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On the Road to Toolik: Deadhorse, Alaska
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WNPR's Nancy Cohen arrives in Deadhorse, Alaska: Photo by Jake SchasWNPR's Nancy Cohen arrives in Deadhorse, Alaska: Photo by Jake Schas
There’s a lot of talk right now in Washington of opening up new areas to oil drilling. Companies have been drilling for oil for decades in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, on the Arctic Ocean.

Deadhorse, a town not far from Prudhoe Bay, is not so much a town, but a way station. A dusty moonscape where oil workers try to stay for as short a time as possible. The place is littered with rusty hulks of equipment, old pipes and tall cranes. But in and among the human-made infrastructure, nature has kept a few pockets to herself.

"What I’m hearing out there right now is the old squaw doing the little clucks before he dives, and there's the snow buntings singing in the background to each other."

 

Caribou grazing in Deadhorse: Photo by Jake SchasCaribou grazing in Deadhorse: Photo by Jake Schas
That’s Jake Schas, a birder who works at the environmental data center at Toolik Field Station, where I’m headed. He’s giving me a kind of nature tour of Deadhorse, before driving me the 140 miles south to Toolik.

"The red neck phalaropes about hundred yards in the background there. They're really small birds, so you can see them by the pipes to the right. There's three of them."

These are male birds wearing their mating plumage of rust-colored feathers around their long necks right next to a rusty building. The birds are feeding in one of the many fresh water ponds that flourish amid the oil company structures. There are a couple of hotels nearby--although I‘d be hard pressed to stay in one of them--a post office and even a store.

"I'm Stephanie Hill." Stephanie Hill is behind the counter. She's worked in this store since 1982. "I was going to come up here for 6 months and pay off my college loan and 26 years later I'm still here."

The Perdue Bay hotel in Deadhorse, Alaska: Photo by Nancy CohenThe Prudhoe Bay hotel in Deadhorse, Alaska: Photo by Nancy Cohen
It’s hard to imagine what would keep someone working here. Hill says her three weeks on three weeks off schedule gives her time to travel.

Behind Hill there’s a cat named Deadhorse Denver, the only cat in town. And surprisingly there’s all kinds of stuff to buy: even flash drives and memory cards and bumperstickers about the road I’m about to drive on.

"The ride of your life via Dalton Highway. That’s where we are about to go right?"

The Alaska Pipeline runs beside the Dalton Highway south of Prudhoe Bay Alaska: Photo by Nancy CohenThe Alaska Pipeline runs beside the Dalton Highway south of Prudhoe Bay Alaska: Photo by Nancy Cohen
The Dalton Highway climbs unpaved from the coastal plain to the foothills of the Brooks Range. The sky is big. The tundra lush and green. There are no trees, just shrubby willows and lots of tiny flowers.

"I’m just going to get out for a second. Oh boy, it's windy."

I stop to examine the cotton grass, small green spikes topped with a white feathery sphere. But more than the individual plants, I’m struck by the vast green expanse and a sky to match.

"I feel like this is like the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy was going to the wizard."

Ok, well maybe I was having a touch of tundra fever. But this is a luscious place, even with the pipeline, a shimmer of human-industry that snakes along the road, keeping us company as we head south to Toolik Lake.