In Refuge Part 1 -- Legacy of Wilderness, I described flying from Fairbanks in late August 2001 with my son Tom, and our friends and guides, Brian and Diane Okonek, unaware of the devastating attacks on America that would occur a few weeks later.
Our plan was to land at Kaktovik, an Inupiat village on Barter Island, not far off the mainland coast of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea. There, we would hook up with a famous bush pilot, Walt Audi, a colorful character who would fly us into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge later in the day.
We were flying in a Cessna Caravan on a scheduled flight that flew a triangular route from Fairbanks to Kaktovik, then to Deadhorse, and then back to Fairbanks. Unfortunately, the weather was not in our favor. Twice, the pilot lined up for approach into the small commercial strip at Kaktovik, and twice he had to abort the landing and circle around. No ground was visible through the thick banks of fog.
After the third attempt, the pilot revved the engines and headed in what was clearly a new direction. It was not possible to land at Kaktovik, so we were proceeding to Deadhorse, in the heart of the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay.
I must have naively assumed that we would travel the circuit back to Fairbanks, because I remember being surprised when the pilot informed us that we had to get off the plane in Deadhorse. Apparently, he had a full complement of passengers to take back to Fairbanks on the next leg of his scheduled itinerary and there was no room for us on board. “But don’t worry,” he said. “Summer days are long up here and I will come back for you later if the fog lifts at Kaktovik and I think we can get in.” When might that be? “I would say about six hours, at best.”
Which left us with the question of what there is do when one unexpectedly finds oneself in Deadhorse, Alaska. My mind started to turn in the direction of lunch. I had heard that oil field workers are pretty well fed and I figured we could score some chow at one of the many service buildings that ringed the small airport.
My teenage son, not known for missing many meals himself, had another idea. Tom piped up to say that he had noticed the hangar of a helicopter rental company as we landed. “Maybe we could charter a helicopter and get a good look at the oil patch.”
This struck me as a long shot, but I hate to quash youthful exuberance, so we were soon trudging over to a low-slung, corrugated metal building adorned with a picture of a chopper. The guy at the desk was surprised to see us and, in fact, had no idea what to make of our request. Nevertheless, he was friendly in the way of many in the far north, and offered to call his company headquarters in Juneau to see what he could do.
About half an hour later, the same individual was giving us a bird’s-eye tour of Prudhoe Bay, flying us all around the far-reaching expanse of the oil field at about 50 feet off the deck and keeping up a constant, well-informed and expert narrative about what we were seeing below us. Looking back on it, in the aftermath of 9/11 a few weeks later, I am fairly confident that this could never happen now.
Even to a budding conservationist, the engineering accomplishment that was evident in Prudhoe Bay was breathtaking. It is a massive operation, sprawling for miles, far beyond the range of a one-hour aerial tour. The scale of the technology would be impressive anywhere, but how much more so in a place that has to be one of the least hospitable for construction and engineering projects anywhere on the planet. Human ingenuity and perseverance were powerfully on display in this industrial outpost at the edge of the world.
We had popped for a one-hour charter and it was over far too soon. A peripheral benefit was that our chatty pilot directed us to a service building where the elaborate cafeteria-style lunch was everything I had imagined. Even better news came several hours later when the pilot did in fact return for us with a favorable report on the weather conditions in Kaktovik. Pilots are like that in Alaska. If a pilot says he’ll be back to get you, the chances are pretty good that he will be.
We flew east across the arctic coastal plain, first traversing the North Slope oil patch and eventually crossing the Canning River, which is the western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The technological accomplishments of human industry and engineering extended to this natural boundary and there gave way immediately to the very different, immeasurably more beautiful, bounty of rugged and seemingly unending wilderness after we crossed the river.
In another context, I might make offer value judgments, perhaps comparing one side of the river boundary to the dark Satanic mills, and the other to the mountains green and pleasant pastures seen, of Blake’s Jerusalem. Or, Tolkien fans might prefer an analogy to the shadow lands of Mordor, separated by the River Anduin from the sweet gardens of Ithilien.
The starkness of the contrast, however, was not what made the deepest impression on me at the time. Rather, it was the lesson that adventure and discovery are where you find them in Alaska, and a flexible attitude is one of the most important items that any traveler can pack. Tom had noticed the helicopter services company when we landed in Deadhorse and was open to finding a saving grace, and a rich educational experience, in what could otherwise have been a bust of a day.