Episode 15

Friday 21st July, 2006

Christian and myself had been talking of going up to Alaska and spending a week up there driving around. So with many Canadians taking time off over summer, so did we.

Below: First stop Anchorage, where we left the city and headed north into the wilderness.

The first stop was Denali National Park, where we hopped on a bus tour at 5am to drive the 90-odd miles of the park (you can't easily take cars in). It's beautiful in it's own way, though the terrain was a lot more barron than I expected. That said, my incredible run with spotting wildlife continued. We saw numerous grizzly bears, though they were all a long way off in the distance. All of them had a very light brown coat - I'd never seen them that colour before. There were also some moose and caribou grazing the pastures, but the highlight was definitely seeing a lynx. These cats are incredible skittish and even the bus driver remarked that he may only see a few of them each year. Unfortunately it disappeared into the bush before I could get a photo of it.

Below: Later on we drove through an area known to be frequented by wolves. On the way back we were lucky enough to spot the mother wolf of the den. She was trying to escape the heat (low 20's) under the shade of some shrubs. This wolf sported a much lighter coat than the more typical grey colourings that are seen.

Above: An elk crosses the trail in front of the bus.

Below: Sunrise over a cloudy Denali. The clouds over the mountains in the centre of the picture often form there in the shape of a wave breaking over the peaks.

Above: Mt McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America at 20,320ft or 6,194m. It's quite rare to get a cloud free photo of this twin peaked mountain. The amazing thing about this photo is that it was taken at a distance of 40 miles (64km) from the mountain!

Below: The two peaks of Mt McKinley poke above the cloudtops, 40mi off in the distance as the morning sun rises over Denali National Park.

Having made it to the city of Fairbanks, right in the middle of Alaska, we made a dash up the Dalton Hwy to get to the Arctic Circle. Along the way we saw...

Above & Below: ...the Trans-Alaskan Oil Pipeline. This pipeline, measuring 4 ft wide, stretches from Pruedoe Bay on the Arctic coast to the port of Valdez on Alaska's southern coastline, 800 miles away. The oil inside, which comprises 25% of the US's total oil consumption, travels at a speed of 4-5mi/hour so it takes about a week for the oil to complete the journey. The pipeline is elevated for most of this distance, except in areas where avalanches pose a danger to the structure (in which case it is highly insulated and buried).

The pipeline is elevated to avoid melting the permafrost. If the permafrost melts the repeated melt and freeze cycle will eventually eject the pipeline from the ground. Even with an elevated pipeline, engineers had to carefully make sure that no additional heat was transferred into the ground. This is accomplished by the heat exchangers on the top of the posts in the above picture. These transfer any residual heat in the structure from the ground to the air.

If you look at the above photo you can see that the pipeline is not fixed to the crossbar it is sitting on. This is to allow the pipeline to expand and contract in the wild temperature differences it experiences during the year (anything from <-40° to >+30°. A rubber stopper can be seen on the left post to protect it. Because of this expansion and contraction, the path of the pipeline is not a straight line, but has numerous bends and kinks in it to allow for this movement.

Above: Many, many hours on a bus later and we made it to this sign in the ground!

Below: What was it like in the Arctic? Well, there really wasn't much to see, except that the spruce and birch trees thinned and gave way to endless rolling plains of permafrost tundra. We did dig a small hole in the ground to see that less than a foot under the surface it was completely frozen solid. Whilst we were doing this we helped ourselves to the numerous wild blueberries that were growing on the surface all around us.

Above: We got back from the Arctic Circle to our hostel in Fairbanks just after midnight (12:30am) and took this photo of the brightness of the sky. The sun had set about an hour before, but because we were so far north only a month after the summer solstice it never really got dark. We both found ourselves waking up at 4am with brilliant sunshine streaming in. Photo by Christian Freriks.