Preparing the Parking Lot

Posted On April 4, 2012

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With the long periods of sunlight we’re getting now, things begin to melt. The solid earth of the parking lot is under about twelve to eighteen inches of ice, built up over the six months of winter by constant vehicular traffic. If all this ice were allowed to melt naturally, this summer the truck lot would be a swampy morass of mud and wrecked vehicles. Trucks would get stuck, axle deep, in the gooey mess. What also can happen is that the sun shines through the icy surface, the sunlight refracting through the ice like a prism, melting the subterranean permafrost. When this happens, sinkholes appear in the parking lot and trucks inevitable find themselves in holes they cannot drive out of. In the spring, the parking lot essentially is one giant headache waiting to happen. Thus, the dozer blades have come in to scrape the parking lot.

For the last few days, grading machines and other equipment have been chipping away the layer of ice to avoid an impenetrable muddy mess in the coming weeks. The parting lot will still be disgustingly gross soon, don’t worry, but at least most vehicles won’t get too mired down in the muck. The ice they’ve been scraping off has been piled high on the edge of the parking lot, waiting for the sun to melt it away. I’m shocked at how much ice accumulated over the winter; near the fuel pumps, there was seriously over two feet of ice built up, just from idling vehicles melting the snow there all winter. Hard to believe we’ve been walking so far above the ground this whole time. A few times we joked about getting ice skates to zip across the parking lot—it would have been entirely possible, too.

The ground of the parking lot begins to emerge:

The Dalton Highway is getting slicker than hell right now. Midday the top layer of ice on the road turns to slushy water, and trucks dangerously navigate the road between Fairbanks and Atigun Pass, hoping not to slide and spin out into a snow bank or off a cliff.  Meanwhile, on the North Slope, it’s still like -20 degrees so they don’t have to worry about any melting for a while. Even the ocean up there isn’t going to fully break up until July.

But because the road is becoming a lot more dangerous to drive, I’ve noticed traffic in Coldfoot is slowly sputtering into nothing. Gone are the crowds of March; pretty soon this place will be a ghost town again, much like it was in October and November. We get a month respite here to recharge our spirits for the brutally busy four months of summer.


Gold Fever

Posted On March 28, 2012

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According to the calendar, it’s spring. By most standards, it’s still very much winter in Coldfoot, but it doesn’t actually feel that way. The ground is still covered in snow and the temperatures remain mostly around zero, but after those dark months, it feels almost tropical. Today, the temperatures finally rose above freezing for the first time since September, I think. It’s been so long I can’t honestly remember.

Mother nature and human-industrial enterprise juxtaposed in Coldfoot:

I heard that they’ve given the Arctic Ocean ice road less than a month before they close it due to warming temperatures. All the truckers in the café complain about slick roads—the ice is finally beginning to thaw. In Coldfoot, there’s no noticeable change, the snow’s still snow, but I know it’ll start changing soon, and changing fast. The muddy season at Coldfoot is rapidly approaching. The sun shines so long now, I fall asleep every night around 9pm and it’s still very much daylight out. When I go into work at 5:30am, the sky to the east above Shockpoint glows with the anticipation of dawn. And every day the sky at that time gets brighter and brighter. We’ve only got about three weeks left of nighttime at any hour. The longest day is soon to begin…

With the oncoming melting season looming in the near future, this season’s gold miners have begun flocking to Coldfoot. They’ve been hauling up equipment, staging their camps in Coldfoot’s ancient boneyard, surrounded by the relics of miners long since passed. Most of the miners are going to follow the Chandalar Trail all the way out to Chandalar Lake, which is something like eigthy miles to the east of Coldfoot. That’ll be the primary mining site once the snow begins melting. On a daily basis, Coldfoot hums with the enthusiastic and optimistic feelings of this year’s gold miners. They stare into their coffees, wondering if this is going to be the year they find that mother-lode.

The staging area:

A large dump truck in the process of being “winterized,” chains affixed to the wheels:

Lastly, how the cleaning closet became the”party room”:

A Crashed Truck, Twenty-One Bullets, and a Wedding

Posted On March 18, 2012

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Mother Nature has blessed us with the month of March here in Coldfoot. It’s still winter, but wow does it feel different now. It’s still below zero almost every night, but now the sun carries warmth, heating the days up to about ten or sometimes even twenty above. It stays light outside now until about 9pm and it’s only going to increase. It’s been nearly three months since the winter solstice, and the spring season starts this Tuesday with the vernal equinox. In fact, by this time next month, there won’t really anymore darkness; it’ll be too light at all the time.

Because this time of year is popular for truckers and tourists, business in Coldfoot has been a maddening rush and everyone is overworked and struggling to keep up. For the most part we still have our small winter crew, but with the big tour groups that have been here recently, it’s felt a lot like the busy summer days. So March is a mixed feeling; it’s beautiful and sunny and wonderful outside, but inside it’s a crazy rush of traffic and headaches. But that is usually what life is like in Coldfoot.

My friend Brian rolled his truck on the Dalton Highway a few days ago while driving back to Coldfoot. There’s this one part of the road that goes over this place called Finger Mountain. The land is really exposed and the wind blows like mad, usually causing snowdrifts to block the road. One of these pesky snowdrifts caught Brian’s truck and flipped it off to the right hand side ditch; he was lucky to be alive and unharmed.

I went back to Finger Mountain with him the next day to try to get his truck started. He’d already gone back before with a few people to right the truck back onto its wheels and tow it to a safe turnout. When we got to the truck, it must have been about zero degrees or so with the wind blowing about 30 or 40 miles per hour. If you stood correctly you could actually lean back against the wind. The conditions were absolutely horrendous, but we popped the hood of the truck and went to work.

The wind blowing snow across the road at Finger Mountain:

Fixing the truck:

We spent five miserable hours on Finger Mountain, freezing our fingers (literally), disassembling the engine, cleaning the frozen snow and motor oil out of the spark plugs and the air intake. We had to constantly get back into the truck we drove there in so we could thaw out our hands and faces so we wouldn’t get frostbite. As the sun began to dim in the west, we had to give up. We’re pretty sure the car is fixable (we were able to turn over the engine), but realistically it needs to be brought into a warm peaceful shop. We did all we could do up there in the raging arctic hurricane that is Finger Mountain.

The next day we celebrated the marriage of Brian and Allison. They met in Coldfoot a few years ago and finally on St. Patrick’s Day, tied the knot and made things official. So we had a monstrous party for them, combining the wedding celebration with St. Patrick’s Day. It was glorious. The service was held in the small chapel in Wiseman (they had to dig it out of the snow first), and the locals showed up, including most of the camp workers. I was even one of the two official witnesses who got to sign the marriage license. After the ceremony, Brian had a keg that he salvaged from his wrecked truck, I brought the stuff for Irish Carbombs, and we spent the whole day partying and drinking and having a really good time. In typical redneck fashion, we all brought our guns too and had a twenty-one bullet salute. Good times in Alaska.

Wiseman, day of the wedding:

The Chapel:

Brian and Allison:

The cake:

Lastly, (from left): me, the groom, and the bride.

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