This week, I returned to the North Slope / Prudhoe Bay / Deadhorse, AK for the first time since May. Back then, while the rest of you were already noticing temperatures in the ‘it’s really hot’s, the slope was still in winter conditions. Snow and ice covered everything, and the only sign of the changing seasons was that dead grass could be seen through the drying ice, and there was a one small patch of open water where a crazy bird decided to come up early and hang out on.
Well, up here, summer does happen, but it happens REALLY fast. We all are still days away from the official end of summer, but summer is really over all over Alaska. Back in Anchorage, we started feeling like fall weather around Labor day, but it felt more like northern states around late September. Here, in early September, it feels more like early November. Temperatures are already down near freezing, and they have had their first snow. There is a wet that hangs over everything, and the cold ocean meeting the semi-warm harm creates a lot of fog. It feels like winter is about to hit at any minute. But feeling and looking are two completely different things.
Every other time I have been to the slope, it has been DEAD winter. Every building, every container, every piece of equipment was covered in snow and ice, some of it appearing like it would never see usage in years to come, lord knows why it was ever put up here to begin with. The flat tundra around the facilities was nothing but white spreading out on all sides around us, appearing like a sea of hopelessness. Being here during the weather, you couldn’t fathom how anything could survive without a camp, a truck, or a nice cup of coffee.
While I am not seeing the ‘summer’ life here, my whole view of this place has taken a complete turnaround. Buildings aren’t just dull white covered green, they are colored, and clean, and vibrant. Machines and trucks look newly used. Some camps still look dead and meaningless, but during the winter they all look that way.
Truth is, the grasses have all turned brown with the coming winter, but there is grasses to see. Grasses as far as the eye can see. The tundra isn’t flat dead, but rolling small solid dirt and gravel. Then there are the lakes and streams. Lakes specifically. One of which, right next to Deadhorse (Coleen Lake) is so wide that in foggy conditions you might not see the other side. Not only that, it’s beautifully blue-green. When you pull open Google Maps and look at Deadhorse, it’s easy to see the lakes and rivers – but I can’t tell you how hard it is to see it the rest of the time. Not just hard, I just couldn’t picture them when I came to visit. Now, that I see it, the layouts up here make more sense. Pads and storage areas that seemed to be oddly placed off the road now can be seen separated by wetland. Places where I saw massive piles of snow that I was sure I would see come this time of year were gone, because they plowed them right onto a waterway and the snow washed right out to sea.
In the end, this is still a place focused singularly on the business of producing oil, but like the land itself Prudhoe Bay becomes a different world in that narrow window of time called summer. I return in 2 or 3 weeks, and when I do, likely summer had lost the fight, and winter begins a new. Until then, I get to go home to where it is just autumn.