Parts Unknown

by Thomas William Parrott

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There's a rather unusual old map that I've had hanging on wall of my flat for the last few years. It's one of Captain James Cook's maps of the Bering Strait, drawn up on his fateful final third voyage of the Pacific Ocean. The coastal lines are all drawn up and labelled and the archipelago that lies in-between the Strait are all very much discovered. Written on the far northern area of Alaska are two words, parts unknown.
I think to most people this part of the globe is a blank, and without the ease of google map or a knowledge of that part of the world it wouldn't really concern many people to find out whats there. But I've always had an intrigue to the unknown so I decided to pack a bag with a camera and some clothes and go and find out myself what lay out there in Captain Cooks' uncharted parts of Northern Alaska.

Anchorage

My flight landed in Anchorage at around nine in the evening. The sun was still high in the sky and I caught the first cab I saw. The driver was an Anchorage local called Michael and we shared stories about our respective hometowns and the must sees and should avoids. I checked into my hotel and after a quick shower I fell promptly to sleep with the views of the looming mountains from the window of my room on the 9th floor.
I slept for maybe three or four hours. The confusing cocktail of jetlag, excitement, anticipation and the slanted sun only just dwindling at midnight made my dreams shallow and left me feeling disorientated and alone like the sled dogs I would later find chained by small wooden hovels along a distant track far inside the Arctic Circle.
I kept opening my eyes and checking the time, only to realise I'd slept ten minutes with it feeling like hours. Daylight hours have such a relation to time perception. I have a strong fear I'll get a good nights sleep here and wake up an old man.

I got up and dressed around eight and went to have a poorly made breakfast downstairs at the hotel bar ( I think the cook doubled up as the waiter and the barman). Most of the morning I spent wandering around downtown Anchorage.
Anchorage is a deep water port and is where 50% of the entire 600,000 population of Alaska lives, making it only second to New York in terms of number of residence in the biggest city equalling the rest of the state combined. I should point out that Alaska is the biggest of all the states, double the size of the second largest; Texas. From the t shirts that line all the gift shops on all the streets of downtown, they are very, very proud of this fact.

I trundled around the saturday market and did my usual eyeballing of stalls buying nothing. There were a lot of knifes for sale and a lot of large americans looking at them whist eating popcorn and reindeer sausage. It's quite a small city, and quite similar in feel to the smaller uptown districts of Vancouver combined with East Seattle, but that's hardly surprising seeming they're the next major port cities down the Pacific coastline. One thing that is different to the other major U.S cities is the supreme lack of convenience stores and the surprisingly small amounts of tramps on the streets. I'm not sure if these two are related in any way but someone could possibly get a scholarship to do some studying on that. Maybe Sarah Palin can get elected with some vague statistics or whatnot.
In the afternoon I wandered around the railroad station looking and promtly failing for some good photo opportunities, the sky was grey and overcast so I slowly trickled back through the streets to my hotel and caught another couple hours sleep after reading some Jack.

In the evening I went a got a beer in a bar and met Mike, a young, talkative, very eager to impress car salesman living in a hotel in Anchorage. We went to a huge liquor store where I found a comically sized Budweizer bottle and went back to his room with some girls we'd met to play beer pong whist listening to metal. I was only there for a short while, after hearing '...I'm not racist but..' a few too many times I empted the remainder of my 40 oz bottle of bud down the loo, made my excuses and left. Welcome to the State of Alaska Mr President.


Train

The next day I awoke early, checked out of my hotel and made my way to the Alaskan Railroad Station to catch the train to Fairbanks. I sat around the depot for an hour and a half slowly watching it go from ghostly empty to full house. After a half hearted sercuirty check we all boarded and I was surprised to find myself all alone in the cheapest section of the train. It was also the only part of the old train which hadn't been renewed; a carriage from the 1950's with sixties surf green reclining leather seats with a chrome details on the edges and an old pneumatic slide door. Heaven. cheap seats eh?

I knew the food on the train was going to be expensive so the day before I had bought some bread, salami and cheese and I palmed a half empty squeezey bottle of mustard from the hotel bar to make some sandwiches from. I spent a lot of the ride in the gap between my carriage and the next carriage in what I imagine used to be where the passengers of the '50s smoked their cigarettes and made secret rendezvous with unknown lovers. I used in to lean out and grab pictures of the scenery whilst chatting with the tour guides; two girls very interested in my story of the map and my reasons for travelling up to charter the unknown. I only needed cigarettes & brill cream and Mr Kerouac and I could have burned burned burned through the valleys of wild Alaska together. But I had none of those and anyway - smoking kills, brill cream makes your hair fall out and I've heard you should never meet your heroes.

image description image description After the short stop at Denali National Park I was joined in my little car by a very jolly Chinese family also on their way to Fairbanks. The scenery had become much less dramatic so I settled into my seat and watched the Alaskan bush drift by and let my mind wander with it.

I noticed there was a LOT of old cars sat rusting off by the tracks, the metal carcasses of everything from 1940's fords to old greyhound buses sat there slowly being eaten by the mud and the trees. On my travels around the states a few years ago I'd only seen a handful of old american cars scavenged of life and parts, unloved in the countryside, mostly around Texas but they were usually in someones front yard. These were once classic American cars, the lost relics of the pride of Detriot, which now lay rotten far out in the Alaskan wilderness. I think cars act like the rest of the universe or maybe a boy's bedroom; as more and more things come into existence, the older stuff gradually get pushed further and further away, and finally ends up on the distant edges, covered in dirt and dust, a forgotten memory. I imagine these dinosaurs of the car industry being consumed by the land and millions of years from now, they'll have turned into that which all buried matter becomes in Alaska. A resource to be drilled, mined and resold. Gold, oil, casual racism.

image descriptionI arrived in Fairbanks at 8pm sharp and shared a silent cab journey with a short toothless grinned Korean woman to my hostel on the other side of town. I sat around chatting with a group of uni students studying ecology whist similtainiously killing clouds of the Alaskan state bird - the mosquito. I ate a few more sandwiches, drank a few more beers and fell asleep on the sofa. Early the next morning my alarm woke me, so I gathered my things together, left $30 and a note in an envelop and caught a ride to where the bus to Deadhorse was departing from, near Fairbanks airport. I was halfway across my expedition north and the most exciting part was about to begin.

I met an austrailian couple who where also catching the bus up to deadhorse with me, and our driver, Michael. ( I think everyone in Alaska is called Mike in some form or another) and we set off, first towards Fox, then onto the Stwy highway, followed by the Elliott highway and finally, turning onto this famous dirt haul road, this third deadliest road in the world, this...

The Dalton Highway.

The Dirt Road Into The Wild

image descriptionWe travelled for around two hours before our first stop at Joy, a small cabin with more old cars and buses sat rusting around the yard than people. The cabin was owned by a couple who ran a small shop for locals and had adopted twenty children from all over the world. They had all grown up now and moved to other parts of Alaska and the lower 48 states. I bought a few post cards and we left soon after. The weather was warm and sunny, and the mosquitos were abundant and persistent so staying outside for any long periods was at my own peril of being a tasty 3 course banquet for a cloud or two. As we continued up the road, we could soon see the infamous Trans-Alaskan Pipeline appear from through the bush. The pipeline makes it way from Vadlez in the south all the way to Deadhorse up by the Arctic ocean. The Dalton highway was constructed in order to build the pipeline from its source in Prudoe bay to Fairbanks. The winding river of steel and its shadow snakes its way up through the Alaskan Bush, over into the Arctic Circle through the Brooks Mountain range, between two national parks; The Gates of the Arctic and the Arctic Wilderness Animal Reserve and up to the Prudoe Bay oil field. For most of time the pipeline is in full view, a giant silver pipeline siting upon red rusty legs spaced around 20 feet apart. Its like following the meandering tire tracks of a car to its drunken owner. A horrible eye sore in absolutely breathtaking, cliche-adjective inducing scenery. But without the pipeline, the road would not be here so it's a large uncomfortable jagged pill to swallow and swallow it I must.

image description All that being said, It is an amazing piece of modern engineering, and there are lots of little touchs which do have to be admired. In order not to thaw the permafrost that most of the pipeline sits on, the support legs must be refrigerated, and this it done by stainless steel fins on the top of the legs to conduct the cold down through the legs to ground, thus preventing the permafrost from melting,- causing not only serious environmental damage but weakening the entire structure of the pipeline. None of the pipeline is attached to the legs, thus preventing any damage occurring in times of earthquakes, which Alaska gets a lot of. There usually not heard of because the area which the quakes effect had very little human population living there. The pipeline also rises around 30 feet into the air in some places and is buried in others, so the migrating caribou trails are not disturbed. The pipelines usual height would mean their antlers would get caught on the bottom of the pipe. Since construction of the pipe, the population numbers have actually increased. Whether of not this is an artificial increase due to the pipe or a natural occurrence is anyones guess. Large numbers of caribou have been seen sleeping under the pipe, so at least one other native has found a good use for the pipeline.

The Arctic Circle

We continued up the haul road, stopping by the only bridge over the Yukon River and eating lunch by the banks at midday. At around four we stopped again for a bathroom break and to stretch our legs. Through this tiny rest stop lay an imaginary line that circumnavigates the globe, The Arctic Circle.

image description The line represents the lowest point on the earth at which on one day (the summer solstice, June 21st) the sun never goes below the horizon, and also the point on the Winter Solstice the sun never peaks its head above the Horizon. As you get closer and closer to the pole this time period becomes longer and longer. In Deadhorse the sun doesn't set for 36 days. I took a few steps, a deep breath and made a full blown spectacle of myself by jumping over the scribbled line.

We continued north until reaching Coldfoot, an old gold miners outpost where a few shipping containers have been bolted together to make a place for truckers to get a few hours kip before the long drive through the treturous Brooks Range. I wandered around the tiny camp, looking at a few huge eighteen wheelers, which looked as if they were made from the very road they voyaged on because of the thick dirt that covered them.

Because of the permafrost it's rare that the few trees that grow around here ever reach higher than a few feet, but can be up to 200 years old. Because of the lack of vegetation there is very little wildlife in this huge area of Alaska, making any sightings of any kind of large animal a rare treat. I was told its perfectly safe to wander out into the bush because this time of year the bears keep far away from the road. I wandered along a small winding track track through the hills to see what lay out there in the unknown. After an hour or so I heard a howling in the distance and got a little scared that I was near a pack of wolves, which no doubt would have seen me a tasty exotic meal. I took one last look up ahead and made my mind up to turn back. I could see a small outhouse and what looked like lots of small boxes with circlaur patches of mud around them. Suddenly I saw a wolf by one of the boxes and my balls jumped up inside me and I froze. After a few seconds I realised that it was actually a very large dog chained to the box and I figured ou that it was the kennels for the sled dogs ( I also could see a couple of old sleds lying by the hut. ) All the dogs were chained up and had bowls filled with food so they were obviously taken care of, but they seemed very alone, far away from anyone with only themselves for company. It was just a moment of sheer panic when I saw the figure of the hound in my path. They were very interested and pateint with me and were all very welcoming. I sat there a while and discussed the world we each knew with the pack. As I left they sang me a leaving song that slowly faded as I returned back to the Coldfoot camp. I went to my room, and climbed into my bed to keep my feet and heart warmed.

Truckers

image descriptionThe next morning we set off early, stoppping at an old gold mining cabin community a few miles north. I walked around the camp with Jack, a man whose father had moved up to Alaska to become a trapper and hunter in the 50's and now lived here in Wiseman, an abandoned gold mining village, which was only inhabited for a decade or so during the Alaskan gold rush. Jack truly was a man of the wild. He was born in Anchorage and had been living in Wiseman since 1977. There is no running water and no power. All the food he eats is grown and caught by hand.

He showed me around his home and to some of the other buildings around the small village, which had a lot of old empty cabins, which are usually rented out to people who want the "wild" experience. I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for a man like Jack, who lives outside of the usual flow of western society.

Educated on National Geographics and geology books, he was a man of great intelligence and experience and I hope one day in the future to be able to visit him and his wife again.

We continued on the Highway, as it treacherously winded its way up through the Brooks Range, the huge mountains that run East to West over Northern America. As we crossed over the continetal divide, we flowed down with the waters towards the Arctic ocean, we took a detour past a gravel pit for a break and to let the line of trucks pass to reduce the rick of being crushed and flipped like a bug on a windscreen by one of them.

There are two seasons in Alaska - winter and construction. A famous reality show called Ice Road Truckers documents ( albeit with a certain amount of added drama ) the progress of several truck companies over the winter when special roads are made from grinding the ice and re freezing it to create an artificial road, which the trucks then drive on. During the summer, the road is repaired from the damage caused by the melting ice. The dust kicked up by the trucks reduces visibility on the road and this is how so many accidents occur. The massive trucks just don't see the other smaller vehicles on the road and plough straight through them.All along the Highway you can see wreaks of cars lying by the road and we'd always have to slow down to see if you could see a distinctive pink ribbon on the car to indicate the accident had been dealt with. I had a constant fear that one of the flattened, empty can of a vehicle would be a recent accident and we would be the ones pulling out broken bodies to check for survivors.

The scenery at our pit stop made the imagery of death seem so insignificant because of the panoramic sight of the north end of the Brooks Range, a small creek, mostly frozen but with a small trickle running over the ancient undisturbed rocks and fossils. There have been very few visitors to this part of the world that if you were to go hiking just a few hours in any direction its very possible for you to walk were no human has ever trodden before. There are uncharted mountains in the Brooks range awaiting a name to call itself. I could say I went for a day hike into the Range, and there now lies an impressive Parrott Mountain, but I'd be lying.image descriptionimage descriptionimage description

The Oilfield At The End of the World

image descriptionAs we conituned North towards Deadhorse, the land became flatter and flatter and we started to cross the Arctic tundra. An ice fog defended over us and the whole place became this errie bleak wasteland, with no life and short visibility.

We were nearing the edge of the world.

At this point a few strange events happened. Firstly, I could hear a weird high frequency humming, which made the experience very surreal and dream like and secondly; on out last toilet stop before Deadhorse, at the most remote loo in the world, we found a burnt sleeping bag, tent and jeans and a pile of fresh clothes belonging to a woman neatly piled up by the drop pit loo.It was a very weird moment when we all looked at each other and all thought the same thought

'What happened here and why has someone left without any clothes?'

The temperate outside was minus 2 and you couldn't see more than around 50 metres in the distance.

The humming turned out to be a strange phenomena of the aerial of the bus hitting a certain resonance in the fog but upsettingly I'm afraid to say we never found an answer to the second, but its stayed up there in my memory as one of the most surreal moments of my travels.

We arrived in Deadhorse at around 9pm and quickly got inside and fed. Deadhorse is the small town where the machinery and workers of the Prudoe Bay oil field live and sleep. Huge machines involved in the process of drilling for black gold, sitting 9,000 metres below the surface are neatly lined up on gravel pads upon the tundra.

Everything at Deadhorse has been shipped up by road, and one day when the oil field runs dry, the whole town, all the drills, all the pump and the entire Trans Alaskan pipeline will be dismantled and taken away by the oil companies. Personally I think it should be left there, to slowly decay in the ice fog, a constant reminder of man's great footprint on earth. Without oil, nothing on earth would be as it its now, we wouldn't have the planes to fly, the cars to drive, the spoons to eat whilst in the air or on the road nor the grafitti cans to make the anti-oil slogans sprawled across the walls made of bricks probably constructed in a factory that runs on oil. Oil and the means of its production I feel is one of mans greatest achievements. I just hope we can learn how to limit our use of it before we run out.

As of 2010 the average output was 0.5 million barrels of oil a day, down from 1.6 mb/d in the mid nineties, and if it continues this way the deconstruction of Deadhorse, Prudoe bay and the pipeline by the Oil companies will be taking place around 2050.

Flogging the Deadhorse

image descriptionimage descriptionMuch like the beginning of Ridley Scott's cult sci-fi film Alien, Deadhorse looks like a barren industrial alien planet. If another life form from outer space was to crash land on the top of our blue planet and make its way down south towards a road, the first thing it would come across is the giant Prudoe Bay oil field, spanning hundreds of miles with huge machines and those little grey men would be met by bearded grey men wearing orange jumpsuits and seeming Alaskan's have very relaxed gun laws and a slight aversion to that of the unknown, they would probably not get very far.

It's with heartbreaking melancholia my adventure to the end of the road ends.
The dominating, ignorant, inconciderent, racist white men of the alaskan cities have driven the natives into all too visable alcoholism and hard drug use. They've made the women into apathetic idle mutes crazed by religion and fast food. They have pumped themselves and their children to the nearest lard quick fix pop up shop and have pushed the intelligent men to abandon civilisation and society and find meaning and faith in existence in the far outreaches of the wilderness. But more than all this, the life and resources out of the one of the most beautiful places on the planet has been sucked out and swandered. I look into the air at the thick cloud of mosquitos and back at the crowds that line the check outs of the pointless shops at the grossly overfilled shopping centres, and I cant define the difference between the bloodsuckers before me.

What ever happened to that wonderful dream of the frontier America?

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