 
It took them more than a day.  They weren’t afraid of bears because they were drawn to the odiferous gut pile that they left behind.  Vehicles require special permission and require very low ground contact pressure – so it’s important to bag your caribou near the road when possible.

When I asked him about tanning the skin – he said he would salt it and his wife would chew it (as is traditionally done in Alaska) to properly tan it.

This guy spent 6 days hunting with a bow and got two caribou.  He was frothing with excitement and when asked if I could photograph him – he leapt into the truck and proudly displayed his prize.

We did not see much game – we did see a grizzly along the road from Coldfoot – but it was only 15 feet away so we didn’t stop to photograph it (I wouldn’t have felt comfortable at twice the distance).

We saw some musk ox as we approach Prudhoe Bay – they looked at us warily but did not move away.

On the top of the hill you can see the snow from last winter has not fully melted.

There was a considerable amount of road construction – generally stopping traffic and using a pilot car they would escort cars and trucks through the area.  This could create delays of more than 30 minutes.  This process created wet roads and some soft un-compacted gravel surfaces:

Here’s Mike assisting with traffic:

We rolled into Deadhorse – the end of the Dalton Highway:

Once in Prudhoe Bay, I quickly visited the general store to get an anecdote for my salmon sandwich. 

The area was not as large as I had expected; and frankly, there was very little impact on the environment.  The pipes are above ground and the tundra was undisturbed.  We passed a dune area near the shoreline where they were drifts of sand – the guide informed us that there was a possibility of four grizzlies burrowing into the dunes to spend the winter – right in the middle of the Prudhoe Bay project.

Checkpoint to Prudhoe Bay

We took a package tour to view the crude oil production facility and were left with the following takeaways:

  • First there was an enormous store of equipment for use on the project and numerous rigs waiting for winter.  All sorts of construction occur during the summer, but the drilling rigs are moved during the winter.  The ground is frozen and the equipment can be moved without damaging the tundra.  When a rig is moved, a road is built and they use large wooden planks to inch the rig along protecting the road from damage. 
  • Second was the surprising low quality of the tour – the guy was a rent-a-cop who gave a canned speech and had no specific knowledge of any details.  A brochure written by a sixth grader could have easily replaced him and a college intern majoring in geology would have been less expensive and could have done a much better job.  

With three critical projects underway – 1) obtaining permission to drill east of Prudhoe Bay in a wilderness area; 2) attempting to build a natural gas pipeline paralleling the Alaska pipeline; and 3) with the problems in the gulf – I would think they would make these tours more important – it’s a cheap way to get some positive press and get their story out.

Following the disappointing tour, we took the opportunity to step into the Arctic Ocean – me with my boots on and others on the tour with shoes off.   One brave person from LA was more aggressive and went all the way in his bathing suit.

The trip took a total of four days and we got back to Fairbanks muddy and a little tired but anxiously waiting to do the Dempster Highway. 

The Dempster will also take four days – it is a little longer and not in quite as good condition.  The Top of the World highway is currently closed but we expect it to open Sunday.  It will only be accessible by caravan to Dawson City – we will spend the night in Dawson City and leave for the Dempster the following morning. 


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  • Great Ride
    Roger Hansen - August 27, 2010, 6:51 pm
    What a fantastic ride. I miss being there. I had court today and I think that it went well. Who knows.
  • Enjoy Dawson City
    Walter Maurer - August 28, 2010, 4:53 am
    Great blog and pictures Dan. Enjoy Dawson City. Was there for the "Dust to Dawson" motorcycle rally in June. A 32 block historical museum city. Don't miss the view from the bluff overlooking the Yukon river. Stay safe good friend.
  • Conducting heat to keep permafrost cold
    Andy Dalzel - August 28, 2010, 6:56 am
    Hey Dan, I have an observation about the aluminum radiating devices on the pipeline supports. Energy always moves from greater to lesser potential. Therefore, the flow of energy will always be from hot to cold. Those finned aluminum extrusions are radiating heat (with some convection at work as well) from the pipe line supports (which probably comes from pipeline heat losses from the heated oil in the pipeline itself) to prevent it from being conducted into the permafrost at the foundation. They are not sending "cold" down into the ground. "Cold" doesn't move, "Heat" does.

    Sorry for the nit-picking comments. Penny told me to refrain from my usual pedantry but you know I can't help myself.

    Watch out for bears and salmon patties.

  • Congratulations !!
    vincent Cummings - September 3, 2010, 7:43 am
    Excellent blog Danny, enjoy reading it and your photos taken on the fly are very good, I just worry about you driving on those roads with one hand and your attention on your photo subject, Stay out of the rhubarb and tell Mike his bike and boots need a wash LOL Keep writing entertaining and educating us.

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