Day 42 – July 17, 2001 – As I write this, we are sitting alongside the road on the Dalton Highway, about 100 miles south of Prudhoe Bay. Ross Lilleker’s car, which has run perfectly the entire trip, has had a wheel bearing seize up and has come to a complete stop. They are trying to fix the wheel, in the rain and mud and mosquitoes but I don’t know whether they will be able to do so or not.
It has been a good drive, up until now. It has rained on us, off and on, and the road has been rocky and pitted. But the drive has gone well. We made the Atigun Pass (a 12% grade to a 4800 foot pass with little difficulty. We made a 10% grade about five miles earlier (the Chandalar Shelf). Those two were the worst climbs; the others were not so steep or not so long. The scenery has been quite beautiful, ranging from the scrubby tree covered hills, to extremely rugged mountains, to miles and miles of tundra with the majestic Brooks Range in the distance. The biggest problem we faced were the mosquitoes, which are huge and aggressive. As I sit in the car, the mosquitoes are banging against the windows of the car trying to get in. When we stopped for lunch, Ginger prepared sandwiches in the car for the rest of us in an effort to keep the pesky things out of our food. They are having a feast on Ross, Steve, Jennifer, and Ben as they work.
It is now several hours later than when I wrote the message above. A passing motorist reminded us that there was a Department of Transportation location just a few miles back. Ross and the others had managed to break the wheel free so it would turn and we drove slowly the three miles back to the DOT station. The DOT on the Dalton Highway is there to maintain the roads; they do not have services for the public. However, when three Model T’s pulled in at 3:30 pm and asked to use their shop to fix a wheel, they agreed to let us in. Ross had considered just trying to oil the wheel and keep running but since they had a dry shop with equipment and a concrete floor, we decided to try to fix it. In the process of removing the bearing, the axle shattered. There was a moment of silence and then Steve turned to the T and started removing bolts necessary to pull the differential. We had joked about the fact that everyone’s car had broken down except Ross’s and he predicted it was waiting for Prudhoe Bay. We were 100 miles short, about 400 miles inside the Arctic Circle.
I’m writing the rest of this a few days later. I’ll tell you the end of the story – we made it to Prudhoe Bay and back. But now, let me finish telling you about what happened on the 17th. We wound up working on Ross’s car until nearly 10:00 pm. The DOT shop closed at 6:00 pm but they let us stay. Todd Schallock, who was a supervisor (I think) stayed with us and saw that we had what we needed. He was so kind, offering me the use of his desk and seeing that we had coffee and access to the bathrooms. We had most of the tools we needed but he made it possible for us to do what we needed to do. Todd and his superiors could have easily apologized and shut us out into the night at 6:00 pm but he stayed with us until we were done. They were all worried about us starting out toward Prudhoe that late at night but, after discussing it among ourselves, we decided to give it a shot. If one car broke down, we would pile people in the others and go on.
The next 60 miles were the worst road you could imagine. We had expected gravel, ruts, and potholes. What we found were large rocks, deep soft surfaces, and sinkholes. When we passed some construction workers out during the night, they must have thought they had entered the twilight zone. The sun never went as far down as the horizon and, with the cloud cover, we weren’t certain if we were seeing a sunrise or a sunset, but it allowed us to keep driving. We could not have made that road in the dark.
We arrived at our motel in Deadhorse at 4:00 am, pulling up next to the office. Directly in front of us, less than 50 feet away, was a grizzly bear. I shouted, “My God, it’s a bear!” The bear probably shouted, “My God, it’s a model T” and bolted. The others were disappointed not to get to see the bear and started to gather what they needed from the cars. Suddenly, the bear walked around from the other side of the motel and ambled off toward the post office/general store in the same parking lot. Ross and Steve whistled and called to get the bear to look at them until the desk clerk hollered out the window at them to stop provoking that bear. The bear glanced back at them in boredom and disappeared around the building. We got to bed around 4:30 am and set the alarm for 8:00 am.