Alaska's haul road

| November 01, 2006

Also, “In the grand scheme of things, $450,000 is not a lot of money.”

A third of the way to Prudhoe, we reach the Arctic Circle. It starts at a latitude line where the sun stays above the horizon for one full day on the summer solstice (June 21) and below the horizon for a full day on winter solstice (Dec. 21).

A plastic-covered bulletin tacked to the Arctic Circle sign warns of a wolf that bit a woman camper who was jogging here this summer.

“Bull,” says Spears, who has heard another account. “You feed a wolf and turn around and run – what’s a wolf going to do?”

After a meal at Coldfoot Camp, the road’s only truckstop, the scenery blossoms as we ascend the Brooks Range. We’re approaching the 4,800-foot Atigun Pass, the Haul Road’s highest point.

This is where, according to Alaska: Dangerous Territory, there are more than 200 snow avalanches a year.

“I didn’t know of any 200 avalanches a year,” driver John Slater says.

“The road would be out half a year,” Spears says. “It’s more like two or three a year.”

“There was a little glamor in that movie,” Keator says.

Chambers had no count but says the state does avalanche preventative maintenance. “The state DOT has the unique distinction of owning its own 105-mm recoilless rifle,” he says. When an avalanche guru warns of impending problems, the state hauls up its tiny cannon and blasts away to dissipate the accumulated snow.

Over the day we spot a herd of muskoxen, a few caribou and white dots on a cliff that are Dall sheep. Spears recalls a migrating herd of 49,000 caribou. “You could hardly get on the road,” he says. “Quite a few got hit.”

Spears says some grizzlies got a little too cozy after being fed by construction workers years ago. Once when he was parked, a bear ambled up, and he threw Ritz crackers from his window. The bear “started stepping up on the steps here,” he says. “So I put it in gear and moved slowly out.”

Welton recalls how grizzlies fed at Prudhoe Bay food dumps until big fences were put around the dumps. “Now they wander around town,” he says. Polar bears can be seen at some of the remote drilling sites.

Slater tells of a guy having an outdoor bathroom “emergency” when a bear attacked. “He shot it from 3 feet away,” Slater says. “He’s still not regular.”

Spears says the backcountry has few hiking trails, largely because of bears. “You’re just a walking pork chop to them.”

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