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The Ice Highway: What It's Like to Drive Across the Top of Alaska- seniorhelpline.info

The Ice Highway: What It's Like to Drive Across the Top of Alaska

A trip to the northernmost tip of the United States, where the roads are frozen water and you sleep upright. When it’s 40 below, you never turn off the ignition.

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Austin Parkhill

It starts with a bad idea: “What if we could get to Utqiaġvik by driving across the sea ice?” It would be difficult enough in a snowcat or one of those Icelandic tundra trucks. It was a different proposition altogether in a ’99 Wrangler.

Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, is a Native Alaskan village perched high on the Arctic Coast. It’s home to the Iñupiat people, polar bears, and seasons of 24-hour day and 24-hour night. To drive there from Prudhoe Bay, where paved roads end, you have to go during a narrow window in late winter when the sea ice is solid and stationary. That is, thick enough to support cars and without any openings that can gobble entire vehicles. I had six friends and five trucks ready for the journey. But winter 2017 was one of the warmest on record. According to local chatter, the sea ice along Alaska’s northern coast was unreliable, nearly squashing our hopes of a trip. By a stroke of luck, just before our planned departure the temperature dropped to minus 40 degrees and the sky cleared. Ideal conditions, given our mission.

This might be our last chance to ever complete it. Even more record-breaking warmth means that this drive might be impossible to repeat.

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Austin Parkhill

Our convoy: A 2010 Ford F-350, a 2006 Jeep Commander, and my transport, a 1999 Jeep Wrangler. Not pictured: a 2015 Chevrolet 1500 and a 2014 Ford F-150.

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Austin Parkhill

Deadhorse, at ­Prudhoe Bay, is where the adventure gets serious. Oil corporations regulate access to much of the tundra and coastline. We stopped at our first security checkpoint to have our driver’s licenses scanned and our vehicles searched for illicit items like alcohol and drugs. This is also where firearms must be surrendered for escort to the final checkpoint.

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Austin Parkhill

Our first day on the Arctic Ocean, we drove several hours into the night over lumpy ice. We reached a suitable campsite early in the morning, just a few hundred yards off of an island. The dancing auroras were a sign of good weather, as the faint industrial lights of Prudhoe Bay faded behind us

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Austin Parkhill

Repairs would be required along the way, which is dangerous work in this cold. Frostbite is nearly instant when touching metal. It was all hands on deck to keep injured rigs moving, rotating in shifts to warm fingers on dash heaters. Our group’s leader, Julian ­Ferreras, would continue to have power-steering leakage in his monster F-350. We gave it all of the spare fluid we had, and eventually began pulling quarts from the transmission to keep the steering working on the 40-inch tires. Naturally, electrical tape had zero adhesion in the cold, but that didn’t stop us from attempting to use it on leaky, threaded hoses.

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Austin Parkhill

“The Bruise,” our violet 1999 Jeep Wrangler was a trusty, ice-conquering steed. Color us impressed, and purple. It earned its final name after bouncing us (and our kidneys) through some especially ragged pressure ridges. For four nights, we slept upright with the engine running and the heat on full blast to keep us from turning into freezer meat. Plus, nobody wants to find that their rig doesn’t cold-start 100 miles out on the ice in minus 40 degrees. You just keep it ­running, pal.

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Austin Parkhill

You would think it difficult to overheat an engine in this environment, but the plucky stock Jeep Commander, helmed by friends Forrest Ahkiviana and Roger Ferguson, reached the red zone a number of times over especially tricky sections of ice. Here, Forrest Enlow, Ferreras, and my copilot, Ben Toth, wait for the engine temperature to drop. This vehicle had to work the hardest, and received the most tugs, but ultimately made it, albeit with a few minor injuries.

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Austin Parkhill

Time to refuel. Each vehicle started with a full tank and upward of 75 gallons of fuel stored in avgas jugs. Using a simple shaker siphon on a short length of arctic-grade hose, we would fill each vehicle from the truck bed a few times a day. Theo Leavitt’s Ford F-150 Tremor waits for a fill-up while The Bruise gets topped off. Driving in four-wheel drive over ice in this cold netted less than 8 mpg for most of us. This endless white and blue was our constant panorama.

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Austin Parkhill

Before reaching the northern coast, it would be 800 miles of frosty dirt and asphalt from Homer in south-central Alaska. This length of the road is adventurous enough for many, and includes some of the most spectacular views in the nation. I drove most of the easy section solo before joining the crew in Fairbanks. Stopping for a selfie in Denali National Park seemed appropriate

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Austin Parkhill

We wondered what these caribou were up to so far out to sea. Some biologists say they come for the sea salt, but we say it was romance. They casually trotted off after spotting us. B. Few signs of civilization were found along our path, such as this unmanned weather installation. Unfortunately for the big F-350, this would be its last photo of the trip. Low on transmission fluid and devoid of steering fluid, it could limp no farther. On our final day, we were forced to leave it on the ice to be rescued the following week.

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Austin Parkhill

Few signs of civilization were found along our path, such as this unmanned weather installation. Unfortunately for the big F-350, this would be its last photo of the trip. Low on transmission fluid and devoid of steering fluid, it could limp no farther. On our final day, we were forced to leave it on the ice to be rescued the following week.

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Austin Parkhill

An endless, stretching crack in the sea ice. We used extra caution at crossings like this

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Austin Parkhill

Toth assesses one of many large cracks while Enlow and Leavitt stand by. A heavy equipment operator in remote locations like Greenland and Antarctica, Toth knows his icy logistics. He puckered noticeably as we approached each significant crack in the ice, then experienced a sort of post-trauma high as soon as it was conquered , a pattern that would repeat dozens of times in a day.

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Austin Parkhill

What a bizarre experience, to see the village nestled in white tundra and the sea ice below through the window of a jet. A travel distance that took us four days, 350-plus gallons of fuel, and a massive amount of calories will now take 30 minutes of relative relaxation. Gazing out of the window it’s hard to reconcile the two modes, and harder not to long to be back on the ice.

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