While co-eds and college goers are running down to the beaches where it’s warm, I’m on a 2 day hitch on the coast of a different ocean. I am up on the slope again today. A couple of days in Prudhoe Bay means once again I hang out 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle where the largest oil field in North America works through the normal -10°F temperatures and wind chills down to -40°F. The weather is standard for this time of year, and they actually just came off of a warm spell (rising to +10° of Tuesday … and that is a “Positive” plus sign). This is my fourth trip to the slope, following nearly the same pattern as my last trip just two weeks ago, but things broke from the routine some this time around.
For starters, one of my meetings was on a man-made island in the Beaufort Sea at the end of a couple mile long road/bridge. The Beaufort Sea lies north of Alaska and is a part of the Arctic Ocean … so quite literally, I was riding in a truck over the Arctic Ocean – and while I rather dip my foot into it like the others, it means I now been to all four oceans of the world (thank you Singapore for counting two oceans on one beach). Of course, being March during a winter that practically never ends, all that was there was wide open nothing with snow drifts lapping like waves over the ice. I wish I could say that it was something poetic or majestic, but I can’t. It seemed like any number of a hundred pictures or movies of polar expeditions – all you can see for miles is snow, ice, sky, and nothing. It didn’t look majestic, it looked hopeless.
On the way out there, I did see an Arctic Fox – the first sign of anything living that wasn’t bundled in heavy jackets and boots. It pranced along the side of the road angling to cross behind us without getting hit. Many animals either bed down or head south towards more protection for the winter, but now that summer is coming life is returning. Polar Bears are expected to start moving around up here, and that means caribou & reindeer may not be far away either.
The big difference about this trip is what went from not seeing much of to seeing a lot of. The Sun. Being 650 miles further north of Anchorage, Prudhoe Bay sees a far greater swing in daylight than we do in town. That was noticeable in December when the sun never came up and barely lit the skies. With the equinox not far away, we all are about 12 hours of sunup. The added bonus was clear skies for the first time on any of my trips, so this was the first trip that I really could see what this place looks like in the daytime. To be honest .. not much different; well, except for the sun dogs. The conditions up here play funny tricks with the light. Something I saw on an earlier trip, but seemed to jump out with the sun in the air. The cold dry air turns whatever moisture around into ice crystals, depending on the temperature, wind speeds, and air pressure; the crystals can either be like a fog or a haze. High enough, the sun deflects light off of the crystals – sometimes causing a ring to form around the sun, and like yesterday sometimes making it look like sunshine is pouring from the bottom of the sun to the horizon. This is what’s called a Sun Dog, and is oddly uncomfortable. Locals know that a sun dog means a blow is probably coming; but to me it seems like a natural warning – that this place is not normal for humans, other wise we would see it where it’s warm.
In a couple of hours, I climb back on the plane for somewhere warmer … Anchorage, AK, where snow is melting. My next trip back is far enough away that I have no plans to do it. But just like the other tips up here, I keep finding Prudhoe Bay to always want to prove how incredibly unique it is.