After starting in Barrow, the northernmost settlement in the United States, our second stop takes us 200 miles (320 km) south east to Prudhoe Bay, again on the Arctic Ocean. As I detailed in the opening report, there are no roads linking Barrow to Prudhoe Bay, only barge transport during the summer (the barge season had already ended by the time I visited) and ice roads when the ice layer on lakes is thick enough to drive, generally only in March.
Therefore, the only option right now is to travel by plane, which explains why there are no less than three flights per day connecting Barrow to Prudhoe Bay (two during the week) even outside summer, all operated by Alaska Airlines. Flight time: 35 minutes.
To be more exact, I flew to Deadhorse, located 10 miles inland from actual Prudhoe Bay. I arrived on a cloudy, snowy day for a four-hour stopover and the sky and ground were uniformly white. In fact, it snows in Prudhoe Bay more often than not — about three-quarters of the time. Even if we are located south of Barrow, the climate here is even harsher because of its geographic situation at a crossroads between the Ocean on the north side and a mountain corridor to the south. Prudhoe Bay also gets one of the longest nights in the country. There are a total of 54 days between November 24 and January 18 when the sun doesn’t rise. Inversely, it also sees one of the longest daylights: 63 sun-filled days between May 20 and July 22.
The mean annual temperature in Prudhoe Bay is 12° F (−11° C), with the warmest month, July, not exceeding a daily average temperature of 46° F (8° C). In the coldest days (rather, continuous nights) of winter, temperatures below −40° F/C are to be expected.
Let’s shiver for a minute: The highest recorded temperature in Prudhoe Bay is 83° F (28° C) on June 21, 1991, while the lowest is −62° F (−52° C) on January 27, 1989. That’s lower than in Barrow. Where it gets really tricky is when you start calculating wind chill. Prudhoe Bay, due to its location’s heavy winds, recording an official wind chill low at a horrifying −102° F (−74° C) on January 28, 1989, when the air temperature of −54° F (−48° C) combined with wind speed of 36 mph (57 km/h).
These beyond extreme conditions are suitable for only the hardiest wildlife. Prudhoe Bay is home to large herds of caribou and, if you’re lucky, you may spot Arctic foxes, grizzly bears and polar bears. Unfortunately, I wasn’t lucky. If it’s so harsh, why would humans want to live in such a forsaken environment? One word: Oil.
The permanent population of Deadhorse ranges between 25 and 50 residents. However, no household was considered permanently occupied during the 2010 Census. At any given time, up to 3,000 transient workers are based here to support the surrounding Prudhoe Bay oil field, the largest in the United States, as well as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) that transports oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez in south central Alaska. The airport, lodging and general store servicing the oil field are all located in Deadhorse, with facilities almost exclusively consisting of pre-fabricated modules shipped here via barge or air cargo. The drilling happens in Prudhoe Bay itself.
Something very interesting happened during my short stay here. When you put a bunch of strangers together in such an inhospitable environment, they will look out for each other. It only takes 10 minutes to walk a loop from the airport and explore all of Deadhorse, but in that time three trucks stopped to enquire whether I needed a ride anywhere and if I was alright. Everyone driving past waves to you with the biggest smile they can muster.
Get inside the Prudhoe Bay hotel and customers and employees alike are fighting for the title of friendliest person in town. The hotel has a cafeteria where all food is included in the lodging price but also accepts outside diners, charging a mere $6 for a full lunch-worth of food and free drinks refillable at will. The hotel itself is rather unique, consisting of pre-fab units put together to form a very large structure criss-crossed by endless corridors, all on ground level.
As I was there toward the end of September, there weren’t many workers staying in the hotel as the high season here is winter. The only time the surface is hard enough to support heavy equipment is when temperatures drop low enough to strengthen the permafrost. That’s when full-time drilling occurs.
Prudhoe Bay, unlike Barrow, is connected to Alaska’s main transport artery, the Dalton Highway. From here, it reaches Fairbanks 500 miles (800 km) south, a 14- to 18-hour trip. As such, Prudhoe Bay is the unofficial northern terminus of the Pan-American Highway, although this highway isn’t continuous all the way to Ushuaia at the southernmost tip of South America.
As tempting as it is, I won’t be driving down the Dalton Highway for lack of time and budget (I would have needed to ship the Ram 2500 from Seattle to here during the summer). Also, there’s another element to consider: safety. As winter approaches, road conditions deteriorate and become only passable by road trains and large trucks, as featured in the first episode of the BBC’s World’s Most Dangerous Roads. I doubt the folks at Ram would have let me drive on this road…
But before we get to the rest of Alaska, let’s have a look at which cars sell best in Prudhoe Bay. As was the case for Barrow, the best-sellers here are not representative of Alaska as a whole, so we’ll cover Alaskan figures when we reach Anchorage. In the meantime, you can check out the FY 2014 best-sellers in all 50 States here.
Understandably given the demographic composition of the area, there were no private vehicles that I could see. The entirety of Prudhoe Bay comprises of fleet vehicles in one form or another. I also did not spot a single car. Light, medium and heavy trucks were the norm. A handful of Ford E-Series and GMC Savana vans worked a route between the Prudhoe Bay oil field and Deadhorse airport. There were also a couple of Ford Expeditions, including one owned by the local police, and two Audi Q7s acting as “luxury minivans” to transport higher-ranking oil field officials. I also spotted two now-defunct Ford Excursions — based on the Super Duty line of Ford pickups — produced from 2000 to 2005. Coincidentally, the Excursion was dubbed the Ford Valdez due to its atrocious fuel economy.
Oil drilling companies are purchasing full-size pickups by the truckload (literally) for their workers based in Prudhoe Bay, a majority of them being the Flex Fuel variant repurposed to also use natural gas when needed. Very similarly to the situation in Barrow, Alaska, Ford is king here and accounts for no less than two-thirds of the pickup population in Prudhoe Bay. The F-250, F-150 and F-350 pickups are the most frequently purchased in this order, a few F-550s can also be seen roaming the lonely pair of streets in town, and I also spotted a new generation aluminium F-150, the very first one I’ve seen on this trip.
Ram comes second with a healthy count of Ram 2500 pickups and even a couple of Ram 5500. The Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and 2500 pickups are markedly less popular with local companies than the previous two brands, followed closely by GMC Sierra pickups. Almost all pickup trucks feature the ubiquitous power plugs sticking out from the front grille we saw in Barrow, to which is added a front grill cover, all this to keep the battery and fluids in the engine from freezing in place at −40° F/C.
I can sense your face starting to freeze just by reading this article, so without further ado we will fly off to Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska for the next stop…
The Full Photo Report is below.