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deadhorse: the beginning

The plane from Anchorage to Deadhorse was delayed and overbooked and so we spent a bit of time at the airport wondering whether we* would make it to Deadhorse at all but finally we arrived at around 5pm. Putting the bikes back together took the better part of two hours and the airport staff waited an extra half hour, until 7.30pm, to lock up the tiny building that is the Deadhorse terminal. They filled in the time idly discussing amongst themselves the likelihood that the American public would rise up in revolution against the Democrats. From time to time they would interupt this topic to offer us water, present us with a photocopied map of the town or pass comment on what they saw as our chances of survival ‘out there’.

Lurching out into the bitter wind with about 35 kilos of luggage on my bike felt foolhardy, especially with the words of a bemused onlooker still echoing in my head. “Have you got a gun?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “What are you going to do about the animals?!” was his incredulous response. The question remains unanswered.

We cycled over to the general store – an incredible place where you can buy a hell a lot of stuff, including guns, no doubt – and bought some fuel for the camp stoves and a couple of extra bungy straps and started out of town.

There was dense fog, the wind was howling and it was below zero. Unheroically, we decided to book a hotel room for the night.

I’m glad we did because Deadhorse is an amazing, fascinating, horrifying industrial wasteland. I walked around in the foggy midnight twilight both enthralled and appalled until I remembered that the bears in Deadhorse are more dangerous than most and absolutely nobody else was on the streets.

Deadhorse: an industrial wasteland in the Arctic.

Deadhorse.

Deadhorse.

The Prudhoe Bay hotel is a vast cavern of relative warmth that houses the hundreds of contract workers in the area and feeds them amply with an apparently endless supply of complimentary food. Deadhorse might never be destined to be a top holiday destination but it’s an experience I’m very glad I had.

The next morning we had to face the inevitable and so we set off on wet muddy roads into the dense fog to traverse the tundra knowing that there was nothing at all on the road for 240 miles (approx. 390 kilometres).

After a full day on a bike hauling a heavy load through mud and gravel, a good nights sleep is a hoped for luxury but there are certain challenges to camping on the tundra – particularly, it happens, in summer. The permafrost layer means that there is nowhere for the water from the thaw to go and the entire area becomes an gigantic wetland which makes for a very soggy bed. Ironically, it is the rocky river beds that provide the driest camp sites but getting the tent pegs in is another matter.

Cooking a tasty hot meal out of what it is possible to carry in bicycle panniers is another challenge. Quinoa and cous-cous provided the main options for dinner and oats were staple breakfast fare. It a good thing that pretty much anything tastes great if you are hungry enough and I always pack a few things, like tomato paste and some spices, to add a bit of colour and flavour.

Finding the right rythym is tricky – the daily tasks of setting up and breaking camp, collecting and flitering water, cooking all conflict with the need to cover miles.

For me, just sitting and savouring the experience of being somewhere so remote and unpopulated was magical. The amount of life in one of the harshest environments on the planet is quite phenomenal: foxes, wolves, arctic ground squirrels, countless birds, caribou were just a few of my companions on the road.

The transformations are constant – endless shifts in vegetation and subtly changing terrain. The flat land close to the ocean gave way to rocky rises and outcrops. The flat road started to gently – at least initially – undulate. The one contrast in this vast landscape, and the reason for the road itself, is the pipeline that carries oil from the oil fields around Deadhorse to the south of Anchorage.

Leaving Deadhorse.

Leaving Deadhorse.

The tundra when the sun shines.

The tundra when the sun shines.

Wildflowers.

Wildflowers.

Icy river banks.

Icy river banks.

* I started this journey with a travel companion – an virtually unknown acquaintance – but we lasted only three and a half days in each others company.

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