Tipping the northern edge of North America: Within the Arctic Circle

alaskaWe were at the Fairbanks Airport, waiting for the fog to lift. For four hours we waited in the NATC shack in a corner; meanwhile the fog lay thick in the Dead Horse encampment. Like us, with us, hunters waiting to be airlifted to their respective grounds, and all the while, kept us entertained with stories of their animal encounters with bears, wolves, moose and caribou.

At last, our eight-seater Navajo took off in the rain. We flew northwards for two-and-a-half hours in zero visibility, the young pilot relying solely on the navigation instruments before him in the cockpit. Accompanying Dr Jain and I was a Swiss couple, with itchy feet, who had migrated to Australia in 1965.

Dead Horse is a 1,040-acre camp housing contractors working for the Prudoe Bay oil companies. The slushy site, located over permafrost, rises up overwhelmingly, right out of a science fiction film:  oversized pick-ups, trucks, cranes, excavators, bulldozers, drills, rigs, and other gigantic equipment used in oil exploration and extraction. It takes some getting used to!

Our quarters were in a container-like portable cabin with cubby-hole rooms, common showers and toilets, and effective heating. The dining room, in another camper, served appetising food and every known brand of American soda pop. The 3,000 workers inhabiting Dead Horse are all from someplace else, and there aren’t any permanent residents. Working in inhospitable conditions, the oil company workers earn higher, tax-free wages, and are provided with boarding and lodging and free air transport to any place in Alaska.

alaska-2Life here is harsh. There is no entertainment of any kind – movies, restaurants, or bars – why, there’s no church even! Alcohol is a strict no-no as companies do not want hung over employees handling expensive, sensitive equipment. The work scheduling is cyclic: two weeks of work, 12 hours a day, then two weeks of rest in which the companies airlift the employees to Fairbanks or Anchorage.

Security officer Watso is half native Alaskan-Indian. He drove us 20 km through the eastern oilfields to the shore of the Arctic Ocean. When he heard of our journey, he quipped, “Are you guys pioneering another wave of migration from Asia to the Americas?” His ancestors had similarly migrated in waves from East Asia many thousand years ago, crossing the Bering Strait in an age when it had been dry land. The chubby officer’s job, for the last two years, has been to keep a look-out for polar bears, and alert the oil workers  when he sights one prowling around. As we chatted, we noticed a red fox trotting across the bleak tundra, looking for lemmings, ground squirrels, and rats.

And quite suddenly, we were at land’s end! Five hundred kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, at latitude 70 degrees north, we stood at the rim of the north American continent. Forty km of shallow, frigid waters separated us from the Arctic Ice Cap. During the winters, this water freezes, making it possible to walk to the North Pole. The ice begins to melt in June. Of course, as global warming shrinks the Arctic ice cap, it opens new sea passages, and already, international political jockeying for precious Arctic resources has begun in right earnest.

But today, peace reigned all around. Although the wind was at rest, the bitter cold penetrated the layers of clothing and sank into our bones. I winced as I dipped my hands in the frozen waters; in an instant, they became red and swollen. Doc Jain suggested we turn into ‘kawadias’ – those weather- beaten Shiv bhakts that saffron-dot the highways back in India during the monsoon, as they carry water from the Ganga at Haridwar to their village temples. It was the Doc’s wish to carry Arctic water and pour it into the Antarctic at the end of our expedition. We collected a small quantity of the frozen offering, and turned our backs to the Arctic ready to commence our southbound voyage.

 (Akhil Bakshi, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and vice-president of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, is currently on a 35,000 km trans-America journey from Arctic to Antarctic. He wrote this account from Alaska, the first stop of his epic journey which began at Deadhorse Creek on the Arctic Ocean in Alaska and will end at Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America).






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